Great Lakes Wiki
David Poulson, Associate Director,
Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State UniversityEast Lansing, Mich.
Great Lakes Wiki
348 Comm. Arts and Sciences
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1212
The center will create collaborative wiki entries that describe the problems, cleanup strategies, contaminants, industries, people, health impacts and other issues related to the 43 toxic hot spots in the Great Lakes region. Student reports and research will initially populate the wiki and then community members will be solicited to add input.
Check back for future news and updates.
• May 2009
• End of Year Two: October 2008
• End of Year One: November 2007
• Spring 2007
• November 2006
• August 2006
Echo turnover builds a network of Great Lakes savvy journalists
By Dave Poulson
Turnover is frustrating at university-based news organizations.
Just as a reporter hits her or his stride, they graduate and move on to another venue.
Of course fostering the growth that allows that to happen is fulfilling for an educator. But I’d also argue that in the long-run, it’s also good for the longterm quality of Echo’s journalism.
For with every reporter we train here at Echo, we expand our network of journalists who keep us abreast of creative newsgathering elsewhere, provide Great Lakes news tips and become potential freelancers for when we secure funding for that kind of thing.
Growing and leveraging a network like that is essential for the efficient operation of public-service news operations. And it’s another reason why university-based news reporting is a vital part of sustaining vigorous journalism during his period of upheaval and realignment.
Read the full article on Great Lakes Echos website.
Developing a ‘Newsshed’ for Community Reporting
Great Lakes Echo recently received a Great Laker Award from the Healing Our Waters Coalition for their coverage of environmental issues around the region.
A special post by David Poulson outlines his idea to create a ‘newsshed’ as a social construct, opposed to the more traditional notion of a watershed in the environment. Both, he said, are natural resources.
“Newsshed is a word invented (OK, I invented it.) to evoke imagery of diverse streams of news contributing to a critical mass of understanding of complex environmental issues,” Poulson wrote in his post.
Great Lakes Echo took this strategy to bat during Great Lakes Week, where many environmental giants meet for several days in the region. According to Pouslon, the resource-strapped organization prepared by having their own reporters, Michigan State students and a hired freelancer produce nine comprehensive stories leading up to and throughout the conference.
The coverage paid off, and was picked up by Detroit Public Television as well as their Great Lakes Now website. Great Lakes Echo also facilitated a stream of tweets under the hashtag #GreatLakesWeek, highlighted even more insights surrounding the event.
Outside the Box Community Engagement
Engaging readers is why your online news community exists. You can’t use the wisdom of the crowds if the crowd isn’t talking. Without fast and substantive engagement, you might as well publish a newspaper.
So when you build it and they don’t come, what do you do, short of waiting?
Try poking your community with a sharp stick and challenging it to interact In the following sections, you’ll see how at GreatLakesEcho.org, a site about environmental issues in the Great Lakes region, we used Asian carp (hardly sharp sticks), maps, quizzes, Top 10 lists and more to help engage our audience.
Don’t get discouraged when your best ideas flop. You’ll be surprised by something else that works. More surprising—and puzzling—is when a failed idea works the second time. If you need a start, steal and modify what we’ve tried at Great Lakes Echo. What follows are a few ideas.
- David Poulson
Great Lakes Wiki has spun off a new project, Great Lakes Echo. The website, launched in March 2009, features the reporting of paid students and graduate assistants at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. MSU students at the university’s Capital News Bureau in Lansing, Mich., contribute other stories.
Some of the students are paid as freelancers by the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Environmental Health News service (EHN), which covers environmental health issues worldwide. “We run those stories when they are relevant to the Great Lakes region,” says Dave Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, noting that Echo writers also have provided EHN with stories that provide important links back to Great Lakes Echo.
“We try to report at least one original story five days a week,” Poulson says, adding that Echo reporters’ work is also supplemented by links to environmental articles by outside news organizations.
A lack of community engagement with the wiki prompted Poulson and his team to switch gears and start Great Lakes Echo. “Even when we met with people and explained the [wiki] concept and how to work it, participation was lower than I had hoped for,” Poulson says, adding that technical complications might have been off-putting to potential wiki users. The last straw came when the wiki “broke” - and only one devoted contributor complained about an inability to contribute. (The problem has been fixed, Poulson reports.)
For now the wiki is “on hold but not abandoned,” Poulson says. “One idea is to allow the wiki to become a sort of definitional resource that Echo refers to. So if there is an Echo story regarding air pollution, there would be a link back to the wiki where regional air pollution problems are extensively described by wiki participants.”
The new, cleanly designed, easy-to-navigate Echo site features a variety of story types. Some articles are “translational” - they put scientific studies into laymen’s terms. Many are about government efforts to “green” the area’s economy. The Echo also is following the exploits of a kayaker who’s paddling around each of the Great Lakes, providing monthly updates about his progress. And, reports Poulson, “stories about critters - wildlife - draw significant interest.”
The new website already has received accolades. A Chicago communications company that works for public and nonprofit agencies listed the Echo among the top news sources about Great Lakes restoration. Reported the firm: “[Great Lakes Echo posts] good articles about the science and big picture implications of problems and proposed solutions.”
The Echo also was recently picked as “site of the month” by the Great Lakes Information Network: “The [Echo] provides quality reporting on environmental issues in the Great Lakes region, and offers aggregation services to allow users easy access to environmental news daily.”
The Echo staff markets the new site daily, using Twitter, Facebook, its own e-mail list of subscribers and listservs of environmental organizations, Poulson says. He also reports that during the week of May 17, 2009, the site set a daily record of 344 visits and 299 uniques. On May 26 the site more than doubled that, receiving 713 hits and 665 unique visits. “We’re not sure what’s going on, but we’re hoping it continues,” Poulson says.
Poulson and his team have contacted ProPublica about taking part in the nonprofit reporting group’s crowd-sourcing experiment to track federal stimulus spending. The Echo could follow environmental stimulus funding in the Great Lakes region, Poulson says, or it could simply encourage Great Lakes citizens to get involved in ProPublica’s effort. “ProPublica is thinking about it, but they have expressed initial enthusiasm,” he reports.
The Echo also plans to cover some of the public hearings on lake water levels scheduled around the basin this summer. “I hope that we can build an online forum for citizens who cannot attend these hearings,” Poulson says. “We hope to supplement with stories about the controversy and about the scientific studies that are now emerging regarding the causes of the fluctuations [of water levels] and the consequences of such control.”
Poulson says he is “torn” about whether to continue to work with students or to go for another funding model that would allow him to hire experienced journalists. In the fall he will renew attempts to involve other regional journalism schools in providing content.
- Hope Keller, 5/26/09
End of Year Two: October 2008
Between August, 2007 and June 6, 2008, GreatLakesWiki.org had:
31,122 unique visitors
103,963 page views
1,500 registered users
140 unique visitors per day
2.84 average pages per visit
Average time on the site: 1:57 minutes
There is a fishing derby in Michigan’s central Lower Peninsula unlike any other. Competitors can’t eat what they catch - it’s too contaminated. A freezer stands ready for fish with tumors. That way they can be sent to state regulators for analysis. Such contest rules are among the ways Great Lakes Wiki reporters found how life in St. Louis, Mich. continues to be shaped by the presence of one of the nation’s earliest Superfund sites. It is here where a former Velsicol Chemical Co. factory spilled tons of the pesticide DDT into mid-Michigan’s Pine River. It is here, too, that the fire retardant PBB was inadvertently mixed with cattle feed, an event that brought international attention because it contaminated the state’s food supply. More than 30 years later, St. Louis remains polluted. But the international attention is gone. The community remains outside of the state’s major media markets. Residents’ struggle with their toxic legacy goes largely unnoticed. But in late 2007 the Great Lakes Wiki brought renewed and unique attention to the Pine River and St. Louis. Students with Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism first met with a local citizens group that advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the ongoing cleanup. Over a period of weeks, they interviewed them and began to tell their story with text, images, Google maps and video clips. Thee resulting multimedia effort was supported with links to documents found elsewhere on the Web. This is a growing, living news story with the ability to change as circumstances warrant. While the students’ work is over, they’ve left behind something yet to be shaped by others with the new tools of collaborative journalism.
A print advertisement from the Healing Our Waters campaign
This pioneering effort was recognized in 2008 by the Society of Professional Journalists as one of the nation’s top three online in-depth news stories reported by university students. The Great Lakes Wiki is an exciting platform for teaching, researching and committing citizen journalism. We continue to be impressed by the long term utility of its reports.
Last November, Great Lakes Wiki reporters covered a conference on how to communicate issues surrounding highly contaminated regions identified by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Lawmakers, scientists, regulators and journalists discussed communication techniques. About 60 citizens attended. The Great Lakes Wiki report remains archived online with video clips of speakers so that citizens from across the Great Lakes basin can continue to benefit from this workshop. The Knight Center has incorporated clips from the same report into an online environmental reporting class.
But this final report is not just about celebrating successes. It should also be a level-headed look at barriers and hurdles for engaging the public in citizen journalism. And while in some ways the Great Lakes Wiki is successful, in other ways it has yet to succeed.
The Pine River project is also illustrative of this point.
A video created by Great Lakes Wiki about the Citizen’s Advisory Group for Pine River
We are excited about bringing unusual attention to a forgotten story, but we are disappointed not to have engaged local citizens to a greater extent. We met with them before the project precisely to gain early buy-in and generate enthusiasm that might continue with their own contributions. They were enthused, receptive and encouraging of the students. But they have not taken ownership of the project. And while the Pine River report remains an important element of the Great Lakes Wiki, it has not changed since the students produced it.
This experience is perhaps illustrative of the Great Lakes Wiki as a whole. Occasionally groups carve a corner of the Wiki out for themselves…. [But] there are far too few non-MSU contributors for our satisfaction. Original reports on the Great Lakes Wiki continue to be primarily produced by our students. It’s wonderful experience for them, but we want to see much more participation from the broader community.
Two possible reasons:
As simple as the wiki is to operate, it is still a much steeper learning curve than a blog. There may be a technical hurdle here.
The Great Lakes community has many, many organizations (and websites) looking at environmental issues. It may be that it’s all anyone can do to keep up their own websites. Our hope was to reach those who did not have a direct web outlet for this kind of news and information.
A significant accomplishment this year is the integration of Google maps into the site. For example:
Locative information is critical for environmental stories. We foresee a project that could map the locations of every federal or state listed site in the region. Clicking on the location would bring you to a wiki entry about the site and could become the initial impetus for locals to begin reporting on those sites themselves.
We are examining ways to integrate another Knight Center project into the Great Lakes Wiki. Great Lakes Echo is a popular news digest of mainstream media reports. We gather this information ourselves, but we hope that we can now interest citizens in providing the stories and the links and to comment on the stories. This could greatly boost the interactivity of the Wiki.
It could work two ways: Wiki stories could be augmented by RSS feeds of appropriate news story categories. And the Echo daily news digest could include links to stories generated by Wiki reporters.
At the same time, we’re exploring whether we can migrate the Wiki to an easier to use platform, one that is more intuitive and less intimidating. This effort could entail a significant redesign and we hope to pool remaining J-Lab funding with other funds to pull it off.
In addition, we envision capturing information on campaign finances and voting history on issues and politicians relevant to the environment.
We have a potential and significant partner with a project run by the Great Lakes Commission, a compact of the eight Great Lakes states that operates the Great Lakes Information Network. Some thing to consider: This is a government entity. Does that help of hinder the citizen aspect of what we’re trying to promote?
We continue to view the Great Lakes Wiki as a fantastic experimental platform for multi-media and citizen reporting on the environment. Our students will be among those trying to figure out the next generation of environmental reporting. The Great Lakes Wiki gives them a wonderful proving ground and research area.
End of Year One: November 2007
Since its launch in January 2007, the Great Lakes Wiki continues to thrive and grow in cyberspace. The wiki was initially conceived as a repository for environmental information about the Great Lakes Areas of Concern, the official name given to 43 geographic and aquatic locations, which the U.S. and Canada agreed are threatened by industrial contamination. However, the creators of the wiki soon broadened the scope of the project to include other regions and other aspects of the Great Lakes to attract more writers.
The site is now divided into six major categories: culture, recreation, commerce, ecology, geography and areas of concern (AOCs). Each category has elements that can be expanded, eliminated or modified. Each section can contain news stories posted by anyone. Those news stories can also be linked off the “citizen reports” section of the main page.
According to project leader Dave Poulson, associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, “The Great Lakes Wiki has proven to be a great platform for students to experiment with new forms of journalism.” He cited these examples from the Wiki:
A section on the Rouge River features stories, still images, a timeline and video of citizens describing the environmental challenges the river faces. And in a demonstration of how content can be easily repurposed on the site, a link was forged between a video segment describing the Rouge’s invasive species and the entry describing invasive species.
A piece under the geography section demonstrates how intensely a local river can be examined. It consists of stories about the Red Cedar River, a river that runs through the MSU campus. The stories are linked to each other and relevant material elsewhere on the Web.
Students produced a video about climate change (modeled after the Washington Post’s “OnBeing” series) in which they edited down interviews with participants at a climate change symposium on campus and strung the clips together to answer user-selected questions about this complex environmental issue.
Also, high school students participating in an environmental education program recently spent a week in the Upper Peninsula, where they took photos and kept journals about the trip. These elements will form a wiki page that combines their contributions with a traditional story.
As of November 2007, the wiki had 300 registered users. Among the frequent visitors is an administrator at Wikipedia who has taken a particular interest in the site. “We gave him system operator status on the Great Lakes Wiki and he has been active in creating templates, clearing graffiti and enforcing a wiki way of doing things,” says Poulson. “That volunteered interest by someone with sophisticated wiki skills is an example of how sites like this can leverage expertise that otherwise would not be tapped.”
From September to November, the site received 10,000 unique visits, an average of 117 visits per day.
The number of Great Lakes organizations with profiles on the site has expanded to 40, offering a greater awareness of what groups with similar interests are doing.
In April, the wiki was designated the “site of the month” by the Great Lakes Information Network, a coalition of more traditional Great Lakes information providers.
Encouraging contributions from citizens and other groups to the Great Lakes Wiki is a priority. Video help files were created with Camtasia software and additional help documents, such as a how-to on shooting and uploading video, are being developed for online and print distribution.
This summer, Great Lakes Wiki hired a paid media coordinator to “prime the wiki pump,” generating and modeling content for the site by traveling throughout the Great Lakes basin, teaching people how to use it. From the annual meeting of the citizen coalition Great Lakes United in Toronto to a Michigan Energy Fair in Manistee, these events help the wiki recruit and train a diverse pool of contributors and readers. They even attended a Grandparents University at Michigan State University in East Lansing where 20 pairs of grandparents and grandchildren shared a computer as they learned to contribute vacation memories and other information to the Great Lakes Wiki.
One strategy for expanding awareness is the creation of a Great Lakes Wiki group on Facebook. As of November 2007, it had 64 members. Wiki promoters also used Meetup.com and various listservs to generate interest in training sessions. Numerous mailings to environmental, citizen and educational institutions have begun to pay off. “A journalism professor at Kent State University in Ohio has contacted us because she is developing curriculum for nontraditional investigative reporting techniques to be integrated in several classes,” said Poulson. “It is our hope that the Great Lakes Wiki becomes a platform for students taking classes at other journalism programs in the Great Lakes region.”
GreatLakesWiki.org launched on Jan. 31, 2007 with a number of news and blog outlets picking up the announcement - and a few critics worried that Michigan State’s “Journalism College has put its reputation at stake” by inviting ordinary citizens to contribute news and information.
The wiki seeks to collect “the experience and knowledge of a network of citizens, including scientists, hunters, policymakers, environmentalists, anglers, lakeside property owners, boaters, business operators and others who care about the Great Lakes region,” according to the site’s mission statement.
Within a month of the launch, the project’s leaders had tracked more than 500 edits to the site, 84 registered users and several thousand anonymous visits.
The site lists 32 non-profit organizations working on Great Lakes issues and half of those organizations had posted information about their groups.
Users could read about organic farming in the Commerce section. Or view a map of the Lakes’ environmental Areas of Concern.
Users could also post information about the culture, recreation, geography and ecology of the Great Lakes.
In addition to distributing news releases via e-mail and MSU’s public relations department, the project published a color brochure that was mailed to 46 leaders of citizen groups involved with the most polluted areas of the Lakes. The brochure was also sent to 140 colleges and universities with journalism programs in the region.
“Our hope with this effort is to offer the site as a publishing platform for schools interested in experimenting with non-traditional forms of journalism,” said site creator Cliff Lampe.
The site is also placing ads on Google, so during a keyword search for “Great Lakes,” the wiki will be called up. Lampe says he “knows that for every 100 who come to the site, one will come back,” so he is trying to make those people who do visit the site “more sticky.”
While there has been much positive reaction to the site, some critics expressed concern about allowing “contributors to post information and commentary without prior editing with regard to fairness or accuracy. “
Noted one respondent: “If MSU can attract quality contributors at the right scale ... the wiki service may enjoy credibility and provide a valuable resource. If MSU attracts pranksters and paid trolls, the project will tumble under its own weight toward a well-deserved demise.”
While the site only uses wiki technology and has no affiliation with Wikipedia, one Wikipedia and Wikimedia administrator has offered help in ironing out some of the technical issues.
A big challenge going forward is to help teach potential contributors how to post on the wiki, which has a “steeper learning curve” than posting on a blog-driven site, Lampe said. To address this, the site has developed a help system with screenshots and simple instructions and they plan to arrange workshops with local environmental groups to train people to use the site.
The project also plans to offer one of five $600 digital cameras to those people who contribute frequently and emerge as leaders within their “area of concern.”
In the upcoming months, Lampe hopes the wiki will have established a regular contributor base of at least 150 people.
UPDATE: Dave Poulson recently wrote a column, “Wising Up About Wiki,” describing his transition from wiki naysayer to director of the ambitious wiki project covering environmental issues in the Great Lakes region. The piece appeared in the spring 2007 issue of EJ Magazine, which is run out of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism where Poulson is the associate director.
Content has been piling up on the Great Lakes Wiki, which is operating but has not been officially launched. Project Directors Dave Poulson, assistant director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Assistant Professor Cliff Lampe hope to give a green light to the site soon.
The delay has been a debate about when a citizen-powered and constantly changing wiki is ready. Poulson believes a better-designed site would engage visitors. Lampe thinks the site should launch before worrying about the aesthetics and the community can help resolve such issues. In the meantime, the directors hired a web designer to come up with templates for the wiki, which now has a design similar to Wikipedia. They also hired a coder to implement design changes for all the content.
Students at the Michigan State University have provided the bulk of the content, with a special topics journalism class producing stories and structures for various areas of greatlakeswiki.org, such as Areas of Concern (on polluted regions), Ecology, Culture, Recreation, Commerce, Great Lakes Organizations and Geography. An investigative reporting class at MSU contributed a series on the Red Cedar River. Poulson and Lampe see students as an integral part in keeping the wiki up to date. In the spring semester, one student is overseeing development of the wiki as an independent study. Another class offered extra credit to students who participated.
Students used video and still photos with their stories, and linked to relevant mainstream news articles. Portals were designed for community contributions and several aspects are designed to coax public involvement, such as a section for Great Lakes vacation memories ; models for reporting on industries in the region; a section for information on Great Lakes artists, musicians and writers; and an in-depth exploration of one environmental area of concern that is a model for pages on other areas.
While Poulson and Lampe’s journalism students had a hard time with the concept of giving up editorial control of a wiki to citizens, some students from other disciplines wanted to push an environmental agenda. Activist interests may continue to be a concern. “A significant question is whether we can maintain some kind of journalistic integrity or whether we become a tool of biased activism,” Poulson and Lampe write. “The challenge is to engage the scientific, business and other communities in a way that creates a holistic report.”
Whether the wiki can attract a large enough community to add a steady stream of new content remains to be seen. The format has its limitations, too: Students were disappointed that Flash and other technology didn’t work on a wiki. “Another question is whether the wikiness - the ability for anyone to add content - outweighs those limits,” Poulson and Lampe write. They also need to expand the content beyond Michigan to reach the entire Great Lakes region, which spans eight states, from New York to Minnesota.
Only eight citizens attended a fall workshop in which students demonstrated the site and how to use a wiki. Poulson and Lampe note that the workshop was held on short notice after an announcement on a regional listserv. Here’s one page that shows how citizens can contribute to an entry: http://www.greatlakeswiki.org/index.php/Lake_Erie.
The project will concentrate on marketing next. But, despite little promotion thus far, web surfers have found the site. One piece of evidence: Greatlakeswiki.org was vandalized with fake stories that chronicled a Godzilla attack, a new great lake uncovered in South Dakota and the danger of zombies as an invasive species. “To some extent, vandalism is a healthy sign for a site like this,” Poulson and Lampe write, “indicating that it’s attracting effort from a larger community.”
The Michigan State University professors heading the Great Lakes Wiki project spent the first months of their grant developing the class that is working on the project and encouraging the students to think outside the traditional journalism box.
The project is using wiki software to create reports and discussions on a host of environmental issues in the Great Lakes area. Students are publishing initial reports on the website, which is “semi-live” at greatlakeswiki.org, and citizen journalists will be encouraged to contribute. Lampe says that while anyone can log on, the wiki won’t be publicized until it’s more developed.
One interesting aspect of the class is that it pulls in students from other disciplines. Of the 13 students, seven have majors other than journalism, including economics, physics, fisheries & wildlife, and advertising.
Instructors Dave Poulson and Cliff Lampe hoped to get radically different ideas from their students, but it took some time to spark a new way of thinking. One hurdle: the contradiction of a J-school that discouraged students from using Wikipedia as a source but is now asking them to build their own Wikipedia on the Great Lakes. Poulson writes in an e-mail: “They (much like myself) have trouble letting go of control to non-traditional citizen journalists. That has evolved and I sense an excitement about ‘when are we going to unleash this thing so the world can have it’ mentality.”
This summer, project directors made one major change with student and community input: They decided not to use the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern as a framework for the wikis. It was determined that these areas, identified by U.S. and Canadian governments as toxic hotspots, involve chemical pollution and wouldn’t address a wide variety of environmental concerns and agendas. As the directors wrote in their progress report, “We want to build a broad concept of environmental issues that builds understanding among groups as diverse as politically conservative hunters and granola-crunching environmentalists.”
As part of the planning, the technological aspect has taken off. A project server, using Ubuntu Linux software, has been established. Open source software includes MySQL, PHP and Apache, and the project is using DekiWiki software, made available for free to the project by developer MindTouch Solutions.
Teams of students are interviewing citizens to compile stories, but also to get them to participate in the site. To foster a joint citizen-student effort, Poulson and Lampe invited leaders of Great Lakes organizations to speak to the class. Students have also explored the pros and cons of wikis, plus how to create one with editorial integrity and ensure it stays that way. They’re also learning a lot about environmental issues in the region and creating a marketing campaign for their wiki. One idea in the works: a workshop for the public on how to use the wiki.
Outside organizations have offered help. The Great Lakes Sea Grant program, with ties to both citizen and government groups, said it will reach out to citizens at Great Lakes conferences, and area J-schools are interested in participating.
Lampe has done some initial outreach to community and activist groups, and the plan is to increase such efforts late this fall as the site grows. Says Lampe of the initial positive, yet guarded, reaction to wikis: “One of my take-away points was to create simplified documentation for getting started on the site.”
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