Onward! [my farewell post for NewsTrust]

(cross-posted from the NewsTrust blog)

Last year, a mutual friend introduced me to Jon Mitchell, who was looking for advice on how to get into journalism, having recently graduated from Brown University. In a matter of weeks after our call, Jon became one of our most prolific NewsTrust reviewers, rising to the occasion to become our managing editor in July 2010. It has been a true pleasure to work with Jon ever since and I am very grateful for his many thoughtful contributions to NewsTrust. In a single year, he took on more jobs than some people get in an entire career, from hosting news hunts to fact-checking politicians, managing online communities, teaching journalism students and promoting our findings on social networks. I am sorry to see him go, but am also rooting for him in his new role as a writer for ReadWriteWeb. For this exit report, I asked Jon to share his personal observations from his experience at NewsTrust, and reflect on how social news sites like ours can encourage more people to grow their news literacy skills. Thank you, Jon, for all your wonderful insights and good luck with your next steps as a journalist! -- Fabrice Florin

Onward! [my farewell post for NewsTrust]

After a year and a half of playing around with it, I'm more sure than ever that NewsTrust is the right tool for the job. As the person responsible for curating the day-to-day NewsTrust experience, the amazing array of features and options was occasionally dazzling, even to me. But I've been away from it for a month or so, having started as a full-time writer at ReadWriteWeb, whose warm review of NewsTrust was among my first impressions of it, and it's a joy to look at this homepage from an ordinary user's perspective again. The homepage is well-organized, rich with content, easy to share, and filled with friendly faces of members. I can hardly imagine a better example of a civic-minded social news network.

The trouble is, the idea of the Web is shifting under our feet. In 2006, when NewsTrust opened, there was no iPhone. Facebook had barely begun to reach the general public. The word "app" scarcely existed to describe what NewsTrust is: a Web app for filtering the news. And the NewsTrust application is powerful. It has enabled this small team to attain some lofty goals. But many more Web apps have sprung up over the last five years, some of them growing at gargantuan scale, and the great ones offer rich content and warm community, too. They also offer tantalizing games, titillating gossip, and videos of cats.

We can only spend so much daily time and energy on the Web, and though we may spend quite a lot, there's always more stuff out there. Herbert Simon described the Information Age as an "attention economy." NewsTrust requires careful attention. It's not always fun, at least not in the way other social networks have defined fun. Separating fact from fiction in the news is a tough job, but, if we want a healthy civic society, somebody's got to do it.

Shifting gears

As we decided this summer, NewsTrust is shifting from a standalone news curation site into a consultancy to help larger partners better inform and engage their communities. The idea of crowd-sourcing quality control over the news was a noble one, and I don't mean that it was unrealistic; it just requires a really big crowd. Our email newsletters go out to about 12,000 people, and that drives a good amount of traffic to the site, but there are too many alternatives now. In this heyday of the social Web, a few websites hold sway over most of the crowd, and it's usually the ones with the cat videos.

NewsTrust has kept up with social media all along, with deep Facebook and Twitter integration practically everywhere, but just sharing stories is no longer enough. All news sites have sharing options, usually too many of them. It's expected. NewsTrust demands more than just reading; it asks for analysis, reflection, and reviews. NewsTrust has to do more to get people to go through that effort. Its next challenge is to take this practice beyond the confines of this complex website with its high learning curve and bring the ongoing conversation along with it. 

Transparency and identity

The best part about NewsTrust is the conversation. The hierarchy of trust on the site produces such high-caliber discussion for a Web forum; it never ceased to amaze me. Fabrice frequently calls it "a clean, well-lighted space," contrasting it with the dingy basements that comments sections so often become on large news sites. NewsTrust's insistence on transparency and disclosure helps ensure mutual respect, although it isn't a community model that works for everyone.

Other social networks, like Facebook and Google+, have chosen a similar approach to pseudonymity. That has proven a controversial choice, because these social networking sites are vying to become the root location of Web users' identities, and many people don't want their Web identities to be public. But NewsTrust needs a more particular kind of community. It doesn't need everyone on the Web to make it work. A dedicated few can add great value for the benefit of many more. Those who are willing to stand up and be counted in the effort to improve the quality of news and information can bear the standard for their fellow citizens.

Future applications

I'm excited for the future of Truthsquad, the pro-am fact-checking services we created last year. The first pilots have shown that bringing questionable claims to the attention of many will inspire a few to dig for the truth. The compelling part about Truthsquad is that it offers information that's useful at a quick glance, a one-word assessment of the truth or falsehood of a statement, but it's also open to much deeper exploration of an issue. If NewsTrust is to add value to news stories encountered out on the open Web, rather than in the well-defined constraints of one site, making bite-sized statements about the content will make it more digestible.

I think NewsTrust's educational applications have shown great promise. The tools are flexible enough to custom-build solutions on a case-by-case basis, whether for teaching journalism skills or courses on a particular topic in the news. Check out my report on our 2010 educational programs for more specifics.

I also couldn't be more proud of the NewsTrust Baltimore team and the amazing work they pulled off using NewsTrust tools at a local scale. The reports alone offer a wealth of information about Baltimore's local news ecosystem that didn't exist in one place before.

Whatever new applications are found for NewsTrust's tools and methods, I know they will make for a better Web.

Onward!

Fabrice loves to sign his emails with that superhero-like exclamation: "Onward!" It's inspiring to work under that kind of enthusiastic guidance. I can't even begin to thank Fabrice for the opportunity he gave me to work on the NewsTrust project (believe me; I've tried a few times). When I started here, all I had was potential and enthusiasm. Fabrice entrusted me with a title and a range of roles way beyond my years, and it was only due to his patient guidance that I was able to fill them. I hope he's as proud of the work we did together as I am.

And to Kaizar Campwala, NewsTrust's previous editor, who saw enough potential in me to leave the reins in my hands, I owe a great deal. I'm eagerly watching his new endeavors, and seeing what he built here at NewsTrust, I know his work is going to rock the world.

To Subbu Sastry, most patient of engineers, I can't believe what you accomplish every day. Though I learned from everyone with whom I worked here, I certainly learned the most from you. Honestly, if I have any sort of career in what my fellow bloggers call "Tech," I have you to thank. Talking to you about the systems, databases, and languages that make NewsTrust hum along so smoothly was really what inspired me to keep building on the platform every day. And I'll never forget the day Amazon EC2 crapped out on us, and how you single-handedly flipped us over to their beta program for moving regions, bringing NewsTrust back online faster than so many other headline-grabbing Web services. And you saved the day many more times than that.

To Gin, Mary, and Andrew, the NTBmore team, again in no order other than that in which I met you, it was such an honor. You people are so skilled. It has been a joy seeing what each of you has started to get into in your lives after NewsTrust, and I'll definitely be keeping track. Someday, I'd love for us all to work together on something again. Seriously. Call me.

And to the NewsTrust community, whose reviews I've read, whose posts I've tagged, whose validation levels I've increased, whose comments I've liked, you people are what it's all about. All Web communities should have what we've had. We haven't been free of interpersonal issues or strife — every community has those — but we've had such a strong basis for working it out amongst ourselves, and that is rare on the Web. I hope you'll stick with NewsTrust wherever it goes, and, more importantly, I hope you'll carry on the lessons of fairness, accuracy, and transparency we've all practiced together. I know I will.

See you around the Web.

- Jon