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Longshot Radio: Creating Old Fashioned Media in a New Media Way

Thanks to AIR member and crowdsourcing guru Annie Shreffler for this report:

Last weekend, a group of web developers, designers and journalists took over the New York City offices of the digital news site Gawker. There, they set up temporary headquarters and pulled an all-nighter to create–out of a giant batch of crowdsourced text, photo and audio files—a new issue of Longshot Magazine.

See more buzz about Longshot Magazine on Storify.

This is the third time since April 2010 that collaborators across the U.S. have convened, in person and online, to create a magazine in 48 hours—and the first issue to include Longshot Radio. Co-founders Alexis MadrigalSarah Rich and Mat Honan began the new 24-hour open call for content at 12 p.m. on July 29th  (PST) via email, Twitter and the magazine’s Tumblr blog. Meanwhile, their ad-hoc team assembled to start editing, creating art, design and layout for a new magazine. Their deadline: 3 p.m. (EST), July 31st.

A good rule for crowdsourcing media content: give the audience specific ways to to respond. For some, it was enough to know Longshot’s new theme was Debt. But the editors knew some potential contributors would appreciate more direction. They wrote, “We kept hearing from people that they really wanted to do something but they (were hungover) had too much work or (forgot until the last minute) were stuck at a cousin’s wedding. So, [these] challenges provide a few quick ways to have the Longshot experience.” 

To make the challenges fun, WNYC Radio reporter and Longshot Radio senior producer Alex Goldmark introduced a word game. Armed with an audio recorder, he modeled an example for other potential radio field collaborators by asking passersby to finish one of five statements, such as, “A credit card is like a first date because ________________.”

Building upon earlier success and plenty of press, the Longshot team enjoyed terrific results this time around. A total of 672 submissions came to the magazine in the form of text and images. Longshot Radio also boasted 40 visitors to a “Story Corps on steroids” booth set up at the McNally Bookstore near the Gawker base. Audio answers to the challenge questions came in as complete pieces or even phone calls, and the team had producers sign up from Baltimore to Berlin to help edit. Nearby volunteers transcribed audio files for print.

Longshot Radio! from S.P. Sullivan on Vimeo.

What makes Longshot succeed is an ethos that gathers like minds together to work like hell to create something out of nothing, just to see if it’s possible. The welcoming tone of the project is reflected in its standing public invitation:

We need writers, photographers, illustrators, videographers, information designers, editors, proof readers, fact checkers, baristas, chefs, bartenders, and carpenters. (Especially bartenders). We want submissions ranging from 140 characters to 4,000 words. Please send us your strongly reported narratives, design fictions, interviews, data visualizations, cartoons, family portraits, how-to guides, maps, obscure histories, recipes, war reporting, photo-essays, blueprints, ships’ logs, scientific papers, charticles, wood cuts, curio boxes, product reviews, and box scores.

Some money will exchange hands now that the issue is complete. Certainly more so than did after the first issue, when collaborators split earnings evenly and walked away with just under $9.00. Copies of the new 68-page project go for $12 at MagCloud. Over $17,000 dollars in a Kickstarter account will enable editors to reimburse staff for travel and compensate the lucky content creators who made it onto Longshot’s Table of Contents. Another way to earn money for the magazine’s hard workers is a new feature that many will see as an improvement to the NY Times paywall. It’s called a Nagwhal. It pops up after some browsing and asks you to either donate or share via social media. The Awl’s Choire Sicha said,  It’s a direct ask for something people can give. It’s definitely not a demand. It’s good-humored. And it’s a relatively simple interface. I’d love to see what people build on from there.”

It’s doubtful any of those who take the Longshot experience do it for the money. Emma Jacobs, a reporter for WRVO Radio in Syracuse, NY, made the trek south to join the small army of talent at the behest of her former editor Alexis Madrigal.  She loved the intensity of trying to pull together content in such a short time. One perk she enjoyed: a snooze in a hammock on Gawker’s Soho rooftop. Jacobs called the work a summer camp for nerds.  “It sounded like an adventure,” she said. The daily work of reporting or producing can be isolating, she explained, adding, “I think we all love what we do but it’s so demanding, you have to go get re-inspired every once in a while. Get that high-energy fix where everyone’s really instantaneously collaborating.”

With a similar passion for his work, Jody Avirgan, a producer for WNYC Radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show, took the helm as executive producer of Longshot Radio. At first, he planned to simply document the 48-hour process, but by that Friday, it became clear they could achieve more.  It seemed like a good chance to answer a question about whether we could pull this off, and a way to get involved in what I knew was a great project with brilliant people,” he said.

No fresh, online journalism project is complete without an A-team of hackers. Software designer Dylan Fareed designed Longshot Radio’s fantastic site during the 48 hour challenge.  Heather Billings, a fairly new grad from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism wrote on her blog, titled I came, I saw, I coded,  “When I got involved with Longshot Magazine, I had no idea it would turn into anything even remotely resembling a big deal.” She was surprised when an explanation of her deft use of Python and Django for the presentation of Longshotmag.com earned her job offers and praise. “I’m used to releasing stuff, showing it to family and friends, having them go, ‘I don’t know what you did, but that’s really cool!’” she writes. (Visit her site to read her new advice for other talented hackers who may stumble upon a cool digital journalism project.)

Looking ahead, Avirgan is sure they’ll do Longshot Radio again, and achieve even better results. This is the new age of journalism, as he explains in an introductory podcast on the radio site. Talented new media producers will marry old and new technology and seek ways to work collaboratively. His advice for anyone crazy enough to imitate the Longshot crew: make use of the online tools that allow you to work openly together over time and distance. His tool of choice: Soundcloud, which allowed for file sharing and remote editing. More importantly, he says, “surround yourself with talented people you trust and then let them step up. In our real lives we often have the luxury of time and titles to question and prod and re-do. Often that’s what makes for really great art, but it’s good to be reminded that you can work from a position of fundamental trust as well.”

This guest blog post was written by Annie Shreffler, a new media freelance journalist living in Boston, MA. She has conducted crowdsourced reporting projects at WNYC and WGBH and she is the author of Crowdsourcing: A Field Guide from WNYC