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Exploring journalism's future

Civic media conference helps hatch new ideas

The world of traditional media has been going through a time of trouble, turmoil and transition, but more than 250 students and professionals in the media business, attending an invitation-only conference at MIT last week, brought an upbeat attitude to discussions and presentations that focused on an imaginative array of new media projects.

The occasion was a three-day conference titled "The Future of News and Civic Media," hosted by MIT's Center for Future Civic Media and the Knight News Challenge, a project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which announced the winners of more than $5 million in new grants at the meeting. (The MIT center itself was founded in 2007 thanks to a first-year grant from the Knight News Challenge.)

Christopher Csikszentmihã¡lyi, co-director of the Center for Future Civic Media and one of the conference organizers, said during an opening plenary talk that the difficulties and profound changes facing the media today are reminiscent of the upheaval experienced during the Renaissance, when the printing press drastically altered the flow of information. Though difficult and painful, that transition led to a vastly improved system of communications that endured and grew for centuries.

"For the last couple hundred years, newspapers seemed to be the way that communities could figure out what was going on in their community and what to do about it. That seems to be failing now," he said. "How do we take some of the roles and values of journalism, and figure out what will take on those roles?" The goal of the conference, like the goal of the center itself, was to explore ways to address these questions, in part by developing "better, smarter media technologies," he said.

Much of the conference's time was devoted to informal brainstorming and information-sharing sessions called Barcamps, most of them organized by the participants themselves. The topics ranged widely, including ways for news organizations to generate revenue, hands-on instruction on building web applications, innovative uses for cellphones, digital storytelling techniques, and citizen journalism in the developing world.

In order to encourage interaction and collaboration among the conference participants, the Knight News Challenge sponsors announced early on that they would offer additional grants of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 to the top three proposals submitted by attendees, involving collaborations between groups that have not previously worked together. Twenty proposals were submitted based on discussions among the participants, and on Friday the group voted to select the grant winners.

Rather than a conventional vote, the selection was made using a system developed by researcher Benjamin Mako Hill at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. The system, called Selectricity, allows voters to rank their preferences instead of just voting for their top choice, and the software uses complex algorithms to weight the rankings, rather than just tallying first-place votes.

Csikszentmihã¡lyi said he was impressed with the enthusiasm people showed for these newly hatched projects and their interest in the section process. "People actually stood in line to vote," despite delays in the system, he said. The first-place winner was a project called TweetBill, to create a web site where people could register to get an alert through Twitter whenever a piece of legislation they care about is reaching a stage in Congress where calls and emails from constituents would be most useful. "People were quite enthusiastic" about the plan, he said.

"The goal of this conference was to build community among people working on this problem" of the changing media landscape, he said. "It really went well. It got people talking, got people making friends and accomplices for lasting relationships."

During a panel discussion at the conclusion of the meeting, Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, said he saw reason for hope amid the despair surrounding newspapers.

"How could anyone worry about the future of journalism after being with these people and seeing what they and so many others are doing?" Gillmor said.

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