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And Two More Make Six

Food on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair

Image courtesy of Flickr user Cathyse97

Last week I started introducing you to the new Argo bloggers. We have two more to announce now, completing the first wave of sites.

Minnesota Public Radio has brought on board Alex Friedrich to be the dean of its higher education site.  Alex spent the past year getting his masters at the London School of Economics. He is a former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter who covered education for the Monterey County Herald (Calif.). Alex has covered a wide range of stories from the Russian elections in Moscow to the I-35 bridge collapse in the Twin Cities. He may be best remembered around the MPR newsroom though as the guy who once appeared on-air for eating nothing but food-on-a-stick for 12 days straight at the Minnesota State Fair in 2006… and lived to talk about it. To be fair, it was a reporting assignment for the Pioneer Press, not simply a craving for corn dogs!

Cassandra Profita is the new Argo blogger at Oregon Public Broadcasting. We like that Cassandra began one of her stories with, ‘Spotted this month: Six men heaving hundreds of dead bodies into Clatsop County’s Lewis and Clark River.’ She goes on to explain that they were, in fact, ‘dead fish bodies — or what remained of them after six months of storage.’ Sounds like the right tone for her blog on the collision between development and environmental policy in the Northwest. Cassandra is an award-winning reporter for The Daily Astorian (Or.) and reports weekly for the local NPR member station KMUN. She has degrees in journalism and environmental studies from the University of Missouri.

It’s a great group. Can’t wait to see the talent that the next six stations bring on board.

T-Minus One Week, plus ‘You’re Hired!’

Humanosphere - KPLU So, it’s come down to this.

All of this talk over the last year or so, the submission of proposals, hiring of staff, station visits, our UnConvention, blogger hires, design sprints… and in just one week we will be launching the first of our Argo sites – unleashing them on an unsuspecting world.

The first six sites to launch are: KPLU, WNYC, KALW, OPB, MPR, and KPCC

The team here is deep in the throes of checklists, design tweaks, and QA-ing the publishing environment. We are also fully engaged with the first group of stations finalizing their ‘to-do’ lists – populating the blog with real posts, categories, topics, and providing ad tags.

One of the great pleasures of the project has been seeing the time and attention that has gone into ensuring the right hires at made at each station, taking into account subject expertise, Web savvy, experience in building networks (via social media or in person), and ensuring we have a diverse pool of candidates. Some of you have been asking about hires at other stations. While some in the second batch of stations to go live are deciding among finalists, here are the bloggers who will be live next week:

KPLU made one of the first hires, bringing in Tom Paulson to curate its global health blog. From KPLU’s Keith Seinfeld:

Tom was a Science and Medical reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 22 years, until it stopped publishing a print version and laid-off most of its staff last year.  He also was one of the first reporters to cover the topic of “Global Health” in the daily news media — starting with the day Bill Gates announced he was giving most of his immense fortune to improving health in developing countries.  If you type “Tom Paulson” into an internet search, you’ll find more than 400 stories he wrote at the P-I about global health.  In the process, he’s traveled for stories to Africa, Asia and Latin America, and he’s earned international recognition for his reporting.

KPCC has hired Leslie Berestein Rojas to write a blog about the 1.5 and second generation immigrant experience in Southern California. Leslie’s vision is to explore:

…the cultural fusion that has become an ever-bigger part of the region’s identity, with these new generations influencing one another and the culture in general. [It's] a place that has given birth to cultural mashups like Kogi BBQ – the brainchild of a second-generation Filipino-American married to a Korean-American who loved Mexican food and came up with the idea of Kor-Mex fusion, which he calls “L.A. in one bite.” Gotta love that! It’s a classic story of the new Southern California, and there are many others like it.

Rina PaltaYesterday was the first day on the job for Rina Palta, KALW’s blogger to focus on cops and the community.  Rina is no stranger to KALW or public media. She has done some reporting previously for KALW. Rina came to radio from print, having worked at Mother Jones magazine. Rina expects to closely examine the issues of parole, recidivism and gangs in the Bay Area.

WNYC has hired Azi Paybarah to cover the ins and outs of politics in New York. Azi has covered politics for the New York Observer, the New York Sun and New York Press. His departure from the Observer for WNYC was noted in Fishbowl NY.  Azi has 1,300 followers on Twitter and helped launch political blogs at both the Sun and Press.

Minnesota Public Radio and Oregon Public Broadcasting are working out final details with their hires. We’ll update with their hires shortly.

Questions for references

Image courtesy of Flickr user Marco Bellucci.

When our Argo editors call to check up on their blogger candidates’ references, they’ll ask the standard questions about strengths and weaknesses and personality traits and things to know. But what might we ask references that helps us suss out our candidates’ blogginess? Here are a few practical questions that might help.

How clean is the candidate’s copy?

Most of the writing you see from a job candidate has been thoroughly processed (unless their blog is part of their application). But a blogger has to be able to quickly produce prose that wouldn’t make a copy editor overly jumpy. How often does the candidate’s work get corrected for spelling, grammar and fact?

How well does the candidate take criticism?

This is a standard question to ask a candidate’s reference, but this time there’s a twist – if our bloggers attain a modicum of popularity, they should expect a decent helping of blowback to come with it. In some cases, they’ll be writing on topics that incite a lot of controversy. We’re looking for signs not only that candidates are good at adjusting in response to feedback from editors and colleagues, but also that they’re relatively thick-skinned, able to take barbs from commenters without taking it personally.

How independent is the candidate?

The Argo bloggers will be pioneering a model of beat reporting in their newsrooms for which there won’t be much precedent. And their work will move too quickly for their editors to be incredibly hands-on. So it’s important to know how self-directed the candidates are.

How did the candidate interact with their team?

Although we want our bloggers to be independent, we also want them to be influential in our organizations. Their crowd-powered beat reporting model will be important for others to learn from as well. We’ll want to learn about their capacity for leadership as well as their ability to stand alone.

What constitutes a “bloggy sensibility”?

Flickr photo courtesy of user minifig.

In talking with the Argo editors, I’ve often said that we’re looking for reporter-bloggers who demonstrate a “bloggy sensibility.” Just as there are folks who intuitively grasp the lede-to-kicker rhythm of a great newspaper story, and people who have the ear for tone and timing that a great radio story demands, I think there are writers out there who just grok blogging.

But what does that bloggy sensibility look like? How do we identify it? And which aspects of it can be taught?

Fundamentally, of course, the sensibility is an intangible – we know it when we see it. But if you forced me to write a formula to determine someone’s blogginess, I’d probably emphasize five factors:

They’ve got voice.

This is the number one thing. In journalism, the institutional voice often cloaks a writer’s natural charm and wit. Institutional voice works very poorly in the blogosphere. Personality wins.

An infinite variety of tones work well on the Web – gee-whiz, insidery, breathless, literaryconfessionalerudite, pithy, wonkish, and of course, snarky. I think the only essential is that the writing betray the tendencies, preoccupations, and idiosyncrasies of a real person.

They cut to the chase.

Whatever the genre, the Web consistently rewards snappy, economical writing. The newspaper lede is a narrative invention devised for a general-interest audience – an arresting literary moment or clever turn-of-phrase the writer uses to hook you into the main story at hand. On the Web, writers are allowed and encouraged to get straight to the point.

Distillation, synthesis and hierarchy are all prized qualities in online writing. Where a newspaper story might demand a narrative transition, readers on the Web are perfectly all right with bullet points. Great long-form writers package mountains of information into an elegantly shaped, smooth and flowing story. Great bloggers, on the other hand, unpack complex information into discrete points and lay those out in concise and orderly fashion. If he weren’t busy being President, I imagine Barack Obama would have made a terrific blogger. Danah Boyd is an extraordinarily nuanced thinker, yet her writings and speeches are marvelously easy to parse. In a newsier vein, Ezra Klein has a great talent for weaving order out of chaos.

They’re constant communicators.

The pace at which successful bloggers tend to post often intimidates storytellers used to media with longer turnaround times. But one reason that bloggers can be so prolific is that they overshare. Newspaper reporters and broadcast producers leave a metric ton of material – quotes, press releases, public records, published reports, internal documents – on the cutting-room floor as they develop The Story that will appear in the paper or on-air. For a blogger, everything is fodder for a post.

Isn’t this a great quote? Post. Check it out, interesting video! Post. Ooh, quick news flash! Post. Just caught up on my morning reading. Post. News conference coming up, here’s what I’ll be looking for. Post.

They command your attention.

In the not-so-recent past, reporters considered publication as the final step in the life cycle of an article. You drafted a piece, polished it to a shine, and it was done. When newspaper reporters work on a piece, they don’t tend to focus directly on how many people will read it; instead, they focus on where in the paper it will be placed. You might consider this a subtle distinction – after all, placement helps drive popularity. But the consequence was that it mattered less how a story played in the real world; the reporter’s goal was to produce stories that sold well internally, stories that fit nicely into the content mix of a section.

Great bloggers work with a perpetual sense of the post-publication life of a post. After something gets published, people check it out, they comment on it, they pass it around. Or they don’t, which we finally have the tools to determine.

So bloggers design their posts to move. They craft strong headlines, they spread the word through their social networks, they dip in to comment threads, they pay attention to metrics. They work to develop a genuine sense of their community and its predilections, and they adjust accordingly.

But here’s the rub: truly great bloggers lead just as much as they follow. They use their mastery of their crowd to guide its attention, to find ways to hook you into engaging with things you might not otherwise try. This is how Ezra Klein gets his community to indulge him in a discussion of actuarial values.

They’re the life of the party.

The discussion on any topic happens in a number of places online, and the best bloggers always seem to be in all of them. They’re hobnobbing with subject experts on Twitter, they’re in regular dialogue with other bloggers and online communities on the topic, and they show up on air and in the press.

There’s a chicken-and-egg issue here, of course. Obviously a popular blogger is going to be feted all over social and commercial media. But the best bloggers really seem to enjoy their position atop a conversational ecosystem.

Classic reporters still obsess over the pursuit of the scoop. Bloggers who’ve achieved the type of ubiquity I’m talking about understand that today, owning the community is more important than getting the news out first. Even if someone else breaks news on their beat, they’re still a key participant in the conversation about the news, and might possibly even deliver the authoritative take.

The blogger’s first month

Flickr photo courtesy of user Joe Lanman.

It’s rare that a beat reporter for a daily news operation gets the luxury of having weeks before the first story has to be filed for the public. But that’s the lucky circumstance our Argo-bloggers will find themselves in. It’s our responsibility to help them use that time as productively as they can.

Over the next week, I’ll be writing more about the things I hope to see the blogger tackle in that time, but for now, let me summarize those tasks in four broad and overlapping buckets:

1. Content planning

This is probably the most important thing the blogger will do during the pre-launch period. We’ll need to nail down the key audiences we hope to reach (much of which will have been determined beforehand) and plan content accordingly. An important element of the content plan will be the long-term planning – developing the long-running stories that we’ll be returning to all throughout the first year of the blog. We’ll also want to engineer content at the ground level – reporting and producing some feature-length posts that we expect will be viral hooks for various audiences at launch. For a good chunk of the pre-launch period, the blogger should be producing a flow of regular daily content to populate the site, a sort of dress rehearsal for the live performance. And I hope every blogger takes the time during this stretch to conduct a photowalk of the beat, generating a solid repository of free-and-clear imagery that will be useful over time.

2. Network building

From the get-go, the blogger will want to begin pulling together the social media network that will be essential to story-finding and story promotion. This will mean finding the places and people on the Web to pull into the RSS reader, to promote content to, and to participate in conversations with. This network will be represented on the site in a number of ways, which leads me to the next component …

3. System setup

All the work the blogger does to plan content and build a network will be reflected somehow on the final site. An essential piece of the first 30 days of the blogger’s workflow will be using the platform we’ve built to populate the site. Content planning will play into the creation of topic pages through an admin interface that we’re developing. The network of sites and Twitter users the blogger finds relevant will be crawled for links that will be aggregated on our topic pages and elsewhere on the Argo site. Throughout this process, the blogger will be using the Argo platform, hopefully identifying any rough spots or workflow kinks that we can smooth out before showtime.

4. Orientation

It’s important that the bloggers get to know not only their beats, but also their stations. We want to empower them to take advantage of their station infrastructure, so we’ll have to give them a chance to get familiar with it. They should sit in on pertinent meetings, embed with reporters and producers, and procure access to any relevant internal mailing lists and collaboration sites. Before the bloggers are on board, the Argo editors should spend time thinking about the best ways to ensure that work being done for the site is taking advantage of work being done elsewhere at the station, and vice-versa.

I’ll write in more detail about all of these elements in the days to come. In the meantime, enjoy your Memorial Day weekends!

Questions for candidates: How comfortable are you with CMSes?

Image courtesy of Flickr user kk+.

This question is not particularly brilliant, but I’m not sure there’s a good way to ask it, and it needs to be asked. Our ideal bloggers are going to push the limits of the system we create for them a little bit. To do that, they’ll need to not be afraid of their content management system, at a minimum.

We’ll be starting out with the friendliest interface we could find – WordPress – which at this point is arguably cleaner, prettier and more configurable than Microsoft Word, has some mobile publishing options, and auto-saves your content, to boot. Even Web publishing n00bz tend to grok WordPress pretty quickly. And if there’s any sign that they’re scared of WordPress, well, that scares me a little. Can a candidate who can’t handle WordPress build a successful Web community? Not sure.

At this point, given the mainstreaming of Web publishing and link embedding and sharing on sites like Facebook and Twitter, I don’t expect these ideas to intimidate too many people. But beyond the not-being-scared criterion, our ideal bloggers exhibit some fearlessness about CMSes, within reason. They’d understand that it’s going to be fairly difficult to break the system, and if they do, we’ll restore it. They’d embed weird objects into their posts, do unholy things with Google Forms, and develop all sorts of zany workarounds to have their way with their sites. We want to learn from our bloggers’ workflow, so we can take the more productive mutations of the format and fold them into the system. If all the bloggers operate perfectly within the constraints they’ve been given, well that’s just no fun.

Related questions: How comfortable are you with HTML markup? Did you just cringe when you heard the term “HTML”? Do you know how to link to something / pull a photo off Flickr / embed a video? What CMSes have you worked with in the past? What does the term “WordPress” mean to you?

What to watch for: If the candidate breaks out in a cold sweat at the mention of the words “WordPress,” “CMS,” “HTML markup,” or “link to something,” that might just be a disqualifier. A sense of fearlessness – a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, even (“I can handle anything you’d throw at me!”) – would be delightful. I’d accept a candidate who said, “Well, I haven’t really used much beyond [Wordpress/my news org CMS/Flickr], but I don’t think I’d have too much trouble learning the basics.”

Questions for candidates: how will you use your crowd?

Flickr photo courtesy of user crsan.

I’ve seen endless demos of the power of the Internet crowd. After all, I spent a full year hopped up on Wikipedia. But I don’t think it will ever stop astonishing me. The other night, I found myself unable to sleep, reading a heart-crushing, gripping story unfolding in real-time, in which an ad-hoc community of Internet strangers bend earth and heaven to save two Russian women from falling into sex slavery.

Among the biggest game-changers for beat reporters in the era of the Web is the power of the crowd. If our Argo-bloggers aren’t investing in their communities and building crowds that can augment their work, the sites will be significantly hobbled. So we need true believers on this front. Not necessarily born crowdsourcing experts – the discipline is too new to expect all our bloggers to have mastered it – but people who really believe in what the crowd can accomplish, and willing to put in the work to get there.

Related questions: Imagine hosting the perfect cocktail party around this topic. Which groups of people are represented in the room? Are any left out? What Internet communities do you consider yourself a part of? How comfortable are you in participating in conversations on your site? How will you react when a commenter slams you? What reporting might you not be able to do without the assistance of a crowd?

What to watch for: Fundamentally, do they seem excited by the idea of building a community, or do you sense they think of it as something they’ll have to “deal with”? Have they encountered any Internet communities beyond their own friend groups on Facebook? Can you imagine them as the host of a conversation on the subject?

I’d also be looking out for signs the candidate is too mercenary about the community. A great crowd is a terrific value in itself, far beyond any specific crowdsourcing projects or reporting assists it might provide.

Questions for candidates: What fascinates you about this topic?

This is a question you’d want to ask any candidate for any beat reporter gig. It’s especially trenchant in our case, however, because we’re relying on the ability of the Argo-bloggers to make their community as fascinated with the topic as they are. We don’t just need good storytellers, we need good mystery writers.

Lifehacker wouldn’t have worked if founding editor Gina Trapani hadn’t been obsessed by questions like, “How can I make my daily routines better and more efficient?” and “What are the secret tricks that can improve my world just a little bit?” Freakonomics wouldn’t have worked if Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt weren’t devoted acolytes of behavioral economics. And neither of these things would have worked if the folks behind these sites couldn’t communicate their passions in specific, vivid ways.

Related questions: What are the three most intriguing questions around this topic that you’d want to dig into? Why is this topic important for others to know about? How do you sell this topic to folks without a pre-existing interest in it?

What to watch for: Simple. Did they make you a believer? Do you have confidence that they could make believers out of a goodly audience of people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as devotees of this topic? Were their fascinations, in fact, fascinating? Do you now want to know the answers to these questions?

Passion is like batteries. If you find a candidate who exudes passion, that’s worth a lot to us. This line of questioning is all about determining the depth and infectiousness of the candidate’s passion.

Questions for candidates: How do you process and pursue information?

Great bloggers tend to be info-junkies, and the Argo-bloggers will have to be. We’ll be asking them to stay on top of RSS feeds, email alerts, Twitter streams, comment threads, Facebook groups, and mailing lists, along with all the other information inputs any reporter has to process. Disciplined info-management is one of the hardest skills to teach on the fly, and one of the most necessary for success in this arena. So I’d dig deeply into this question.

Related questions: Do you use an RSS reader? How many feeds are in it? How do you manage them? What do you read first in the morning? How do you stay on top of Twitter as the day rolls on? How do you store information for later retrieval?

What to watch for: What I’d be looking for out of this line of questioning is not a specific toolkit or workflow as much as a sense that they seek out a solid variety of info every day, and they have effective systems to process it. I’d note the extent to which they read blogs and engage in social media; they should feel totally at home in this world.

What do you ask a prospective blogger?

A question we dwelt on at last week’s ArgoCamp in Chicago deserves some follow-up: How can you tell whether a candidate will make a great blogger?

Our 12 Argo topics will require a vast range of subject expertise. Some topics demand reporters with a strong grounding in the subject matter; others rely less on esoteric subject knowledge and more on a general ability to draw connections and guide conversations. Since each case will be so different, I won’t comment specifically on how to suss out subject expertise.

What I can offer are some questions to help you figure out a candidate’s suitability for a trait all of the sites will need – blogginess. Their general knowledge of how information flows online – what types of stories hook audiences, how to handle communities, how to write a tweet for perfect retweetability. This is the secret sauce that will make our sites sing. (Alliteration, btw, is a crucial skill for every great blogger. OK, not really.)

Over the next few days, I’ll pull together some specific questions for you to ask. Meanwhile, I’ll throw the question open: What might you ask your blogger candidates?