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Columbia Missourian

Technology helps journalism evolve into engaging readers with what’s important to them

By Tom Warhover
June 13, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CDT

Dear reader:

I created the first flood I can remember. Some kind of fun.

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My family lived just a horse pasture away from Sandy Creek in Jefferson County, just down the road from the covered bridge that is now a state park and was then just another way to get over the water.

It was raining, and I thought it would be really cool to dam up the little ditch that ran into the creek. I succeeded. I realized I was a bit too successful when the water got up to my chest. Later, Sandy Creek itself broke its banks. The creek wasn’t a horse pasture anymore. It wasn’t so much fun, either.

Once again, Missourians are looking to stream banks and wondering whether they’ll hold. It’s been a whisper of a threat for months, and occasionally more.

On ColumbiaMissourian.com this week, you may have seen a short news item announcing a flash flood warning, and another describing the fact that the rain wasn’t so bad and the creek banks held. Just a ripple of news, nothing more.

I’m in Boston right now, at a conference at MIT on “the future of civic media.” It’s a fancy term for a group of people dedicated to the notion that the role of the press is to help people help themselves and each other, though they tend to use a few more syllables when describing the work.

So there’s a woman who created an online site for people to report on others doing acts of “civic courage,” such as helping a blind couple on the subway with directions. (I have no idea how she verifies these stories, an act of journalism that, when it works, exposes would-be fiction writers.) An associate professor from MIT has built a place to report on the transgressions and transgressors of natural gas mining in Colorado. Another bright MIT type built a system for kids 10 to 20 to connect with each other for news they care about. It’s another Web thing — go to whatsuplawrence.org for an example — that also builds in a phone function for kids who don’t have a laptop or access to the Internet.

Not much of it is the journalism that I grew up with. That’s good. Some of the ideas here won’t go very far. That’s to be expected. But almost all of the ideas begin with that powerful idea: Journalism works in the service of people engaging with other people.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on the Big Muddy and the creeks and ditches around Columbia. I hope there won’t be another form of engagement — filling sand bags — for anyone any time soon.

Tom