links for 2007-10-31

It’s Halloween, and the NUJ are coming as trolls

NUJ recruitment posterThere should be a footnote to this National Union of Journalists recruitment poster. Join the union unless you are one of those

“self-serving bloggers who don’t really want to be in a union ‘cos it doesn’t have that ‘I’m a digital revolutionary and I’m out there, doing it’ vibe”

This is a line from Gary Herman on NUJ New Media Industrial Council site. I’d leave a comment, but alas, there are none. Have they ever heard the old adage, when you’re in a hole stop digging? Hey guys, if you want to create an ‘us versus them’ line in the sand, congratulations, you’ve succeeded. And the ‘them’ isn’t The Man in management. There is obviously no room in your union for a “brain dead digital enthusiast” like me. (Just to be fair, lest I’m accused of taking the quote out of context. The full sentence is: “Redundancies at AoL should give the most brain dead digital enthusiast pause for thought.”) And right before that, Herman takes a most unprofessional jab at Roy Greenslade:

At the very best, people like Roy Greenslade who huff and puff and storm out of the union are behaving precipitately. At worst, they’re trying to put the boot in. Probably, they’re just a bit dim.

I’m not anti-union. But how am I supposed to interpret such statements? It doesn’t fill me with the warm feelings of union solidarity. “Sorry, but you’re a bit dim comrade?” Is that the message you really wish to convey? Herman rails away against PR and blogs in his piece, but I’m going to give a piece of advice that I never thought I’d suggest to anyone: The NUJ really needs to work on its PR in terms of courting new media journalists.

Emotive and irresponsible attacks such as those in Herman’s piece have muddled the NUJ’s core argument of maintaining journalistic quality and integrity under challenges not from the internet but from economic pressures of changing business models. We all agree that journalists should be ethical, our journalism of the highest possible quality and that our journalism should serve the public good. I have forgone lucrative opportunities in for-profit journalism and consulting because I believe in the mission of public service journalism and its place in a democratic society. We agree that journalists should be compensated for their work. We are not in disagreement over these points, and I – as a digital enthusiast – am not the enemy.

As for the NUJ, I’m moving on. Jeff Jarvis is right:

It’s a mistake, I think, to let the curmudgeons set the agenda and, for that matter, get the attention. It doesn’t move us forward.

I’ve got plenty of colleagues and collaborators to work with to create the future of journalism. I’m part of the new collective and have been for a long time. Online journalist since 1996 and damn proud of it.

links for 2007-10-30

links for 2007-10-29

  • Kevin: WBEZ in Chicago reports how the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University is going multimedia, and not all of the students are happy about it. Understanding the audience is not about undercutting journalism.
  • Kevin: Roy Greenslade gives his considered response on why he is leaving the NUJ. “I cannot, in all conscience, remain within a union I now regard, albeit reluctantly, as reactionary. The digital revolution is here and I am digital revolutionary.” Go Roy!

Let’s have a real debate about Web 2.0

Both of us feel so strongly about the National Union of Journalists’ recent statements about Web 2.0 and new media that we felt we had to challenge them. Although we’re breaking the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ rule, we felt these issues are too important to the future of journalism to be left unexamined.

In this post, we want to challenge Donnacha DeLong’s piece WEB 2.0 IS RUBBISH in the Journalist, the union’s magazine. The article is a one-sided polemic which not only mischaracterises Web 2.0 but also misrepresents the way that journalists and editors think about collaborating with their readers.

The article begins with the subhead: “Webfolk call the burgeoning interactive use of the internet ‘Web 2.0’.” “Webfolk”? That’s as dismissive and belittling as “boffins” or “nerds”, but at least it sets one’s expectations pretty accurately for the rest of the article. Whilst DeLong mentions in passing the fact that the web is “full of opportunities”, he chooses to focus only on what he sees as the “dangers”. This is unsurprising. Between us, we’ve come across this The peril! The peril!” attitude from many and various sources, online and in person, but it’s not a constructive attitude for the NUJ – or DeLong as its representative – to take.

DeLong’s first error is to oversimplistically equate Web 2.0 with “participation and feedback from our ‘users’.” As the Telegreph’s Shane Richmond says in the comments on a Jeff Jarvis post, this is no more than a convenient strawman to attack. As we have long argued here at Strange Attractor, Web 2.0 is far more than asking people “tell us what you reckon“. Rather, it creates an opportunity for journalists to find not just eyewitnesses, but also expertise from what Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience”. Any journalist worth his or her salt should be interested in talking to people that witnessed or who can shed real light on news events, and should be willing to go beyond the limits of their own address book – Web 2.0 enables that in a way we’ve never seen before.

Web 2.0 is also about mass collaboration, such as sifting through documents or carrying out research. After another Church of Journalism troll wrote a poorly researched and argued piece in the Los Angeles Times recently, Jay Rosen wrote a piece about the journalism that bloggers actually do. This is about networked investigation and research, not just soliciting feedback and opinion. In the UK, Ben Goldacre who writes the blog Bad Science and a column in The Guardian of the same name, asked his readers to file FOIA requests with Durham Council to get information about fish oil “trials”.

Then there are the database-driven online projects that these new technologies enable. Take a look at the Washington Post’s election coverage. You can see all of the candidates campaign appearances in a Google Maps mashup and even download their calendar. Both are great resources not only for the public but also internally for the Post’s own journalists.

And, of course, the journalistic benefits of Web 2.0 are not just about reader-facing stuff. Tools such as RSS, Google Alerts and social bookmarking help journalists efficiently gather and organise lots of sources of information when doing research. We often hear about how as a society we are overloaded with information, but these tools provide a way to sift through a mass of data to find what we need. Any journalist not using RSS and social bookmarking on a day-to-day basis is making life unnecessarily hard for themselves.

Having thus mischaracterised Web 2.0, DeLong then goes on to claim that it is “seen as replacing traditional media.” By who, exactly? Now, a good blogger would give examples, but we’re expected to take DeLong’s word for it. Obviously it’s difficult to include links in a magazine article, which DeLong’s piece originally was, but there is no reason not to provide sources on his blog post. The irony, of course, is that this is the exact sort of cut-and-paste from print to web behaviour that the NUJ complains about in its report on mulitmedia working. (Note: We haven’t seen the original report yet, so we will comment fully on that later, when we have.)

But neither of us can think of any traditional news organisation with a strategy – stated or otherwise – of replacing all their journalists with content sourced from the internet and/or their readers. And the discussion about the dissolution of the mainstream media in favour of 100% citizen journalism was had in (and outside, but mainly in) the blogosphere at least three years ago.

Then DeLong digs up the old chestnut that journalists alone can produce “truly authoritative content”, a claim that is patently untrue. Suffice it to say that long before we were even talking about Web 2.0, Dan Gillmor understood that his readers in Silicon Valley had expert knowledge that he could tap into to make his journalism better. There are thousands of experts out there – lawyers, professors, professionals – who are writing about their field in an accessible and interesting manner.

DeLong then says:

They have the ability to produce content that informs and fulfil an essential part of democracy – the widespread dissemination of information that allows the public to question those in charge.

This is over-egging the pudding somewhat. The good journalist does this, but many who should, don’t. We too often see press releases and wire copy republished with nary a challenge to the party line. Sometimes it’s only the dogged persistence of activists and experts – some of whom are bloggers, many of whom are not – who fact check, challenge and publicise inaccuracies that results in a more accurate story being told.

And the training that DeLong puts such stock in is rather a red herring too. Many excellent journalists come from non-journalism backgrounds, but bring expertise in specialist areas such as science, business, technology and the arts, to name a few. And many poor journalists went to J-school. Setting up journalists, collectively, as some sort of bastion of democracy and truth is rather an exaggeration.

Journalists aren’t the only people who can contribute to democracy. Where would journalists have been without pictures from “witness contributors” – to use the NUJ’s phrase – when covering the recent crackdown in Burma?

Much of this unnecessary angst about the threat of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 – and the deification of journalists that accompanies it – comes from the misperception that everyone wants to be a journalist. Only a tiny percentage of bloggers have any desire to go into journalism, and they would have made moves to enter their chosen profession with or without Web 2.0. But the vast majority of people who provide eyewitness reports of an event are there only through luck (good or bad), and expert bloggers are expert because they have years of experience behind them. Neither groups has any interest in changing careers.

DeLong goes on:

The media are not perfect. More often than not, they focus on issues the public is interested in rather than those that are truly in the public interest. But those who argue that Web 2.0 is the future want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The imperfections and exemplars of the media are entirely irrelevant to whether or not Web 2.0 has a part to play in the media’s future. More importantly, the media has to realise that it has no choice: It must embrace the internet, including Web 2.0, because the audience is already there and advertisers are moving there quickly.

The mainstream media is not leading the charge to the internet, it is following along behind its audience, laggardly, sullenly and defensively. Many journalists have spent ten years dismissing the internet as a fad and an inferior medium. They are equally dismissive of Web 2.0 without even knowing what it means. DeLong says on the NUJ New Media’s blog, “So there we go – a nice big debate about the issues”, but he has done nothing to move the debate forward and nothing to help of inform NUJ members. Instead, he has engaged in more scare-mongering about the threat of the internet and simplistically focused on perceived, but illusory, dangers to journalism.

Both of us embraced the internet because of the opportunities it presents. It’s the world’s greatest story-telling medium, bringing together the strengths of text, audio, video and interaction. The internet as a communications tool can help journalists tap sources like never before, making their stories richer and more balanced. Why wouldn’t journalists take advantage of the internet?

Yes, the job is changing, and we as journalists need to change with it. The internet may be posing a threat to the business model that support journalism, and it’s understandable that this causes anxiety. But misrepresenting the reality of that change won’t make it go away.

links for 2007-10-25

Creative Business in the Digital Era

I’m really excited to be able to announce a new project that I’m working on with the Open Rights Group, in partnership with 01Zero-One and funded by the London Development Agency. Creative Business in the Digital Era is a research project examining the different ways in which artists and businesses are innovating around open intellectual property.

Increasingly, we are seeing publishers releasing books simultaneously under Creative Commons license and in print. Authors such as Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig, who blazed this particular trail, are now being followed by many other people willing to experiment.

But it’s not just authors and publishers who are innovating around open IP. Musicians are also seeing the value of getting their music in front of their fans immediately upon release. Record labels such as Magnatune been letting fans download music for free for a long time, but now it’s spreading to the mainstream: Radiohead are giving away their album In Rainbows, and letting the fans decide how much to pay, if anything.

And software companies are also realising just how powerful it is for them to release data via an API, Google Maps being an excellent example of how giving away data enables third-party applications to be developed, with commercial operations licensing the data and non-commercial mash-ups using it for free.

I must admit I’m very excited by this project. So often we talk about how Creative Commons licensing can help businesses and artists alike to flourish, but it’s sometimes difficult to come up with good solid examples. This project is focused on finding and documenting examples of real world innovation, and will culminate in a day-long course and two evening courses to be held in March 2008. In the finest collaborative tradition, we’re doing all the work out in the open so anyone can join up on the wiki and contribute. We really need the help too: the timescale for getting this done is alarmingly short as we need to have all of the material written by February 2008. If you want to help please just jump in!

If you want to keep abreast of what we are doing then there we have a blog and a Twitter stream. And if you see any articles that you think might be relevant, please tag them with ‘org-cbde’ in

Turning off email won’t help

Earlier in the week, the BBC ran a package on its Breakfast programme about how Intel has become “the latest in an increasingly long line of companies to launch a so-called ‘no e-mail day’.”

On Fridays, 150 of its engineers revert to more old-fashioned means of communication.

In actual fact e-mail isn’t strictly forbidden but engineers are encouraged to talk to each other face to face or pick up the phone rather than rely on e-mail.

In Intel’s case the push to look again at the culture of e-mail followed a comment from chief executive Paul Otellini criticising engineers “who sit two cubicles apart sending an e-mail rather than get up and talk”.

As the BBC says, this isn’t new – other companies have been doing this for some time. But I don’t think that Intel’s initiative is going to have that much of an impact, and I don’t think that ‘no email days’ are going to help.

For starters, Intel’s initiative is only aimed at 150 engineers so it’s no more than a tiny pilot affecting only 0.16% of its total staff of over 94,000. Engineers are not a representative sample, either, even for an organisation as tech-oriented as Intel. And in my experience, initiatives that start in engineering or IT do not naturally spread through the rest of the company. Programmers speak a different language to, say, sales or HR, and there aren’t natural migration pathways for viral behaviours to spread from one set of employees to the other.

That’s assuming, of course, that turning off email for a day is the sort of behaviour that goes viral. I’m pretty sure it’s not – it’s actually harder to not look at email than it is to check it compulsively all day. Email overuse works on the same principle as slot machines: repetitive behaviour that results in intermittent rewards is creates the perfect conditions for dependence. As Mindhacks says:

[I]f you want to train an animal to do something, consistently rewarding that behaviour isn’t the best way. The most effective training regime is one where you give the animal a reward only sometimes, and then only at random intervals. Animals trained like this, with what’s called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’, work harder for their rewards, and take longer to give up once all rewards for the behaviour is removed.

[…] Checking email is a behaviour that has variable interval reinforcement. Sometimes, but not everytime, the behaviour produces a reward. Everyone loves to get an email from a friend, or some good news, or even an amusing web link. Sometimes checking your email will get you one of these rewards. And because you can never tell which time you check will produce the reward, checking all the time is reinforced, even if most of the time checking your email turns out to have been pointless. You still check because you never know when the reward will come.

Email overuse (I’m trying to steer clear of the word “addiction” because it’s just too loaded) is not a simple behaviour, and simple solutions such as telling people to turn it off for a day will not work in the long term. Attempting to change people’s behaviour – getting them to check email less often, or turning email off for a day – is likely to be futile, even if you understand the psychology of it, because behavioural change very difficult to achieve. Frequently, those who use email in a sub-optimal manner are entirely unaware that they have a problem and see no reason why they should put any effort into changing.

Another reason why days off won’t work is because the main problem with email, apart from the obsessive checking, is overload. Turning it off for a day doesn’t significantly change the amount of email that you actually receive, it just means that it piles up in your inbox whilst you’re off doing other things. If your whole team turns email off for a day, then some communications that may have happened by email will instead be carried out by phone or in person, whilst others issues will remain mentally queued for sending when email is allowed again. Communications from people who aren’t turning email off will continue to come in and, not only will they be waiting for you when you finally do turn email back on, you’ll know that they are there, lurking. This is why it’s hard to turn email off: it’s too trivial to turn it back on again just in case something fun/important has arrived.

A more effective way to tackle business email is to look for specific tasks that are being done on a regular basis and move them to another, more suitable tool. Collaborating on documents, for example, is a really bad use of email. Creating a spreadsheet, Word document or Powerpoint slide deck and then emailing it round to people for comment is a very clumsy process. Not only do you have to collate and hand-merge the comments from the various people involved, you are also duplicating the files in multiple inboxes and (possibly) hard drives across the network, clogging up the infrastructure with unnecessary data. And, of course, one go round is never enough – these emails can fly back and forth and back again for days or even weeks.

Instead, using a wiki or something like Google Documents to collaborate on a document is a simpler and much more efficient way to work. Everyone can see everyone else’s changes, so there’s no duplication of effort; discussions don’t get split across inboxes; sign-off is easily co-ordinated; and you can see who has edited and (depending on software) who has viewed the pages so can nag anyone who needs to be involved but who isn’t. Collaboration done in collaborative tools is significantly easier than doing it over email. And “collaboration” doesn’t have to mean something big – it can be as trivial as asking someone to proof read an email.

Equally, moving regular newsletters that are being sent out by email – and I don’t believe there can be a single big organisation that doesn’t regularly send out newsletters, updates, and other gubbins to everyone by email – onto a blog and letting people receive them via RSS reduces the occupational spam load by allowing people to subscribe to to just those feed that are interesting or pertinent.

The problem is, of course, that it’s easy to proclaim a No Email Day and look like you’re doing something big and important. It’s harder to actually look at what your employees are doing on a day to day basis and figure out how you can help them permanently reduce their email output whilst simultaneously allowing them to do their work more efficiently. That’s not a simple nor quick solution, because the use case differs from group to group, or even person to person, but it’s one that works.

Of course, most companies have no idea how their employees are really using email, and most employees aren’t concerned about how to improve the way they use it. One client of mine did some work to find out how people used their computers, and the results would make your toes curl. People using email as a ‘to do’ list manager, sending themselves emails with the to do item in the subject line; people with 50,000 unread emails in their inboxes; people using their email drafts folder as a file repository by attaching files to emails and saving them as drafts… the list went on.

If Intel really wants to reduce email load, it’s going to have to do a lot more than just ask 150 engineers to turn it off on Fridays. I wonder if it has the smarts – or the guts – to go for a real email reduction strategy.

links for 2007-10-24