Social media: One-to-some communication that needs amplifiers

Ethan Zuckerman had a great insight yesterday at the Knight Foundation event looking at the information needs of communities.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/andrewhaeg/status/172021672419926016″]

Ethan pointed to the coverage of Tunisia and how the video of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was uploaded to Facebook, one of the few such sites still accessible in Tunisia. Exiled Tunisian Sami ben Garbia covered the early stages of the revolution on her personal blog and also, but Ethan noted at the time that there was precious little coverage, especially in the US. The video and story of Bouazizi’s self-immoltion was then picked up by Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera became the amplifier.

In the early days of social media, social media an traditional media were portrayed in conflict. In the US, the mainstream media became referred to as the lame-stream media by some bloggers, usually by bloggers on both the right and left that were frustrated that traditional journalists didn’t present the world as viewed through the bloggers’ partisan prism.

However, as both social media and traditional media have evolved, a complex, symbiotic relationship of filtering and amplification has developed. It’s a great insight, and I think one of the biggest challenges for all of us as Ethan has been pointing out for years is to seek views outside of our own circles. That’s a fascinating challenge for journalists. How do we open up echo chambers rather than amplify them?

Journalism: It’s about people

It’s not often when in the flood of social media about journalism a new theme comes out so clearly, but today, the theme I’m hearing is about people. Steve Yelvington, of Morris Publishing in the US, flagged up this post by his colleague, Derek May, an executive vide president at the group. Like John Paton‘s Journal Register Company, Morris is embracing a digital first strategy, but May quoted Billy Morris at length of the challenge facing his company, well known challenges. Morris said that “digital first” was a good first step, but he announced a new strategy: “Audience First”.

What does “Audience First” mean? It means the people come first. What the people want in digital form, we provide in digital form. What they want in print, we give them in print. And what it takes for businesses to reach the people, we provide – both print and digital.

They are setting ambitious audience growth targets, to double their news audience and quintuple their “total audience”. They believe that:

In the digital era, doing a good job on news gets you only a very small slice of the digital audience.

This is really interesting, and as a journalist, it’s something that I’m going to have to digest. On one level, I understand perfectly what he means. The newspaper has always been a bundle that included a lot more than what I might call public service journalism. I guess it begs the question: In a digital era, what is the bundle of information, products and services that creates a sustainable business to support itself, including public service journalism? It’s a fascinating, platform agnostic way to frame a solution to the problems facing news organisations right now.

I’ll tell you another reason why I like the idea of Audience First. In the near term, the next five years, at newspapers, print and digital will still have to co-exist. As much of a digital journalist as I am, I know that simply shutting off the presses would require most newspapers to gut their existing news operations. You only have to look at what happened at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that went digital only and went from 165 journalists to 20. (Note, I’m not suggesting that digital first advocates, especially as I count myself as one, are advocating shutting off the presses.) A counterpoint to the Seattle PI is The Atlantic magazine, which sharpened both its print and digital offerings. In 2010, it turned its first profit and a decade, and in October of last year, The Atlantic announced that its advertising profits were up by 19%.

It takes a village

The next story of people-focused journalism comes from a former college classmate of mine, Cory Faklaris, who works for Indianapolis Star.

In the US, the newspapers that really have really taken an economic beating in the last seven years are the big city metros, and the papers in Philadelphia are a good case in point. The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the Philadelphia Media Network, is up for sale for the fourth time in six years.

Chris Satullo at Philly public radio station WHYY worked at the Inquirer for 20 years. Satullo notes that another former ‘Inky’ reporter, Buzz Bissinger (name straight out of central casting) asked in the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story“. Satullo responds: The rest of us.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Satullo points out a truism, as true in the glory days of newspapers as it is now: Great journalism is collaborative. Amen.

Put the audience first regardless the medium, and win more of their precious time by not only giving them great journalism but engage them in doing it. This sounds like a winning strategy.


Hacking: Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the law

After the phone- and email-hacking and the illegal payments to police and other public officials scandal currently engulfing the British press the key question is, What needs to be done to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Journalists are obviously resistant to statutory regulation, which they believe will undermine the watchdog role that the press is supposed to play with respect to the government and the police. The belief by journalists is that this isn’t an issue of regulation but rather of enforcing existing laws. In an interview with the Guardian, outgoing Associated Press president and chief executive Tom Curley sums up that point of view nicely:

The laws on hacking and payments are rather clear. We don’t need more laws there but somebody didn’t enforce what was already there. Why did they not enforce them? What was really going on and how does that get resolved?

That’s really key. Not only is there clear evidence of wrong-doing, there has been clear evidence of wrong-doing for years, almost a a decade. What perverted the course of justice to such an extent that the News International’s ‘rogue reporter’ defence stood up for so long?

As an American, I come at this from a distinctly American point of view, not just in terms of journalism but also in terms of a fundamentally American civic point of view. The entire basis of US constitutional governance is a system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers believed that government power needed to be held in check, which is why they invested counter-balancing power in the courts, Congress and the office of the president. Despite an increase in the concentration of executive power beginning in the 1930s, you only have to see how Barack Obama is checked by a hostile Congress to see how checks and balances operate.

The press is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, another centre of power, another check against authority. However, it’s pretty clear that in the UK, power actually became so concentrated in the tabloid press that it effectively has gone unchecked. The police didn’t hold the tabloids to account, and politicians actually courted Rupert Murdoch’s king-making Sun.

Now as the investigations into illegal payments to public officials and police yield arrests for questioning, Sun Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh thundered in defence of his paper and the British press today under the headline Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom.

An effort by the police to finally do a proper investigation and hold people to account is a Soviet-style witch-hunt?

Read his article. It’s typically good Sun bombast, but it’s also typical of tabloid diversion: Change the subject, frame the argument so that something very unseemly seems righteous and pure. He says his journalists are blameless:

Their alleged crimes? To act as journalists have acted on all newspapers through the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors. These stories sometimes involve whistleblowers. Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.

Chequebook journalism is a pretty common feature in securing tattle for the tabloid press. However, if you start to whip out the chequebook to pay a police officer or a public official, that’s something entirely different. It starts to establish a potentially corrupting relationship between officials and the press. Yes, it is done in extraordinary circumstances, such as obtaining the records for the explosive MPs expenses story. However, a nonchalance about money changing hands between journalists and public officials shines a spotlight on the problem; it doesn’t provide a defence for the practice or for those involved in it.

Occasionally journalists will engage in surreptitious recording if it is in the public interest. Occasionally, and in extraordinary circumstances when there is no other way to get a story, we will conceal our identity as journalists. However, we only bend or break our own professional rules if there is an overriding public interest in doing so. There is no public interest defence for breaking the Computer Misuse Act. There is no public interest defence for intercepting voicemail messages.

With sufficient justification and internal editorial oversight, normal guidelines can be set aside when there is an overwhelming public need to do so, but journalists cannot break the law without understanding that we will be held to account.

The journalists now being investigated are not being treated any differently than anyone else would be in an investigation, and if journalists are suspected of breaking the law, there is nothing special about our profession that allows police to treat us any differently than anyone else. Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the laws of the other three. A press card, even the new one proposed by the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, is not a licence to break the law. The sooner that tabloid journalists accept that, the sooner we can move on from this dark chapter in the history of journalism.

Sky News and Twitter: Do news organisations trust their journalists?

With all the hullabaloo about Sky News’ new draconian Twitter policy, I am actually more interested in the why rather than the policy as it was reported by The Guardian.

  • No retweets of rival journalists or “people on Twitter”.
  • Stick to your own beat.
  • Don’t tweet about personal or non-professional subjects on their work accounts.

First off, “people on Twitter”? People on Twitter? This reminds me of the old debate we had about quoting bloggers years ago. Yes, a lot of blogs were personal musings, but experts blog about topics including the US Supreme Court, arms control and volcanoes, important if a volcano in Iceland shuts down your airspace. People on Twitter include US President Barack Obama (although usually a member of staff. Tweets from the president end with BO.), the Secretary General of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Noriyuki Shikata, a Japanese cabinet spokesman tweeting in English, providing at least the official view of what was happening at the stricken nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

A good journalist, such as Sky News’ digital news editor, Neal Mann, builds up a network of verified sources using Twitter just as any journalist does with more traditional sources. I follow more than 700 people on Twitter, and I can tell you sourcing information about almost all of them. Any journalist worth their salt knows the sources on their beat, and for savvy journalists like Neal, Twitter is just an extension of those sources.

Why would a news organisation do this in 2012? I can understand that they want to make sure that tweets by their journalists aren’t completely outside of their editorial process, but they shouldn’t be. What even precipitated this? This question is especially important when their digital news editor, Neal Mann, is the kind of exemplar of how a journalist should use Twitter.

When the Washington Post had a bit of a Twitter clampdown in 2009, it came after a bit a controversy with personal comments from then digital and feature managing editor Raju Narisetti. The Associated Press revised its Twitter policy last year specifically to address the issue of retweeting to include:

Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.

And much as with Sky News’ policy, the AP says in its full policy (available in PDF form by the link above):

Don’t break news that we haven’t published, no matter the format.

Last week, I chaired a social media and journalism panel at’s News Rewired conference that included Neal;  Katherine Haddon, head of online with English, AFP; Tom McArthur, UK editor of; and Laura Kuenssberg, business editor with ITV News. Laura summed up Twitter best practice succinctly:

If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it.

Certainly there are some specific considerations for social networks, but frankly, this sums it up. If you can’t trust someone on social media, how can you trust them on air, on your site? There should be one standard of journalism regardless of the platform. Rather than clamping down on Twitter, why don’t news organisations incorporate tweets from their journalists more effectively? The Guardian does this quite effectively on its site. Why don’t broadcast news organisations selectively incorporate tweets from their correspondents in the on-screen crawl or ticker?

Fundamentally, this is down to trust. At The Guardian, when I was blogs editor, we allowed some journalists to publish their own blog posts directly to the site. With live blogging, you have to have trust in the blogger. It was a privilege earned by writers who produced clean copy quickly.

Instead of such self-defeating policies, why not train the staff and when they have proven themselves, then their Twitter accounts are incorporated directly in the site. You can also have it so that tweets only appear on the site when a special hashtag is used. There are so many practical, smart ways to deal with this rather than the retrograde repression that Sky News has chosen. When things like this happen, it says volumes about who is in charge and how little they trust their own staff.

Other posts covering this story:



Liz Heron of New York Times: How to be distinctive in social media

I’m doing my News Rewired blogging a bit out of order because I’m also doing moderator duty.

Liz Heron, the social media editor for the New York Times, kicked off News Rewired.

She succinctly summed up the goal of the New York Times with social media as:

Engaging users without wavering from our high journalistic standards.

She started by talking about how social media had moved into the mainstream in newsrooms. In 2010, she and her team were focused on evangelising, but in 2011, her team was in demand due to events such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Some 400 New York Times journalists are on Twitter, and she said that 50 journalists had enabled the subscribe feature in Facebook. She said that a Times’ reporter reached out to Facebook users for a story about students and depression. The reporter interviewed dozens of people on Facebook and had a sidebar focusing just on the comments on Facebook.

She gave another example of using social media to enhance New York Times’ journalism. On the recent story that they did looking at labour conditions at Apple contract manufacturer Foxconn in China, they translated the story into Mandarin and released this on Chinese social media, gathering comments there that then supplemented the main story.

As social media has moved to the mainstream of journalism she said it was becoming more of a challenge to become distinctive. Adam Tinworth, who has an excellent live blog of the session, had this great insight from Liz:

The question is no longer “wether to engage” on social media, but how to distinguish themselves from  others doing it. And how do they scale as new platforms emerge?

In focusing on being distinctive, she said that they had to pick and choose from new platforms. She said that Google+ originally “flummoxed” them. She said Google+ had a “very exciting but very uncertain future”. However, they have found that Google+ has some deep discussions and a “potentially revolutionary feature” with Hangouts.

The Times is also evaluating Tumblr and Quora.

Her three tips for news organisation social media success:

  • Be strategic.
  • Be different.
  • Strive for meaningful interactions. “Don’t be content to skate on social media’s surface.”

The first question came from Darren Waters of MSN who asked how to measure success.

A lot of people will focus on traffic, but they were looking more at engagement metrics. She also said the Times asked:

Did we get something out of journalistic value? Were we there first with the story? Did we start an excellent conversation? Did we get our content out there in the global conversation?


NewsRewired: Tom Standage of Economist ‘Digital is not a zero-sum game’

I’m at NewsRewired again doing a bit of live(-ish) blogging about some of the talks that I find interesting.

Everyone wants to be The Economist because it has managed to increase both its print and digital subs over the last few years, and unlike most publishers, it has see its readership and revenue grow through the recession. Speaking at’s NewsRewired conference*, he gave some insights into its success.

In the current environment, for any publication that acts like a filter the noisier the media environment gets the better you do.

Standage also sees The Economist brand this way that if someone was stranded on a desert island and had to choose one publication so that they believe they are informed that they would choose The Economist. That’s a great statement of how The Economist sees itself.

Their attitude to digital is that it is not a zero-sum game. About a third of their print readers are also using their digital apps. From their own market research, they realised that they needed to cater to their readers who wanted a digital experience for two reasons.

  1. Readers see digital as more convenient. The biggest reason that readers give when they cancel their print subscription to The Economist is that they don’t have enough time to read it.
  2. In their own market research, currently, readers prefer print to digital by a ratio of 80% to 20%, but asking them what they will prefer in two years.

Standage says:

We sell this content bundle, this feeling of being informed when you get to the end of it. That is what we sell. That is essentially the proposition. You can still sell this in a mobile environment.

Some observations: How many other publications have the clarity about what they provide? How many other publications have the clarity of the value proposition they offer?

Standage also gives us this nugget of golden insight. In the past, The Economist’s archive was hidden behind a paywall. The result:

Before 98% of our content was invisible to Google.

They have shifted to metered paywall similar to the Financial Times and the replicated by the New York Times. Any reader on the web gets 5 stories a week free to read. The Economist’s traffic actually went up. Some pay for a digital only subscription, but print subscribers get access to the digital content.

The metered paywall plus all access to print subs is a great model. You get users used to paying for digital.

He added this caveat. “This will not work for everyone. You need to know who your readers are.” He said that such a model would be difficult for The Guardian that sells most of their print copies through newsstands, and he said that The Guardian  doesn’t know about its readers. The Telegraph is starting to build a database of reader information, but he sees The Guardian as behind in this effort. (Any Guardian folk want to take issue with that?)

He closed by saying that there is not one new model but many new models. However, we’re beginning to find some ideas that work. They might require a change to your publishing business – especially in getting to know your readers much more – but we have some elements of a working model.

UPDATE: Adam Tinworth has live blogged this session and adds other details, especially with respect to the media app economy.

* Disclosure: I conduct data journalism courses for