Editors and Techies Alike Are Eager to Catch a ‘Wave’

By: Elaine Williams

Google’s latest online communication/collaboration platform has had technology writers and bloggers buzzing since its announcement in May. The lucky 100,000 or so who received an invite to check out the pre-release version of the exclusive Google Wave service at the beginning of October have been discovering its myriad uses, ranging from education to health care to travel. But many are also saying that the service could prove extremely useful for journalists, helping them improve their methods of researching and editing stories ? as well as their interaction with readers.

Wave’s functionalities translate into a tool that allows you to write notes to yourself, share those notes, embed files, post images, chat as a group more clearly than in long e-mail exchanges, and publish a finished product. Wave also throws in a few additional features, such as polls, games and maps, into the mix. Its major benefit is that the entire process is done without having to switch back and forth among e-mail, word processing, chatting and publishing programs.

This consolidation is a perk for many journalists, especially for online editors who regularly interact with readers.

“There’s great potential for collaboration between journalists and the community, especially for local news events,” says Robert Quigley, social media editor at the Austin (Texas) American- Statesman. Quigley considers Wave the first service that allows journalists to truly collaborate with their readers. “It’s hard to engage your community,” he adds. “Twitter was the best tool, but real-time collaboration on this scale is unprecedented.”

The internal newsroom advantages of Wave are also intriguing some papers. In the rush to churn out content, journalists often find themselves juggling multiple programs and sending various drafts of stories around the newsroom. Mandy Jenkins, social media editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, believes Wave “could transform the newsroom budgeting process.”

One of Google Wave’s attractive features to newsroom folk is that it allows several people to view and weigh in on a story simultaneously, in real time. “Often, everyone is sharing a word document, and sometimes it’s read-only, or people delete part of it, and it’s very hard for people to collaborate and contribute comments,” she observes. “With all the tools Wave has, there’s so many ways a newsroom could use it.”

Los Angeles Times technology writer Mark Milian sees the benefit of Wave’s mobile aspect, in particular how newspapers could use it to consolidate reporting. “While I’m at the scene I can be typing my notes directly into Wave, and as I’m tapping out each letter, the person I’m working with can be watching my notes,” he says. “That’s pretty huge ? we have nothing like that. We have e-mail, but you don’t e-mail with every new lead that you get.”

Quigley is testing Google Wave’s potential by creating local daily news “waves” for Austin-area residents to discuss current news stories, engage in conversation with each other and the American-Statesman, and get helpful information that might not be in the pages of the print edition. His first wave, created on Nov. 3, had over 100 participants and focused primarily on local election coverage, including discussion of various referendums, images from the paper’s photo blog, and a poll asking readers if they planned to vote.

It remains to be seen if Quigley’s experiment could work in a less tech-savvy city. Most agree, however, that Google Wave will likely not become useful on a larger scale until its interface is simplified. One of its shortcomings is that it is unclear what service it is supposed to provide or substitute, because it was specifically created without using established e-mail, instant messaging, and word processing tools as a jumping-off point.

“Right now, it’s kind of a tech geek’s tool,” Jenkins says. “It has so much potential, but it needs to be simplified ? and it needs to be used straight out of the box.”

“What Wave does is too in-your-face,” agrees Milian. “They throw too many buttons and features at you that you don’t know how to tackle.”

As the service expands beyond technophiles, many hope it will catch on and become a valuable addition to the reporting process. Says Jenkins, “We saw that happen with Twitter. When we initially got on it (in early 2008), there weren’t a ton of people on it, just a core audience of early adopters. It wasn’t really until it pushed beyond that that it became useful. In the future, when there are more people on there, it could be a really robust conversation.”

Beyond simplifying Wave, Google has plenty of bugs to work out before releasing it to the public. Wave can slow down or crash even the fastest of browsers, and opening and navigating waves with more than a few dozen messages (or “blips”) can take a while or crash. Quigley also hopes that Google developers will allow waves to be moderated by a discussion leader, giving editors a way to delete or directly address off-topic, inflammatory, or spam comments.

Jenkins calls for offering more guidance when the user first starts “waving,” instead of displaying an empty inbox and no tips on how to navigate the thousands of public waves available.

Despite the kinks, Google seems to be growing into a viable tool for journalists to use both in and out of the newsroom, but it remains to be seen if it will catch on with mainstream publications and readers. “It’s a Catch-22: Major papers might not take interest in it unless people are using it, and a lot of people aren’t going to use it unless there’s value there,” Milian adds. “Later on, once they iron out the bugs and make it more intuitive, it’ll catch on.”

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