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Hey, local news publishers: Give the people a calendar

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Hey, local news publishers: Give the people a calendar

Blairstown, Paterson, and Trenton are three very different communities in New Jersey, but when Sarah Stonbely, the research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, surveyed residents about what they need from their local news outlets, she found they had a number of needs in common.

Paterson, one of New Jersey’s largest cities, is majority-Hispanic and also has a sizable proportion of Arab residents. (Paterson residents were surveyed in Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali as well as English.) It has a below-average median income for the state. Trenton, another large city and the New Jersey state capital, is roughly half Black. And Blairstown is a small, rural town that is more than 90% white.

But all three communities had lost most of their existing local news outlets over the years. All wanted more service journalism, in the form of information about municipal government meetings or contact information for local leaders. And all relied heavily on local Facebook groups for news, even though they also understood Facebook’s flaws.

Stonbely compiled her findings in this new report and shared them with hyperlocal news outlets that had recently launched in the communities: The Paterson Information Hub in Paterson, which is a news product of the nonprofit hub Paterson Alliance; the Trenton Journal in Trenton; and the Ridge View Echo in Blairstown. All three outlets are grantees of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which we’ve covered here.

I asked Stonbely a few questions about her research.

Laura Hazard Owen: I am interested in your take on people’s impressions of the Facebook news in their communities. I feel like the way that we often hear about local Facebook groups is that they are tricking people, providing bad or biased coverage. But it sounds as if [the residents you talked to] know that these groups aren’t perfect and have mixed feelings about them.

Sarah Stonbely: I got that impression as well. I got the impression that people used [Facebook for local news] pretty grudgingly — they felt like it was kind of their best worst option, because of the drain of local news, plus people are already going there to see pictures of their friends’ kids and dog memes or whatever. I was very pleasantly surprised that they seem to recognize that it’s not ideal, it’s not necessarily “real journalism,” but they’re going to find out things there that they can’t find out anywhere else. They are sort of using it grudgingly because they don’t feel like they have a lot of other options.

Owen: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of doing research like this and getting people to actually show up. It sounds as if that was really hard: In Blairstown, for instance, “For the two scheduled in-person focus groups, 20 and 10 people, respectively, confirmed the day before that they would attend. Of those who confirmed, two people showed up for the morning focus group and zero showed up for the second, afternoon group.” I imagine it’s a common problem doing research like this, but do you have ideas about how you, or a different organization, could address that in the future?

Stonbely: Yeah, it was super frustrating, although not totally surprising. One thing that I think would be really helpful would just be to have more time built into a grant like this — to, for example, dig up more email lists. We were trying to get alumni lists from the high school, because many people who live [in Blairstown] have lived there for 20 or more years, but the high school wouldn’t give us those lists. I would just build in more time to figure out ways to reach people.

Owen: It seems as if a theme throughout was a desire for, like, calendars of municipal meetings — giving people more information about what is actually happening in their communities, things that they can attend. It seems sort of obvious. But you found that news organizations weren’t doing very much of that.

Stonbely: Right. I think this is part of the reason it’s so useful to do [research] like this, right? One might assume that there isn’t a ton of interest in municipal meetings, because they’re kind of boring. So I was really excited to hear that people wanted to know more, to have a list. And it’s easy — it’s kind of low-hanging fruit, right? It shouldn’t be that difficult to keep an updated list of when and where and what the meetings are.

I thought that was really exciting. If you’re a publisher and you’re just in the weeds, starting a news organization and trying to do investigations or something, it just might not occur to you that [a municipal calendar] is something that would provide value.

The research was supported by funding from the Google News Initiative, and one condition of the grant was that “after the initial information needs assessments were complete, each outlet was to make improvements to their product based on the findings.” Here are the recommendations that Stonbely gave to The Paterson Hub, Trenton Journal, and Ridge View Echo.

Recommendations given to Paterson Hub

  • The top two topics of interest for the community members we heard from were safety/crime and food (in)security, which do not readily lend themselves to events, which suggests that a different platform — perhaps an email newsletter or dedicated website — may be of more interest to those community members who want to hear about these topics.
  • However, nearly half of people showed interest in events about exercise/recreation, housing affordability/homelessness, early childhood education, mental health, and music. This list of topics lends itself well to a shared calendar. In addition, the greatest share of survey respondents (more than half) said that they attend events that ‘help me solve everyday problems in my life’ and that ‘connect me to friends and neighbors.’ You can emphasize these types of events in your calendar — focusing on utility and connection.
  • There is a long list of trusted organizations in Paterson; consider collaborating with these organizations on a calendar or news outlet (beyond just asking them to contribute content), so that trust is built in from the beginning. You may also tap people/offices on the list of most trusted sources.
  • Engage to a greater extent on Facebook, and be present on Facebook groups that are relevant in Paterson; this is where most of the traffic is and where you’ll have the greatest visibility.
  • Paterson is extremely diverse; take advantage of this diversity by offering your content in as many relevant languages as possible, but especially Spanish and Arabic.

Recommendations given to the Trenton Journal

  • Create a dedicated section for posting the dates and times of upcoming municipal meetings, similar to your events page; publicize it via your newsletter and social media.
  • Go one step further and cover municipal meetings regularly, even if it’s simply by providing a transcript.
  • Consider adding a section on your website that lists all city and state departments, the services they provide, and their contact information.
  • Consider offering different sub-pages for each ward, that can be tailored to the differing concerns and interest in each.
  • Engage to a greater extent on Facebook, and be present on Facebook groups that are relevant in Trenton, especially Trenton Orbit and Peterson’s Breaking News of Trenton.

Recommendations given to Ridge View Echo

  • Create a dedicated section for posting the dates and times of upcoming municipal meetings, similar to your events page; publicize it via your newsletter and social media.
  • Go one step further and cover municipal meetings regularly, even if it’s simply by providing a transcript.
  • Get more involved on Facebook, both on the feed and in groups.
  • Continue to cover feel-good lifestyle issues in addition to hard issues.
  • Consider adding a section that allows people to recommend service providers; maybe service providers could recommend themselves for a fee (similar to advertising but in a dedicated section)? Could list it as a Directory similar to the others that you have under Resources.

You can read the full report here.



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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.

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