On Trolls and The End of the Road

by James Wasserman

There we have it, kids.   First semester is just about in the books. But since we’ll be wrapping up what we’ve learned in our presentations, lets talk a bit about trolls. If you have time, read this article from Vice where the author interviews a troll from the Web 1.0 days.

It may come off a little “Back in my day…,” but I think we need to understand that the internet and its language have both evolved. So, a troll in 2015 isn’t exactly the same as a troll was in 2005; tactics, technology, and mindset have all advanced in some way. Access to the internet has increased as well, so the “bad apple” principle is really starting to take hold.

Jamie Bartlett’s interview with a self-proclaimed troll reveals the old-school definition of the term. Not only is his cause something I think most of us call noble (“Zack is a member of several trolling groups, all of which he describes as being a kind of cyber neighborhood watch—they seek out extremist, misogynistic, or generally unpleasant communities, and bother the hell out of them”), but his tactics are much more refined than name calling.

“His favorite technique, he explained, is to intentionally make basic grammatical or spelling mistakes, wait for someone to insult his writing, and then lock them into an argument about politics.”

As I divulged to you all, I had a certain set of trolling skills, skills that I acquired over a very long career. And I used them for good – trolling the KKK. But this brings up a good (but probably not THAT relevant) point about the ethics of trolling. Is every form of trolling bad?

Just as we discussed the definition of asshole, and how its different from being a jerk, Bartlett says that “the word has become a blanket term for any hateful dickhead with a hard drive.” I wonder if the role of the troll will change in the coming years, as the internet opens up to more and more people, but becomes easier for certain entities to police.

Are there any other terms that were created by and then changed by the internet? What group or business would you troll? What person? I already told you guys about my KKK trolling, so here’s an article about my pick for person to troll.

We have 10 days before we’re back in class. Obviously, nobody has to do anything related to our classes, but if you were to, what would you do either to tie up loose ends from last semester or get a jump on the second? Do you think you’ll stop keeping up with news for Kate’s news quizzes? (Guys, don’t, news is so much fun! But honestly I probably will unless we form some sort of forum to keep up)

Keep in touch guys and HAGS!!!!


Going deep in Brooklyn — and in community-based journalism

New and old stores at Nostrand Ave. Photo: Pedro Burgos.

“If news organizations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organizers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals.”

That passage from Jeff Jarvis’ Geeks Bearing Gifts was one of our very first readings for this course, and one that stuck with me. As we worked with our communities throughout the semester, we tried to put that interesting new proposition for the role of journalists into practice. It wasn’t easy, because this was new, and we didn’t have a perfect example of that idea of journalist-advocates working in real life.

Until last Tuesday, when we met in a admittedly hot newsroom in Nostrand Ave, in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant (or Crown Heights, depending to whom you ask). We went there to learn from — and to help — the work of Brooklyn Deep, which describes itself as “ProPublica meets a neighborhood Patch.”

The idea of Brooklyn Deep, as Veralyn Williams, one of the three staffers, told us, is to shed light on the issues that affect the community that lives in Central Brooklyn (mostly Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights), through, as the name implies, deep reporting. She mentioned police accountability, the role of activism and gentrification, among others as issues of interest to them.

Veralyn explained to us that they are associated with Brooklyn Movement Center (BMC), a community organizing group. The partnership is important because BMC provides office space and pays some of the staff, as well as valuable connections to stakeholders in Central Brooklyn. Through long stories and podcasts, Brooklyn Deep reveals the concerns of that community, and gives voice to people that live there.

It seemed that this was pretty close to the “journalist-meets-community-organizer” (literally) that professor Jarvis advocated.

Not so fast. (We’ll get there)

After Veralyn made the introductions, Mark Winston Griffith, executive editor of Brooklyn Deep, stepped in to explain more about the philosophy behind the journalistic enterprise. A third-generation resident of Crown Heights, Griffith is completely embedded within the community he reports on and for. He knows what the issues are, what his neighbors are angry about, and what the traditional media, which usually just parachutes in when something major occurs, misreport. As a former professor of urban reporting at CUNY, he also is a specialist in the techniques required to effectively listen to the community.

But he sees himself as first and foremost a traditional journalist, rejecting the term “advocate”. He repeatedly made clear the distinction between BMC and Brooklyn Deep, in a way not unlike what we in newsrooms used to call the separation between “church and state” (advertising and editorial). He thinks his work stops before the community “takes action,” which is a little bit different from what we are supposed to practice in this new concept of social journalist.

I explored that distinction further in a lengthy interview (more on that below). But before that, we did a hands-on exercise.

Inside an old barber shop at Nostrand Ave. Photo: Pedro Burgos.

“The whole role of Brooklyn Deep is to deconstruct the term gentrification,” said Griffith.

So we were tasked to interview the “gentrifiers” and the “gentrifiees” – new owners of coffee shops that looked as if they had been transplanted from Williamsburg and Dominican barbers that work in decades-old, vintage places.

We had a list of questions, both quantitative and qualitative, revolving around the gentrification theme. I ended up visiting two “hipster” coffee shops, Lula Bagel and Colina Cuervo ,and talked with the people there. The funny thing for me was that the “gentrifiers” were much more receptive to questions. One of my interviewees, who recently moved from Manhattan to Bed-Stuy to work as a barista, said that there are “many positive aspects of gentrification,” such as the increase in options for shopping and cleaner streets. All of that while keeping the “diversity” (another way to call the original residents) in the community.

After an hour of walking around the shops we gathered at another upscale coffee place to debrief. A common thread of everyone’s reporting was the “conundrum of gentrification,” as Griffith explained. “Everyone wants the places to be better. But when everything is better, everyone wants a piece of it. And it gets more expensive.”

A recent live recording of Third Rail, Brooklyn Deep’s podcast. You can see in the audience a paradox that Griffith noted: “The most progressive minded people around gentrification are gentrifiers.” Photo: Brooklyn Deep.

We talked a lot about the gentrification process itself, which helped to paint a more nuanced view of the issue (at least for me). We then talked about techniques for community reporting. “It is important to develop not only a beat, but a relationship,” said Griffith.

He advised us to become part of the conversations that happen in our neighborhood. By doing that, we will know exactly what is happening and what people living there think when we need to report on that community. He said that this relationship should be built thought the years — or even generations, in his case.

Griffith was kind enough to spend an additional 30 minutes with me talking about a lot of things that (already excusing for the length of this post) could help us think smarter about our job. If you’re feeling bored, you can jump to the questions. 😉

* * *

[The following Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity, and because I was typing everything on the laptop on the fly.]

Q: You said that you prefer to describe Brooklyn Deep’s work as inquiry, instead of advocacy. We are tasked to think about the role of the journalist in different terms, sometimes borrowing definitions from advocates. How do you describe your work?

There is a difference between advocacy and inquiry. The two overlap at some level, but they are different. The purpose of organizing is to build power and make social change. The methods are not prescriptive. It is more about having a better understanding of the issues. And to know how to ask the right questions and being more comfortable with views and perspectives that don’t look like yours.

When you do advocacy you become dogmatic on your view of the truth. Inquiry, on the other hand, is very freeing. We seek the truth, and truth is more transformative than propaganda.

Q: But it is still different from a traditional journalist. In a way, is this closer to what a community organizer does?

Maybe, yes. But there is a difference between organizing and the advocacy. We are bringing people together and starting a conversation. In advocacy I “know” what is right or wrong, and start from there. With organizing you don’t come with all the answers.

Q: The Brooklyn Movement Center can be seen as a “community organizer,” right? Why do you think is important to keep Brooklyn Deep’s work so separate then?

It is important to separate the two. Suppose that an elected official does something wrong and BMC confronts it, as an organized body, by organizing a march. On the next day, if a Brooklyn Deep reporter tries to interview him, he could say something like “You beat me up before, why would I talk to you?”.

In the same vein, if BMC has an alliance with an elected official, we will not have a way to confront him. We need some journalistic independence.

Q: But if BMC provides the better part of the funding, how do you negotiate that relationship?

We have a funding problem; that is why we are incubated in BMC. We don’t have the money to be on our own. The way I get paid is through them, but Veralyn gets paid through Brooklyn Deep alone. If we didn’t have the BMC, we wouldn’t have the office space, staff, etc. And we would need to build these relationships [with the community] that they already have for us.

Q: Through your reporting, do you think you are able to push for certain actions, like policy making?

That’s where journalism ends. We are not designed to give you [the community] an answer. We help to understand the problem better. Instead of seeing a problem, such as gentrification, as a monolithic thing, we pull it apart and see different pieces. And you are able to come up with problem solving on your own.

This understanding can lead to a solution. But we are not giving the solution. You will never be able to solve the problem if you don’t understand the problem. There is why a lot of policy doesn’t work. People create legislation without understanding the problem. There is much valor to be gained from the reporting alone, of getting all this data.

Q: Besides reporting, what other disciplines do you see being used in your work here?

I see anthropology, data, storytelling, all sorts of digital creativity skills. I see a lot of historical information being used to bring together the pieces… Data mining. Not only to see the numbers, but to ask questions like ,where did you get the data? How do you access the public information that is already there and put in a form that people can readily use an consume? It’s a much more ambitious undertaking than regular journalism. It’s not only going out and talking to people.

Q: If you don’t advocate, what differentiates Brooklyn Deep from other hyperlocal sites?

Hyperlocal news sites a lot of times work without a deep political and historical understanding of the place they are reporting on. Reporters parachute in and don’t have the time to have the relationships. To report well on a community it also means living there, being a part of the social fabric. Shopping, belonging to a social organization, having children, studying there. That’s what I encourage people to do. If you are covering a neighborhood, live in a neighborhood. Partake in a neighborhood. And you will find yourself asking all sort of different questions.

* * *

Questions (pick any, some, or all):

1) Are you trying to “live and breathe” your community? What efforts are you making to participate more in your community’s life? If you are not, what prevents you from doing that?

2) Did your reporting change the way you see the issues in your community? As in: you expected that your community was facing “X” problem and you found out that the real deal was “Y.” Could you share one example?

3) Besides reporting, we discussed ethnography and data skills this first semester. What other disciplines do you see as being valuable to learn as our work continues?

4) After these first few months, do you see yourself as more of an advocate/community organizer? Did your perception of the journalist’s role in society change? How?

Building a Social Profile

By Sihem Fekih

On Monday, April 28, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism hosted a panel: “ Your Journalism, Your Brand How to Build an Effective Social Profile.” Participants included: Buzzfeed Social Media Editor Michael Rusch, ProPublica Senior Reporter Charles Ornstein, Mashable Real-Time News Editor Brian Ries, and Reportedly Social Media Reporter Kim Bui.

Introducing the panel, Social Journalism program director Carrie Brown said: “Even if social media is not new any more, I still get a lot of questions from journalists saying ‘I still feel like I’m not taking advantage of [social media] enough. How should I prioritize my work there? How can I better use it to build trust and engage with my audience? How can use it to enhance my career and develop new sources?”

Speakers started by detailing their roles and responsibilities. Opening the panel, Charles Ornstein talked about the importance of integrating social media into his beat. He curates the best health care stories he finds for his readers and shares them on social media, establishing his authority and expertise in his beat.

Ries primarily uses social to establish himself and Mashable as key sources for breaking news responses. Kim Bui said she devoted a majority of her time to digging up and verifying news on social media. For example, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Bui and her colleagues used social media to research the suspects police had identified.  She also explained how she verified that the third suspect – a high school student – wasn’t involved by tracking tweets from other students at his high school who confirmed his presence in class during the attack.

“I spend the whole day reporting and writing on Facebook and Twitter. And I do occasionally write on Medium for longer stories,” she said.

The speakers were all animated by the necessity to develop an identity on social media and build a true relationship with their audiences.

Rusch built his reputation as a journalist using social media. For two months, he found himself on an investigative journey in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, shooting video and collecting footage of the natural disaster with the help of the Coast Guard. After three years of social media experimenting and building his own brand, he developed a relationship with BuzzFeed Editorial Executive Ben Smith and eventually got his job there.

Engaging with your audience is also another way to enhance social media credibility, and sometimes it can be the more reliable way to contact a source. Charles Ornstein from ProPublica said: “I engage with people. I do engage with the dean of Harvard on Twitter if I can’t get him to pick up the phone.”

For Kim Bui, the engagement leads her to develop a long-lasting relationship with readers: “I feel like if I’m informative and I’m telling a really good story, and if I’m giving citizens on the ground the credit they deserve, people will start to follow me and engage with me,” she said, before mentioning that she uses hashtags, buzzwords, and exclamations like “wow” cautiously.

Panelists called DataminR the most powerful and efficient analytics tool on the market. Bui said DataminR is too expensive for smaller outlets like hers, and they use coeverywhere instead.

The panel’s discussion taught us to consider social media as a tool we can use to get more confident in our beat and to track stories.

How do you plan on building your personal brand/reputation through social media?

 Could you imagine yourself building a methodology of sourcing specific information from your community on social media? What would it be like?