Fall in love with the story, not the storytelling technique

It is great to see a new era of digital storytelling innovation and experimentation, and it isn’t just one form of storytelling but several.

  • Social media has become an important way to engage audiences around content, and social tools also give reporters an excellent way to report stories in real-time.
  • Data journalism has expanded dramatically over the last decade. We have data APIs, data visualisations and new forms of data-driven interactives. At the same time, data journalism has become more accessible with tools like Google Spreadsheets and Fusion Tables, Datawrapper and Tableau Public, just to name a few.
  • New forms of video journalism mixed with animation and data visualisations, what the BBC has called visual journalism. One of my favourite examples of this kind of journalism was the New Yorks series of animated data stories around the 2012 London Olympics, such as this one comparing Usain Bolt to other runners.
  • Of course, we also have a lot of experimentation in new styles of long-form journalism, with the New York Times’ Snowfall spawning a huge range of experimentation and excitement amongst journalists.

The biggest challenge for most media organisations is to choose the right technique for the story. Large organisations are deploying all of these techniques, but even large organisations need to prioritise their resources. For smaller newsrooms, the demands of digital often seem overwhelming and prioritisation is essential, especially as they work heard with smaller staffs to feed the goat.

To prioritise, news organisations need key members of editorial management who can choose the right technique for the story. Social media can be used to engage readers around most stories, but not all stories arise out of the conversations audiences are having. Long-form journalism only works for certain kinds of stories, and for news organisations to invest the amount of time and resource to do these, they also need to know that the story will resonate with audiences.

For me this all comes down to something that John Waters recently said on NPR as he was promoting a new book about a cross-country hitchhiking adventure he took. He said:

If I never make another movie, I’m fine. I’ll write another book, I’ll do another spoken tour, you know. I have many ways to tell stories that I like equally the same.

Fall in the love with the story not the storytelling technique. The best thing you can do for the story you love is to tell it in the way it was meant to be told. That will give the best chance that it will be read, viewed, shared, discussed and interacted with by audiences.

Newspapers: Community, priorities and platforms

I’ve been having a cracking conversation via blogs, Facebook and Twitter about how newspapers can rethink what they cover and, in doing so, cover more of the lived experience in their communities. When I said ‘cover more’, some journalists felt as if I was adding another bale of straw to their already breaking backs.

Andrea Gillhoolley, the community engagement team leader and reporter for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News said this to me on Twitter:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point. I understand that. I was with the BBC for eight years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts. I was with The Guardian three and a half years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts, and deep ones.

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

John Robinson started this conversation when he challenged newspapers to break out of their traditional paradigm. In that post, he asked:

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

And he added:

What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?

John was talking changing the mix of coverage to increase relevance, not simply doing more, an idea which really resonated with me.

For years, I have been talking about how journalism competes in the attention economy. In an age when content, information and entertainment are not scarce, people’s time and attention is the scarce resource. Newspapers aren’t just competing against other newspapers, magazines or TV and radio outlets that produce news. Newspapers in particular, and journalism in general, are competing against every other thing that can capture people’s disposable time and attention. That’s the competitive challenge, and it is daunting when one considers that we join this fight with smaller staffs and fewer resources.

Creating a community platform

Journalism can win in this hyper-competitive fight for people’s attention, and we’re starting to see digitally-savvy media organisations succeed such as PolicyMic and Buzzfeed (my jetlagged brain originally wrote Buzzworthy – the merger of Buzzfeed and Upworthy). It’s a new mix of internet memes, content and commentary. Newspapers have always been a package of hard news, lifestyle and comment, something that is much clearer outside of the US (where I’m from) than inside, where a particular model of non-partisan media, an anodyne AP-style with little voice, has come to rule.

For local media, I don’t really see the option to become partisan like the British press or US cable news. Local media became non-partisan in the US because it was the only way economically to appeal to a wide enough cross-section of the community with a single publication. I also don’t see local newsmedia becoming regional versions of Buzzfeed. However, I do see the opportunity to become the voice for the community.

Steve Yelvington, a friend and someone I look up as a true journalism pioneer, has been speaking about a “new kind of people’s journalism” for more a decade. In a post last year, he expanded on what he meant, specifically saying that “people’s journalism isn’t ‘citizen journalism'”. He said:

We can apply traditional definitions of “newsworthy” and “journalism” if we like, but there’s really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people’s interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. … Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it’s failed. [This people’s journalism is] not a replacement. It’s a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

The key is focusing on the “new opportunities for adding value”. I still believe that there is an opportunity for local newsmedia to become community platforms. This goes far beyond simply monitoring social media and using it as voxpops (man-on-the-street quotes) for stories.

Steve’s thinking led to Bluffton Today, “a blog-centered community website”, which is still going seven years after launch. In 2007, Steve was interviewed by IFRA about the project, and it is worth reading in full, and this is the thinking behind the project:

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it’s a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print’s advantages in browsability and discovery. The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet’s advantages in human interaction and immediacy. These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real “secret sauce” is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover. Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

It is a community platform in which professional news staff play a slightly different role by amplifying the real interests and passions of the community, things that people “groove on”, as Dan Conover said in a comment on John’s original post.

How does a community platform scale?

The challenges for many larger media companies is how to use their scale effectively against an army of digital insurgents that don’t share incumbents’ cost base. I think that local media face a slightly different challenge, even if they are part of a larger group. Yes, they can draw on the group’s resources for regional coverage, but that regional coverage will most likely be done reasonably well by other media than a local newspaper. The real place to add value is local content and conversations that no one else is providing.

This gets us back to the original issue I touched on: How do you scale local content with greatly reduced staff?

This is where the community platform is key, and the concept of a local platform is different in 2013 than when Bluffton Today launched in 2007 in part because most local audiences are probably already interacting online on a social network. Here are just some ideas on how to create an economically viable, scalable community platform. 

• Sharing photos

Steve and his group, Morris, were smart. They created a local photo sharing service, Spotted, which you can see on Bluffton Today. In 2007, Steve told me that at some of the newspaper sites for Morris, up to 40 percent of traffic was to local photo galleries.

The best photos can be highlighted not only online but also in the newspaper. People still like to see their words and their pictures in print. 

What shocks me is that many newspapers developed the ability for their audiences to share photos only to abandon these efforts. My guess is that they feel the efforts cannot compete with Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, but I’ll wager that there was a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Communities take effort, and this is especially true these days with so many social media services competing for people’s online attention. 

• A true community forum

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” playwright Arthur Miller said in 1961. Journalism has always been about more than simply providing information, and for me, the greatest opportunities remain for newspapers both national and local in becoming a platform for real conversations. I mean much, much more than comments on the bottom of articles or staff produced columns. ‘Community’ on most news sites is an entirely passive, technology-focused effort that manages to suck the social out of social media. 

USAToday has long had head-to-head pieces on major issues. There should be much more of this on local issues. 

Josh Stearns, with the Freepress project, has also  contributed to this blog conversation. His concern is that as news media struggle for survival that they will only focus on affluent audiences that premium advertisers want to reach. He referred to a 2006 talk that “editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. ‘Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?’” This is even more important today as inequality is on the rise in many countries across Europe and North America. 

However, it comes back to the same question as above about resourcing. How do weakened news organisations cover a wider range of society? Again, a community platform strategy can help with this, providing a place for groups and people to provide perspectives that might not be covered. This is not an effortless or resource-free strategy – a mistaken assumption made by many media organisations – but a platform strategy is about multiplying your resources through outreach. 

• Engage super-users

When I was on the launch team of the BBC’s World Have Your Say, one of my strategies was to engage our most passionate users. At conferences, I often give the example of a listener that I simply referred to as “Steve from Utah”. I asked him to test an audio commenting technology that we wanted to use. He not only tested it, but without me even asking, he recorded a promo for the new service. If you engage your most passionate members of your audience, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do. 

Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how Swedish Radio has been engaging its super-users:

In addition to four people within a dedicated social media team, local super-users generate ideas and inspire teams at the various radio stations. The super-users are themselves organised by a Facebook group, and have annual masterclasses.

These active social media strategies go far beyond passive comments on articles, which don’t attract much engagement on many local newspapers anyway. These are active strategies that require active outreach, and if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would lead these efforts. 

To me, redirecting some of the scarce resources remaining to these strategies would be a much more strategic use of staff time and effort. I believe that it would deliver a newspaper and digital services more in touch and more engaged with the communities it serves, and that for me is a good place to start rebuilding local journalism. 



Newspapers, changing paradigms and defining priorities

If you like this post and are looking for an editor or digital media leader, I’m still in the market for a full-time editorial management job, so get in touch. After a few years of working independently with news organisations including Al Jazeera, CNN International, B2B publisher RBI and India’s Web18, I’m looking to invest in a news organisation that will invest in me. 

Although John Robinson has stepped out of the editor’s chair at the News & Record in North Carolina, (a beautiful state if you haven’t been), he is still challenging his newspaper and his fellow journalists to think different. In his latest post, he looked at how he spent his time and how those priorities were reflected – or not – in his newspaper. He writes:

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?


This reminded me of a report from 2007, Frontiers in Innovation in Community Engagement, by Lisa Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, which challenged news sites to become better at “translating the lived experience of their community”. I blogged about the report at the time, and the quote that really jumped out at me then is still relevant now:

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organization is that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Recently, I interviewed for an executive editor’s position in the US and, during part of the interview, I did have a moment when I was possibly too honest and said the papers seemed to be “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life”: Crime, council meetings and planned events. They did have features, in which I could tell the reporters were trying to stretch their wings a bit, and excellent coverage of school sports, but it still was a heavy diet of life as seen through the lens of cops and councillors. A bright spot was their blogs, which covered a range of lifestyle issues including local music and even video games. They promoted them in the paper (minus a link or QR code), but the blogs were hidden pretty effectively on the sites themselves.

Were I to get that job, I would love to revamp the blogs into a mixed community platform that opens up to outside contributors. For the live entertainment blog, I’d get free tickets for contributors. It would take effort and some editorial resources, but it is a formula that scales. I think a food and drink blog would be essential, and it is easy to monetise. And that is exactly what newspapers need right now, editorial projects that generate income to allow them to cover what the blogger won’t or can’t – cops and councils – while bringing in their community to cover that broad range of lived experience.

Dan Conover, left this great comment on how to choose the verticals for this type of community network:

For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

To put it succinctly, Ken Sands, who set up a pioneering blog network in Spokane, told me a few years back that the sweet spot is the intersection of location and passion. Local isn’t enough, and hyperlocal plus hyper-niche simply doesn’t work. It’s too narrow to generate enough of an audience to justify the effort or to attract advertisers and sponsors.

Setting priorities

That brings me to another point. This post grew out of a post on Facebook in which John asked about rethinking beats. He quoted Matt DeRienzo of Digital First Media who left a comment on Facebook and said:

We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.

I applaud Matt for establishing a poverty beat because when I’m back in the US I see green shoots of growth after the Great Recession, but I also see a lot of people struggling mightily. I also hear about the struggle to prioritise because of competition from local TV in real-time, breaking news. TV is brilliant at it, and the workflow is much better suited to it, which is something I realised during my years working for the BBC.

Newspapers are facing all kinds of challenges these days, and one of the biggest is how to set priorities in an era of scarce resources. As John says later in his post:

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

In digital, in fact, in journalism, there are so many things you can do that you have to decide what you must do. As Rob Curley at the Orange County Register says to new hires:

• Truly understand what our readers need from us
• Truly understand how our readers consume our stories
• Truly understand relevance

Relevance and needs go beyond hard news, and newsroom leaders need to figure out how to cover more of the lived experience of their communities in a way that scales and supports public service coverage. Understand relevance to set priorities and find out what people really groove on, and allow the community to help you cover those passionate niches.

UPDATE: Thanks to Francesco Magnocavallo who let me know in the comments that the original link to the Frontiers in Innovation of Community Engagement no longer worked. I’ve added the working link to the post.

Highlight good discussions to encourage positive online debate

There has been a lot of handwringing about the broken-ness of comments online. Great comments take the right strategic editorial approach and a bit of effort. Did anyone really believe the only thing a media company needed to do was slap a comment box on the bottom of articles? Too often that seems like the case.

What still baffles me after all these years is the low-hanging fruit that most news organisations are missing with community. Digitally native media doesn’t miss these easy wins. For instance, Lifehacker has a Discussion of the Day. Walter Glenn sums up the idea:

Great discussions are par for the course here on Lifehacker. Each day, we highlight a discussion that is particularly helpful or insightful, along with other great discussions and reader questions you may have missed. Check out these discussions and add your own thoughts to make them even more wonderful!

It’s a simple and positive way to drive people to the editorial features focused on discussions. They even call their commenters participants. Simple touches that all communicate a positive sense about the conversations they want to create.

Why don’t newspapers do this more often and print the best responses in the paper as well? Highlighting the comments in print would be a way to reward the  best comments, and hey, it might also drive some print sales. It ain’t rocket science, just some simple strategic thinking about user engagement.


Asiana flight 214: The value of professional social media

Ask most journalists about social media and they will immediately think of Facebook and Twitter, but social media is so much more than the major social networks. Humans are social creatures and whenever there is a new forum of communications there is almost always a social element. Online discussion forums began in the late 1970s long before the internet was available outside of the research and defence communities. Usenet and dialup bulletin board systems allowed people to discuss topics of personal and professional interest and, despite being overshadowed by modern social networks, many discussion forums remain vibrant hubs of conversation.

When I train journalists to use social media for newsgathering, I always make a point of mentioning online discussion forums because they can be extremely valuable if you want to reach professionals talking about something in the news related to their industry. My standard example is pilots discussing a plane crash like the Asiana flight 214 Boeing 777 crash over the weekend. If you want to see an example of how useful this can be, check out this summary by James Fallows of The Atlantic of pilots discussing the crash as well as an email from a reader. Fallows summarised the posts from PPRuNe, the Professional Pilots Rumour Network. The discussion is amazing detailed (and long, at 41 pages) with a series of rapid updates immediately after the crash. Of course, Fallows is an “instrument-rated pilot” so he brings quite a bit of knowledge to the post, and he helpfully translates some of the impenetrable alphabet soup used in professional aviation. Fallows says, “The opaqueness of the terminology is unfortunately typical of the Telex-era legacy coding of aviation announcements.”

It used to be a lot easier for journalists to find relevant conversations, as Google used to have a Discussions search that was focused on forums, but that now seems to have been rolled into Google Groups. It will still search Usenet groups and some mailing lists, but the search is not as comprehensive as Google Discussions once was. To search discussion forums, Boardreader seems to have very similar features to Google’s old Discussions search, so is probably the best place to search.

I always recommend that journalists know the online sources related to their beat, and this is a great reminder of looking beyond the usual suspects.

Note: If you want to see for yourself the breadth of discussion online about the crash, I’d recommend that you search for “Asiana Flight 214”. When I used the search term “Asiana 214”, for some reason Google thought I was looking for Asian porn.

Journalism and community: Creating your own little corner of the internet

Alan Mutter categorised the shift from traditional advertising to digital advertising as ‘each versus reach’, and I think that speaks to changes in content as well as advertising in the digital era. Some of the problems with current digital strategies is that they rely on mass media thinking, and no where do I think this more evident than in social media or community strategies. Most still are mass media strategies, with the goal of creating undifferentiated large audiences instead of aggregating smaller, more focused audiences. 

Create a focused conversation worth taking part in, and you’ll develop a loyal, focused audience too. It will make not only make a better community, but a focused audience is easier to sell to advertisers too. 

If you want to see a master in the art of host of an online conversation and creating a focused audience, it’s worth checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic. He has a great interview with NPR’s On the Media, How to create an engaging comments section. The first thing to notice is that it takes a lot of work, which I think is why most media just opt for punching the biggest, baddest trolls in the pit. It’s easy, and it is like a shot of meth for page views. 

Coates on the other hand has decided that rather than a troll pit, he wants to play host to a dinner party, and as he says:

I try to keep the conversation interesting, in terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, and that is, you know, rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling, that sort of thing. I generally follow the same rules, so I always tell people, if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don’t understand why it would be any different in a comments section.

Amen, and I think most journalists would agree with that. He moderates his comments pretty aggressively, possibly a bit more aggressively than I would. However, I long ago stopped buying the argument that moderating comments is tantamount to censorship. Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse for freedom from civility.

However, Coates isn’t arbitrary in deleting comments. His rules? 

You can’t call people names. I mean, you can’t say, listen, you idiot. You can’t change the topic because you don’t like the discussion. It’s like, y- you’re more curating comments. So what you’re trying to do is present a conversation that’s interesting, not for everyone but for a certain small group of people.

There is a somewhat absolutist argument about freedom of expression on the internet that one should be free to say whatever one wants and act in any way one wants. However, we have norms of behaviour and conversation in real life, and I personally have always applied to them my online behaviour. I have one standard of behaviour online, in print and in real life. Do I want to impose those standards on everyone? No, but as the host of a conversation, I do retain the right to say those are the ground rules for the conversation that I’m trying to have. 

I also like how Coates interprets freedom on the web. He says:

But the beauty of the Web is that whatever my comments section is, it’s not the Internet. So if that’s not what you want, you can go somewhere else. 

This is key, and a key shift in thinking in terms of digital. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Actually, being something very important to a smaller, defined group of people offers more chance of success. The Atlantic is succeeding because it is building a team of people like Coates who have distinctive voices and are able to create their own definition of community online.

James Fallows, one of the smartest writers in Washington, is another example of a personal take on engagement at The Atlantic. He doesn’t have comments on his pieces, and he has explained why, twice in fact. In his biography on The Atlantic site, it says, “If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a “Comments” field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t engage with people. He does accept comments but via email., and he’s actually held a few AMA discussions on Reddit. 

I think this is one of the secrets of The Atlantic’s success, both editorially and commercially. It has hired smart engaging writers who want to engage. The fact that they engage in their own ways show they value engagement but have found a way that works for them. Engagement is the goal, but as Coates and Fallows show, there are a number of ways to get there. 

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?


Africa Gathering London: Putting the social in media

On Monday, I spoke at Africa Gathering London which looked at how new media was revolutionising Africa. I usually do a presentation, but I only spoke for 10 minutes and thought the presentation might get in the way of the points I was trying to make. Here’s the talk, obviously not as delivered and a bit expanded. I still haven’t mastered the art of live blogging myself.

Journalism: More networked, more distributed

Journalism is becoming more networked, not only in how it’s distributed but also in how it’s created.

Since I left The Guardian about a year ago, I’ve done quite a bit of work with Al Jazeera, training more than 250 journalists across Al Jazeera English, Arabic and Turk on how to social, digital and mobile journalism. I started with Al Jazeera English last November and early December, and I’m told that they’ve put the training to good use. (That was a bit of a joke.) Riyaad Minty, the head of social media at Al Jazeera, has a great formula that sums up how Al Jazeera approaches the new realities of networked journalism:

(information – noise) + content = accurate reporting

Throughout the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera has used social media both to distribute its journalism but also as a source for their journalism. As we’ve seen in Syria and Libya, the story of the Arab Spring would be almost impossible to tell without the help of social media. Al Jazeera has developed a sophisticated way to engage with and evaluate social media.

  1. They have built a network of contacts through social media. When they realised that Libya might be the next story in the Arab Spring, the social media team worked to build up a network of contacts there. When their reporters were kicked out of the country, they still had eyes and ears on the ground. In Syria, they have used a closed Facebook group to vet and keep in contact with sources.
  2. They also have a UGC platform of their own Sharek. It allows them to build up a history and profile of the people who send in submissions. They also take in submissions via mobile phone that allow them to get contact information so that they can easily follow up with the people submitting the images or video.
  3. They not only take in content from social media, but they also use social tools to report and distribute their journalism: AudioBoo, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. AudioBoo is a tool that allows you to easily record audio on your iPhone or Android smartphone and upload it directly to the internet.
  4. Al Jazeera also licences some of its content via Creative Commons. Creative Commons is an alternative to traditional copyright. Traditional copyright which says that for people to use your music, images or text only by paying to licence it, Creative Commons gives content creators flexibility in how they want their content used. For instance, you can licence your content using an attribution licence that means that people are free to reuse and remix your content as long as they give you credit. Al Jazeera has its own Creative Commons repository to distribute the content that they licence. It’s been a great way for Al Jazeera content to get a wider viewing, for instance their coverage of the Israeli attacks in Gaza in 2009.

The process is about seeking, finding and amplifying the right voices. Just as with traditional sources, not all social media sources are created equal, and as Riyaad says, if we amplify every voice, it just becomes noise.

Journalism is increasingly becoming networked, distributed and participatory. We need your help to help us filter out the noise. This spring during the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, someone came up to an Al Jazeera correspondent in the field and gave them a video that claimed to show atrocities being carried out. Unfortunately, the video was actually of ‘witch burnings’ in Kenya in 2009.


Communication by any means necessary

This morning, someone mentioned that we need to use social media to motivate people, but I think we need to consider what is motivating people to use social media.

One thing I want to stress is that social media is not about technology. It’s about something much older. It is about the fundamental human need to communicate. Often when you hear journalists parody what they see as banal chatter on social media, they mistake communication for publication. Most people aren’t posting on social media to become famous writers, but they are writing for the 15 people they are famous for. Sometimes, they are caught up in a news event, but I often refer to this as random acts of journalism. It’s the modern form of amateur video that we started seeing in the 1980s with the rise of the video camera. Now, with mobile phones, there are cameras and video cameras almost everywhere. The possibility of catching a chance event are higher than ever before.

More than this, what I’m constantly amazed by in the my coverage is the great lengths that people will go to and the creativity that they demonstrate in communicating despite enormous risk and persistent barriers from authorities.

Who has heard of the strange create the Grass Mud Horse? Grass Mud Horse refers to coded slang that internet users there write to poke fun at the official system of censorship as The Great Firewall. The Grass Mud Horse is close to the characters that when translated say something very rude about your mother. Internet users also use a strange date, May 35, which refers to 4 June, the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When I was working with Al Jazeera in March and late April, they told me how some of the videos were getting out of Syria. They weren’t be posted on the internet. Syrians were burning the videos onto CDs, walking to the border and throwing the CDs into Jordan.

People want to communicate. I was part of the launch team for World Have Your Say, the sister programme of Africa Have Your Say, and we had passionate listeners around the world. One of them was Abdelilah Boukili, who worked in the Ministry of Education in Morocco. He started a blog just to capture all of the comments that he made on World Have Your Say.


Old school rules: socialising the media you have

There has been a lot of talk today about social media as if it is only Twitter and Facebook, and often the response has been that this is representative of only a small sections of voices in Africa and old, but valid, concerns about creating a digital divide. I also think that when we talk about social media, we need to think about how we can create social experience using whatever media is available to people.

One of my favourite quotes about media is from Arthur Miller that I believe he said in an interview with The Observer:
‘A GOOD newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”


It’s about building a social experience, not about getting jiggy with the technology. The world’s largest circulation English language newspaper isn’t in the US, UK or Australia. It’s in India, Newspapers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are seeing double digit growth. There are huge opportunities in socialising ‘old media’.

As I said, I worked on World Have Your Say. People around the world joined the discussion in the easiest and most affordable ways available to them. We felt a thrill when a ship’s captain in the Mulucca Straits called us via satellite phone to take part in the discussion. What we found over time is that people in the US, where I’m from, often emailed us. It was easy and inexpensive for them. People in the UK would ring us because the call wasn’t expensive, and they were in our time zone. If we ever did a show that touched on a subject in Africa, we would be inundated with text messages.

Often, we would use quite traditional technology to get voices in the conversation. We would send producers out with broadcasting kit into Kenya, for instance, to hear from people there.

Last year I was working in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, doing digital media training with journalists and NGOs. When I was there, the Government was holding a celebration  to promote ties to the EU with the idea of possibly joining the union. In the square in Chinsinau, a public broadcaster had a huge public message board. It wasn’t a digital messaging board, it was a place where people could write their messages with pens and markers.

Public TV comment board in Chisinau

The message board in Chisinau Moldova.

Let’s look to Poland. Gazeta Wyborcza is a national daily newspaper in Poland. Fifty percent of Polish internet users are younger than 25, so that affects the type of information that they will look for. Older readers are not so fast in adopting he internet, an editor there told us. They worked to engage their readers whether they were online or reading in print. They asked people about healthcare in Poland. You could have your say on the website, but you could also answer questions and give your views via a form printed in the newspaper.

After joining the EU, Poland €70 billion to spend. The question was how should this money be spent. Asked the question in the newspaper across 21 regions, and used the local newspapers and journalists to write a front page commentary “Seven sins of my city”. They asked people to list the worst things about their cities. It was quite a shocking experience, because most local editors believe they have to write nicely about their city.

They organised local debates but promoted them nationally. The result was amazing – 70,000 letters, emails and calls on this topic. They asked readers for feedback, and they got it! Local TV and radio stations organised news shows about it, despite not being related to Gazeta.

People want to communicate. They want their voices heard. It’s often said that FM radio is to Africa what satellite television is to the Middle East. When we think about social media, there is a lot of ways that we can engage people socially regardless of the technology.

Social media is part of journalism

Adam Tinworth has highlighted a comment on Fleet Street Blues that sees social media as “an administrative task” rather than a journalistic one and says that editors want to hire “web monkeys” because they are cheaper than real journalists.

This commenter wouldn’t be the first person to mistake social media journalism for nothing more than a promotional function best left to “cheap web monkey”. I’m sure if the commenter works for a large enough organisation to have its own press office that they would love to be called cheap web monkeys for . However, smart journalists long ago realised how valuable interacting, not merely promoting one’s work or broadcasting on Twitter, was to their journalism.

Megan Garber of Harvard’s Nieman Lab wrote:

Carvin’s work cultivating sources and sharing their updates has turned curation into an art form, and it’s provided a hint of what news can look like in an increasingly networked media environment.

I’m back in Doha working again with Al Jazeera. I spent five weeks in November and December conducting social media training with more than 100 Al Jazeera English staff. Social media has been key in how they covered this story, and it has been a part of the story, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. As Egypt cracked down on their television staff, Al Jazeera sent its web journalists to Egypt to help tell this historic story.

We’re not “web monkeys”. You can just call us journalists from now on.

Chart: Who Participates And What People Are Doing Online

Kevin: An interesting chart based on Forrester Research that looks at online behaviours across age groups in the US. One thing that is very interesting is the relatively small group of "Collectors", those who use RSS and tag content to gather information. Even amongst the very active Gen Y group (22-26), the highest group of collectors is 18%.