Why Google Wave is the next big thing for journalists

Apologies for the lack of posts. With the semester starting (and a flood in our server room yesterday) I’ve been a bit distracted from what’s been going on in the rest of the world. But here are a few things that have caught my eye:

First off, the new iPhone. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. Yes, it rocks; it’s got a better camera that includes video; it’s got touch-to-edit video editing; it can post videos straight to the Web. That’s all really cool. But the applications are pretty clear.

My complaint about some of the coverage of the new iPhone is that there are other phones out there that also do these things. If you haven’t already noticed, Mindy McAdams’ 10 Facts about Journalism Now states what should be obvious: the cell phone is only going to increase in importance as a reporting tool.

The most interesting feature of the new iPhone, in my mind, is its ability to combine geolocation with its other functions. (The iPhone 3G did this as well, but didn’t have video.) As media organizations focus more on very local news, there’s a lot to be said for a device that knows where you are and can feed that info into a CMS. Going the other way, of course, it’s very interesting to think about the ways in which we could provide targeted news, information and advertising content to readers based on where they are. Considering that geolocation is provided for in the mobile Safari browser, it’s only a matter of time before this comes to laptops as well.

But enough about the iPhone. In my opinion, the real game-changer for journalists is likely to be Google Wave. If you haven’t seen the 90-minute developer preview, there are a host of excerpts and shorter chunks of it hanging around the Web.

So what is it? From Google’s Web site, here’s a description:

What is a wave?

A wave is equal parts conversation and document. People can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.

A wave is shared. Any participant can reply anywhere in the message, edit the content and add participants at any point in the process. Then playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when.

A wave is live. With live transmission as you type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

Sounds a little fuzzy, which is possibly why some folks aren’t getting what a big deal this is. And it is a huge freaking deal. Think about it this way with analogies to what we do in the newspaper business:

  • “Equal parts conversation and document … work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and more:” This sounds an awful lot like the process of designing a print newspaper page, or for that matter a Web page. Think about being able to richly format text in real time with a host of collaborators, insert maps and photos into the text document, then generate a PDF of it. Or spit it out into PHP. That’s InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash and Bridge, without the $1,799 asking price. (Caveat: No, I haven’t seen an export-to-PDF function yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one.)
  • “A wave is shared.” This means that you can bring new participants into the discussion at any time. Imagine what happens if you can share a page with a colleague who’s 1,000 miles away, to check a fact or edit a story. Or give access to sources to check facts or to expand on what they said. Or play back things to find out when something went right, or wrong, or to show a student how to do something in a better/simpler way. (I’m doing this right now to figure out when we introduced bad information into a story.) Or you could add limited access for citizen journalists, or give the community a free space to create stuff with some of your assets and data as well as what they produce themselves.
  • “A wave is live.” This sounds pretty simple, but it’s the chunk that ties everything together. Witness:

Something else that’s very cool about the wave protocol is that it’s an open API, meaning anyone can build their own wave server:

Yes, that’s between wave providers: anyone can build a wave server and interoperate, much like anyone can run their own SMTP server. The wave protocol is open to contributions by the broader community with the goal to continue to improve how we share information, together.

That means two things for me: first off, that they want to distribute use of the wave protocol to take some of the strain off their own servers (which only makes sense). Second, if I have my own server, I can control access and security. Not that I suspect malfeasance, but using Google Docs for collaboration always makes me a little nervous.

That’s not a huge deal for us at the Missourian (other than the fact that we could have our own wave server) but it’s a very big deal at chains of newspapers. Let’s say that McClatchy builds a wave server at each of its newspapers (or at a central server farm, it really doesn’t matter). You could collaborate in real time on big national stories from any location across the country on your own hardware, without anyone else having the slightest bit of access to it. And then you can publish (hopefully) groundbreaking stuff with contributions from across your chain, all at once and at several different spots.

This is all very cool, and I’m sure I’ll think up more uses over time. Contextual spellecheck, though, is likely to be the blockbuster news for newspaper folks: