With the news that CNN has bought iPad news app Zite, I started thinking about what tech companies have been bought by media organisations. I could think of a couple off the top of my head including Newsvine and Everyblock by MSNBC, Reddit by Condé Nast and Blogrunner by the New York Times. If you think of any others, feel free to pop them in the form below. I’ll publish the list as soon as we get it into some shape.
In the wake of some of the worst riots in London in more than a decade, Ben Goldacre has said on Twitter:
Yes, we’re now going to have to suffer through lots of ill-informed speculation from columnists. Brace yourself yet again as they take out their favourite axe from the kitchen cupboard and grind away on it just a bit more until the head is gone and they’re whittling the handle into a toothpick. It will enrage more than enlighten.
I have a better suggestion. With the current interest in data journalism, this would be a great time to revisit one of the seminal moments of data journalism carried out by Philip Meyer in the wake of the 1967 riots in Detroit. As a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Meyer studied not only how social science could be applied to journalism, but he also explored how main frame computers could be used to quickly analyse data. (For data journalists, if you don´t already own it, you should buy a copy of Meyer´s book, Precision Journalism, first published in 1973 and since updated.) As a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, Meyer was sent to Detroit to help cover the riots.
The 1967 Detroit riots stand as the third worst in the history of the US, only eclipsed by the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King and draft riots in New York during the US Civil War. As the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan said:
The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News threw every resource they had into covering the uprising. And as the disturbance died down, journalists and commentators, most of them white, struggled to understand who the rioters were and why they had taken to the streets. One theory was that those who looted and burned buildings were on the bottom rung of society—riff raff with no money and no education. A second theory speculated that rioters were recent arrivals from the South who had failed to assimilate and were venting their frustrations on the city.
But for many, those theories rang false.
A survey had been done following the 1965 Watts riots. Meyer approached Nathan Caplan, a friend from graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They both had a similar idea to see if a survey similar to the one done after Watts could be done in Detroit. One challenge was that the Watts study took two years, but Meyer wanted it done in three weeks. The ISR has an article that looks at the process in great depth, and what is clear is that the study of the 1967 Detroit riots and the journalism that followed had a lot of support not only from the newspapers but from the university, government and local foundations. They recruited and trained 30 teachers to conduct the surveys, drew up a random sample and interviewed 437 black residents.
The survey debunked a number of theories put forward to explain the violence.
- One theory was that the rioters were poor and uneducated. No, the survey found otherwise. ¨There was no correlation between economic status and participation in the disturbance. College-educated residents were as likely as high school dropouts to have taken part.¨
- Another theory laid the blame at recent arrivals from the south who had little connections to the community. That theory was also wrong. ¨Recent immigrants from the South had not played a major role; in fact, Northerners were three times as likely to have rioted.¨
Like Ben, I´m sure that we´ll see hours of speculation on television and acres of newsprint positing theories. However, theories need to be tested. The Detroit riots showed that a partnership amongst social scientists, foundations, the local community and journalists can prove or disprove these theories and hopefully provide solutions rather than recriminations.
In Journal-Register’s Brady: Local Advertisers Have a Tech Gap | Street Fight., Jim Brady recently has moved to the Journal Register Company, a local newspaper group in the US which is moving aggressively to remake its business. Brady gives a lot of great ideas on the future of local journalism. He talks about mobile and how location can be used to deliver information. He also weighs in on local paid content, and I think he makes a valuable point that the customer base is so small that it might not be economically worthwhile, especially when you factor in marketing (acquisition) costs.
Suw and I had been noticing a bit of an economic uptick on our local high street here in London last autumn and into the winter. Shop fronts that had been empty were getting new tenants, and just in our corner of the Big Smoke, we could see green shoots of recovery.
This morning Jonathan Lloyd who has a hyper-local content and commerce platform, Media Street Apps (story about the platform here on journalism.co.uk), tweeted this observation that he was seeing gutted shop units. It’s not the first rather grim economic observation that I’ve seen on Twitter as the UK economy seems to be softening again.
As a journalist, I immediately started to think of how we might find the signal in this flow of updates. Jonathan is very close to local retailers, and he might be flagging up an indicator of the direction of the economy. Google is already mining its own online shopping data to map local inflation trends in the US to create its own price index, and while I was writing this, Techmeme editor Mahendra Palsule says that financial market analysts are already doing this and flagged up the Stocktwits service.
I wonder what other signals we could find in the flow of social media and how this might be used for journalism.
There is no such thing as a perfect participation platform when it comes to building engagement around news and other content. Too often we try to outsource to technology what are really social functions that have to be done by human beings. In terms of social media journalism, the best examples come from journalists actively engaging with people to involve and engage them with news, information and their communities.
Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Joy Mayer has a great interview with Denise Cheng who works on a local community news site in the US state of Michigan. The interview is chock full of gems of what it takes in terms of mindset to be a social media journalist and community wrangler. I also really like the last paragraph talking about how Denise works to build participation.
Denise said she works to build investment and ownership in The Rapidian. She wants folks to plug in at any level they feel comfortable with …
But engagement isn’t just encouraging interaction. Denise wants to make the ladder of participation easier for people to climb up, with lots of manageable steps, from the bottom (wearing a Rapidian pin around town) up to things like contributing content and helping distribute it.
It’s a really great post with a community journalist working to build a deep sense of engagement and participation not only with her site but also with the civic and social life of her community.
I’m often asked at conferences and by journalism educators what skills journalists need to work effectively in a digital environment. Journalism educator Mindy McAdams has started a nice list of some of these skills in a recent blog post. A lot of journalists (and journalism educators) scratch their heads over what seem an ever-expanding list of skills they need to do digital. It feels like inexorable mission creep.
I can empathise. One of the most difficult parts of my digital journalism career, which began in 1996, has been deciding what to learn and, also, what not learn but delegate to a skilled colleague. I’m always up for learning new things, but there is a limit. Bottom line: It’s not easy. In the mid-90s, I had to know how to build websites by hand, but then automation and content management systems made most of those skills redundant. It was more important to know the possibilities, and limits, of HTML. When I worked for the BBC, I picked up a lot of multimedia skills including audio recording and editing, video recording and basic video editing, and even on-air skills. I also was able to experiment with multimedia digital story-telling. However, with the rise of blogs and social media, suddenly the focus was less on multimedia and more on interaction. All those skills come in handy, but the main lesson in digital media is that it’s a constant journey of education and re-invention.
What do I mean about choosing what not to learn? In the mid-90s, I was faced with a choice. I could have learned programming and become more technical, or I could focus on editorial and work with a coder. I did learn a bit of PERL to run basic scripts for a very early MySociety-esque project about legislators in the state where we worked, but after that, I handed most of the work off to a crack PERL developer on staff. I knew what I wanted to do, and he could do it in a quarter of the time.
I knew that my passion was telling stories in new ways online and, whilst I didn’t learn to programme, I did pick up some basic understanding of what was possible: Computers can filter text and data very effectively. They can automate repetitive tasks, and even back in the late 1990s, the web could present information, often complex sets of data, in exciting ways. I realised that it was more important for me to know the art of the possible rather than learn precisely how to do it. My mindset is open to learning and my skillset is constantly expanding, but to be effective, I have to make choices.
One thing that we’re sorely lacking as an industry are digitally-minded editors who understand how to fully exploit the possibilities created by the internet, mobile and new digital platforms. Print journalists know exactly what they want within the constraints of the printed page, which often in presentation terms is much more flexible than a web page. However, they bring that focus on presentation to digital projects. They think of presentation over functionality, largely because they don’t know what’s possible in digital terms. As more print editors move into integrated roles, they will have to learn these skills. They will eventually but, by and large, they’re not there yet. Note to newly minted Integrated editors: There are folks who have been doing digital for a long time now. The internet was created long before integration. We love to collaborate, but we do appreciate a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
In terms of learning the art of the possible, my former colleague at The Guardian, Simon Willison, has summed this up really well during a recent panel discussion:
I kind of think it’s the difference between geeks and the general population. It’s understanding when a problem is solvable. And it’s like the most important thing about computer literacy they should be teaching in schools isn’t how to use Microsoft Word and Excel. It is how to spot a problem that could be solved by a computer and then find someone who can solve it for you.
To translate that into journalism terms, it’s about knowing how to tell stories in audio, text, video and interactive visualisations. It’s about knowing when interactivity will add or distract from a story. It’s an understanding that not every story need to be told the same way. It’s about understanding that you have many more tools in your kit, but that’s it’s foolish to try to hammer a nail with a wrench. It’s not about building a team where everyone is a jack of all trades, but building a team that gives you the flexibility to exploit the full power of digital storytelling.
Steve Yelvington flagged up a comment piece on the New York Times from Dick Brass, a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 until 2004. Brass worked on Microsoft’s tablet PC efforts, something I remember covering at Comdex in 2002. Despite a huge push by Microsoft, they never became mainstream outside of a few niche applications, and Brass blames it in part from in-fighting at Microsoft. Brass wrote:
Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.
Brass predicted that unless Microsoft was able to overcome this dysfunctional corporate culture and regained “its creative spark” that it might not have much of a future. In highlighting Brass’ piece, Steve wrote in his tweet:
Every behavior that’s killing Microsoft, I’ve seen at a newspaper company. http://bit.ly/9W30W8
As Charlie Beckett, the director of the politics and journalism think tank POLIS at LSE, points out, the Daily Mail is getting a lot of grief for using pictures, mainly from photo-sharing site Flickr, without the permission of the users or in violation of the licencing on those pictures. Charlie’s post is worth reading in full, but here are some of the questions he poses:
At what point does material in the public domain become copyright? the people who published these images didn’t do so for financial gain. There is a genuine, if very slight, news story here which feels worthy of reporting. If I link to those photos am I also infringing people’s copyright? Might it be possible that they will actually enjoy seeing their work on the Mail’s website where it will be connected to millions of other people?
I don’t want to dwell on the copyright issue too much, apart from saying that if the newspaper industry is fuzzy on copyright on the internet, it undermines their arguments with respect aggregators, ‘parasites’ and ‘thieves‘ online. I’d rather make the case that there is a benefit to news organisations in not only respecting the copyright of others but also in being good participants in online communities like Flickr. Here’s part of the comment that I left on Charlie’s post:
Last year during the elections, I found an amazing picture of Democratic candidate John Edwards on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution licence that allows commercial use and used it on a blog post on the Guardian when he dropped out of the race. I let the photographer, Alex de Carvalho, know that I used his photo, and he responded:
Thank you, Kevin, for using this picture; I’m honored it’s in The Guardian.
- Great picture.
- Credit where credit is due.
- Mutual respect for copyright. Creative Commons clearly states the rights wishes of the photographer.
- Light touch outreach to promote our work at the Guardian.
- Building community both on our site and on the broader internet.
That’s what we mean at the Guardian about being of the internet not just on it, and this is why I believe that social media is about creating great journalism and building an audience to support it.
In a shocking (possibly only to the researchers) conclusion, a study of major media online journalism newsrooms in the UK has discovered that they follow a relatively narrow mainstream agenda. I think that is a fair summary of an interview on Radio 4 with Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith University Media Research Centre in London speaking about her book New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. From the synopsis on Radio 4, “Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith’s University in London, … argues that instead of democratising information, the internet has narrowed our horizons.”
I haven’t read the book, seeing as the release date on Amazon is tomorrow. I am sure that book covers the themes in greater depth in what can be covered in a couple of minutes on radio, but I found the interview infuriating.
Dr Fenton and her researchers looked at three online newsrooms, two of which I’ve worked in: the BBC News Website, the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. I might have to pick up a copy and see if her researchers’ interviews with me are reflected in the book.
First, I would say the book was out of date a year ago based on changes here at the Guardian. We were just beginning our print-online integration. We are still going through the process, as are many newsrooms, but one thing we have done is combined web and print production as much as possible to not only reduce duplication of effort and work around re-purposing print content. This frees up journalists to do journalism and not just ‘copy and pasting’ as Dr Fenton puts it in her interview.
Secondly, I think her conclusions, as expressed in the interview, are undermined by a selection bias. As Charlie Beckett at Polis at LSE says in a blog post from a year ago when they unveiled their draft conclusions, there are problems with the methodology of the study and some of the assumptions underpinning the research. Dr Fenton comes to conclusions about online journalism based on research from three newsrooms connected to traditional news organisations. Is it really all that surprising that she finds their agendas in line with mainstream media organisations? The news environment is much more complex outside of most newsrooms these days than inside, which is one of the problems with the news industry. By condemning online journalism at traditional organisations as focusing on a narrow agenda as Dr Fenton does in the interview, isn’t this more accurately an indictment of the narrow agenda of the mainstream media seeing as the websites track closely the agenda of the legacy media be it broadcast or print?
Thirdly, online news operations connected to traditional news organisations have never had a major stand-alone newsgathering facility. The BBC News website once did have some original newsgathering capacity. I was their reporter in Washington. However, most of the newsgathering capacity rested with television and radio journalists whose work was re-purposed for the website. The situation is more complex at the Guardian now. We produce more web-only content during the week than we do print-only content.
Fourthly, Dr Fenton says that online staff are desk bound, and online newsrooms rely on “less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism”. Can we have some perspective on investigative journalism please? Really. Fighting to perserve investigative journalism and investigative journalism only is like trying to save the auto industry by fighting in the name of Porsche. Investigative journalism has always been the pinnacle of our craft, not its totality. It’s important, but investigative journalism was a fraction of pre-digital journalistic output. Again, if Dr Fenton has an issue with lack of investigations, then it’s an issue to take up with the organisation as a whole, not the online newsroom. Having said that, I’ll stand by the Guardian’s investigative output online and off: MPs expenses crowdsouring, Datablog, Trafigura, just to name a few Guardian investigations and innovations here in 2009.
Lastly, I think the narrow frame completely ignores the work of digital pioneers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of journalism. I think of the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and his live digital coverage of the G20 protests this spring and his recent project to track post during the strike using GPS transmitters. I think of the Guardian’s Simon Jeffery with his recent People’s History of the Internet and the Faces of the Dead and Detained in Iran project as other examples of excellent digital journalism, journalism only possible online. I think of the work that my good friend Chris Vallance has done with BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs and iPM on Radio 4. I think of the many projects that I’ve been proud to work on at the BBC and the Guardian. Chris and I brought the voices of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina to the radio and also US soldiers fighting the war in Iraq radio audiences through creative use of the internet. I consider myself primarily an online journalist, but I’ve been working across multiple media for more than 10 years now. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for the BBC News website, BBC radio and television. I’ve done webcasts from the 29th story of a building overlooking Ground Zero three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. I tweeted from the celebrations of Barack Obama’s victory outside the White House after a 4000 social media-driven month of coverage of the historic 2008 US presidential election. Online journalism isn’t perfect, and it reflects imperfections in traditional journalism. However, in the hands of a good journalist, digital journalism offers up radical new opportunities to tell stories and bring them to new audiences.
My experiences and my career aren’t representative of the industry. I have been doing original journalism online for more than a decade. That is rare, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I lost a lot of colleagues in the dot.com crash when newspapers and broadcasters slashed online budgets. After an interview with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2002 on the one year anniversary of 11 September attacks, he took us on a tour of their much slimmed online newsroom. He spoke with pride about the work of the online staff, but he said, “The Mouse (Disney, ABC’s parent company)” didn’t see it that way and continued to make deep cuts.
In 2009, the picture is much different. Print and broadcast journalists are doing more original work online. We have more online-focused journalists than even when Dr Fenton was doing her research. Journalists cast off by ailing journalism institutions are re-launching their careers on the web.
I chose the internet to be my primarily journalistic platform in 1996. I chose it because I saw unique opportunities for journalism. When I did, it was a lonely choice. I faced a lot of prejudice from print journalists who based their views on lack of knowledge and fear. A passion for the medium kept me going despite some of that prejudice. Everyday I get up and help push a unique medium just a further journalistically. (To their credit, my colleagues at the BBC in radio and television told me almost on a daily basis with respect and admiration how I was the future of journalism.)
These prejudices against online journalism are parroted by Dr Fenton in her interview, which I guess is one of the reasons that it made my blood boil. I hope the book paints the reality in a bit more complexity than was possible in a few minutes on air. I hope that she includes some broader examples of how online journalists do original journalism that can’t be done in any other media. However, if the interview on Radio 4 is representative of the book, it’s a reality I don’t recognise. Bad journalism begins with a thesis which never adapts to new information. It’s the same with bad research.
PHD Media, a division of media and ad giant Omnicom Group, has released a new study that feeds into the paid content debate, reports CNBC. Julia Boorstin of CNBC highlights a few ‘surprising factoids’.
- The bottom line: consumers are reading more print content online, but the only way they’ll pay for it, is if they perceive a real value and when comparable free content isn’t readily available.
- Another surprising factoid: consumers don’t care about the brand, they care about the content. (Except when it comes to sports)
Frankly, I don’t find the last one that surprising, especially when you factor in the study found that 44% of respondents in the study accessed a publication website through a search engine. Search is a fundamental shift in information consumption. People don’t browse for information but use search to seek it out and also rely on recommendations from friends.
As I’ve often said publicly, my reading habits are voracious and promiscuous. My reading habits tend to be subject led, not publication led. I seek out information. I am a little cautious of extrapolating my behaviour more broadly because I’m a journalist. I am paid to read, research, report and write. I’m also very digitally focused. I get most of my information via the internet or my mobile phone. However, recent studies such as this one show that I’m not unique in my habits.
This study reinforces my view that news organisations need to focus on developing services and products that deliver value to readers and not simply focus on building infrastructure to charge for existing content. Another take away from this study is that “just small a fraction of the 2,400 adults polled, read both the print and online versions of the same publication”. That leads me to believe that the products that we develop must serve the needs of digital audiences, and we should be careful about trying to focus digital development on services to appeal to print audiences.
The debate rolls on
The Great Paid Content Debate of 2009 rumbles on. On Tuesday at the Paley Centre, Stephen Brill on paid content services provider Journalism Online LLC said on Tuesday that people had been paying for print content for decades and that they just needed to get back into the habit online.
However, I tend to agree with Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of US public radio broadcaster NPR, when she commented at the event:
To think that we are so smart that we can retrain the audience, that’s an awfully elitist, condescending, and frankly old perspective.
Trying to bully consumers into behaving a certain way, especially in a way that is contrary to their current habits, doesn’t have a track record of success.
To be fair to Brill, he is not advocating putting all content behind paywalls and is working with news organisations to determine what content will become paid. However, I reject his basic premise, which he has stated over and over, that this is a matter of getting users accustomed to paying for content online. I do agree that to continue to support journalism, news organisations are going to have to develop new sources of revenue, digital and otherwise.
On that point, I’ll just re-iterate something that I’ve said before. In the Great Paid Content of 2009, some journalists and news executives have been playing fast and loose with facts (gasp, shock, that never happens), and one thing that I’m hearing with too much regularity is that newspapers can’t make money online, that digital is just some money pit that will never support quality journalism. I’ve heard this before in the late 1990s. To which I would say, just because your news organisation isn’t making money online, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make money on the internet.
Suw and I were in Norway recently, where media conglomerate Schibsted has an online classifieds joint venture with several local newspapers. In a prescient move, Schibsted launched the site, Finn.no, in 2000. It has grown into Norway’s largest classified site, and it’s a money spinner for Schibsted. The newspapers that will survive will realise that they are in the news not the newspaper business.
Progressive, forward-thinking news organisations made the shift from print to a diversified, multi-platform business before the Great Recession, and there are examples of information products and services that news organisations could sell to help support journalism. Sadly, most news organisations didn’t make this transition. From the Financial Times:
Alarmingly, the industry has also so far “failed to make the digital transition”, according to a report last month from Outsell, a publishing research firm, which found that news organisations’ digital revenues were just 11 per cent of their total revenues, compared with 69 per cent for the broader information industry, which includes legal and financial data providers such as Reed Elsevier and Bloomberg.
When we were in Norway, one of the comments that really struck me was a comment from a member of the Norwegian Online News Association who said that there had been plenty of editorial innovation in the last decade but not enough commercial innovation. To support the social mission of journalism, journalists will need to overcome their professional distate for the business side of the operation and lend their creativity to developing products and services that readers value. It’s not only possible but essential that we do this.