Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for September 7, 2009

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

How Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Work of ‘Citizen Scientists’

This post is an excellent piece on PBS’s Media Shift Idea Lab about the alliance between professional scientists and citizen or amateur scientists, and what journalists could learn from this.

Post author Dan Schultz notes that he was tuned into scientific community’s attitude towards the contributions of non-professionals by an article on Carnegie Mellon University’s website that documented efforts by Eric Paulos, an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to equip “everyday mobile devices” with sensors used to collect reliable scientific data. The point of all this effort is to create “a new generation of ‘citizen scientists,’ connected both to the environment and each other.”

That story, combined with several other stories he read about recent astronomy discoveries being initially reported by amateur scientists, made him think about how journalists could learn from this friendly, if structured relationship between professional and non-professional scientists:

“All three types of scientists (professional, citizen, amateur) have beautifully compatible relationships.

“Professionals can safely focus on daunting tasks, knowing that amateurs are ready and willing to take on the smaller stuff (like keeping tabs on Jupiter). The community standards are clear and ultimately bound by cold hard observable fact, so amateurs can make meaningful contributions without diluting the knowledge base. Meanwhile, citizens are being empowered by professionals to help the scientific cause in a way that informs individuals and improves their lives.”

Shultz makes the following recommendations for journalists based on this.

    • Professional journalists can take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure.
    • If amateur journalists do a good job of covering a smaller scope of topics or areas, then professionals can focus on the deeper, otherwise inaccessible issues.
    • Professional journalists are responsible for creating and maintaining the citizen network if they want it to meet their standards. (Emphasis mine)
    • Citizen networks need more than a host – they need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.
    • A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.

      This article is the first one I’ve seen to turn the typically contentious and negative “real” journalist vs. blogger/citizen reporter debate on its head and posit citizen journalist work as a positive benefit to professional journalists. Definitely worth reading, considering, and discussing.

      Start With A Promise

      A great reminder on what the beginning of each story must do by veteran writing coach Jessica Page Morrell, guest posting on the Editor Unleashed blog.

      Morrell reminds us that, “Story openings are like job interviews, and if the words on the page entertain, you get the job. If they don’t, somebody who writes better gets the job.” She asserts that the easiest way to have your story get “hired” by editors (whom she correctly defines as “highly discerning reader(s) … connoisseurs who love the written word”) is to make a promise consistent with the genre you’re writing in, and then keep that promise.

      She takes readers through the various sorts of promises one might make in a memoir, in a science-fiction story, a romance, etc. These genre-specific tips also could apply to the tone of a nonfiction magazine article, and her general tips on matching the promise to the overall story should be taken to heart by nonfiction authors, who sometimes (in my experience as an editor) mistake a dramatic opening anecdote as a cure-all for a lack of feel for the true tone of the story they’re writing.

      As Morrell says,

      “An emotional opening prepares the reader for a heart-rattling journey, just as a philosophical opening promises a thoughtful exploration of themes, an action-packed opening promises a bronco-breaking ride, and a quiet beginning usually promises an intense exploration of characters’ lives.”

      Amen. Her post is a great reminder of the pact we make with the reader when we ask them to listen to our story, and our responsibility as writers to live up to the promise we make to them.

      Multimedia Magazine ‘FLYP’ Finds New Ways to Tell Stories Online

      From Poynter Online’s E-Media Tidbits section. Author Vadim Lavrusik reports on FLYP magazine, a New York-based publication that uses an innovative palette of online tools and Web 2.0 user functionality to cover topics from politics and science to art and music.

      FLYP augments traditional reporting and writing with animation, audio, video and interactive graphics. One of the major differences between FLYP and other magazines that have ramped up their digital/online versions is how the publication approaches news-gathering and production.

      “(Editor-in-chief Jim) Gaines said the production process at FLYP is different from any of the ‘old media’ publications he has worked for. At many publications there is a pyramid structure; at FLYP the production process is flatly distributed across teams. Everyone gathers and each medium is considered for a particular story. At magazines, on the other hand, the text is the primary medium. Even for Web sites multimedia elements are often an afterthought.”

      Another interesting point raised in the article is how FLYP is packaging rich media ads, which may help tease out the true profitability of using online ads as a mainstay of a publication’s business model. Currently, the publication is being privately funded by multi-millionaire Alfonso Romo, but Gaines would like to create a limited supply of “engaging” rich media ads which readers seek out, but which are not so commoditized that advertisers won’t pay top dollar for them.

      For writers and editors keeping tabs on where online media is going, especially how content and revenue will interact in the “everything should be free” web era, this article is required reading.

      Bonus Links!

      Promptly

      A fun little blog on the Writer’s Digest site that offers writing prompts for readers 3 times a week. Readers can upload their written response to the prompt in the comments section of each post!

      From Telegraph to Twitter: The Language of the Short Form
      Roy Peter Clark gets into microblogging and writes about its historical roots on Poynter Online’s Writing Tools blog.

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