links for 2009-05-31

links for 2009-05-29

  • Kevin: Robin Wauters at TechCrunch adds some levity to the idea that Twitter's trending topics are a good indicator of breaking news. Like most social networking, social media sites including Twitter, Digg and Reddit, the communities all have their own particular interests and agendas. Also, as has been said before, Twitter has thousands of communities. I find the best tips on information come from the community that I have cultivated on Twitter that tracks my personal and professional interests. That's probably the big take-away.
  • Kevin: Paul Farhi writes in AJR: "For journalists, the real question is whether Twitter is more than just the latest info-plaything. Does it "work" in any meaningful way — as a news-dissemination channel, a reporting and source-building tool, a promotional platform? Or is it merely, to buy the caricature, just a banal, narcississtic and often addictive time suck?

    The unsatisfying answer: It all depends. "

  • Kevin: Patrick Smith at paidContent (owned by employer The Guardian) looks at a Wessenden Marketing and Wide Area Publishing Futures survey that says that most publishers in the UK are naive about the "actual costs of building and maintaining a web presence". One spot of hope is that the study found that the job cuts might be over, 74% say they have already made the cuts they need to weather the recession. High on the agenda is integrating print and online.

So true it’s not funny

This video has been doing the rounds lately, but it is so amazingly true that it’s almost not funny.

I think the worst I’ve had from a proto-client lately is, “It’s a recession, how about a bit of a discount?” Well, mate, if you can get my landlord to discount my rent by the same amount then sure, let’s talk turkey. Otherwise, bite me.

Thanks to @febake for the pointer to this!

links for 2009-05-28

  • Kevin: The Pew Research Center for People & the Press finds: "As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available." Most Americans regularly get information from their local television station (68%). The other interesting point is that Generation Y (born after 1977), only 27% have read a newspaper the previous day, versus 55% of those born prior to 1946.
  • Kevin: Chris Brogan has written what he describes as the Next Media Company Manifesto. One of his first bits of food for thought: "Curators and editors rule, and creators aren’t necessarily on staff." He believes that advertising cannot be the primary method of revenue, which upends the majority of content business models right now. He believes inline content marketing and value-added services can be new revenue streams for media companies.

Mobile social media can unchain journalists from their desks

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist and, like most journalists, I’d rather not be stuck in the office all day sitting in front of a computer. I live for being as close to the story as possible.

When technologies are first introduced, they often have limitations that impose restrictions on what is possible. Initially, internet journalism was desk-based journalism for all but a lucky few. It was mostly production and re-purposing of content from print, radio or television news. For most of us who saw the journalistic possibilities of the internet, using it simply as a repository for content from other media was akin to using a Porsche to haul manure because, like a cart, a Porsche also has wheels. Yes, the internet can be a simple distribution platform for content, but that entirely misses the point, which is one of the reasons journalism is in the predicament it is today. The internet is a highly networked platform to tell stories using text, audio and video that can connect not only content from almost anywhere but, more importantly, connect people.

I was lucky enough to be one of those early few who could use the internet for original, multimedia journalism, and I remember the limits of what we could do in the late 1990s before wifi and mobile data outside of cities. In 1999, I remember running smack into the limitations of the technology of the time when I was covering Hurricane Floyd for the BBC. As the storm rolled through North Carolina, it knocked out power and communications. My mobile phone worked, but there was no way that I could file the pictures I had because I couldn’t get a data connection. Two months later, I got my first mobile data kit: A cable that connected to my phone. I could at least file pictures and copy back to base. It was slow, but it worked.

Many journalists have a very odd relationship with technology and those who use it. It is similar to executives who have their secretaries print out emails for them to read: Not using technology is seen by some journalists as a sign of their position and importance. They have worn (and many still wear) their ignorance as a tribal badge setting them apart for those who must toil in front of a glowing screen.

For me, technology sometimes frustrates, but more often liberates me in the work that I do. I remember a jaw-dropping moment at the US Democratic Party conventions in 2000. I watched as an Indy media journalist streamed live video of the LA police bearing down on protesters. He was peddling backwards, holding a black PowerBook, a webcam and an early high-speed mobile modem from a company called Richochet. He was closer to the action than the TV camera crews.

Our production technology lagged behind as it required a faster data connection than many of the early data modems, which topped out at 9600 baud, could provide. But I could email my copy in from anywhere. I didn’t have to hunt for a phone socket. By 2001, I was totally mobile. Laptop. Wireless modem. Portable printer. The speeds went up to 128kbps, and I could just about use production tools in the field.

Fast forward to today, and not only do we have 500kbps+ wireless data connections in many areas in the US, western Europe and Asia, but we also have a suite of applications that can instantly upload photos, video and text. As I said last week at media140, the technology to produce the content is there, but the production systems and the presentation still need work. But Twitter is a liberating technology, not a technology that “will keep reporters off the streets and in front of their screens”, as journalism professor Edward Wasserman writes.

And if he thinks that mobile phone technology is just for “the young, the hip, the technically sophisticated, the well-off”, he obviously hasn’t travelled to South Asia or Africa or even to most neighbourhoods in the US. He obviously doesn’t understand the prevalence of pay-as-you-go phones, not only for communications, but also for micropayments and information services in the developing world. This isn’t just about kilobits and data, it’s also about SMS and the inventiveness of the human mind that takes a simple tool and carves out a revolution. When I worked on the World Have Your Say programme at the BBC World Service, we were overwhelmed with text messages from people in who Africa wanted to take part in the discussion.

Wasserman’s implication that technology is to blame for the skewing of news to cover demographics attractive to advertisers is a red herring. The idea that Twitter will chain journalists to their desks shows rank ignorance of Twitter’s mobile functions in the US.

There are no links in Wasserman’s commentary to support his views. Professor Wasserman, links are the footnotes of the internet age. They give you authority by showing that you’ve done your research. The internet isn’t killing newspapers. The internet might be killing the US newspaper model of local monopolies, but that’s the death of an accidental business model not the death of journalism.

Twitter can liberate journalists to stay in the field and cover important stories, as we did here at the Guardian during the G20 protests. Technology isn’t the enemy of journalism, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that uninformed commentary is.

Media140: Twitter and covering the US elections

Suw and I both spoke at the Media140 last Wednesday. Suw spoke about how Twitter helped build support for Ada Lovelace Day, the international day of blogging to raise awareness about women in science and technology. I talked about how I used Twitter as a reporting and community-building tool during my trip across the US covering the historic 2008 elections.

As I’ve written before, this was my third trip across the US covering the election and every trip included some experimental element. : In 2000, we focused on webcasting; in 2004, I wrote a blog; and in 2008, I built on blogging with an experiment in highly distributed networked journalism and geo-tagging. I experimented with several different services even after I landed in the US: Video services like Viddler and YouTube, geo-location services such as Fire Eagle and location-based social network BrightKite. In the end, I settled on four which became the cornerstones of my coverage: Flickr, Facebook, Delicious and Twitter.

Building contacts

Twitter often helped me develop better contacts who I initially met using other services. For instance, I posted my images to Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution-non-commercial use licence, which I felt was important because I was using Creative Common licenced photos from Flickr to help illustrate my posts. I contacted fellow Flickr users to let them know I had used their pictures, something I try to do as a matter of courtesy and also as a light-weight way to promote our journalism. Sometimes those contacts developed into stories and contacts beyond the original posts. For example, I used this excellent photo of a foreclosed home in California by Jeff Turner, who organises property shows there. He followed me on Twitter and helped me find local contacts for my reporting on the housing crisis.


Sign Of The Times – Foreclosure, by Jeff Turner, Some Rights Reserved

After writing a post about the crisis, I received an e-mail from Ralph Torres whose father had been in the property business for 30 years. Ralph wanted to give me a tour of his neighbourhood, Riverside, one of the hardest hit not only in California, but in the nation. He told me about the history of his neighbourhood and showed me the foreclosed homes on his street. He told me:

Our family went through a few recessions over the years, but it was always real estate sales slowing down. You didn’t have block after block with three or four houses vacant due to foreclosures.

That story made both an excellent article, and I recorded the tour for one of our election podcasts.

Virtual contacts and face-to-face connection

Twitter helped me organise my first of four blogger meet-ups on the trip. A Twitter contact helped not only arrange the guests but also a venue in LA. Having someone local who knew which venue to use was invaluable – it’s on-the-ground knowledge that is hard for a visitor to find.

Connecting and collaborating with fellow journalists

Twitter also connected me to other journalists. One of the stories I read was how the recession was increasing homelessness and creating tent cities, reminiscent of Hoovervilles during the Great Depression. Blogging and Twittering journalist Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told me about a tent city in Seattle. I doubt I would have learnt of that without her help, and she pointed me to details on the Seattle P-I site, saving me valuable time.

Real-time reporting and aggregation

Twitter proved invaluable throughout the trip, allowing me to stay in touch with friends, other journalists and those following the elections. It acted as a real-time reporting tool and, by using Twitpic, it allowed me to tell the story not just in words but also in pictures. It also was a real-time news feed with news organisations and people flagging up must-read stories and must-watch vidoes in the lead up to the election. One of my friends and followers, Adam Tinworth, said during the trip that he hoped I would get up soon because he needed his election news fix. He told me at media140 that my Twitter feed was the most efficient way to follow the elections.

The night of the election, I had planned to go back to my hotel and finish some writing, but I was caught up in the street celebrations in the city I had called home for seven years. On Twitter, I read reports of how 16th Street, the historic black district of the city, was clogged with revelers. I was downtown near McPherson Square and, early in the morning, people of all races were celebrating Barack Obama’s historic victory. Washington can be a very racially divided city, and I had never seen anything like this.
Celebrations in Washington DC after Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency, by Kevin Anderson, Some Rights Reserved.

But everyone told me that the real party was at the White House. I didn’t have to wait until I got back to my hotel to report. I could report live from the streets, providing pictures (albeit grainy) and quoting the crowds as they chanted outside of the White House: “Whose house? Whose house? Obama’s house! Obama’s house!”

At the end the trip on election night, I heard from Ralph in California. He said on Twitter:

Big thanks to @GuardianUS08 for last month’s visit and chat and for pulling me further into the conversation.

That was the goal and a measure of the success of what I had hoped to achieve with my experiment in highly distributed, networked journalism. Despite the pressures of almost constant reporting over two months and the difficulties of driving across the US, more than 4000 miles in three weeks, Twitter proved incredibly useful as a reporting tool, an aggregation tool and as a tool to take part in a real-time conversation about the election.

The trip also proved the effectiveness of networked journalism. I really don’t think I could have achieved a fraction of what I did without Twitter. It is actually part of a larger trend of how mobile phone technology will open up new opportunities for professional journalists just as it has spawned the citizen journalism movement. Camera phones were just he beginning.

As I said at media140, there are still some work to be done to fully realise the promise of these technologies. In working on Twitter and other platforms, tying together all of the content and providing context was only possible through manual, editorial methods: writing posts on the Guardian and weaving a narrative through the tweets, Facebook questions and Flickr messages. That was an imperfect solution. I had to try to reconstruct Twitter conversations and Facebook threads and tie them together. It was easier with Twitter, seeing as most of the updates were public, but Facebook proved more complicated and less satisfying. But we have done a lot of work at the Guardian this spring to help integrate Twitter into the site, such as we did during the G20 protests when we used ScribbleLive to pull together the updates of several of our journalists.

As I have said in the past, I have been frustrated as a field journalist with having to leave the story to report, but Twitter allowed me to stay in the middle of the story while I was reporting. It also provided me with a real-time conversation with people while I was covering the story, something that seemed a dream four years earlier when I covered the elections in 2004. We’re still only scratching the surface of what is possible, and while it’s a challenging time to be a journalist, I still can’t help think we’re living through a revolutionary time for journalism.

links for 2009-05-23

Raising journalists’ expectations only to crush them

My colleague and compadre Jemima Kiss flagged up story making the rounds on journalism blogs that the University of Missouri School of Journalism is requiring new students to have an iPhone or an iPod touch.

Like Jemima, I speak to quite a few journalism classes as well. While everyone assumes that young people almost without exception embrace technology, it couldn’t be further from the truth. As Jemima writes:

Chatting to journalism students is always an eye-opener, because, despite the enthusiasm and the clear commitment to their career, there’s very often a rather romantic view of an industry that doesn’t really exist any more. It’s a world of smokey bars and clattering Fleet Street typewriters battling against a daily deadline, or, very often, a rather glamorous late night gig review by a wannabe music journo.

Sadly journalism students’ romantic notion of journalism is often 30 years out of step, and they are often even more resistant of new technology and new methods than those working in the industry.

I stopped off at the University of Missouri to visit my friend Clyde Bentley when I was traveling across the US last year for the elections, and it was great to see them thinking not just about the internet but also actively exploring mobile technology. The University of Missouri is a great institution, and it’s great to see them keeping ahead of the times. But the move to require an iPod Touch or an iPhone has not been welcomed by all.

Levi Sumagaysay at the San Jose Mercury News asked if the requirement was a conflict of interest. He questioned “what appears to be the school’s bias or endorsement of the aforementioned Apple products”.

However, I noticed something else that Levi wrote about, building up journalism students expectations. He writes:

An ironic side note: In most newsrooms I’ve worked, we’ve had to claw our way to “preferred equipment,” and we considered ourselves lucky if, in 1999, our work computers got upgraded to, say, Windows 95. If newspapers survive, future journalists being trained to work on the latest and greatest equipment are in for a huge letdown when they realize that that stuff is largely non-existent in the newsroom — we just write about them.

It’s actually more than moving journalism students from a world of shiny Apple engineering to a world of outdated, coffee-encrusted computers. It’s moving them from a world where they can install and run what they want to a world of locked-down, corporate machines.

I was talking to a friend this week who told me that she had to get a permission slip signed to get a piece of software installed on her work computer and another permission slip signed to actually use the piece of software. You would think she was a seven-year-old going on a field trip to an active volcano. When I was with the BBC, I traveled with two computers. My work computer, which I had to have to access certain work systems, and the computer that I actually got work done on.

I know that there are security issues. I know that IT administrators can tell stories of the senior manager’s kid downloading a virus via some Flash game and taking down the network. But a one-size fits all corporate IT policy is not only a soul-destroying experience for a technically proficient journalist, it’s also a productivity killer. There has to be a better way than this. Train staff in the basics of computer security. Allow them to try new things on a virtual machine that can be wiped if it gets infected with a virus. But we can’t expect journalists to explore and learn about digital tools if we lock all the doors ahead of them.

, , ,

links for 2009-05-20

  • Kevin: An excellent article in the Economist about the news business, not just the newspaper business and its well documented woes, but changes in the news business across sectors and media. Here is a key finding: "Technology has enabled well-informed people to become even better informed but has not broadened the audience for news. The Pew Centre’s most alarming finding, for anybody who works in the trade, is that the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who got no news at all the previous day has risen from 25% to 34% in the past ten years."
  • Kevin: " Twitter is working on various ways to make money from its fast-growing microblogging service, but advertising is an option that is not currently being considered.

    Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said on Monday that the company is developing various add-on tools and services for the businesses and professional users of Twitter, which could create a revenue stream for the company. He said Twitter plans to introduce some of these tools by year end."

  • Kevin: Mart Potts looks at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which charges $60 a year for an online subscription. Owner/Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. is getting calls from other newspaper publishers frantically trying to salvage their businesses. But Mark is a bit sceptical that the the Democrat-Gazette's model is one that can be generalised. Mark is thoughtful and nuanced, something that is sorely lacking in too many debates. His big concern is that Hussman's strategy of defending the print product is short-sighted and can't be sustained, and it hasn't protected the newspaper from the downturn. "But I worry that the Democrat-Gazette publisher is being fatally short-sighted. Hs strategy may be propping up circulation, but print advertising revenue is declining precipitously, even in Little Rock—even with its against-the-grain strategy, the paper has had to do two rounds of layoffs since the first of the year. "

Overcoming journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience

Like many blogging journalists, I now find myself spending more time with Twitter and seeing the conversation take place there instead of on blogs. I suspect it is down to time constraints. As Stowe Boyd said last week at the Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle, blog rhymes with slog because blogging is a lot of work and has produced a natural barrier to entry. Yes, anyone can blog but few people have the time to devote to maintaining a vibrant blog. I find myself now often wanting to capture some of those Twitter conversations.

Today, Adam Tinworth said on Twitter:

I think that journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience may be the most difficult challenge to overcome in jobs like mine.

Andy Dickinson, who teaches Digital and Online Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, asked:

do you think it’s entitlement or just institutional blinkers?

To which Adam replied:

Entitlement. “I’ve made it as a journalist. Hence, I have an audience.”

I think the problem is actually deeper than that. I think the institutional belief is that if we work for a major publication or broadcaster that not only do we have a de facto audience but that we deserve an audience. It’s the height of institutional arrogance and self-importance, and it’s obvious to anyone who even has one foot outside of the bubble of institutional journalism that this is the case. But therein lies the rub. For many journalists, we never get outside of this bubble. I think it’s one of the reasons that journalists are bewildered by the fact that viewership and readership numbers are declining. Journalism matters, we say, and it does. But we are too often the authors of our own increasing irrelevance. We trivialise the important and amplify the trivial. In this noisy age, we don’t help our audiences find the signal but instead make a vain attempt to drown out the noise, often with self-serving arguments about our own importance.

Our audiences understand this more than we’d like to admit. I still remember as a cub reporter having a member of the public tell me I was full of shit because I was a journalist and that he wasn’t going to talk to me. I said fair enough and talked to him about the weather until he opened up and answered my questions. Put another way, if journalists’ relationship with our audiences was a marriage, the audience is filing for divorce.

This isn’t a bout of professional self-loathing. I am still very proud to be a journalist and, if anything, I am someone clinging to my journalistic ideals as I too often see my industry making a joke of them. I believe strongly in the public service that journalism can provide, but too often recognise that instead of a public service, our audience sees us a public nuisance, nothing more than professional gossips and self-appointed scolds. We don’t hold power to account. We don’t seek out facts and cut through opinion. Too often, we are playing a bit part in a what can only be called a high-stakes but low budget soap opera. We are nothing more than supporting and enabling characters to the drama queens of political and entertainment celebrity. Yes, in the UK, we have uncovered MPs abuse of the expenses system, but the journalism is all the more exceptional because it has become the exception.

This is also not about being liked but about being relevant and earning respect rather than assuming it. We don’t deserve an audience. We aren’t owed a living. We might think that we provide a valuable public service, one essential to democracy, but the public doesn’t buy it. We have squandered the public’s trust.

The issues as I see them:

  • There is no clear division in the industry between fact-based analysis and commentary. I find well researched analysis valuable. I rarely take the time to read commentary, no matter how inflamatory.
  • There is over-reliance on a few sources throughout the industry with very little original reporting.
  • We live in an age of information abundance. We need to seek information that is rare and valuable for our audiences, or we have no reason for being.
  • Finely crafted prose is no substitute for reporting. Our audience sees through our attempt to write around what we haven’t found out.

We live in an era of information abundance. As Andy says in a follow up to Adam, “the expectation is more that the audience comes as a given not earned or nutured.” We’ve taken our audiences for granted, and now we have to do a lot of hard work to earn them back.