Al Jazeera Unplugged: Twitter and the US State Department

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible.

William May, US State Department and the office of innovative engagement, talked about public diplomacy as government to people or people to people diplomacy. The end game of that is mutual understanding. What we have now is very different than what we had 10 years ago. Ten years ago, we had 40,000 people that we moved across borders, and we had broadcasting. We have two bookends, the exchange programmes and on the other end, broadcasting. In the middle, we have all this new stuff like Twitter and QQ. Quoting another person at the State Department (Judy Hale), “The new media will work in certain places, and we’ll use the right media to reach the right people.:

There are segmented audiences (you won’t reach 15 year old via a newspaper), and we are moving form monologue to dialogue to communities. Where are those conversations taking place? Where are those communities? Mobile is a huge game changer for us. They may have never touched a laptop or a computer but they have a mobile phone. Virtual worlds is another opportunity to us. Using the right tool is a huge opportunity for us.

  • 2007 they began using Second Life. They used chat and IRC for training.
  • 2008 ECA Social Network on Ning to engage not just people in exchange programmes but engaging the whole world. Their own video contest. Went from zero to 20,000 users in months. They created a mobile game called X-Life for English language learning. They created a digital outreach team. (6 writers in Arabic, 2 in person. They are transparent that they work for the State Department. They attempt to counter misinformation.)
  • 2009 They created the Office of Innovative Engagement. They created 23 Things and the FSI training (institutional things he said)
  • 2010 They created the American Center in Jakarta and implemented a metrics programme (using something called Crimson Hexagon a metrics and opinion analysis tool¬†)

He provided some examples such as President Obama’s speech in Ghana. They wanted to increase the engagement. The embassies in Africa created hard copy press releases to traditional media asking for text message questions. They got 17,00 SMS messages from 85 countries. They filter the questions into five categories and created a podcast that they sent out to traditional media in Africa. (FM radio is to Africa what Satellite TV is to the Middle East, a transformative shift in media.)

Global versus local. Everything is local again. He gave the example of climate change. Do people want the global picture or how sea level will change where they live?

The Department of State has 180 Facebook pages, 50 Twitter accounts and also YouTube accounts.

They are bringing contacts they made in virtual worlds in Egypt to the US, bridging the virtual and real worlds.


Al Jazeera Unplugged: Mohamed Nanabhay The Al Jazeera model

Some more live blogging from the Al Jazeera Unplugged conference. Previous caveats apply. I am sure that there are grammatical errors. I have tried to be true to the essence of the comments.

Mohamed Nanabhay talked about what is news. He first quoted the legendary editor CP Scott of The Guardian that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” EH Carr, the historian, said that facts do not stand on their own. They are called upon to tell a story.

How do we constitute news in this online world? When we look at news, what impact is the internet having? What is a news story? Fundamentally, it’s news because we say it’s news.

Over the last 10 years, we are seeing a shift in our industry. Now that we have the internet, everyone has a voice. We need to ask ourselves, how has this changed? Has writing news, setting the agenda changed?

In 2006, Rupert Murdoch said that the power has moved from away from the press, the media elite, the establishment. “Now, it’s the people who are taking control,” Murdoch said. Mohamed said that this was a utopian view. Murdoch bought MySpace based on this thinking. He thought that Murdoch’s view has probably changed. In November 2009, Murdoch said, “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change…” Mohamed said that the editors are taking over again.

As news organisations, we can’t do everything anymore. That’s not viable anymore, he said. Quoting Jeff Jarvis, you have to focus on what you do best and partner with your audience to do the rest. (At the conference, Al Jazeera announced an initiative to provide support such as cameras for people to do their own footage.)

He talked about Al Jazeera decision to use Creative Commons. Wikipedia, film makers, music video producers, artists, students, indy media, activists and video games makers were all using the video.

Every form of media that you can think of used this footage. It spread across the internet. It was quite powerful. People decided to use it in ways that we never thought possible.

Once you remove barriers, you see this creative expression flourish. It enhanced our distribution and reputation. It did provide financial benefits to Al Jazeera. It helped empower the community, which is quite important in the Arab world. They hope it will inspire the next generation of journalists and documentary film makers. It showed respect their audience, Mohamed said. They also wanted to challenge their competitors.

What we really do is constitute and reconstitute culture and knowledge. This is how culture diffuses, how it is created. If you look at culture in the Middle East, people travel through it. People move. People interact. There is no such thing as a stagnant culture. In this globalised world where everyone interacts with each other, the act of this spreading culture is important, he said.

Al Jazeera took this open posture. They put their content on YouTube while other broadcasters were taking their content off of YouTube. These audiences are on YouTube. Audiences (often young people) saw Al Jazeera content, many who had never seen this before. They spread our content on their blogs or Facebook. Some might become loyal readers or viewers.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab

This is a live blog. It might be a bit rough. I’ll add links as I can and might do it in a second pass.

Josh started by saying that the disruption in the news business that began in the US is now spreading to other parts of the world. He started off with a series of “scary charts” showing the precipitous drop in advertising revenue in the US and the newspaper circulation decline in the US. The decline in terms of newspaper circulation per 100 households has been dropping since the 1940s. He then displayed the time that average internet users spent per month on news sites, 8-12 minutes a month, versus the seven hours they spend on Facebook.

The media industry is fragmenting. The number one album on the charts in the US sold just 60,000 copies last week, but it used to be that to have a number one album you would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. TV is fragmenting with greater choice, and Josh pointed to yesterday’s announcement of Google TV.

UPDATE: For the average internet user , 70% of the content that people under 40 consume online is produced by people they know.

Josh sees this not as a threat but as a great opportunity. Newspapers in the US used to be enormously popular. In 1990, John Morton said that it is clear that newspapers will be twice as profitable int he future, but maybe not three or four times as profitable. Those profits made owners very rich, but they also paid for investigative journalism and foreign bureaux.

On the social web, even if it doesn’t look like journalism, it can be an important source of information. People might find out about an important story from their friends on Facebook or Twitter. This is not new. With movable type, new types of information were produced. The rotary press could print much more copies, more cheaply. 1900s came newspapers, 1930s radio, 1950s TV, 1980s cable TV, 1990s internet, 2000s, mobile phones.

Context in country to country is critical. Some countries are seeing gains in literacy so are seeing a dramatic increase in newspaper circulation. Media in non-English countries aren’t seeing the same pressure.

In the US, seeing media adjust. Some are trying to grow in scale. Some trying to produce so many web pages that if they make a bit of profit on each page, they will make money. Demand Media is producing 5000 pages of content a day. Associated Media, just bought by Yahoo, is producing 2000 pages a day. It’s not necessarily news content, but it’s providing a model. We are seeing the growth of niche sites, around subjects rather than geography. Some are building paywalls.

However, I believe that the number of people who will pay will be relatively small. People will have free alternatives.

And then he said something that I’ve thought for quite a while:

News is shifting from a manufacturing industry to a service industry.

Even in the past, only bout 15% of a newspaper budget went to journalism. That’s a fascinating statistic. Service industries don’t try to create demand but rather serve demand.

With an infinite number of content choices, people are now choosing things that aren’t news. How do we (as journalists) create that demand? He sees the big organisations as being OK. He sees non-profit models developing. “I generally think we’ll be OK,” he said. This technological shift will see a huge boon he says.