What a snowstorm taught me about interactive journalism

This blog post was originally published on ONA Mizzou Secretary Laura Davison's personal blog.  

By Laura Davison  

This semester I’m working on the Community Outreach Team at the Columbia Missourian. Our goal is to make the news gather process more open and make it easier for readers to participate in the process. A lot of the work we get to do is experimental. Here’s the short list of what we do:
  • Try out new tools to better report and tell stories
  • Use social media both to communicate and to listen
  • Look at site analytics to see what content is resonating with people
  • Brainstorm new ways that the Missourian can expand its reach and that we can  bring the community into the newsroom (both literally and figuratively)

The week of Columbia's first big snowstorm was definitely one of my favorite weeks on duty this semester. The day before the storm hit, the team was busy planning ways to cover the snow. Community Outreach director Joy Mayer has been talking about RebelMouse, an embeddable page that aggregates posts from social media. The page is customizable to include posts with certain hashtags, updates from select accounts or by manually entering posts the moderator selects. This page included posts from Missourian staff members and other photos or tips posted by social media accounts using the hashtag CoMoSnow.
Rebel Mouse CoMoSnow.

It was essentially one-stop-shopping for all things related to the snowstorm—updates from Public Works to videos of kids playing in the snow. RebelMouse allowed us to clear out some of the social media noise and give users the most relevant, engaging and interesting posts. This was successful for a couple reasons. First, snow is cool and people like to take photos of cool things. Everybody with a smart phone or camera took at least one photo. And everyone’s natural inclination is to share it, probably via social media Second, many people were physically stranded where they were, but they still wanted to feel a part of the action. 

When the snow first started falling, I was working at an equipment lab on campus which is literally in a dungeon room with no windows. I couldn’t see what was happening. Instead, I was glued to the RebelMouse page and my Twitter feed to see what my friends were seeing. People also not only wanted to see photos of snow, but also what roads were clear of snow. During our brainstorm session, we talked about ways to crowdsource information about road conditions. We found inspiration in a Google gadget the Seattle Times used during a previous stowstorm that allowed us to link up a Google form (essentially an embeddable survey) and a Google map.

Staff members and users could then send in the road conditions from where. Users could click on a plot and see the crowd-submitted reports. I told Tom Warhover, the Missourian’s executive editor as he was bouncing around ideas for the Dear Reader column that week, “The coolest part to me was that some readers acted like journalists when they shared information. They would submit something saying their street was still covered and then submit an update when the plow showed up. One guy sent in six or seven submissions from everywhere he went all morning.” This whole event was exciting for me because everything was put into place so quickly. We took an event we knew everyone would be social about and brainstormed the possibilities. We decided on where to allocate our time and executed the plan. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s often hard to get right and a situation that doesn’t often arise in the academic setting.

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