Photo bombs and Facebook quizzes for serious journalists

David Poulson serves an unusual community and has some wacky ideas about how to provoke them. As he wrote for the Knight Citizen News Network, “Try poking your community with a sharp stick and challenging it to interact.”

David’s site, Great lakes Echo, is based at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and is the successor to Great Lakes Wiki.

He works with students on on the site, which defines a community around natural resources rather than political boundaries. Their coverage area covers eight states and two Canadian provinces. David says he thinks of it like a “news shed” rather than a “watershed” and is trying to build connections between people who do — or at least should — have a huge thing in common. He says he’s seen how news can be a unifying concept, and he wants to bring a small town “we’re in this together” mentality to his environmental coverage.

One of the ways he’s doing it is by having fun. He wants to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise click on a headline about climate change. He says the great ideas come from his students, and that his job is to say, “Great idea, let’s try it.” Some examples:

— Photo bombs. Or in this case, carp photo bombs. The invasive Asian carp was becoming a nuisance in the Great Lakes, and David and his students invited readers to submit pictures of carp in places they shouldn’t be. They made a flickr group dedicated to the cause, invited email submissions and also offered to take ideas and do the Photoshop work themselves. (This one’s my favorite.)

— The Great Lakes SmackDown! This one came from graduate students who were discussing who would win in a fight — an astronaut or a caveman? It lead to this:

“We’ve chosen eight of the Great Lakes’ most formidable invasive species and will pit them against each other in “lake fights” over the next few weeks. We want to answer the question: Which invasive species is the most ecologically destructive to the lakes? And you get to be the judge.”

There’s so much information packed into this game, which is structured like March Madness. (The winner, in case you’re curious, was the quagga mussel.) David thinks of it like The Daily Show — we can provide the funny stuff, and link to the serious stuff. And the funny stuff is best appreciated by someone who understands the facts behind it. One submission for the carp photo bomb project, for example, shows carp hovering over the Supreme Court justices — a moment that’s most likely to get a chuckle if you know that the court had denied a key request related to the incoming carp.

— A Facebook-style quiz: Which Great Lake are you?

David says the site’s interactive projects don’t get the response he’d hope for. With the SmackDown, for example, only about 20 people filled out and submitted a bracket, though many more read and perhaps commented on the project.

I asked David how he measures his success, and he said, “I’ve yet to really feel that we’ve had enormously successful engagement. Either we haven’t had it, or I haven’t been able to measure it.” Sometimes, he and his staff go into a project with a lot of enthusiasm and end up “less than thrilled.” He said he just focuses on doing the journalism and encouraging interaction.

He says his role at a university involves supporting quality journalism, and it allows for and demands experimentation. He likens the academic role to the one monasteries played during the Dark Ages, keeping literacy alive. The university is an appropriate place to experiment just for the sake of experimenting, and it’s the perfect place to learn from failures as well as successes.

He knows he can’t force people to consume what he and his students produce, and he’s always on the hunt for stories that demand to be read, and widgets that demand to be used. He’s willing to try map mashups and have fun with World Toilet Day and mice migration for now, and he hopes to find some solutions that stick.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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