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Greenberg Interview: NH Public Radio Taps Citizen Bloggers

The Primary Frontline Pen Pals Project

Best Quote: ” I have found myself as a sort of editor for ten new citizen reporters. ” Jon Greenberg, New Hampshire Public Radio.

New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) and KUNI public radio in Iowa have brought together a mix of experts and everyday voters via weblogs to stimulate public conversations about the presidential primaries. The bloggers are Democrats, Republicans, and “Middle of the Roaders.” Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine.com calls this “Primary Frontline Pen Pals ” concept simply “Good thinking.”

The man behind that good thinking is Jon Greenberg, executive editor of New Hampshire Public Radio. Under Greenberg the station’s website won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for 2003 and a Batten Award in 2000 for public journalism. He has granted PJNet.org an instant message interview. Here’s the conversation:

PJNet: New Hampshire Public Radio is a relatively small news operation, but you seem to be out front on best uses for electronic technology. A couple of years ago you won the national Batten Award in public journalism for your New Hampshire Tax Challenge with its online tax calculator. Nearly 30,000 people participated. Are you smarter than the rest of the journalists or haven’t they caught up with the new technology? What’s your secret?

Jon Greenberg: I wish there were a secret; we’d be able to roll it out more predictably. I’ve come to the belief that the only secret is an interest in trying something new. With the tax calculator we got lucky. We came up with the right tool at the right time for a specific audience. I honestly think that the most successful projects depend about 30 percent on good conceptualization and design and 70 percent on the news curve. And you can’t control the news curve. Two years after the first tax calculator, the issue of school funding came up again, and we dutifully rolled out the tax calculator. The interest from citizens was considerably less than the first go around. The tool was the same, but the response was not. Largely I think because the public mind had moved to a different place.

PJNet: How did you come up with the concept of The Primary Frontline Pen Pals?

Greenberg: I was interested in trying something that had rattled around in my mind going back two election cycles. I think there’s always a question in New Hampshire of whether the candidates are saying the same thing here as they are in Iowa or South Carolina. There are a number of ways that you could get at that question, but the one that appealed to me was to line up a group of more or less average observers in all three places and let them report what they saw. As it happened, we were not able to organize the South Carolina leg of the project. And as it also turned out, our bloggers have not focused on the messages from the candidates very much. Instead, they have given us something much better — the view of the campaigns from people who don’t live and breath politics the way we journalists do.

PJNet: Interesting that you say that. I thought they were concentrating too much on the horserace, election strategies and not enough on the issues like education, housing and jobs.

Greenberg: Well, our most prolific bloggers have been the GOP strategists and the Ad Analysts. But the most common message from the truly citizen bloggers has been that most of the people around them are somewhat aloof from the process. Let me modify that – the people are confused by the campaigns.

PJNet: Really? Do you think that is why there haven’t been a lot of people jumping into the Pen Pal discussion?

Greenberg: It’s a possibility. A recent post from our Iowa “Middle of the Roader” noted that some folks are waiting for the candidates’ positions on issues to become clear. My reaction was close to shock. For anyone who reads a paper or listens to public radio, I would think that there has been ample opportunity for voters to know where the candidates stand. But I asked her if what she was getting at was the sheer number of candidates in the race. She said, yes.

PJNet: So what are you learning from the Pen Pals conversation?

Greenberg: Well, I’m not certain that the much vaunted “contest of ideas” has really materialized. I don’t see a well-engaged citizenry looking at the menu of ideas coming from the candidates and responding to the ones they like best. Of course, some people do that, but they don’t seem to be the norm. I see people hunting for reasons to sort one candidate from another, but those reasons may or may not ultimately hinge on the candidates’ ideas. I don’t know what it will hinge on.

PJNet: How do we find out what they hinge on?

Greenberg: The answer to that lies in the nature of the project. I have found myself as a sort of editor for ten new citizen reporters. I don’t modify their text as a typical editor would, but I help them, and myself, figure out what this sort of communication can do well. I help them find their voices as bloggers. So, in effect, there have been two timelines in Pen Pals. The first one has to do with voters plugging into what the candidates are saying, and I think that the density of the field has made that more difficult than in the past. The second is the time it has taken us participants to figure out how to use this tool. The bloggers are getting more sure of themselves, and I’m getting a better handle on how to glean information from them. In early January, I will put the question to the bloggers and see what they say.

PJNet: Is harnessing a few bloggers to be your commentators the best idea? I am thinking of Earl Morris’ documentary “Fast Cheap & Out of Control,” where you just toss hundreds of robots at an issue and see what they discover. Maybe that’s how journalists should think about bloggers. Let them go rant and write as they may. It’s fast, cheap and out of control. Then journalists monitor what’s being said as best they can. What are your thoughts?

Greenberg: My first concern would be that if the number of streams of information coming at me are too large, I won’t be able to sort out much of anything. It could turn out to be the same experience as when you scroll through an endless string of comments and replies on a bulletin board. Pretty soon, you glaze over. I also think that you stand a chance of getting more insights from people who have a sense that their words will be read by somebody. They will take a little more time to put something useful into their posts. But we’ll see. I don’t know if this approach will be so wonderful when we are finally done.

PJNet: That brings up my last question. The Tax Challenge calculator was wildly successful. The next calculator was not. The jury is out on this project. Are they worthy of the time and effort? And what would you tell other editors, and maybe publishers, who ask this question?

Greenberg: The good news is that the cost of doing these has come down considerably in the past few years. There are plenty of affordable programmers and graphic designers. That said, I would tell editors to be strategic with their efforts. An issue has to resonate with the audience. The costs have to be proportional to the likely benefit. Pen Pals cost very little to do — if you don’t count the time spent by NHPR and KUNI, it was under $1,000. I look at it as R&D. If it pays off, great. If not, we learned something. Which is really the reason for news rooms to do this. Interactivity is part of journalism today. If you don’t dip your toe into it, you won’t get a sense of how it can work in your news room.

PJNet: Thanks this has been great. Anything you wanted to add?

Greenberg: I actually think we have learned a fair bit about good design for interactive sites. I wrote a sort of school of hard knocks piece for J-Lab on three lessons I learned from the project immediately prior to this.

PJNet: Is it posted at J-Lab?

Greenberg: Yes, they posted it, but they grabbed MS Word text and dumped into html and some weird characters emerged where I used apostrophes and such.

PJNet: I can link to it here. Thanks again.

– End of PJNet interview –

For more, see Fast, Cheap and Out of Control on my personal site, BiggerBrain.

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