NewsTrust Baltimore: An Experiment in Civility

But is it sustainable?

The first thing you notice about NewsTrust Baltimore, an online aggregator of stories from local news sources, is how friggin’ civil all the commenters are. Consider one reader’s critique of a story about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at military funerals:

This story does a good job of putting a difficult and emotionally charged story into context and providing the background needed to understand the issues involved in the court case.

Elsewhere in this comment section, NewsTrust readers debate how effective the story’s mixture of AP and local CBS affiliate content is, and consider whether they catch a whiff of bias in the lede. Other stories on the site are similarly dissected, with users sharing even-handed opinions and critiques on articles covering everything from state government hiring practices to “Baltimore’s fledgling food-truck scene.”

Thoughtful, measured critiques probably sound like a dream for readers and writers accustomed to the flame wars fought in many online news comment threads. And though relatively few people used NewsTrust Baltimore during its six-month lifespan, their sobriety of purpose set an example that others would envy.

But the NewsTrust Baltimore experiment raises the question: Is civility sustainable? Unable to get continued foundation support, and not close to being commercially viable, the project finished without hinting at a workable business model. And the relatively small number of articles that sparked robust discussion suggests that there are limits to how deep news consumers want to get in the news-critiquing business.

The project—which was actively curated from February through July of this year and still features new user-updated content—localized the online social networking/media watchdogging tools developed by the national nonprofit NewsTrust. A small staff aggregated each day’s Baltimore news from a variety of legacy and new media—personal blogs like to online-only news sites like the Baltimore Brew to the Baltimore Sun, the area’s major daily. Excerpts of those stories appeared on the NewsTrust Baltimore homepage; clicking through led to the story at its original online location framed by NewsTrust’s reviewing tools.

The site’s users took over from there. Readers could give a story one to five points, rating an article on qualities like whether it was factual, well-sourced, well-written, and enterprising. (Disclosure: I was a Baltimore journalist until April. One story of mine was posted to the site. It got a four, based on one review.) Energetic reviewers could go further and write narrative reviews, highlight quotes, and add links. Stories that got positive reviews and ones from news sources already ranked highly could receive more visible placement on the NewsTrust Baltimore site.

Fabrice Florin, NewsTrust’s executive director, says that the reader reviewing process has a dual purpose. “One is to help rate the news based on quality,” he explains. “But that’s really a means to an end and the real purpose is to help each and every one of us who participates in the process become more discriminating as a news reader.”

In order to review a story, readers first have to create a public profile. Reviewing readers then receive their own ranking, which rises or falls based on how active they are, how experienced they consider themselves, and how other readers and NewsTrust staff rate them.

All of these rankings and reviews help maintain the site’s sense of focus and civility—but they can also make the site seem intimidating to a first-time visitor. Mary Hartney, NewsTrust Baltimore’s local editor and a former Baltimore Sun staffer, acknowledges that the reviewing method asks a lot of media-saturated readers.

There’s the element of: ‘I’m already signed up for a lot of social services, do I really want to sign up for another? What am I going to get out of it?’ Fabrice would tell you this: Reviewing a story well on NewsTrust—it takes work, it takes some effort, and I think that can turn some people off, for better or for worse.

This begins to explain the project’s modest success in getting readers to become reviewers. The site received 21,000 unique visitors during its six-month pilot. (By comparison, the Baltimore Sun’s website reported 4.8 million unique visitors for August.) Of those visitors, 535 became members. About 60 percent of these were people who were in some way affiliated with NewsTrust (students in classes collaborating with NewsTrust, media partners, NewsTrust staffers, etc.).

Of the sixty members featured for being active on the site, only about ten weren’t in some way affiliated with the project. One of NewsTrust Baltimore’s unanswered questions is whether participation would have grown if the project was around longer, and, if the numbers swelled, would the civility have survived?

And to some, civility in media criticism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Edward Ericson Jr., a reporter for City Paper, Baltimore’s alt-weekly, wrote pointed reviews on the national and Baltimore NewsTrust sites (e.g. “This is a great idea for a story that doesn’t come through with the goods.”).

He wishes others had gone more negative. “If I was a little disappointed it was because [the reviews] weren’t deep or critical enough,” he says. “I wanted more people like me on the site who would actually take the piss out of something they might be expected to like.” And there’s a fine line between a critical, balanced piss-taking, and a below-the-belt flame war. Is it possible to keep the former from evolving into the latter?

In large part, though, local journos got behind the effort. Many became reviewers. Most local media partnered with the project. Urbanite magazine repurposed NewsTrust comments in its letters section. City Paper gave NewsTrust Baltimore a “Best Media Watchdog Experiment” in its annual “Best of Baltimore” issue.

Fern Shen, editor of the aforementioned Baltimore Brew, says some NewsTrust reviews made the Brew recalibrate its mix of news aggregation and news reporting. “It made me realize that the real contribution from the Brew could be the thing that we have lately really focused on, which is just pure, old-style, sourced, thorough, deep reporting,” Shen says.

But, in the end, media support wasn’t enough to sustain the site’s momentum. The operation shuttered at the end of July, after the $200,000 Open Society Foundations grant that got the project off the ground ran out, and the local foundations Florin approached to keep the project running didn’t bite. (Disclosure: Columbia Journalism Review receives OSF funding.)

Still, the national NewsTrust organization got to do a focused test of its social media widgets, and its work lives on in a few Baltimore-area classrooms that use NewsTrust criteria to teach journalism. The code for the site was open-sourced in August. NewsTrust is refocusing its national efforts on Truthsquad, a fact-checking collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity. And the national NewsTrust site still has regularly updated and deliberated content.

But is there an effective way to localize an effort like NewsTrust, and make it a vibrant, essential part of a city’s conversation about itself? That remains anybody’s guess. Fabrice Florin is the first to acknowledge that half a year doesn’t gain you much traction. “You really need to look at multiple years,” he says. “It was kind of—we were there for six months and suddenly we’re not.”

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Bruce Wallace is a freelance radio and print journalist. He lives in Brooklyn. Tags: , , , , ,