Putting PPIIN plans “on the record”

This Wednesday evening I’ll be at the Pen & Pencil club for a Q&A session the club bills as part of its “off the record” series. I don’t want anyone to think the evolving plans for the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network are a secret that can only be discussed off the record. So let me share here some of what I’ll be discussing for those who can’t attend or who want to prepare questions.

For the past two months I’ve felt like a reporter assigned a new beat and given the luxury of spending time just meeting sources (more than 75 at last count) and getting up to speed without the need to produce a story (I know, we can all fantasize about when that actually happened, if it ever did). Now the story is beginning to emerge.

A few people have suggested that the theoretical PPIIN discussed for the past few years has been a bit like the story of the blind men encountering an elephant, where each person who touches it imagines something different depending on whether he touched the trunk, the big soft ears, a tusk, the tough feet or the tail. Early on, we will need to focus and can’t be all things to all people.

Our own branded identity

PPIIN clearly will need to have two main arms even from the start. The soon-to-be-renamed endeavor will need to build its own “brand” by offering one or more products that people will identify with it. Initially, I don’t expect our branded “products” to have extensive original content, but will focus on aggregation and curation of news coverage from around the region (with links out).  The curated and aggregated content won’t be designed simply to be another news portal. Instead, we will focus in specific topics designed to serve as launching points for discussion and commentary across the community. As someone who was pilloried for shutting down the Yahoo News message boards, I’m still looking for a new model for civic discourse.

Given that we are getting PPIIN off the ground in 2012 and not a few years earlier, a couple of themes are key to the products we will develop.

  • Mobile – A central website no longer should be the primary focus. We must start from the beginning to create content and functionality that can be accessed across a wide range of devices. We must be open and distributed.
  • Multimedia – YouTube has risen to be the second most used search engine because a growing number of people want to get their information in video format, so multimedia storytelling will be central to our early efforts.
  • Social – While we want to foster discussion around key topics in the news, we recognize that social media already plays a key role in many such discussions, so we need to connect into those existing conversations.

Supporting the network

The other arm of PPIIN will be the network of other news sites that we will offer support and services. As I’ve met with those working on a range of news products across the city, the key themes that emerged were:

  • Data – Increasingly, journalists rely on massive datasets to inform their reporting and uncover interesting stories. We hope to take on a central role for collecting or creating those datasets and providing tools that make the data more accessible to reporters and the public.
  • Multimedia – Our capacity for multimedia production also can benefit many other publishers, enhancing their coverage.
  • Apps – As the recent hackathon at Bar Camp News Innovation demonstrated, bringing technologists together with journalists and others who care about public engagement through information can produce great applications. We hope to move beyond occasional hackathons to an ongoing stream of applications.

We also intend to explore the possibility of having co-working space geared to the needs of news producers as well as hope to be able to offer support on issues such as First Amendment and open records law, analytics and revenue generation. We’ll also be looking for ways to distribute the discussion and conversation across the network.

Now the fun begins

I’d love to have our first product available by shortly after Labor Day. That means we need to move quickly over the next few months to incorporate, bring on some key staff members, design and build the first applications. Most likely, we will need to use a number of contractors rather than full-time employees. If you’re passionate about some of the elements I describe above, now’s the time to start letting me know. Feel free to connect on LinkedIn, so I can see your profile.

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The Center for Public Interest Journalism was created in 2010 to support programming and projects intended to improve the quantity and quality of public interest news and information in the Greater Philadelphia area.

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