Goodbye 2013, Hello 2014

Record cold, lots of snow and time with friends.

I breathe in peace. I let go of fear. #mindfulfilterThe playboy of the western world at Raven TheatreChiberia birdSnow leftoversMars on earthPeter Kamps from the city of Chicago discusses Census data #opengovchiIf I had a hammeruploadThe dignity of generations - badfinger@badfinger can't live without youBad finger rocksuploadTime has come todayThe people of Rogers parkThere is @ry435Suzy snowflake delights is in her Snow White gown -- not!Main Street - the road aheadThe road aheadFresh. Air. AhhhhhhhWindsnowsills

It says 20 belowthe roadGiddings Streethand railHere comes the busHappy HolidaysNo -- go!Much colder.... Blowing. People shovel your walks!Winter wonderland...!It is magnificent out there.Snow babyTwinkly!ChristmasFireside InnKuan YingUnity FountainGet to work.First slice is niceZoo LightsZoo Lights


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Privacy, identity key to NextDoor’s good neighbors strategy

NextDoor is the new kid on the social network block and I’m betting that they’ve intensely studied existing social networks to pick up what works and throw out what doesn’t so they can hit critical mass quickly and gather up the laggards who have been holding back from getting social on the Internet.

NextDoor hopes to do this by tapping into the power of “the neighborhood.”

“Neighborhoods are really one of the original social networks,” says Nirav Tolia, CEO. “ It seems like we have lost touch with the neighborhood. NextDoor is a technology platform where neighbors can come together and create a private and bounded website, an individual website for their neighborhoods.”

NextDoor has incorporated several features into its platform that resemble its social network cohort. But it is designed to populate itself very differently .

We use Facebook to make friends and connect with family. We use Yelp to rate restaurants and other services. And CraigsList helps us buy and sell, trade, giveaway and connect with opportunities. Of all of them only Everyblock was initially organized around rough geographic area, the almighty zip code. But in each of these networks, users are filling in the very specific dots of our neighborhood map from the top down.

In NextDoor, neighbors fill in the dots from their addresses up. So you talk about the restaurant on the corner. You borrow the screwdriver from the guy two doors down [maybe you never knew his name before.] And you discuss Halloween plans and post photos to folks who live next door. As a social network Nextdoor’s identity emerges from the dots – specifically our addresses and proximity to one another: our neighborhood. And your activity is invisible to search engines and to those who are not your neighbors.

Nextdoor has licensed information that allows them to guess at a neighborhood’s boundary. They’ll provide that as a first draft to users who want to start a neighborhood site. From there neighbors can expand or contract boundaries based on their needs. NextDoor provides help along the way.

The company has found that good size for a neighborhood is between 75 and 2000 households.

“You need to have at least 75 households to feel there are enough people,” Tolia says. “More than 2000 is too big and no longer feels intimate.”

He said a homeowners association, a natural landmark, or a subdivision make an easy start to boundaries.

“When we thought about making the right environment, we felt that online privacy is essential,” Tolia said. “We did not want to have a website where neighbors felt what they were posting was visible outside their neighborhoods.”

“We did what our users told us,” he said. “They said they did not want their posts searchable in Google.”

People using NextDoor want to be able to share the names and ages of their children and openly share when something does not look right.

Tolia showed me several pages of existing neighborhoods that had given permission to be shown. It was Halloween, and parents were posting pictures of their kids and houses on their blocks, telling stories, much like you’d see on Facebook.

“The context is fine for that neighborhood,” Tolia said. “But it is not relevant for people outside the neighborhood.”

Every neighbor uses real name and none of it is available on search engines.

Here’s Tolia’s description of how NextDoor verifies name and address.

There are two paths to verification: Nextdoor Verification and neighbor verification.

Nextdoor Verification is how things get started. You cannot join unless you verify in one of the following ways:

1. Request a postcard sent directly to your home address with a unique code

2. Request a phone call to your home phone which must be directory-tied to your home address

3. Enter your credit card which must have a billing address that matches your home address

4. Get a previously verified neighbor to vouch for you directly through a special invitation

None of our 10k+ plus members have “gamed” this system, but in case they did, we would move to Neighbor Verification.

Neighbor Verification is where a neighbor reports a new member that looks suspicious or unknown. Every new member is announced to the community and can be easily found on the map and directory – so if someone entered the community and did not look legit, the other members would notice and report to us asap.

“We have been working on this a year,” Tolia said. “We wanted to make sure that we had a ton of user feedback, “ Tolia said. “It’s been wonderful to see people tell us they want to take charge of bringing back a sense of neighborhood to the community.”

In the first year beta, 176 neighborhoods in 26 states set up sites on NextDoor. The company plans to have 1000 neighborhoods signed on by the end of the year.

NextDoor has investors and I’ll bet a solid revenue plan. Its sustainability is based on very local advertising within a neighborhood. At some point, a mechanism will be developed to share information across neighborhood boundaries.’

“Our members and neighbors want to support local business,” Tolia said.

But Tolia says the team is first concentrating on perfecting user experience.

“We just want to connect neighbors,” he said.

As to what I see as its most similar friend, Tolia says Everyblock is about news and information while NextDoor is about connection and community.“Everyblock is a great company,” Tolia said.

The possible government tie-in with a NextDoor is compelling, and in fact, Malcolm Smith, Communications Manager is lighting up all of Redwood City with Next Door.

I’m dreaming that NextDoor could become a gigantic Kumbaya of a social media mashup. And Tolia talks that way, offering only praise for his brethren including emerging independent online news publishers as well as other sites that are part of the ecosystem that serves neighborhoods

While Facebook has succeeded in getting nearly everyone online, the strategic intersection of local and social is still a coveted revenue frontier being aggressively pursued by Facebook, Google and other smaller players.

The mad rush into local advertising continues to build. In the past few days, Google street view went live inside businesses this week. And Google announced that it is now indexing Facebook comments.

But Tolia says NextDoor won’t be rushing into local advertising. “It takes a long long time to get these local businesses online,” Tolia said. “We will take our time and get it right.”

I’ve been watching for something like NextDoor to come along and integrate all the different players in the local space in a flexible and seamless way. I want to experience my neighborhood online in much the same way as I experience it on my daily walks. It will take a gamechanger to make that happen and we’ll see soon enough whether NextDoor can fit that bill.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you love and what you hate about NextDoor.
View a short video describing Nextdoor.
Here’s the front page of a NextDoor neighborhood page. Note the drop downs at the top.

Here’s the classified sharing page that resembles Craigslist, FreeCycle, OhSoWe.

Here is the directory of neighbors.

NextDoors’ initial list of recommended businesses as built by neighbors.

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My historic story — Government subsidy of Big Money in “education reform”

Historic story: Reporting is in the weeds on gov't subsidy of big money's goal of replacing public schools with charters, schools run as for-profits.

[Sally Duros Photo] Where’s the public dialogue? While cutbacks in schools nationwide send parents and teachers onto the streets to protest, our politicians and public officials are mum on the big picture of how they are working with big money on education reform.

In his blog today, Steve Buttry asks

“What are today’s historic stories that we will look back on and say that we missed the real story or the importance of the story?”

Buttry  cites  Robert G. Kaiser’s  story in the Washington Post Sunday: The Post nearly ignored Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and his historic “I have a dream …” theme in its coverage of the march on Washington 50 years ago.

My answer to a big historic story we’re missing? The death of the public schools. Reporting is in the weeds on government subsidy of big money’s goal of replacing public schools with charters and schools run as for-profit businesses.  A story here, a story there is lifting the veil on the role of big money  —  businesses like Pearson and philanthropies like the Broad Foundation — in “education reform.” There’s plenty of  string to follow in the blogs of Diane Ravitch and countless others and articles like this one by Joanne Barkan that follows private philantropies involvment in K-12 education:

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field.

And in this one by Lee Fang for The Nation, which is a good primer on the online learning industry:

“(Investment banker Michael) Moe ticked through the various reasons education is the next big “undercapitalized” sector of the economy, like healthcare in the 1990s, he also read through a list of notable venture investment firms that recently completed deals relating to the education-technology sector, including Sequoia and Benchmark Capital. Kleiner Perkins, a major venture capital firm and one of the first to back and Google, is now investing in education technology, Moe noted.

Like the subprime mortgage/Wall Street CDO scam, this Big Money story is complicated, serpentine systemic effort that could use an army of full-time reporters working it.

The big question for me is: Where’s the public dialogue? While cutbacks in schools nationwide send parents and teachers onto the streets to protest, our politicians and public officials are mum on the big picture of how they are working with big money on education reform.

It’s big stories like these that are so expensive to follow and to report  that we are missing and will continue to miss until we find a way to pay more reporters a living wage telling the stories that are at the core of our Democracy. It won’t be historic until we look back and say, “Gee! Where did the public schools go?”

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Choose News over Noise: McCormick’s Why News Matters wants your ideas by May 8

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If ever there’s been a poster child for why news matters —and unfortunately why so often it doesn’t — it is the series of reporting events that began last week with the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and continue as I write.

In the rush to be first at each phase of the story,  we’ve seen all kinds of false and sloppy information polluting the already overcrowded news and information streams on Twitter, in newsprint and elsewhere. You can read  Gwen Ifill’s take on it:  When getting it first trumps getting it right as well as a Tweet loaded piece  by writer  for The Awl, where she called out several social journalism colleagues: Is your social media editor destroying your news organization? 

Farhad Manjoo of Slate weighed in with this sage advice in Breaking News is Broken:

When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.

Now go outside and take a walk for an hour or two.

That sounds about right. That’s how bad it was.

If breaking news is broken, how do we fix it?

Journalists need to “have a filter between their ears and mouths — or eyes and keyboard,” as a colleague said on a private message board today. But the fact is all of us — not just journalists — must develop filters so we can cull the news from the noise and better understand events and issues.  To the degree that we’ve improved our ability to vet the quality of information that is presented to us, we’ll add value to the story when we make a contribution on the comments page, the Twitter feed or anywhere else on the social Web.

That’s one reason why the McCormick Foundation’s Why News Matters grant-making program is so badly needed.

How do we learn to choose news over noise?

Why News Matters seeks to heighten news literacy skills in the Chicago area and beyond.  The foundation will be investing as much as $6 million in promising innovative ideas that could make a difference in our ability to think critically about the information we are swimming in as well as distributing.

What’s news literacy?

It’s the set of critical thinking skills that enable citizens to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and information sources.

McCormick says news literacy programs provide:

  • A frame of reference to distinguish fact from fiction, opinion or propaganda

  • An understanding of the First Amendement, the role of a free, independent media and the importance of journalistic values

  • A curiosity to seek information and better understand communities, national and international affairs

  • Help in navigating the myriad sources of digital information in a more skeptical and informed manner

  • A foundation for exercising civility, respect and car ein the exchange of information

Here’s some news literacy initiatives that McCormick has been funded to date.

Do you have an idea that could fit in? If so, get with your partners soon and write a Letter of Inquiry. Read McCormick’s FAQ. Do it soon.

Letters are due to McCormick by May 8.


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WordPress plugins for newsrooms revisited

NewsroomI had some great conversations with online publishers last year while I was working for the BlockbyBlock network. Many of them used these WordPress plugins for newsrooms.

Keep in mind that these tools create accountability, credibility and context for anything your site reports on, so they are valid for newsrooms of any type of organization, not just for what we think of as traditional newsrooms.

Here’s a few BxB posts on WP plugins that I refer to time and again.

Patricio G. Espinoza, who is a triple Fellow for Knight Digital, Poynter and McCormick, offered thoughts on WordPress plugins that include Contact forms, Biographies, Media Credits plus a tool to figure out what is slowing down your site.

Barb Iverson, digital thought leader, Journalism Professor at Chicago’s Columbia College, and editor and publisher of recommended plugins for copy flow, extra content, embedding rich media and going mobile.

Thinking about creating a directory? Ned Berke, publisher of SheepsheadBites, and Clay Graham, founder of, share their thoughts.

Are you asking your audience or members for funding but you’re not a non-profit?
Thoughts from small publishers on how to ask for support.

If I find any that need updating or uncover any new tools, I’ll be adding them here on

Although the BxB network is no longer active, you can find publishers gathering at their new trade association, LION Publishers. They’ve put out a terrific new handbook for accuracy in reporting and attribution that you can download here.

Michele McLellan continues her groundbreaking work with indie online news publishers at Michele’s List, a fully searchable database that is sure to provide a treasure of information as it grows.


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Hilarious skit by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for the Chicago Gridiron Show

where the mind goes

where the mind goes (Photo credit: sally garden)

Sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club, the Gridiron Show skewered local politics and media from 1987 to 1997.  A labor of love by a kooky bunch of journalists, pr peeps and politicians, it was also a benefit for student scholarships. This bit between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert is laughing out loud funny. Writing is attributed to  Adam Ritt, with tweaks by the critics themselves. The video is out of synch but listen to the audience response.

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