The Daily Dot wants to tell the web’s story with social data journalism

A new media startup tries to mine the social web for stories.

If the Internet is the public square of the 21st century, the Daily Dot wants to be its town crier. The newly launched online media startup is trying an experiment in community journalism, where the community is the web. It’s an interesting vision, and one that looks to capitalize on the amount of time people are spending online.

The Daily Dot wants to tell stories through a mix of data journalism and old-fashioned reporting, where its journalists pick up the phone and chase down the who, what, when, where, how and why of a video, image or story that’s burning up the social web. The site’s beat writers, who are members of the communities they cover, watch what’s happening on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr and Etsy, and then cover the issues and people that matter to them.

Daily Dot screenshot

Even if the newspaper metaphor has some flaws, this focus on original reporting could help distinguish the Daily Dot in a media landscape where attention and quality are both fleeting. In the hurly burly of the tech and new media blogosphere, picking up the phone to chase down a story is too often neglected.

There’s something significant about that approach. Former VentureBeat editor Owen Thomas (@OwenThomas), the founding editor of the Daily Dot, has emphasized this angle in interviews with AdWeek and Forbes. Instead of mocking what people do online, as many mainstream media outlets have been doing for decades, the Daily Dot will tell their stories in the same way that a local newspaper might cover a country fair or concert. While Thomas was a well-known master of snark and satire during his tenure at Valleywag, in this context he’s changed his style.

Where’s the social data?

Whether or not this approach gains traction within the communities the Daily Dot covers remains to be seen. The Daily Dot was co-founded by Nova Spivack, former newspaper executive Nicholas White, and PR consultant Josh Jones-Dilworth, with a reported investment of some $600,000 from friends and family. White has written that he gave up the newspaper to save newspapering. Simply put, the Daily Dot is experimenting with covering the Internet in a way that most newspapers have failed to do.

“I trust that if we keep following people into the places where they gather to trade gossip, argue the issues, seek inspiration, and share lives, then we will also find communities in need of quality journalism,” wrote White. “We will be carrying the tradition of local community-based journalism into the digital world, a professional coverage, practice and ethics coupled with the kind of local interaction and engagement required of a relevant and meaningful news source. Yet local to us means the digital communities that are today every bit as vibrant as those geographically defined localities.”

To do that, they’ll be tapping into an area that Spivack, a long-time technology entrepreneur, has been investing and writing about for years: data. Specifically, applying data journalism to mining and analyzing the social data from two of the web’s most vibrant platforms: Tumblr and Reddit.

White himself is unequivocal about the necessity of data journalism in the new digital landscape, whether at the Daily Dot or beyond:

The Daily Dot may be going in this direction now because of our unique coverage area, but if this industry is to flourish in the 21st century, programming journalists should not remain unique. Data, just like the views of experts, men on the street, polls and participants, is a perspective on the world. And in the age of ATMs, automatic doors and customer loyalty cards, it’s become just as ubiquitous. But the media isn’t so good with data, with actual mathematics. Our stock-in-trade is the anecdote. Despite a complete lack of solid evidence, we’ve been telling people their cell phones will give them cancer. Our society ping-pongs between eating and not eating carbs, drinking too much coffee and not enough water, getting more Omega-3s — all on the basis of epidemiological research that is far, far, far from definitive. Most reporters do not know how to evaluate research studies, and so they report the authors’ conclusions without any critical evaluation — and studies need critical evaluation.

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Marshall Kirkpatrick, a proponent and practitioner of data journalism, dug deep into how data journalism happens at the Daily Dot. While he’s similarly unsure of whether the publication will be interesting to a large enough audience to sustain an advertising venture, the way that the Daily Dot is going about hunting down digital stories is notable. Kirkpatrick shared the details over at ReadWriteWeb:

In order to capture and analyze that data from sites like Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Etsy and more (the team says it’s indexing a new community about every six weeks), the Dot has partnered with the mathematicians at Ravel Data. Ravel uses 80Legs for unblockable crawling, then Hadoop, its own open source framework called GoldenOrb and then an Eigenvector centrality algorithm (similar to Pagerank) to index, analyze, rank and discover connections between millions of users across these social networks.

There are a couple of aspects of data journalism to consider here. One is supplementing the traditional “nose for news” that Daily Dot writers apply to finding stories. “The data really begins to serve as our editorial prosthetics of sorts, telling us where to look, with whom to speak, and giving us the basic groundwork of the communities that we can continue to prod in interesting ways and ask questions of,” explained Doug Freeman, an associate at Daily Dot investor Josh Jones-Dilworth’s PR firm, in an interview. In other words, the editors of the Daily Dot analyze social data to identify the community’s best sources for stories and share them on a “Leaderboard” that — in beta — shows a ranked list of members of Tumblr and Reddit.

Another open question is how social data could help with the startup’s revenue down the road. “Our data business is a way of creating and funding new value in this regard; we instigated structured crawls of all of the communities we will cover and will continue to do so as we expand into new places,” said Freeman. “We started with Reddit (for data and editorial both) because it is small and has a lot of complex properties — a good test balloon. We’ve now completed data work with Tumblr and YouTube and are continuing.” For each community, data provides a view of members, behaviors, and influence dynamics.

That data also relates to how the Daily Dot approaches marketing, branding and advertising. “It’s essentially a to-do list of people we need to get reading the Dot, and a list of their behaviors,” said Freeman. “From a brand [point of view], it’s market and audience intelligence that we can leverage, with services alongside it. From an advertiser [point of view], this data gives resolution and insight that few other outlets can provide. It will get even more exciting over time as we start to tie Leaderboard data to user accounts and instigate CPA-based campaigns with bonuses and bounties for highly influential clicks.”

Taken as a whole, what the Daily Dot is doing with social data and digital journalism feels new, or at least like a new evolution. We’ve seen Facebook and Twitter integration into major media sites, but not Reddit and Tumblr. It could be that the communities of these sites acting as “curation layers” for the web will produce excellent results in terms of popular content, though relevance could still be at issue. Whether this venture in data journalism is successful or not will depend upon it retaining the interest and loyalty of the communities it covers. What is clear, for now, is that the experiment will be fun to watch — cute LOL cats and all.

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