[Ed: NewsTrust's long-time associate editor, Kaizar Campwala, is leaving us this month to pursue graduate studies at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. We asked him to share his insights on his experience in this blog post.]
Nearly four years ago, I was sitting at NewsTrust founder Fabrice Florin's dining table in Marin, CA, discussing with him and David Fox what my responsibilities would be as the new associate editor at NewsTrust. The site was up and running in a prototype form, and we were preparing to launch it as a public beta a month later, in November of 2006.
Today, as I leave NewsTrust to start graduate school in a few weeks, I find that the mission that initially drew me to the project -- helping citizens take responsibility for the news and information they consume -- is still as salient and critical as ever. Information overload, political polarization, and widespread misinformation -- the problems that spurred the creation of NewsTrust -- persist despite major advances in technology and shifts in the American political landscape. Smartphones and social media have only increased the amount of information coming at us, and the vicious, ill-informed debate that's currently raging about the "Ground Zero Mosque" shows that the divisive "culture wars" are still very much alive.
In the face of these challenges, NewsTrust has done a remarkable job of staying responsive to changing patterns of news consumption and an ever-quickening news cycle, while remaining committed to the qualities of good journalism by emphasizing contextual, fact-based reporting, and ideological open-mindedness. Maintaining this balance has sometimes meant sacrificing temporary gains in traffic or promotion, but it's kept the site anchored in the otherwise quickly shifting new media world.
It's not easy to distill the experiences of four years of editorial partnerships, new product development, and community management into a single blog post. I've had the opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant journalists, educators and technologists, and work on addressing some of the thorniest questions facing journalism today. Here are some of the highlights:
Many of our partnerships were built around the News Hunt model, where we focused on a single issue in the news, and compared how different news sources were covering it. All the News Hunts I worked on were eye-opening, but a few in particular stood out:
• June 2008: John McCain with Huffington Post - NewsTrust reviewers joined Huffington Post's citizen journalism team to paint a portrait of Senator McCain by aggregating news coverage about him and his Presidential campaign. The NewsTrust team, along with Amanda Michel (now at ProPublica), applied crowd-sourcing techniques to corral hundreds of volunteers to take part in this project. Many of these volunteers have gone on to become trusted members of the NewsTrust community.
• January 2009: War in Gaza with LinkTV - In comparing American and international news coverage of the Israeli attacks in Gaza, the NewsTrust community not only revealed how international media frame the Mideast conflict differently than many American outlets, but also exposed the breadth of voices and perspectives offered in American online media.
• July 2010: Immigration with USA Today - This last partnership highlighted how far "legacy" news organizations have come in embracing the ethos of the Internet. The USA Today team we worked with were happy to highlight and link to a variety of news articles, including content from their competitors, to educate readers about Arizona's controversial illegal-immigration law.
NewsTrust is a non-partisan organization, but that doesn't mean it has no agenda. The team is very interested in increasing the level of news literacy of online news readers. It's no surprise, then, that we love collaborating with educators. I would like to thank two in particular, who have been pioneers in using NewsTrust in the classroom: Sally Lehrman at Santa Clara University, who began using NewsTrust in her journalism classes in early 2009, and Diana Laufenberg, who leveraged NewsTrust as a part of her high school globalization class. Over the course of their semesters, I saw students in both classes develop the kind of confidence and savvy as news readers that makes for engaged, responsible citizens. It's been incredibly rewarding to watch students take to the site, and I look forward to seeing NewsTrust continue to grow in this vital space.
Over my time at NewsTrust, I've reviewed over 12,500 individual news stories. That's a lot of news, and I'm certainly more knowledgeable for having read them (even the bad ones). But in many ways, my worldview expanded more from my interactions with other NewsTrust reviewers than all the thousands of articles I've read and reviewed. In their offline lives, NewsTrust members are bankers and activists, engineers and artists, and everything in between. What they share on the site is sense of curiosity about the world, and the courage to not simply accept the news that is fed to them, but rather to engage with it in a critical way. I don't use the word 'courage' lightly. It's easy to spout off political opinions on the countless comment threads across the web. Much harder is what NewsTrust reviewers demand of each other -- to deconstruct the news, asking intellectually taxing questions about a reporter's intentions, methods, and skill in producing the story being reviewed. I cannot begin to list the individual members who have touched me with their thoughtfulness, challenged me with their intellectual rigor, or opened my mind with their wisdom and life experience.
Challenges and Opportunities
Moving forward, NewsTrust will need the steadfast support of its community as it engages new audiences and continues to innovate around its mission. The increased blurring of news and opinion, and a growing emphasis on transparency over objectivity, may challenge the current review process, and defy the news vs. opinion format our members appreciate. Micro-news formats, citizen journalism, and the growth of video news online also present some interesting questions and opportunities for the site. How, for example, does NewsTrust bring the values of accuracy and fairness to the two-way conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, where a lot of important information (and misinformation) is being communicated today?
The success of the recent Truthsquad initiative shows that NewsTrust is moving in the right direction in addressing these challenges. I think there are so many fascinating and important areas in which NewsTrust can apply itself. I can't wait to see where the project goes next.
A lot of work goes into a project like NewsTrust. From simply keeping the site running, to creating new applications and forging new partnerships, it takes the dedication and vision of a fantastic staff and management. I'd like to acknowledge my former editorial colleagues Rory O'Connor, David Cohn, Beth Wellington, Joey Baker, Kristin Gorski, Jon Mitchell and Derek Hawkins for making me a more thoughtful media critic, and sharing some of their social media savvy with me.
I've also had the pleasure of working with Caleb Waldorf, Adam Florin, Subbu Sastry, and David Fox, the guys who built and maintain the sophisticated software that makes NewsTrust run. They somehow found the patience to deal with this non-engineer and his incessant questions.
Finally, a huge thank you to Fabrice. There are a lot of people with good ideas, but Fabrice is the rare person who can actually execute and make his good ideas a reality. He's been a generous mentor and fearless leader. I feel truly honored to have been part of his exceptional project.
See you online!
- By Kaizar Campwala
[Ed: We're deeply grateful for all that Kaizar has done for NewsTrust over the years, and will miss him as a colleague and a friend. Besides leading our editorial team, managing our community and partner relations, he has made some invaluable contributions to our strategy and overall direction. Kaizar is a great team player and thoughtful strategist, and we have all enjoyed his insights and creativity over the years. We wish him well in his new studies, and hope to work with him again soon as a freelance contributing editor.
We're also pleased to welcome Jon Mitchell as our new managing editor. Jon will assume all of Kaizar's responsibilities and expand many of the initiatives he started, such as our growing educational services. Many of you know Jon already, as he has taken on a leading role in recent months, culminating with his great management of our last Truthsquad pilot. Prior to joining NewsTrust, Jon was Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Public School District of Providence, RI. He graduated from Brown University in 2009, completing an independent concentration in Music & Mind. You'll be hearing more from him in coming weeks. Welcome aboard, Jon!]