Social media blast

New reporting tools
May 1, 2014

For most news outlets, it’s been a given that a social media presence is becoming more than a promotional tool. It’s also a way to boost reporting. Various sites are starting to find that harnessing the power of the crowd leads to creative and insightful reporting. Here are three news organizations whose experiments could end up as standard practice:

CityBeat hunts for news on Instagram
CityBeat is a new tool developed by the Social Media Information Lab at Rutgers, Cornell Tech NYC, and The New York World, a student newsroom at Columbia’s Journalism School. (The tool uses a geotagging feature to weed through Instagram’s selfies and food pics to find local news, such as bus crashes or fires, that New Yorkers are photographing.) “We’re looking for the place where there’s more data than usual,” says Raz Schwartz, one of the fellows working on the project.

The World is giving the tool a trial run, and editor Alyssa Katz thinks it has already helped her newsroom get a better understanding of what news the average New Yorker is interested in, from store openings to City Hall meetings. “It’s been a way for us to see how the city looks for everyone else out there,” says Katz. “It’s going to change how we think about news.”

Now Schwartz and his colleagues want to see how well the technology fares elsewhere. “We’re working with The New York Times Metro Desk and a few other newsrooms. We’ll let them try it for a week or two and then get their feedback,” he says.

CityBeat remains a work-in-progress with broader aspirations; the team is still tweaking the program’s algorithm to incorporate other social media channels, such as Twitter and Foursquare. “When this is finished, it’ll be able to quickly define events that are happening,” Katz says.

Measuring suspense with WNYC’s sports bot
One regular work night at the WNYC offices, Jim O’Grady, a transportation reporter, complained about not having enough time to watch the NCAA games. He wished out loud that he could get an alert on his phone whenever the game was close. Thus, Nailbiter bot was born.

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Producer Jenny Ye and developer Noah Veltman started playing with code to find a way to help their colleague. They ended up staying late at work to create what became the Twitter account @NailbiterBot. Running since March 20, the bot acts as a Twitter alert system for exciting moments in the NCAA games. Specifically, it predicts when the game will be particularly close, usually tweeting when there are three minutes left in a match with a gap of less than eight points. The model is similar to the
@NYT4thDownBot run by The New York Times, which suggests whether a football team should punt or go for a fourth down in a close game.

Veltman says that while the bot itself isn’t meant to do any formal sports reporting, it’s one in a series of longer-term bot-related projects the data desk is working on. “We’ve been experimenting a lot . . . building bots that watch for new unemployment figures or crime stats,” he says.

Nuzzel sorts through the social media noise
Jonathan Abrams, an entrepreneur and software engineer, has been working on online social engagement platforms for well over a decade–it began with HotLinks in the late 1990s and expanded to Friendster and Socializr. His latest project is a news aggregator app and email service called Nuzzel, which resulted from his frustration with sorting through the information firehose of his Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s designed to rank the news that users’ social networks share the most, giving people a more organized experience. “Basically, it’s a service to fix social overload,” says Abrams.

Around 10,000 people signed up for the app in its first week, in late March. Abrams hopes users will both use it to manage their own feeds and to check out celebrities’ Nuzzel profiles to see what their networks are sharing. Reporters keen to build their own brands may benefit, too. “Journalists will be able to see what people are saying about their stories,” Abrams explains. “If you have a public Nuzzel feed, you can develop a personalized feed without having to do a lot of the work.”

Joanna Plucinska is an intern at CJR