Hoping Sources

As the occasional Civilities readers are no doubt aware, this publication is weighed down by a couple of realities: The editor tends to think big, and and the editor is not paid to do this. The editor is only person on staff, and that is me. I've also gotten in the consuming habit of tracking down obscure sources. As I can't compete on pace, so I try to compete on depth. I generally mine early Internet tracts and the occasional buried text. The general format I've settled into these days is a multi-part series of essays, usually around a thousand words each. So these are the various series I've been working on this spring:

  • A critical analysis of the "crowdsourcing" phenomenon
  • The various online journalism efforts in Pasadena, CA
  • A unified model underlying online media  

If that doesn't sound ambitious enough, tonight (and perhaps tomorrow?) I'm polishing up a four-part series on patterns of journalism.

I come clean now because one of the sources I spoke to was curious about when I was going to finish one of the above stories. Most of these are now thousands of words, and 90% complete, and I ended up languishing tracking down a final source before another project distracted me. It's a shame: I really am grateful for all of the people I speak to and email who take time to speak to me because I tell them I'm writing an article for a website they'd otherwise never hear of.

I'm mindful of the different traditional approaches to this sort of work. A journalist, working on deadline, tends to keep his notes close to their vest; a researcher, with more ample time to dig deep, is typically more open. There's another key difference: a journalist usually writes while the story is still live, and may be able to effect its outcome. A researcher has to be content with more of a "prime directive" approach. I straddle both.

These last few months, I'd let myself become distracted for necessary urgencies. In early April I saw the Blogger's Code of Conduct train wreck happening, and not only proposed a fair alternative, but I then had pitch the hell out of it. Then the Virginia Tech shooting happened. I scribbled a comment on Dan Gillmor's blog, and suggested to Mark Glaser that he look into it further. Mark asked me why don't I simply write up 1,200 words for MediaShift? I ended up doing enough research to reject my original assumptions, and doubled the word count which Mark asked for, which he mercifully whittled it down to an 1,800-word column (with 30 hyperlinks).  Lastly, just a couple of weeks ago I encountered the AutoAdmit case a bit late (and seeing trend of online sexual slanders), I felt I had to put something forward, and that's the Protocol for Online Abuse Reporting. (This piece as well, has entailed its own amount of back-channel pitches, still ongoing).

The three of these efforts tended to revolve around a common theme– helping people in need. I felt I had to get those out in front.

In the interest of even fuller disclosure, there were several series from 2006 which got to the 90% stage, and I told many of my writing/blogging peers of the pathos of my regular interruptions:

  • How Robert Scoble handle the Microsoft censorship story – Interrupted to study RSS
  • The RSS Quest – interrupted by a study of BlogLines numbers
  • Bloglines – interrupted to learn about the power law
  • Competing Power Law papers – interrupted by spring
  • Representation of the Kurban in Islamic art — inspired by the Danish/Muhammed incident
  • Milblogging study — inspired by the NYT inclusion of "milbloggers", and interrupted by my interest in reading several of the first-person accounts by soldiers and Marines in the Iraq war.
  • Responses to Nick Carr's "Great Unread" and a response to the critics of Nick Lemann's "Amateur Hour / Journalism without Journalists"

I also have several news/data visualization projects at various stages. I'd love to show them. I'd just want to get them to 100%. There's also stuff that's buried for good. I thought had a new insight on Daily Kos back in 2005, but I pulled it down the piece (replacing it with questions) when I felt I needed to do more research– if I was going to deal with many of the community's fierce defenders. I really think Jonathan Chait did a superb in job in TNR in writing about Kos and the netroots. I buried a piece on the morality of world of warcraft, as a friend was virtually addicted to it at the time.

Most of these "sources" were not of the "high-placed government official" sort. They were ordinary folks– bloggers, reporters, political activists, academics– who were just as happy to speak to someone interested in their activities.

That said, I feel I've made promises to people to get these stories out as an independent writer. It's likely a fool's errand: most people either get paid for this stuff, or just clock in a 500 word blog post and call it a day. But I have just enough sources and readers who, when they encounter my work, think of the world of me, and I will just soldier on and get that copy out.