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WCCO's 'The Wire' anticipates social media journalism

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The old joke likening sausage making to legislating might soon be applicable to journalism in the Twin Cities, from the looks of a new, interactive tool unveiled Tuesday night at WCCO-TV.

In front of an audience of about 50 local social media junkies taking part in one of the station's regular "bloginars," new media director John Daenzer pulled back the kimono a project called The Wire. It's an interactive timeline for news and events that allows users -- journalists and citizen journalists alike -- to follow and influence a story's development in real time. It is, in fact, a way for news consumers to become news reporters; to see and participate in how the journalism sausage is made.

"We want to break down the wall that says we are the brokers of information," Daenzer  says. "I think it's time that we as the media admit that we don't have all the answers."

Call it social media journalism. Here's how it would work. A WCCO reporter or editor might start a timeline rolling with a post about planned coverage of a big story -- Daenzer used flooding in the Red River Valley as an example. Broadcast news hosts and the Web site would promote The Wire's coverage, urging the audience to join the WCCO team and contribute to the story. As contributions stream in, they would appear on the timeline as bubbles of information; as more contributions come in centered on a particular story element, the size of that element's bubble grows. When fresh details come in, new bubbles are created, while the timeline moves across the screen. Click on any bubble and it expands to a detail page that may contain text reporting, images, video, comments and suggestions from anyone, anywhere, including from the anchor desk or perhaps even the iPhone of someone trapped on their roof as they await rescue.

The main view of The Wire, an interactive news timeline being developed by WCCO

The main view of The Wire, an interactive news timeline being developed by WCCO

Of course, on any given day there's more than one news story happening, and the timeline is designed to handle them all. An editor would vet all the content to make sure it's as accurate as possible under the circumstances, before pushing it live, Daenzer says. Once a story timeline is created, it would live forever an archive, be searchable, and be available for sharing using all the popular social media tools of the trade (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and more). And while the version Daenzer demonstrated Tuesday night was designed to be viewed on a desktop or laptop computer screen, plans are afoot for simpler feeds aimed a smart phones and other applications.

The Wire is as much about opening up the process of journalism for pubic consumption and participation as it is about gathering and editing the elements needed for a great piece of journalism, Daenzer says. The thinking runs this way: By allowing what one wag last night referred to as "the people formerly known as the audience" to contribute publicly to story development, interacting with station staffers and each other, WCCO stands a reasonable chance of building its audience share and loyalty. 

The Wire also offers an unusual money-making opportunity, wherein advertising can be placed strategically along any given timeline, in a place where users would see it in a relevant context. 

Will The Wire make for better, more accurate, more engaging journalism? Daenzer says it all remains to be seen, although he's optimistic. He says he's received positive feedback from other TV news stations and Web sites operating around the country under the CBS banner, and The Wire was built to work within the CBS content management system so that, if it does pan out, it can be more easily shared and replicated in other markets. Since the viability of the news business itself remains to be seen, The Wire seems like a risk worth exploring.

So far, however, exploring is all there is. Daenzer's Web wizards have been working on The Wire for a big chunk of this past year in between their regular responsibilities at wcco.com, in collaboration with custom software developers at The Nerdery http://nerdery.com/. The site has been reviewed by two focus groups in the past few months, and with another six or so weeks of hard core development -- and a big infusion of cash -- it ought to be ready for prime time, he says. But where that cash will come from in tough economic times, in an industry already back on its heels, isn't clear.