Monday, October 24, 2011

What's the Difference?

The school board recently received a rebuttal/response from Christine Yeres regarding my post of October 2nd.  One of the responses regarded my use of the term "blog" to describe NewCastleNOW.  Christine prefers to use the term "online newspaper".  Christine and I have had a good natured running disagreement on this since, well, for a while.

What is the difference between an online newspaper and a blog?  Is there a distinction?  Does it matter?  Why do I insist on calling NCN a blog not an online paper?  Why does Christine insist on calling it an online newspaper?

Does it matter?
Six of one, half dozen of the other.  It does not matter to me what you call me, but it does matter to the reader.  It is a signal to the reader of what expectations to have about the posts. While I believe there is a distinction (more on that below), I don't care what you call me (blogger or reporter or SOB. Sort of like Razzles.  Are they a gum or a candy?  -- candy first then a gum imho, but irrelevant.  Eat or not.)

Why does Christine insist on calling it an online newspaper?
I have no direct knowledge of why, but I speculate that she believes an online newspaper is more important and relevant than a blog.  Maybe it has to do with their start-up funding?

If you research the history behind the founding of NewCastleNOW, you are led to a website, that has a brief history of Christine Yeres, Susie Pender and Ann Marie Fallon founding the site.  J-Lab provided the initial $50,000 (I have also seen a conflicting number of $17,000)  in start-up capital.  I am pretty sure that they are not looking to provide funding for blogs, but do want to facilitate the start-up of online newspapers.

The article also indicates that the advertising revenue is about $90,000 after 10 months of their third year and they pay out 20% to the person selling the ads.  $72,000 net to NCN as a start-up!!  Great job building the small business! Very impressive indeed.

(Local businesses must believe advertising on their site is worth its cost.  It certainly hits a very targeted audience of local older people with disposable income.  Both NCN and the Patch have an economic incentive to drive readership.  Controversy sells.  There is a financial incentive to negative reporting and to "gotcha journalism".  But sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar and there is no gotcha there, just a feel good story about whatever subject is being covered.)

It seems as if their mission in founding the site was accountability.  A noble mission indeed.  Here is a link to a case study on the founding of NCN. (Scroll down, it is the second one on the page.) Pender describes in part the mission behind NCN:
Pender says she wanted, in part, to hold public officials more accountable.
“I was shocked at how much people in a small town like this were willing to say, ‘Those people know what they’re doing, there’s no reason to question the superintendent of the school board,’” she said by way of example. “The problem is there are things that need to be investigated.”
Later in the article, the author seems to be implying that NCN has affected local elections.  NCN seems to get or take credit for Gregg Bresner's victory 3 years ago.

The news site has had a discernible impact on the area. Since it launched, a challenger has successfully unseated an incumbent in the local school board election - an unheard-of scenario in a town where elected school officials typically serve until they decide to step down.
I have not been able to find causal effect or make the leap in analysis that because there was a new site writing posts in New Castle that an incumbent lost his position to a new comer.  Another problem with that statement is that in every election since Bresner's when an incumbent ran against a challenger, the incumbent won.  Yet another problem is how they measure their impact on an election.  What were the polls saying before they got involved?  Are they implying that they are trying to affect local elections for their candidates and that they are not impartial reporters?

In another interview, Yeres takes part responsibility for the changes made to the HS schedule the second year.  Apparently, the district's analysis and internal review were secondary.  The fact that the district said before the schedule was implemented that it would be reviewed after the first year meant nothing I guess.

New Castle NOW’s coverage of a controversial high school schedule change “had much to do with its modification a year later,” said managing editor Christine Yeres.  But if the site had been operating before the controversy began, “we could have helped people to know the details of the largely hidden decision process of the Board of Ed ... and residents could have expressed their opposition more effectively,” she said.
Here is a case of NCN pressing their own personal agenda.  Transparency goes to both sides of an issue.  A newspaper's mission is not accountability.  It is to report the news, good, bad or indifferent.  Accountability comes from the reporting of the news and asking questions.  Part of reporting as a newspaper is to bring information to the community.  The dissemination of information in itself leads to transparency and accountability.  News can be "good" news as well as "bad" news.  If your goal is only accountability and not reporting, your are a niche site that is a blog not an online newspaper.

I also have to digress for a moment here and tell you that the most effective way of expressing an opinion to the Board of Ed is through direct contact.  Sending an email, writing a letter, calling a Board member, going to a meeting and voicing a concern really does have an impact on our decision making.  Writing anonymously to a blog (or online newspaper) is not that effective.

While their mission is certainly a laudable one and one that I support, it seems to me that they sometimes get lost in the mission.  Can't see the forest through the trees so to speak.  Too often they are looking for the "gotcha" story, the "Watergate journalism" instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

For example, one real story about the schools is the terrific work being done in the classrooms by the students and for the students.  Pender is quoted in the case study as wanting to recognize when it is appropriate to report and when not to.  When it is appropriate to report feel good stories and when to hold  feet to the fire.
 “Sometimes we want to be The New York Times and sometimes we want to be the church bulletin,” Pender said.
Yes, we as publicly elected officials should be held accountable. Accountable to all the community, not just a loud subset.  We should be transparent.  Sometimes, take yes for an answer and recognize that we are trying and that there are some terrific things going on in the schools.  Or at least do both.

You as a member of the community are short changed and are not getting transparent coverage when it is selective.  How do you even know what to question if you don't attend meetings, watch them on tape or have someone covering the district and the Board more completely?  You will read below the contrasts in coverage of our last meeting by the two local sites covering the meetings on a regular basis.  (A third local blog, The Daily Chappaqua is a recent entry into the micro news coverage business. The Examiner is a weekly print publication. Here is a link to their archives.)

What is the difference between an online newspaper and a blog?
I think there is a distinction to be made.  That distinction is for the reader.  I write and post to a blog.  I do not see the term "blog" having either a positive or negative connotation.  Interestingly, while I cannot speak for Tom Auchterlonie of the Patch, I did have a brief conversation with him about it once and he refers to the Patch as a blog, although it appeared to me that he never really thought it important to make a distinction either way.

In fact, the Patch solicits blog posts from locals to expand and enhance their coverage of local happenings.  I have made several posts on their site.  (I have offered to make posts on NewCastleNOW, but they refuse to yield me editorial control over my own opinion pieces and refused to post a link to my (this) blog.  The Patch does both.)

Here is what the Patch says about it:


What is Patch?

Simply put, Patch is a new way to find out about, and participate in, what’s going on near you.
We’re a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities.
We want to make your life better by giving you quick access to the information that’s most relevant to you. Patch makes it easy to:
  • Keep up with news and events
  • Look at photos and videos from around town
  • Learn about local businesses
  • Participate in discussions
  • Submit your own announcements, photos, and reviews
They call what they are doing a platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage.

The distinction I make between an online newspaper and a blog is the content of the articles published or posted.  While every newspaper has a bias (try reading the NY Times and the NY Post when they cover the same story about the President for a good example), news stories are intended to be factual accounts of the events while opinion and editorializing is done in separate articles or posts with such caveats as "news analysis" or "op-ed" or "editorial" or several other distinctions.  For the most part, reporting is distinct from opinion or editorializing.

NewCastleNOW does not make that distinction.  They intersperse the two on a regular basis and also use the editorial process of writing to editorialize in the general sense.  For example, when reporting on school board meetings, they leave out reports on many parts of the meeting.  Or, when there is no issue that appears to be controversial, they do not attend at all. The most recent specific example would be from last Friday, October 14th.

Here is a link to their coverage of the Tuesday the 11th meeting.  As Yeres points out in her post, they "covered" the meeting via watching the video tape.  They did not attend the meeting live.  (I am actually ok with that if they have a conflict on Tuesday nights.  And currently, Yeres is covering both Town meetings and school meetings that are in a schedule conflict.  Remember, I pushed for moving the meeting to avoid conflicts.)  Below is the actual complete text of the NCN post.

Yeres lists two important updates from that meeting.  One, an update on "random" survey, and two, President Kiesel announces that advisory committees are not required to be public.  Both statements are factually accurate.  But, by leaving out many other significant items from that meeting, they are editorializing by not reporting.

Interestingly, the Patch, that did attend the meeting live, wrote two articles about substantial items that were part of that meeting that were not reported at all by NCN.  But, they did not "report" the NCN items.  The Patch articles follow the NCN article.

NEW: Updates from Board of Ed meeting Tuesday, October 11

October 11, 2011
by Christine Yeres
• Random survey taking place now; finished by next week
• Kiesel announces that advisory committees are not required to be public
Survey is afoot
Board President Alyson Kiesel announced that the district’s telephone survey of 250 randomly chosen residents is currently taking place and will be finished at the end of this week or early next week. “Once we have the data,” she said, “we’ll have a report analyzing the data, then a presentation to the board and community from the survey company.”
District committees are not required to be public
Yesterday afternoon, Superintendent for Business John Chow declined to respond to the question of whether the meetings of the budget advisory committee will remain closed and the committee members remain unnamed, referring NCNOW to the video tape of Tuesday’s board meeting.  See “New schools budget advisory committee up-and-running; meetings will be closed,”, 9/30/11.
On that tape, without referring specifically to Chow’s budget advisory committee, as part of her President’s Report Kiesel stated that “the district has a whole variety of committees, some board committees, some administrative” that are “not called for by statute or regulation, and are not required to be public meetings.  They may be put together for any variety of reasons by administrators for any purpose and unless two board members or more attend, they are not considered board meetings or board-sanctioned meetings.”

Here is a link to a Patch article on the same meeting.  And here is a separate Patch article on a different subject from that same meeting.

Harvard Project Gets Good Marks from Chappaqua School District

EcoMUVE, a virtual immersion and assessment technology, has been tried out with middle school students in the district, as an alternative to convention learning.
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Avatars in virtual reality are no longer just for movies and video games. Thanks to researchers at Harvard University, they are now being used by middle school kids to learn things in creative and immersive ways.
The result of this is a virtual reality program called EcoMUVE, which students at Seven Bridges and Robert E. Bell middle schools have been trying out since last year. The program has received positive feedback from Chappaqua teachers, according to Harvard professor Chris Dede, who gave presentations on the results at this week's school board meeting and at a PTA event held at Bell.
The program was given good reviews by teachers for being engaging, in science content learning, complex causality and inquiry.
The intent of EcoMUVE is do encourage immersion in course subject matter, on "situated learning," which focuses on how people learn in life, as opposed to a conventional classroom.
“No longer do classrooms have to be isolated from the real world," Dede was recorded as saying in his board presentation (click here for it on the NCCMC website).
For example, in EcoMUVE, students using their avatars can learn about complex problems, such as how fertilizer dumping impacts a pond's eco system and harms fish in the span of about a month. Students can also drag their avatars into different terrains, and shrink down to the atomic level, like in the TV show The Magic School Bus.
Assessments done under EcoMUVE allow for teachers to grade students on how they handle inquiry and the various step they take in solving problems, as opposed to just having a simple answer from a test. The program leaves an audit trail that shows what students looked at in the program in the course of their problem solving. The virtual system that focus on assessment are compressed on-spot problems.
The program, the product of three years of research and federal funding, could be commercialized by Harvard, according to Dede, either given to a publisher ot given away free to schools if a publisher isn't found.
The next big step will be next spring, while a mobile version of EcoMUVE is introduced to students, made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation. This will allow for kids to engage in what is called augmented reality, which Dede said “will open up a new form of education.” An example of augmented reality, Dede explained, would be to a sign in a foreign language and point your phone at it, which would translate the signage into English. This technology could be applied on a personal level, according to Dede, with students using it around town to learn local history.
Board members were impressed with the results.
“I just think it’s interesting to see how we can get a handle on that," said Victoria Tipp, pointing out its usefulness in teaching critical thinking, being creative and problem solving.
School board President Alyson Kiesel noted that if the students feel the learning environment feels like play for the students, “It’s just a beautiful thing.”
Going forward, the technology could progress to the point where teachers and even students can create their own augmented realities for the curriculum, Dede explained.

Greeley to Get Fireworks for Homecoming Rally

Revamped pre-homecoming event is intended to cater towards families and make the Greeley Sports Boosters a more vital organization, its president says.
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Next week, students at Horace Greeley High School, along with their families, will have a chance to watch fireworks, partake in athletic clinics and root for their teams at a revamped homecoming pep rally.
The new lineup got approval from the school board at its meeting this week and will be held the evening of Oct. 21, the night before the Oct. 22 football game against Harrison. It will also include recognition of all fall sports teams.
The changes, backed by the Greeley Sports Boosters, will serve several purposes, according to Boosters President Jim Nottingham. They include making homecoming more of a community event, which will include students' parents and siblings, and to make the Boosters "much more of a go-to organization" than it has been before.
A format including fireworks is uncommon in area, although Armonk's Byram Hills High School holds them, according to Nottingham.
Preparing for the event, Nottingham consulted Assistant Superintendent for Business John Chow about insurance logistics, as well as the Chappaqua Fire Department's second assistant chief, Russell Maitland.
Maitland came to the board meeting to assure the members of the event being safe. The fire department will be there with a presence.
School districts officials were receptive to the goal of the revamped pep rally.
“I think it could be very exciting," said school board President Alyson Kiesel.
Greeley Principal Andrew Selesnick was supportive of making the pep rally a family oriented event.

It is almost as if they attended or watched two entirely different meetings.  It is pretty amazing actually.  Here is a link to the video of the meeting itself.  [Careful: 3 hour meeting.]

(Special shout out to the New Castle Community Media Center for hosting the videos of school board meetings and for generally, as it says on the tin, building a community through media.)

So why is the Patch a blog and why does it consider itself such?  They have not chosen to report on all the  details of the meeting, instead they chose to report in detail on two interesting stories that are happening in the community and in the district that was discussed at the Board meeting.  They left out a mention on the update to the survey and the explanation of the advisory committees likely because they did not deem them to be significant items.

NCN, while wanting to be called an online newspaper and called reporters which would presume that they are going to report the material events of a meeting, chose to focus on only two items from that meeting and those two items were in my opinion smaller items that specifically eliminated some of the positive things being done in the schools and the community.   (In fairness, they did report the fireworks item in a separate post not having to do with the meeting.)

If you intersperse opinion with fact, if you editorialize through omission or exclusion without making it clear to the reader that you are doing that, then you are blogging, not reporting.  If your mission is solely accountability without wanting to cover the issues that do not provoke a healthy skepticism, you are blogging.  Not a big deal, just a distinction.

Back to "Does it matter?"
Again, to me there is no negative or positive connotation between the two terms, but there is an important distinction that needs to be made to the reader.  Accuracy is only one part to being a fair and honest reporter of the news.  Completeness of materiality is another.  Readers of NCN are making the assumption that what NCN reports is accurate (certainly NCN's intention) and complete.

Let's face it, 99% of the folks in the CCSD do not attend the typical board meeting nor do they watch them on TV or online.  They are relying on either word of mouth or local publications to either summarize, highlight or report on the meetings.  (Or they just don't much care.)  NCN is doing an injustice to the community by being selective about what it reports if it is indeed an online newspaper.

Quite frankly, I do not know if there is enough time in the day for one person (Christine Yeres) or hopefully soon two people (Susie Pender)  to be able to report completely on all the town and school happenings twice a week.  I applaud her for her efforts while her partner  is unavailable.  Lord knows she tries. But, let the community know that you are blogging what you want the community to know or what you have time to report.  Sometimes priorities have to be made and the school board falls low.  I get that.  Ok, but let the reader know.


Bonus video: Interview with Christine Yeres and Ann Marie Fallon regarding  This video was posted originally by J-Lab.  The sound levels are low.  You can adjust them higher by using the leveler on the lower right.  Also, the complete interview is not available as far as I can tell.  The edits are all J-Lab's, but it is good background info re: NCN.

NewCastleNOW from J-Lab on Vimeo.

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