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Jan. 20, 2009, 9:55 a.m.

A Congressional byline in Houston

Lots of news organizations have creative plans to harness social media for their coverage of today’s presidential inauguration, but here’s my favorite: The Houston Chronicle is collecting live video streams on Qik from people attending the festivities in Washington, and they’ve recruited their local congressman, Rep. John Culberson, to provide footage from the viewing platform on the steps of the Capitol. He’s the Congressional early adopter whose antics on Twitter and other sites helped lead to important rule changes on the Hill last year. Given Culberson’s experience with the medium and choice seats on Tuesday, his live streaming of the inauguration could be significantly more compelling than typical audience-submitted fare.

By now it’s de rigueur for media outlets to request photos, videos, and other materials from their readers when big news is breaking, and the practice is likely to reach unprecedented scale today (if the cellphone networks hold up). But while empowering the audience is clearly smart journalism, it isn’t automatically good journalism. When news is moving fast, as it will today, finding quality work amid a morass of user submissions can be maddeningly difficult, and the mantra of “publish, then filter” begins to feel ill-equipped. Publish everything, sure, but some enlightened filtration — call it curation — could go a long way when the tweets are coming in at a rate of thousands per minute.

That’s why I like the Chronicle’s plan, which mixes the here-comes-everybody approach with a few promising efforts to elevate and focus the coverage. The Hearst-owned newspaper is soliciting videos, photos, text messages, emails, and even voicemails from readers who are attending the inauguration. One page, which isn’t yet live, will feature a smorgasbord of everything that’s coming in today, including video (streamed over Qik), photos (from Flickr via Yahoo Pipes), and tweets (using Monitter). At the same time, Chronicle editors will highlight the best stuff on a separate blog, “Witnessing Obama”. Dean Betz, content director for chron.com , said that he wanted to provide both options to satisfy various levels of interest in the inauguration.

Betz also made a concerted effort to improve the quality of submissions that the Chronicle receives. On Friday morning, he saw off two busloads of Houston residents on their way to the inauguration, handing them a sheet of paper with instructions for sending back reports. (Andy Carvin, who’s in charge of NPR’s social-media coverage of the inauguration, recently advised a Poynter audience: “Be as specific as possible as to what you’re asking them to do and how to do it, above all else.”) The Chronicle’s Washington bureau also contacted Rep. Culberson’s office to get the congressman on board their Qik event.

Those Qik streams, by the way, are available to anyone. Betz said he intentionally left the Chronicle’s name off that portion of their coverage “because this stuff isn’t about us, and we would love for other news organizations to use this.” Already, the BBC and CBS have joined in, and other Hearst newspapers may participate as well.

Expect Culberson to be the star of the show. On Thursday, the congressman took his cell phone to the platform where Obama will be sworn in and streamed a video with Qik that’s as engaging as any pre-inaugural coverage I’ve seen on television. He even interviewed a few of the workers setting up the viewing area. It’s recommended viewing for all inauguration junkies and a good taste of the footage to expect later today:

And in this video, Culberson offers a tour of the area where Obama will enjoy the Inaugural Luncheon after he’s sworn in:

POSTED     Jan. 20, 2009, 9:55 a.m.
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