Why can’t I be passionate about journalism and technology?

I have had this post in my mind for a while, and Andy Dickinson gave me an extra nudge to finally finish it with this post about a student who lost her “print privileges” after working for her newspaper’s website.

One of the journos on my video course left a comment on my cross media post, expressing the frustration she feels in not having online recognised as journalism. She talks about “having been effectively banned from writing and subbing in print, it is easy to feel somewhat castrated as a journalist.”

Why is the industry still doing this to journalists, many whom are the multi-skilled, multi-media digital natives that are essential to the future of journalism? I long ago lost patience with the arrogance of journalists who turn their nose up at the internet as if the medium dictated the quality of information that it presents. I only agree with the McLuhan maxim that ‘the medium is the message’ to a certain extent. There is nothing mystical about the printed word, radio or television that makes the journalism presented via it somehow more valid. Whether it’s a quality broadsheet or a rabid red-top (British tabloid), it’s still paper, folks. Do you ask if paper is a valid form of journalism? Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

But I know this old media snobbery all too well from personal experience (fortunately, not recent) and from too many stories like this from bright, ambitious journalists who see the future and aren’t stuck in the past. They still see the internet as some digital trifle, a plaything, not as a forum for serious journalism. I understand the feeling of professional alienation that Andy’s student felt.

I am a big fan of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and of his films, one of my favourites being the neo-Western Dead Man. Shot beautifully in black and white, the film traces the physical and spiritual journey of a man called William Blake. He comes to the West as the frontier is closing, looking for a new life but instead finding his path to death. His guide on this journey is a Native American who calls himself Nobody. His real name is “Xebeche: He who talks loud, saying nothing”. But he prefers to be called Nobody. Nobody is an outcast because his parents were from two different tribes. “My father was Apsaaloke. My mother was Amskaapi Pikanii. This mixture was not respected.”

I sometimes feel like Nobody. Professionally, I come from two different tribes. I am passionate both about journalism and technology. I am not passionate about technology out of a simple fascination with the new. From the very early days of my career, I have used technology to make my journalism better, to do things that would have been editorially desirable but technically infeasible without this new magic. Technology is, after all, applied knowledge. But the goal has always been better journalism.

There has always been a tension in my career, not internally, but with the industry. As a journalist, I studied to be a print reporter, but I chose to work on the internet because I saw and continue to see exciting opportunities. I have sometimes had to justify my credentials as a journalist to fellow journalists for choosing the internet over newspapers, TV and radio.

Why do I choose the internet? Online journalism is still evolving, and we’re making up new methods of working and work-flows all of the time. I’ve loved the can-do attitude of multi-skilled journalists, designers and programmers that I’ve worked with over the last 10 years. We’re constantly making things up, facing and overcoming new challenges. It’s one of the things that has kept me passionate about online journalism despite the dot.com crash. As my former colleague at the BBC Paul Brannan says, we’re creating a new medium and it’s exciting. But where I’ve worked, both at the BBC and The Guardian, it is still about quality journalism.

The ironic thing is that the industry is alienating exactly the kind of people who will help them transform to meet the changing needs of the market. It is ironic that they are also alienating many parts of their digitally literate audience.

To those of you who ask whether the internet or blogging or podcasting is ‘valid journalism’: We can be passionate about the internet and journalism. We can code HTML, shoot video, record and edit podcasts and write solid prose. Yes, it’s a lot to do, but we feel that the sum will be greater than its parts. We will challenge managers because we don’t fit into your current organisational chart (although your org chart is part of the problem). We are employees ready to do renaissance journalism, and we will do it, if we’re only given a chance.

As for me, I don’t feel the need to justify my journalistic credentials anymore. I can understand journalists whose jobs are under threat feeling defensive about the internet. But a fundamentalist attitude about what is and isn’t valid journalism isn’t going to solve the industry’s problems or save jobs. And telling the digital natives that they have to choose between journalism and technology is a self-defeating move by an industry that needs our talents.

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Shiny, shiny tools won’t save you from trolls

Last week, Meg Pickard, who works with community at AOL Europe, came round to have a chat. She talked about creating and managing communities. I was going to write about her comments because they were just so damn good, but like a lot of people, I’m currently digging out from a blizzard of holiday cheer and Christmas parties so am catching up with blogging.

There were so many gems in what she had to say, and I’ll highlight just a few:

  • “Is this a community or just people who have something in common?” she said. Brilliant, I say. Your readers/viewers aren’t a community. Don’t throw blogs and social networking tools on your site and expect a ‘community’ to form. Your audience represents a lot of different communities – geographical, interest-based, activity-based, etc. But, just because they have your channel, newspaper, website in common, doesn’t make them a community.
  • “Community is off-line as well as online,” she added. Websites who don’t use off-line events to bolster their online communities are missing a trick.
  • “Good communities need participation by users and by YOU,” Meg said. Too many news sites are looking to community as a silver-bullet technical solution. They seem to think they just need to add some blogs and bingo the next BoingBoing or add some social networking tools and they are on their way to becoming the next MySpace. No, the biggest change is getting out there on your own websites and mixing it up a bit.
  • Moderation is a big issue. “But who is moderating it? Do you let your users moderate each other?” she said. Do you give them voting tools like Digg? Do you let them hide things they don’t want to see? She said that moderation rules should focus on making the sure the comments, photos and video are ‘safe and appropriate and not whether they are ‘good’ and on topic’.

It was a great presentation from a digital native who not only looks at these spaces with the eye of a trained anthropologist but also from someone who lives in these online communities with her Flickr groups, Last.Fm stream and her own online projects.

But let me just touch on that last point: Moderation. It’s often one of the overlooked issues with community. My second online news job, 10 years ago, was with Newhouse Newspapers’ Michigan Live, and part of my job, as with all of the online journalists on staff, was policing our forums when our ‘fuck filters’ failed. Community was never a build it and they will come proposition. I have had to build up a few online communities, and it takes work. And once they have a critical mass, they can still be overwhelmed by trolls.

When I first joined the Guardian, someone on Comment is Free said that by trolls I only meant someone who I didn’t agree with. No, that’s not a troll. Trolls are folks who delight in breaking things. The BBC calls them WUM – wind-up merchants. But they can wreak havoc in online spaces, and the answers aren’t simple and they aren’t wholly technical. Looking through my RSS feeds, I noticed the most recent example of an news site that has succumb to trolling: The Arizona Daily Star, with an explanation from Executive Editor Bobbie Jo Buel on why the site had to delete comments. Ryan Sholin has a great write-up, and I’ll quote liberally from his second of three points:

…that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on?

I agree. The Daily Star has gone further than most newspapers in building a commenting system with a lot more intelligence than standard forums or blog software. (And like Ryan, I’m curious as to what software you’re using, feel free to e-mail me as well.) UPDATE: I just found out that the software is Bakomatic from Participata.

And as for the staff and managers at the Daily Star, don’t worry. You’re not alone in having an outbreak of trolls. It happens to everyone. I hope you don’t pull down your comment feature. You’ve put a lot of work and thought into it. Good luck, and a little unsolicited advice:

  • Get some community managers in there.
  • Don’t run one-half of a Skinner box. Don’t just poke the commenters with cattle prods when they misbehave, also give them some cheese when they are good neighbours in your community.
  • See Meg’s comment above. The community needs participation from users and from you and your staff. Join with your users in making it your (you and your commenters’) community.

When people ask me how blogs are different from forums, I say, “The blogger sets the tone”. I sort of joke when doing blog training for journalists that if you write a post like a pompous ass, people will respond accordingly. I’m only half joking. Yes, the technology will help you manage the comments and help foster the community, but unless you look at your content as well, you’re going to be fighting a losing battle against the trolls.

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Feed the Geeks

Last week, my good friend Chris Vallance was asked in a radio interview: “What is a geek?” After the interview, he asked me how I would have answered. I thought about it for a while.

A geek is someone who talks about technology as much as most men talk about football.

I am the first to admit that I’m a geek, and I’m proud of it. I’m a geek about all my passions whether it’s food, wine, backpacking through the mountains or journalism. I revel in the minutiae of anything I’m interested in (but hopefully don’t bore to tears anyone who happens to talk to me about them). But almost everyone has their personal passions, some are just more socially acceptable.

Most mainstream media organisations are following mass media strategies when it comes to blogs. They are producing general interest news blogs in spades because journalists think that everyone is interested in news, and a very narrow definition of news at that. They are pushing large numbers to blog on mega-blog sites without understanding that blogging is personal publishing where blog readers develop strong ties to the blogger. In the age of social media, it’s good to remember that people develop relationships with people, not brands, organisations or ‘content’.

Not unsurprisingly, mass media organisations are still focusing on the mass. They are still focusing on the ‘rat’s ass of the long tail‘, as Mark Cuban calls it. Andy Kessler quotes Mark as saying in an e-mail exchange:

…in a long tail universe, the cost to crawl up the tailto the rat’s ass is more expensive than the production.

Andy Kessler, as part of a series of posts on Media 2.0, goes on to advise: “Go horizontal.” I couldn’t agree more. Feed the geeks, and by that I don’t mean just the people who are passionate about technology. Feed the foodies, the wine officianados, the travel buffs, the video gamers, the greenest thumb gardeners, the DIYers, you name it. A blog is an inexpensive, lightweight content management system that lowers the barriers to entry and speeds development. Blogging will allow media organisations to target niches that would be impossibly expensive in print. And a good blogger can connect directly with their audience in ways that print can’t and build a loyal community.

At a recent new media event I was lectured by the managing director of a major UK media company about blogging and told that my job was to bring eyeballs to advertisers. Memo to self: Avoid old media execs who have had too much to drink.

But it’s a mistake to think that blogs are about the old-fashioned concept of ‘sticky eyeballs’. There is a business model to blogging – if used strategically and not just as a technological solution to allow comments on traditionalcontent.

As Paul Gillin says in an article about the troubles facing the American newspaper industry, “This new medium (blogging) is far more cost-efficient than the ones it will replace.” Google’s AdSense tied search to ads so that people who were searching for something would find related ads. Niche blogs do the same thing. Someone coming to a wine blog is already interested in wine and wine-related products. Just as tech advertisers do better on BoingBoing than on general interest sites, wine advertisers will find a more interested interest on a wine blog than they would a general news and information site. It’s a sound advertising model, and there is a sound business model behind blogging.

Want proof? Under heading of: “It’s not just a hobby – some small sites are making big money. Here’s how to turn your passion into an online empire”, Paul Sloan and Paul Kaihla wrote in Business 2.0:

Denton won’t discuss financial details, but industry experts estimatethat Gawker Media will bring in as much as $3 million in revenue thisyear. Gawker Media’s average CPM is between $8 and $10; CPM rates onGoogle AdSense and competing automated systems are estimated atanywhere from 50 cents to a few bucks.

But media organisations won’t succeed in the age of blogging with a mass media strategy focused on bland, broad-based blogs where there is no ‘there’ there. Instead, news organisations can grow the business by targetting passionate niches in their audience. If you don’t, there are lots of passionate bloggers out there who will.

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