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July 10, 2009, 10:18 a.m.

The Associated Press tries courtside crowdsourcing Sotomayor coverage

As news organizations roll out their coverage plans for Sonia Sotomayor’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings next week, some interesting innovation is coming from a player some critics have labeled stodgy: the Associated Press.

AP is promising readers insider access to the toughest ticket in Washington with the Twitter feed AP_Courtside. Some tweets will respond to reader questions and suggestions, while others will link to AP blog coverage on Yahoo News or to the news agency’s traditional content.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is AP’s promise that readers will “direct our coverage.” Though the Yahoo blog won’t be up until hearings begin next Monday, the Twitter feed is already soliciting reader feedback:

AP_Courtside: Beginning July 13, AP will go behind the scenes of the #Sotomayor Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Will you be our assignment editor?

AP_Courtside: Welcome to all our new followers. AP will take you inside the #Sotomayor confirmation hearings next week. What would you like us to cover?

AP_Courtside: We know you’re talking about next week’s #Sotomayor hearings. Why not talk with @AP_Courtside? What would you like us to report on?

The post announcing the blog on Yahoo makes an even harder sell by asking readers: “Want to pose your own questions to reporters and their sources?”

Is this a serious crowdsourcing enterprise from the news giant or simply an attempt to engage Twitter users with AP’s existing content? I asked AP’s Jim Kennedy, vice president and director of strategic planning, to explain this new initiative.

A crowdsourcing experiment from the AP

The combination Twitter feed and Yahoo blog — managed by what Kennedy calls “a half-dozen people holed up in a war room in Washington” — is a first for the news agency, and an experimental departure from its usual coverage.

“This all stems back to a larger project that we’re working on to open up our coverage and engage users,” he says. “We are looking to do things beyond writing stories, taking pictures, and shooting video. This big question here is: can a news agency have these kind of interactions even as it supplies content to our customers?”

Well, can it? AP walks the tightrope of promoting innovative media projects while protecting the integrity — and primacy — of its massive bread-and-butter (and moneymaking) content operation. As we’ve seen, independent AP initiatives haven’t always met with the approval of individual AP members who’d like to see the news giant stick to serving their needs.

“We are not using Twitter to break news,” Kennedy said. “We want to point to the blog or point to our stories. We may use the blog to write about things that won’t make it into our other stories, but we’re not using either platform to scoop ourselves.”

We’ll see how the feed takes shape on Monday. But while they may not be scooping themselves, you can already find some original content on the feed, in the form of “odd Supreme Court facts”:

AP_Courtside: Odd #SupremeCourt fact: Former chief justice James Marshall’s bladder stones are on display at the Mutter Museum in Pa.:

AP_Courtside: Odd Supreme Court fact: William Howard Taft was chief justice AFTER being president — and liked job No. 2 much better. #Sotomayor #SCOTUS

(In a brief moment of crowdsourcing glory, a reader pointed out the bladder stones in question belonged to John Marshall, not James. AP retweeted it correctly.)

“News observers are no longer just passive recipients of content,” Kennedy says. “They want to engage with it and they want to be a part of the conversation. That’s a trend that has obviously been building for some time. All the formats we have dealt with in the past haven’t enabled us to have that conversation.”

That conversation is starting to take place on AP_Courtside. Take these characteristic exchanges between AP and users Ranggrol and Jake_Whitmer:

ranggrol: @AP_Courtside – What I am most interested in are any rulings or findings that Sotomayor issued regarding “honest services fraud”.

AP_Courtside: Thanks for the question, @ranggrol. No “honest services fraud” rulings come to mind, but we’ll keep on the lookout for some.

Jake_Whitmer: @AP_Courtside I want AP Courtside to ask Sotomayor what her stance is on jury nullification of law, would she hear “Turney v. Alaska”?

AP_Courtside: @Jake_Witmer Thanks for the question. We’ll look into it.

Are these useful tips or wastes of a reporter’s time? What protocol will AP implement to convert user-generated leads into real content? And just how much of their coverage do they expect will come from followers on Twitter?

“We really don’t know,” Kennedy says. “We want to connect on a grassroots level and get feedback from readers. Now the question is, how do you put that to work? We thought the hearings are perfect because they are a time-bracketed event and we will have reporters deployed to ask questions.”

But don’t expect to see AP reporters name-dropping Twitter users during press conferences or emphasizing their use of digital platforms, as Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney did in a recent presser on the Iranian elections. “It won’t be like we’re doing some kind of circus trick.” Kennedy says. “We want to open a channel to the audience and weave it closely into our normal process.”

(Yet Kennedy adds that AP is not entirely averse to giving readers a shout-out during face-to-face interviews to provide context. “Say we’re doing an interview with Chuck Schumer. We may ask him a question and mention that it came from an audience member on Twitter. But we’re not going to make a big deal out of it.”)

Partnership with Yahoo News

Kennedy predicts that the project will be a “win-win” for both AP and Yahoo News. Yahoo offers AP a large readership for its blog debut, while AP gives Yahoo real-time, credible, and exclusive coverage from the hearings.

For Yahoo News — which aggregates stories from AP, along with Reuters, AFP, and NPR among others — the AP_Courtside experiment is aimed at cultivating and satisfying a new kind of readership, says Mark Walker, region business leader for Yahoo News. “Increasing transparency for the audience in the process of developing news will engage them more actively and in the long run, create them as sources for the development of our news coverage.”

Walker doesn’t expect the blog to generate huge numbers, but like Kennedy, he hopes it will generate stronger relationships with individual readers. “In terms of site metrics, it’s not intended to move the needle in a dramatic fashion,” Walker says. “If we find a greater level of dynamism within our audience, and see them more engaged, then we would certainly judge it a success.”

Tracking results

Kennedy is optimistic about this experiment, but admits that no one at AP knows exactly what to expect. Part of that uncertainty comes from the novelty of microblogging in the AP universe. Though AP has used Twitter to promote its mobile news platform and other services — and some AP reporters use Twitter for reporting and promotion — the organization has never tried a coordinated experiment in real-time reader feedback like this one. (The Twitter accounts AssociatedPress and AP have never been updated, but an AP spokesman says they’re not official AP accounts.) Besides giving Twitter a whirl, Kennedy says the experiment will evaluate a fundamental editorial question: can AP produce a blog in real-time? They’ve experimented with blogs in the past — what Kennedy calls “reporter’s notebooks” — but have never produced content solely for the format.

AP has no benchmarks or fixed expectations for the project, Kennedy sees it as “a one-time experiment, but part of a larger strategic project.” AP will track visitor metrics from Twitter and Yahoo. Additionally, a team member is tasked with documenting the project throughout, monitoring especially if and how reader interaction affected coverage. As the hearings progress next week, we’ll keep an eye on AP_Courtside and the Yahoo blog to see how this media titan is adapting to a new environment.

POSTED     July 10, 2009, 10:18 a.m.
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