In 'The Stream' with Al Jazeera English's social media news show

For most of us, there is no doubt that social media has lead to significant shifts in our culture, including journalism. For this week’s post, I spoke with Senior Producer Andrew Fitzgerald and Co-Host/Digital Producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, two of the journalists behind a new social media-driven show on Al Jazeera English.

NOTE: Based in D.C., they both met me on a collaborative document, each on their own computer. You can playback the unedited conversation here.

Ahmed and Andrew, thank you both for taking the time to chat with me about your newest project. In fact, first let me congratulate you on the launch of The Stream, which officially aired Monday (5/2/11). For folks that have not yet heard of the show, please take a moment to describe the project.

Senior Producer Andrew Fitzgerald, left, Co-Host/Digital Producer Ahmed Shihab-EldinFitzgerald: Thanks so much for inviting us to chat about it! So The Stream is a television show and online community on Al Jazeera English. We’re telling stories from around the world that are driven by and often about social media. The site compiles information from around the globe by working with our audience and then the television show is the place where we talk about those stories, bring in people (via Skype) who are involved in them, and also allow our audience a chance to be part of the discussion.

Shihab-Eldin: Thanks, we are joking here because I always feel a need to add something – and in this case just wanted to emphasize that this was conceptualized well before the Tunisian Uprising and as it has evolved, we have realized we were right to rely to a large extent on our community/audience, both online, and on TV, and across the world to inform our editorial approach.

That was one of my next questions… can you talk about how the show came about? Was this before or after the recent uprisings… obviously before. How did this interesting TV show happen? And how did you get involved?

Shihab-Eldin: The show is a product of the reality the media industry is facing, and governments for that matter, which is that conversations are happening online, across borders, across social classes, and across communities. And as we saw in the Arab world, they are powerful and have the potential to mobilize, unite and challenge – not only governments – but the collective Arab psyche and how they see their identity.

I got involved in the project because I used to work in Doha at Al Jazeera English and have a background in New Media. When I graduated from Columbia University, the mainstream media had yet to witness or recognize the true power of these tools. Since then, I’ve worked in Doha with Al Jazeera as an online journalist, but then also at the Doha Film Institute and helped launch the online and social media efforts of the organization. There I worked with a man named Stephen Phelps who was brought in to essentially take the concept of The Stream and implement it. I’ve always championed the potential power of social networking for media innovation, for the development and progress in the Arab world, and so, perhaps it was a natural fit!

Fitzgerald: My background is in participatory journalism; my last big project was working at Current TV in San Francisco where, among other things, I managed the citizen journalism program. I had my “Al Jazeera” moment like everyone else in the US on January 25, when I tuned into CNN to see what was happening on the streets of Egypt and saw a segment on Charlie Sheen. Twitter set me straight: “Go live stream Al Jazeera!”

I’d heard Al Jazeera was developing a new social media-driven show and, especially after the Egypt coverage, was very eager to see if there might be a way for me to help out. Lucky for me (also in a conversation with Stephen Phelps) it was a good time for me to come in and lend my expertise. My hope, really, is that this show is and continues to be a real leader in how to produce truly interactive television journalism, and I’m trying to bring all the best lessons I’ve learned to bear in that aim.

What is the goal/vision for the show? Both in journalism, in the Arab community and for Al Jazeera network?

Shihab-Eldin: The general idea is to give voice to the voiceless – specifically those who live in countries where civic engagement is not tolerated, but suppressed – and give them a voice. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. While we want to build a community (both online and through TV and eventually merge the two), in order to do that, we must tap into communities that already exist where conversations are already taking place. We also are hoping to pass on the airwaves to a new generation. Fifty percent of the world is under 30. Almost 70 percent of the Arab world is under 30. We deserve our moment – and the converged platform of The Stream is just one part of it.

We do not want to appear to be telling audiences or the community what is worth discussing, we want to invite and engage people who already have a nuanced understanding of their particular corner of the world (or community) and allow them to drive the narrative. Often times they are far more knowledgable on the “real issues” so to speak, than the mainstream media or than they get credit for.

Having this show launching on AJE, rather than CNN, means something, no? How does the network effect the show… or empower it? Or is the network not a factor? Could this show work on another network? What would the differences be?

Fitzgerald: The network is absolutely a factor – in the sense that Ahmed mentioned above: this idea of “the voice of the voiceless.” What makes this a show on Al Jazeera English and not a show on another network is our aim to find the voices that aren’t being heard. It’s a truly global show for a truly global network. We work hard to find stories that really reflect that. Keep in mind – Al Jazeera English has a much, much bigger audience in, say, sub-Saharan Africa than the US. That’s one big difference between this show on this network versus, say, CNN.

Another difference is that the show has the space to be serious. We’re covering important topics and taking the time to air them out. If this was a show (like many similar shows that have attempted in the recent past or will be in the near future) on a US-based network, it would struggle to not treat social media as ‘funny cat videos’.

Shihab-Eldin: Hillary Clinton answered your question when she pointed out that “You might not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads… which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.” Al Jazeera gives you global news in real time.

What Al Jazeera also seems to be doing is experimenting and embracing technology, including social media. Why is it that your network “gets it” while other news outlets struggle to genuinely embrace Web and tech culture? What’s the secret?! Or am I, and others, projecting?

Fitzgerald: Haha, no secret I’ve seen since I’ve come on board. I think it might partially be a little projection (which I too am guilty of) because Al Jazeera is doing what feels like serious, high-quality journalism. In terms of techniques, I don’t know that the network has any big secrets that no one else has up their sleeve.

I will say, about The Stream in particular, what makes this show different is that it feels like the experience of being on the Web. There is no giant touch-wall, we don’t have crazy animations. We are individuals who use the Web like anyone else and the show is a reflection of that experience. It’s more true-to-life, I think that’s something that has been lacking in television news treatments of social media.

Shihab-Eldin: I would say it is difficult to “get” something that is constantly evolving, so to even claim that we “get” social media in its entirety may be a stretch. But I think The Stream is simply applying the same editorial judgements that Al Jazeera uses which is not to focus on being “flashy” or “objective” – which I think the US mainstream media is so focused on. I don’t know what “objectivity” is really. It seems contrived to me. We focus on the story and how we understand it given our perspective and facts and the context we can provide. Al Jazeera’s New Media team has always been looking for ways in which to use technology and social media to achieve a function rather than a form. It isn’t about the polish but about the product and why you are using this medium and what the real power of these tools are with regards to producing, sharing, or highlighting important information, quickly.

I’ve crowdsourced a couple questions, which I’ll sprinkle throughout… @NSlayton asks about your editorial selection: What editorial outlook goes into picking stories? It there newsworthiness vs. popularity of a story?

Fitzgerald: Great question. It is, like most editorial decisions, an ever-changing mix of all that and much more. We’re not covering day-of news as much (the network has an excellent News department that covers day-of incredibly well) so newsworthiness is a looser definition as we use it. It’s a mix of if this story resonates (or will resonate) within social media, if it’s a story that hasn’t been particularly well-covered and if it hews to the network’s greater editorial strategy mentioned above.

Shihab-Eldin: Andrew is right. We rely on what people are talking about, but more importantly what they are saying. Popularity, to me, is pretty insignificant, because chances are if something is popular it is popular because it is relevant or “newsworthy” – otherwise we wouldn’t cover it. This fits within Al Jazeera’s aim of offering a different perspective and balancing the news climate with stories from the global south.

Okay, you’re going to have to excuse me… but haters gonna hate… and there are plenty of haters for social media, participatory journalism, citizen journalism. How do you respond to those “traditional” journalists that think this is undermining journalism… or Journalism? Or has the recent uprising changed the conversation, proving the value?

Shihab-Eldin: Yes, there are lots of haters. A black man being elected president is a big change – and a lot of people hated that. But it was natural progress in the context of America’s history and maturity and although it can be uncomfortable, to hate what is organically changing is not particularly constructive.

On the issue of “traditional” journalists thinking this undermine’s journalism, they will come around. I’m 26. I’ve been lucky to grow up using these tools and so inherently understood their power. I graduated from Columbia University in 2007 when the New Media/Digital program was essentially the joke of the school and the smallest program. I then got hired at PBS and The New York Times largely due to my new media savvy, when some colleagues in Print or Broadcast were struggling to find jobs. I met some “haters” there but usually people hate when they don’t understand something. For those who are still not convinced, I would ask them what is journalism? I doubt we have the same definition. Mine tends to be broad and inclusive, if that makes sense.

Fitzgerald: I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the last few years. I mean I started working on citizen journalism when people (business people, largely) really thought it would be a replacement for traditional journalism. I think the lesson we’ve learned in the last few years, and are continuing to learn as we go, is that citizen journalism/social media/participatory journalism – all of these are tools for journalists to add to their toolkits.

How did you two get into social media… were you early adopters? What was your “ah ha” moment that made you realize this was not a gimmick, but a powerful shift in how we could practice journalism?

Shihab-Eldin: I’ve always been into social media. I was using ICQ before I hit puberty to connect with friends around the world while living in Egypt. There is so much that the social media community can learn from the journalism community and vice versa, although now, thankfully the lines are blurred, and it is all part of one larger community, which in essence is part of what The Stream is trying to accomplish.

Fitzgerald: Haha I have a very simple answer to this question: I live in San Francisco. It’s unavoidable!

Ha! I went to university in The City and know what you mean. But I was, admittedly, also a tech nerd/geek.

Fitzgerald: As to the second part of the question – I had a long series of a ha! moments at Current TV because we did so many experiments in the intersection of social media and journalism. I decided to work in citizen journalism after we pulled in a video from a Louisiana resident who, immediately after Katrina, shot a video of himself going into New Orleans in a flat-bottomed boat. And of course, Current Hacks the Debate – which was (I’m pretty sure) the first-ever live TV Twitter integration (the brainchild of Chloe Sladden (among a few others), who is now at Twitter).

Shihab-Eldin: I was born in Berkeley, so maybe it has always been in my blood πŸ˜‰

Nice… so here is another crowdsourced question. This one is from @Bradleybowman who asked two questions: Whats the biz model given no commercials? Who embraced or thought up concept?

Fitzgerald: I don’t know that either of us are particularly well-suited to discuss the greater business model question for the network at large – but yes, no commercials and no Web ads.

Shihab-Eldin: Andrew is right, however what I can say is that we are funded by the State of Qatar and the government values what Al Jazeera is accomplishing so much that it is one of the nation’s primary objectives to fund the network as part of a larger mission of developing Qatar and the Arab world. The Emir speaks on this often.

As we talk/type, you have just completed episode 2 — not counting the test shows leading up to Monday’s launch — and, granted, it’s still early… but what has the reaction been so far? Any surprises along the way in launching?

Fitzgerald: We’ve been really pleased with the reaction so far! A couple of great reviews out there in the blogosphere on our pilot weeks. People seem to be responding to the authenticity of the way the show deals with the Web. That’s been nice to see – affirming our suspicions on that front. (We’re trying to think of any funny anecdotes for you).

Shihab-Eldin: I will admit something (fully acknowledging that there are haters out there). What was surprising to me was in fact the general reactions I’ve received so far, not just in the media, but by friends and colleagues who are extremely critical and skeptical of the ability to truly converge the Web and social media with television. There has been a resounding sense that we are on to something truly innovative and I think in a few months, the show will look quite different than it does right now – that is both the most exciting part and the most frightening. Even my mom loves it. That may have been the biggest surprise as she usually dismisses these “technological tools” as “a waste of time”.

Ha! Final question, one that I like to ask journalists I get the privilege to interview… With these “tough” and “challenging” times, what keeps you going? Why are you a journalist?

Fitzgerald: It’s an important time to be telling stories. That’s what I believe. Our world is changing at a pace that’s arguably unprecedented. For me, for us, our field is also changing at an unprecedented pace. The way we tell stories continues to shift and grow. I find that really exciting. What we’re doing today could be entirely different from what we’re doing in five years. In two years, even. (Two months…hah!) As tough and challenging as these times may be, I think it’s a really exciting time to be a journalist.

Shihab-Eldin: I must be a journalist because when my family and I found ourselves in refuge in Berkeley, California during the first gulf war – unable to return to Kuwait – a local TV station came to our house to do a story about us and asked me all about my family back in Kuwait (I was 7 at the time) and asked after my grandmother in particular. I remember being fascinated and intrigued by her interest. Why did she care? Did she care? I think that is what it all comes down to – connecting with either the plight or the accomplishments or the challenges of other humans around the world – that may sound cheesy – but it is what makes me tick.

Well gentlemen, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me… and much success to the new project.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Using technology to 'save' longform journalism: Q&A with Evan Ratliff, aka The Atavist

There are those who blame the digital age and the Internet as the causes of our short attention spans and disinterest in longform storytelling. Then there are those who embrace the technology and develop tools or a platform that harnesses the tech to not only coexist with longform narrative, but also advance it.

For this week’s post, I spoke with Evan Ratliff, freelancer for publications such as Wired, The New Yorker, and others, turned digital entrepreneur and – if you believe some of the press – possible savior of the longform narrative with his new project, The Atavist.

NOTE: We met on a collaborative document and you can playback our unedited conversation here.

Evan, thank you for taking the time to “meet” for a quick chat about the project you are working on.

Evan RatliffMy pleasure!

So, let’s start there… can you describe what The Atavist is?

Sure, so The Atavist is a kind of hybrid publication: We sit right in between magazines and books. From the magazine angle, what we do is called “longform nonfiction” or “longform journalism:” We produce stories that are 6-7,000 words and up, all the way to maybe 30-35,000. All nonfiction, all written by people who have spent weeks or months reporting them. They are published digitally, through our app for iPad/iPhone, through Kindle (Kindle Singles, which we can talk about), and Nook. From the book perspective, they are almost like short ebooks.

We also license our software, but that’s our more non-journalism side of things so maybe less of interest here.

How did this idea come about? You have a background in longform storytelling… but how did the idea of an app and this “concept” of a custom storytelling platform come about?

It started with a pretty basic, and unformed, idea: Was there some way to do longform writing/journalism online? It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while, but not doing much if anything about — I applied for a Knight Foundation grant but didn’t get it, in maybe 2008 (2007? Can’t remember). Anyway, originally Nick Thompson, my editor at Wired, and I were just saying that there must be some way to do longform that was more designed for the digital world. Instead of just translated straight from a magazine. The real conceptual ideas of how it might work didn’t come about until we sat down with our other partner, Jefferson Rabb, who has both the design sensibility and coding chops to actually conceive what something like that might look like. It was in talking to him that we stopped talking about the Web and started talking about an app.

Technically speaking, you could do these custom, interactive stories on the Web… what made it appealing on the iPad, Kindle, etc.?

I think that first, we just wanted to kind of get away from the idea of people reading it at their desktop, where they are skipping from one bit of information to the next all day. The emergence of phones – and actually we first were looking just at smart phones, noticing how much we and other people were reading on them – and then tablets, ereaders, etc, pointed a way to a different kind of digital reading experience. Marketing types now call it the “lean back” experience, which I don’t cotton to that much but the point is the same one we were going for: this is a different kind of reading than you do on the Web.

Full disclosure, I think the concept and platform a fantastic idea… and it’s an ideal mashup of interactive/digital and traditional storytelling. I’ll embed the video from the site, but can you briefly list the features/media/interactivity/etc. a user would find in a “typical” Atavist story?

So, I should probably first offer the caveat that of course you get different versions of Atavist stories in different environments. On Kindle – for the moment – you’ll get just the full text of the story, and photos, maybe some footnotes. In our app, the standard features are a bit different, just because we are able to control the whole environment and use multimedia however seems to suit. The standard features on every story in the app are: the text and full page photos (of course), an audiobook version of the story (you can flip back and forth between reading and listening), usually some elements of other media (music, video, woven into the narrative), and then what we call inline extras: Parts of the story that serve as a kind of substrate. These are links to characters, photo galleries, maps, timelines, audio clips that you can turn on and off. If they are on, you tap a word or phrase and the feature pops up.

I purchased and read your piece, Lifted, and thought it was a natural experience… I did find myself torn between reading or listening to the audio version of the story (I am a podcast junkie, though). Granted, you’ve just launched, and this is a brand new form of storytelling… custom-crafted, interactive pieces for each story. What new things do you have to factor in that you never had to think about in the past… like when you wrote a Wired piece?

It’s true, all these new questions arise pretty quickly, and we’re still trying to figure out how to answer them. Take the video, for instance. That piece Lifted had a critical piece of video, the surveillance tapes from the heist that was portrayed in the story. I wanted that to form the lede of the piece. Which instantly created two problems; no, three: 1. How do you write a kind of secondary lede, to follow a piece of video? Do you assume that, with a written lede, someone will have read everything up to that point? Or might they have skipped part of the video? 2. What to do on other platforms, where the story would not have the video? The text itself had to work as an intact narrative, without the video. And 3. What to do about sound? The video had no sound, so it can’t really be “included” in the audiobook version.

Those are all questions that obviously wouldn’t come up when writing a magazine place, not to mention: where to put it, how much to use, how to edit it, whether and how to score it, etc. etc.

What’s also exciting, is that those questions were tied to that one story… they may not be asked again or exactly the same in another Atavist story, right? Or the answers would be different, depending on the story. With what you’ve produced so far, can you say what makes for a good Atavist story?

Right, some of them may be moot in other stories. We had another piece with a lot of music in it, and it had a whole set of other questions around the soundtrack that haven’t come up elsewhere.

I think we’re still feeling it out when it comes to what works well. There’s no question that the story – as in the real plot and characters portrayed – is always going to make the biggest difference.

Well, let me ask a basic yet complex question… how is this whole thing going?! Are you a zillionaire? Is this a new revolution you are a part of? Have you ever thought you’d an entrepreneur? How’s the experience of launching The Atavist been?

Let’s just say this: If things keep going like they are, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to get a new chain for my bicycle. Which I think we both know that only a hundredaire could do.

HA! I love that journalism pays the same in all platforms. But it’s a passion project with endless possibilities, no?

Indeed. But there is a financial element that is not as bleak (I hope) as I tend to joke. So, there’s a few levels I could talk about how it’s going.

Without a doubt, you have a business model that makes sense… in fact you have two. Individual stories and licensing.

Yes, so let’s take the stories first. We knew going in, and nothing has yet proven us wrong, that it’s very difficult to build up a readership from scratch. If you recall the heyday of big magazine launches, they would do things like buy up subscriber lists and just send them the magazine, and lose millions of dollars trying to gain a substantial readership. Our marketing budget so far topped out at right around $0. So we’re pretty pleased with the number of readers we’ve had (everybody asks; we always say “tens of thousands total, for all the stories,” but not much more than that). We’ve used the first few stories to get enough revenue to fund some more, which was our first milestone we were aiming at. Next up is proving that this sort of small-scale, small-team version of longform journalism can consistently make the money to be sustaining. That means getting more readers, and getting them to come back.

On the licensing side we haven’t announced anything yet, but we’ve found a huge, frankly kind of shocking to us in size – we can’t deal with the influx of interest at the moment – interest in utilizing the app platform and CMS for different types of publishing. Some of them you’d only loosely think of as “publishing:” in the financial field, the medical field. So we are really hoping that that side can help support the journalism side while we are starting out, to give us time to grow the readership.

And maybe even pay ourselves something some day!

It will be a new, gold chain on that bike! Seriously, it’s no easy task what you’ve done. Congratulations, by the way. Do you have any lessons you’ve learned that you can share with those thinking about experimenting, developing an idea?

Solid gold. Thanks! It’s been a bit harrowing at times.

Well, a couple things I learned quickly: In the digital world, if that’s where your experiment is going to exist (and most do these days, I suppose), you have to find a designer/developer who understands what you are trying to do. In our case, we got incredibly lucky with Jefferson Rabb, who not only understood, he actually was able to create it in ways we hadn’t thought of. Now, if you are one of those new-style journalists that can do it all: write and report and code and design, well, that’s amazing. But if not, befriend great coders! Find ones who like to read!

The second big thing isβ€”and I think I probably used to scoff a little at “entrepreneurial journalism” courses, or that sort of thing (I didn’t go to j-school, so it’s all a little foreign to me) – knowing how to do really mundane things to make a business work is actually incredibly useful. I’ve lost hours, nay, weeks, months, and lots of sleep, and probably hair, trying to puzzle out issues that were easily solved by someone who knows the first thing about running a business. So if you can get that somewhere, through experience or coursework or whatever, it’s going to save a lot of time that you could be spending on the thing you love, which is the writing and editing and publishing.

Great advice… you mentioned find developers who “like to read” … you spoke at SXSWi about longform storytelling and a lot of articles about The Atavist focus on the “death of longform” and how this may “save it” (no pressure, by the way). What do you think of the tltr (too long to read) culture. Is there a real threat here? Is this hype? Or is it all true and you found the silver bullet to save the world (no pressure).

Yeah, I love those stories…

To be really honest, I have no idea. I’m always asked, in panels like that, what I think of it, and I hate being the guy who just makes sh-t up because they happen to be connected to a field. My answer is: I don’t think anybody knows, and mostly the folks who pontificate about attention spans and reading and news are substituting what they do and want for what “readers” do and want. At some basic level, obviously we are ingesting a lot of information in shorter chunks, more constantly, and all of that, which is written about ad nauseum. At another basic level, people still buy a lot of books. People still buy a lot of nonfiction books. People are buying more and more ebooks, in huge numbers. So for us, I don’t really care if at some broad level, some people are saying “nobody reads long stuff anymore.” It’s just not true. The only question for us is: Can we get the people who do read long stuff to read our long stuff. And I think there are plenty of those people out there, and (as Byliner, newly launched, is also proving), maybe even untapped folks who are ready for / looking for great stories of this style and length.

I completely agree with you. People are consuming more media in more ways. But, a good story is still a good story. Make sure you are using all the new — and old — storytelling techniques to engage your reader/listener/viewer/user.

Right, and it’s the same with multimedia. People say: “Readers don’t really want videos and audio in their story.” By which they mean, they don’t. But some people do. And if the story is better told with it, why not try to find that balance that makes for the most gripping possible narrative?

So, I just “tweeted” (I feel awkward typing that word rather than saying it) out that I was chatting with you and am crowdsourcing any questions. I got one from @mattvree, who asks, “Any plans to move beyond just longform written journalism, and expand to multimedia and documentary?”

Not at the moment. We’ve got our hands full with our current efforts. Of course we think about the possibility of expanding into different areas down the road. But we feel like we’re barely getting started with our current approach, and it would be madness to try and take on new types of efforts before we feel we have the old one nailed. One thing we may be doing is a piece or two that are more visual than they are textual. So the current balance of text-to-image is almost reversed, and the story is told primarily through visuals. But that’s still in the works.

Let me ask you some questions that I, some type of Web journo nerd, routinely like to ask other journos.

First, I’m always fascinated with names/branding, so where did the name The Atavist come from? I assume it wasn’t inspired by the metal band Otep, which put out an album with the same name (thank you Wikipedia).

It’s out today!! We’ve really been anticipating the release date, because our Twitter stream is filled with absolutely insane OTEP fans who have been counting down the days for almost two months.

HAHAHA! Okay, so, what’s the backstory to your use of The Atavist?

The Atavist logoBut no, not inspired by. I started using it as my personal domain years ago, it’s a tiny sideways allusion to Hunter S. Thompson‘s work; atavist and atavistic are words that, if you read a lot of HST (as I once did), he drops in quite often. And then when we wanted to start something, we went through literally hundreds of possible names. Actually Jefferson once made an app that just randomly generated names for us. But then we came back to it, and decided that the actual meaning, a biological feature that’s disappeared and then suddenly reappears, had some salience. Storytelling reappearing in the digital realm, or whatnot. And it’s fairly unique, which means people can find it in the app store — more important than you’d think. Some people seem to hate it, but overall it seems like people are ok with it.

Second, this has become one of my standard questions…. in these “tough times,” why are you a journalist? What drives you and keeps you going in this field?

For me, it’s probably not as noble as it is for some journalists. On the writing end, I just really like digging into things, getting obsessed with topics, meeting fascinating people, and getting to go interesting places. On the publishing side of things, now I want to give other writers the chance to do all of those things. Of course sometimes the more noble aspects are part of it: shedding light on an important topic, investigating some malfeasance. And sometimes the least noble parts: seeing ones name as a byline. But mostly it’s just fun to go out into the world, find a story, and then figure out how to tell it.

And as someone who has freelanced for 10 years, it’s always seemed like tough times. It’s always full of rejection, and failure, and dry periods, and occasionally empty bank accounts. So I don’t see much difference now from when I started (although of course I realize other folks do).

Well, Evan… thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I hope this format wasn’t too awkward. I really enjoyed out conversation and wish you luck on your current and new adventures.

Thanks, I enjoyed it!

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Q&A with the mystery man behind #Quakebook

It’s been more than a month since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, triggering a massive tsunami, the combination of which have killed thousands. And while the country is slowing putting itself together, under the looming dangers of a potential nuclear disaster, there are many organizations — and individuals — coming together to help in any way they can.

For this week’s post, I chatted with Our Man in Abiko, an international man of mystery behind #Quakebook, a crowdsourced project to help those affected by the devastation.

NOTE: The Q&A was done through e-mail over a course of a couple of weeks.

First, for those who don’t know about it, can you describe what the #Quakebook is, how it came about and your role?

Quakebook coverQuakebook is a Twitter-sourced anthology of first-person accounts of the earthquake and immediate aftermath. It was conceived, written and ready to publish as a fully designed PDF book within a week. It has 89 contributions from “real” people as well as 4 from celebs solicited thru Twitter – William Gibson, Yoko Ono, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein.

It is not a collection of tweets, but mostly one-page essays.

I thought of it in the shower Friday morning, March 18th thinking that wouldn’t it be great to do in words what mash-up videos can do on YouTube, especially @fatblueman’s Christmas in Japan video. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. [The video:]

No-one has received a penny. We got Amazon to waive their fees so ALL revenue goes to the Red Cross. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

Oh, my role? I’m cheerleader in chief, marshaller of the troops and getter-arounder of problems. Don’t like titles!

NOTE: Our Man recently did a video recently sharing the story of Quakebook:

Once you had this idea, how did you go about starting this? Can you talk about the crowdsourcing process?

I had no plan as such. Every time I hit a wall, I asked the good folk of Twitter to give me a leg up πŸ™‚

The original tweets and stuff are all on and

Talk about the “real” people that contributed to the collection. Have you ever met them? What journalism skills did you apply in collecting their stories?

The real people started with whoever sent me email from around the world, supplemented by my neighbours, my wife and mother-in-law, and also I got my wife to chase down eyewitness accounts from devastated areas through blogs.

The celebs we picked up along the way. The highly unscientific approach has somehow created a snapshot of many disparate elements of the disaster.

I kept in anything that was sent and was not a rant or shopping list. (There were only two like this).

What is your ideal goal you hope to achieve with this book?

I want it to raise oodles and noodles of cash for the Red Cross, but beyond that, I want it to serve as a valuable historical record to answer the question: What happened at 2:46 on March 11, much like John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” answers What happened on Aug. 6, 1945.

What has been the best part of this project?

The therapy of writing and sharing what we have written; seeing the whole project becoming stronger than its constituent parts.

What has surprised you about the process? What’s been the highlight?

How the weekend stops dead any progress with the traditional publishing industry, while the reverse is true of us amateurs. The highlight? Seeing a tweet from someone that they had downloaded the book, and cried. I then did the same and got teary eyed too.

What do you think about those reluctant to use crowdsourcing in storytelling, particularly in journalism. Any advice to them?

Trust people to deliver, and they will. If you get sidetracked by someone with their own agenda, or who doesn’t get the point of the project, don’t waste your time, find someone who does. Behave morally and you will quickly attract the right kind to whatever your project is, if it has merit.

Can you tell me what you did prior to this project? What were you doing in Japan? Talk about Our Man In Abiko.

I’m a British self-employed English language teacher, 40. I’m a former local newspaper journalist. My wife is Japanese and we’ve been here since 2007. Got two kids. My favourite colour is red.

Our Man in Abiko began as a satirical blog on Japanese politics, and became a persona to keep me sane.

Since the earthquake, I realised Our Man was needed to perform Churchillian tasks of rallying the dispirited to overcome our woes.

What is the backstory with Our Man in Abiko? What’s your name and what brought you to Japan?

Not saying. It’s not my story that’s interesting, it’s Japan’s.

Clearly the book is the focus, but “Our Man In Abiko” is a man of mystery. People are naturally going to ask, “who is this guy?” What can you tell them?

He likes Earl Grey tea, playing with his kids and world domination, you know, the usual.

[After more prodding]

OK, well, the Our Man persona began just as a joke on my blog, I took on the mantle of a redundant British agent sent to monitor the wilds of Tokyo commuterville… But then with the earthquake, suddenly the time for fun was long gone, but I realised I had a fictional character who could do great things. I could not muster the troops and build a resistance movement to the earthquake, but maybe Our Man in Abiko could.

Well, Our Man, congratulations on the success with this project. How and where can people find it?

All details are on and you can buy the book now here: for Kindle (you can download a free Kindle player for PC, Mac and Smart phones there too.)

Thanks for chatting with me. And good luck on this and other endeavors.

Thanks a lot.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.