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In April 2006, I was sitting in a Durham, N.C., sports bar with Gary Kebbel, who runs the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge grant program. Gary was officially letting me know I would be getting a grant for The Next Newsroom Project. Our plan was to research and design the ideal newsroom for The Chronicle, the independent student newspaper at Duke University, which was considering building a new facility on campus. I was so giddy that something he said at the time flew right by me:

“As part of the grant, we’d like you to build a version of the newsroom of the future in Second Life,” he said.

I was just thinking, “Wow, I’m getting the grant.”

Only a few days later did this sort of sink in. Of course, as a business and technology reporter in Silicon Valley, I’d heard of Second Life, the virtual world developed by Linden Lab of San Francisco. But video games and virtual worlds have never been my thing. I had never ventured inside Second Life, or had a desire to.

Several weeks after that lunch, I traveled to Miami to join the other News Challenge grant recipients for the announcement of our grants. Later that evening, many of us were at dinner on South Beach, when I was describing my project and noted the requirement that I build a version of it in Second Life. The snark came fast and furious.

“Does this mean the newsroom of the future will have an S&M dungeon in the basement?”

“Shouldn’t you build it in World of Warcraft? That’s the most popular online virtual world.”

And so on. But in the following weeks, I heard from just as many folks who thought it was unbelievably cool. And that’s the thing that I’ve come to realize: When it comes to Second Life, there’s not a lot of middle ground. People either tend to think it’s way cool, or they don’t.

Of course, I had to find out for myself. So I downloaded the application and created an avatar: Roan Oh.

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For the uninitiated, Second Life allows a user to roam around a variety of virtual islands. But what’s distinct is that just about everything in this world is built by users. On one level, it’s perhaps the most sophisticated collection of user-generated content that you’ll find anywhere online.

After playing around with it for several evenings, I quickly realized that I could probably spend the entire year of my grant just learning how to make a chair in Second Life. So I went looking for some help. Fortunately, I found it at Duke University through the Information Science + Information Studies department.

Victoria Szabo, the ISIS program director, teaches a class on virtual worlds at Duke. She agreed to take on this part of the grant, and she recruited Duke senior Rob Schirmann to work on the project as part of a course credit.

Now came the really hard part. What should we build? Throughout the fall, we had several of what I call “chicken and egg” discussions. I was looking to the ISIS folks to tell me what we should be doing in Second Life. And they were looking to me to tell them as specifically as possible what I wanted. And so, we were getting nowhere.

One way to go would be just to create a virtual replica of a real student newsroom in SL, with all the pieces and functions that go with it. But this seemed, well, lame. Victoria noted that building such replicas didn’t really take advantage of all the freedoms Second Life offered.

Finally, we decided to start simple. As part of the project in the real world at Duke, I’d been trying to find ways to get the various student media groups talking to each other. I thought maybe that Second Life could provide some common ground. So I suggested we take the three main groups, the student newspaper, the cable television station, and the radio station, and create a simple structure where they were all co-located in SL. In the real world, each group was scattered around campus and wanted nothing to do with each other.

I also tried to get our team to think about what we’d giving folks to do in this virtual newsroom. So we created an interview space where anyone could come in, conduct an interview, record it, and post it in the newsroom.

This, at least, gave Rob enough to started. When we held the Next Newsroom Conference in early April, we created a session on Second Life and Rob was on hand to make a presentation. I figured the session might be just him and me. But it turned out to be one of the most well-attended sessions at the conference. There was a mix of folks who were just curious and others who regularly spent time “in-world.”

Here’s a short video tour I made of the Second Life newsroom:

After a year, I’ll confess that I still don’t spend much time in Second Life, and probably never will. However, let me also say that the level of energy and creativity that exists in the environment is astonishing. Still, despite some initial misgivings, I’m ultimately glad Knight introduced the idea to us. It created some valuable conversations and some ideas for real-world newsrooms that are applicable beyond virtual worlds:

1. Be platform agnostic: People in a newsroom no longer can choose the platform they want. It’s up to your audience and your community. You have to figure out where your community is, how they’re getting their information, and make your journalism fit. No matter how much you dislike the concept of Second Life, if 100,000 people in your audience are “in-world,” then you have to figure out how to take your journalism to them. That same goes if they’re spending lots of time listening to the radio in their car, using their iPhone, surfing online from home, or whatever.

That said, in the case of Duke University, it’s clear students ARE NOT spending much time in-world. We initially were going to build our virtual newsroom on an island owned by the Duke Office of Student Affairs. I figured this would be as strategic place as any, right? But last time I looked the island was still mostly vacant. And during my trips to visit Duke over the past year, any time I mentioned Second Life to a student group, there would be massive, synchronized eye rolling across the room. As such, my advice to the Duke student paper at this point would be that it’s not worth their limited resources to be focusing on Second Life. That, of course, could change down the road. And if it does,
then the paper would have to embrace it.

2. Understand media habits: Again, this is true across any platform. It’s critical that you understand how your community gets and consumes news and information. Our problem in Second Life was a fundamental one. I haven’t spent enough time hanging out in Second Life to truly understand how avatars and communities sought out information, how it fit into their virtual lives, and what products and formats a newsroom could create that would fit these consumption patterns.

(NEW) 3. What do we want people to do here?: One way to think about the virtual newsroom was just to consider what we wanted students who worked for the different campus media groups to do there. But we tried to go beyond that and ask what it was we wanted people from the community to do in there as well. We didn’t have a lot of clear answers. One thing we did was create an interview area where people could come in and interview each other, record the interviews, and post them in the newsroom. But I think the question is an important one for newsrooms, especially when thinking about their Web sites. Beyond just reading a story, newsrooms should be thinking about what it is they want the community to do at their site. Network? Discuss? Participate?

I’m guessing most folks reading this blog might be aware that Reuters had created a bureau in Second Life, staffed by two reporters. They write about events in Second Life, as well as real-world news about Linden Labs. While I found this to be an interesting experiment and certainly worthwhile, I also felt much of their Second Life work essentially mirrored the way regular reporters functioned offline.

So what’s next for our Second Life newsroom? We’re asking ourselves just that question. Essentially, we have a start. But is it worth doing a deeper study to create a truly revolutionary Second Life newsroom? And if so, how would we do that?

By the way, our Next Newsroom in Second Life is located on the ISIS island, which is private. That means you need an invitation to actually visit. If you’re interested in poking around, go in-world and send a request to Ouida Basevi (Victoria’s avatar).


Find more videos like this on The Next Newsroom Project