Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute: Continuing the Conversation

A couple of years ago, I spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute, and after my talk, the conversation carried on via Strange Attractor and the blogs written by some of the students there. I went back to Oxford today to talk about social media, journalism and broader media trends with the very international group of “scholars and regulators? at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute.

As I did from my talk a few years ago at the OII, I’ll follow up some questions that came after my talk and some questions that came in via Twitter.

Does participatory media make public service media obsolete?

I met Shawn Powers at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha in May, and he invited me to give a talk at the institute. After my talk, he highlighted what he thought was a contradiction in my presentation, which he thought could be interpreted as supporting James Murdoch’s attack on the BBC. Not to over-simplify his point, but with all of the examples I gave of people creating their own media, Shawn wondered if I was making the point that British society no longer needed a public broadcaster like the BBC.

It never really occurred to me that my presentation could be interpreted like this because four years after I left the BBC, I value public service media even more than when I was working there. Most of the examples I talk about in my presentation (a version is here on SlideShare) are collaborations between professional journalists and members of the public not examples of the public supplanting or replacing journalists.

When I came to London in 2005 to research how BBC News could use blogging, I actually saw the possibility of a public service broadcaster like the BBC deepening its public role by developing stronger relationships with people formerly known as the audience.

James Murdoch’s argument delivered in Edinburgh last year:

We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate

I see commercial media and public service media combined with emerging participatory media as creating greater plurality, not throttling it. Murdoch’s argument is a rather unsophisticated and transparent attack on the BBC because he knows that most surveys show that when consumers are asked to pay for news online, most of them (74%) would switch to free options, such as the BBC. Only about 5% in the and Harris survey would pay to continue to use the service. (For a good critique of the Murdochs’ hard paywall that they just erected around The Times and The Sunday Times, see Steve Outing’s look at different commercial strategies.)

Returning to the strategic white paper I wrote for the BBC, I also thought by encouraging media creation by a wider part of the population that it actually would expand civic participation in new ways and possibly reverse trends in the decline in traditional forms of democratic participation such as voting. (Andy Carvin at NPR is demonstrating how social media is public service media can be a powerful combination.)

Maybe in the future, I should start with a statement of principles or values. I assume that my career choices say a lot about my journalistic values. I have worked for two very unique journalism organisations, the publicly-funded BBC and the trust-supported Guardian. It was an honour to work at two places that value journalism as much as the BBC and The Guardian.  I don’t see social media as an argument for ending subsidies to public media in favour of a “pure” market-based media eco-system. Rather, I see my interest in social media as a perfectly logical extension of my passion for the social mission of journalism, a mission to inform and engage people and to empower them as citizens in democratic societies.

Choosing the right tool for the job

Another person at the institute raised the issue of whether I was focusing on the tools rather than the editorial goals. Was I seeing social media as the hammer and every story as a nail?

In reality, I’ve long argued against using a tool for the sake of using a tool. In my original presentation at the BBC, one of my slides was a herd of cattle with a little Photoshopped brand on one of the bulls labelled MSM (mainstream media), complete with the song Rawhide playing in the background. I said that the media was engaging in a lot of herd-like behaviour, rushing off to blog without any clear reason as to why. I used to play a clip of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show sarcastically congratulating MSNBC and their blogging efforts as “giving a voice to the already voiced”. I questioned why the media needed blogs when we already had publishing platforms.

To justify blogging, we had to have clear editorial goals and not just blog because it was the new media flavour of the month. I did see benefits in blogging and using social media. We could engage our audiences directly and take our journalism to where they were instead of relying on them to come our site. We could enhance our journalism by expanding our sources, adding new voices and highlighting expertise in our audience.

Often people saw blogging not as a conversational, engagement focused media but as a means to secure their own column. They didn’t want to write more than once a week. They had no interest in actually responding to comments. Although I didn’t see this as an appropriate use of blogging, usually, they got a blog because I wasn’t in a position to deny them one.

It’s important to understand that social media is only one tool in a journalist’s toolkit. It is powerful, but it is very important to understand when it is appropriate to use social media and when it isn’t.

As someone at Oxford also pointed out, as journalists we need to make sure that we don’t over-interpret opinion on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as truly representative. I often use social networks and blogging to find expertise and first person experience of an event, not necessarily to canvas for opinion. The same student at Oxford also was concerned that journalists would rely solely on online social networks to source stories or generate story ideas. That’s the mark of either a lazy journalist or one who is so overburdened with work due to staffing cuts that social media becomes an all too easy shortcut. (I understand only too well the time pressures that journalists are under due to the hollowing out of newsrooms.)

Do location-based networks have staying power?

One of the students told me that she had asked a few questions via Twitter while I was talking, and here is one of her questions:

#AnOx10 Kevin Anderson @kevglobal– Social Media for Social Change: great talk today but do u really think Loc-base has staying power?

I’ve been working with location for a couple of years ago, starting with my coverage of the US elections in 2008. I’ve been testing location-based networks like BrightKite and the location features with Twitter since 2008, and I’ve been trying the newer networks such as FourSquare in preparation for a keynote that I’m giving at the SpotOn conference in Helsinki in September.

As I started saying in 2005, in this age of information-overload, two things are key to success: Relationship and relevance. Social media allows news organisations to much more directly build and maintain their relationships with both members of the public who simply want to consume their content and also with people who want to collaborate or contribute to news coverage. In a world with so many information choices, relevance is extremely valuable. This weekend, I spoke to the Gates Scholars at Cambridge, and many of the questions to the panel that I was on were about finding and filtering the vast ocean of information available. To me location is one filter for relevance.

There are two ways to interpret this question: Will the current generation of location-based networks have staying power? Will location itself have staying power?

In using FourSquare, I actually find the game element rather simplistic. Without a native app on my Nokia N82 (am considering buying Gravity, but its £8 is higher than my impulse threshold for buying a mobile app), the friction is too high for me. I am too aware that FourSquare is trying to trick me into surfacing my location. For Google’s Latitude, I set it and forget it, and I see my friends on my Google Map. That service hasn’t hit a critical mass of users in my offline social networks to be all that useful.

However, in convincing people to reveal their location, FourSquare is already beginning to partner with media and other companies to sell other location-based services. Frankly, I don’t need the psychological trickery of points and mayor-ships to get me to check-in, if I get a useful service from revealing my location.

That’s where I see location being interesting, not as an element of games like Gowalla or FourSquare, but as a fundamental enabling technology like RSS. Very few people use RSS directly in standalone readers as I do, but many more people use RSS without even knowing it. Location will be one of those underlying, enabling technologies.

The big difference between RSS and location is the issue of privacy and security connected to revealing one’s location. Lots of people follow me on Twitter who I don’t know. I have a category of contacts on Facebook “People I don’t know”. I am not going to let people I don’t know in the real world know where I am in the real world. I’m working through whether I want to be selective in my contacts on FourSquare or selective in checking in.

Location is going to be a powerful feature in new services. That has staying power. Part of me thinks that services like Gowalla and FourSquare are very first generation at this point. They have a certain Friendster feel about them. However, FourSquare is evolving very quickly, and its very clear business model means that it will have the space to experiment.

Those are the questions that I can think of off the top of my head. If people have more, leave a comment. I’ll try to answer them before Suw and I start our summer break on Thursday.

Government support for journalism is no panacea

Today, I had a Twitter discussion with Kevin Garber, an “African entrepreneur in Australia and founder and CEO of” an online spellcheck service. As with Twitter conversations, this is actually from two threads that take some joining. It began based on one my response to journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen who said:

My testimony would have been: No government funding for news; culture war yahoos in Congress will just Mapplethorpe it

Jay was linking to a US Senate committee meeting about The Future of Journalism. Jay is referring to the battle over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the US over support of exhibitions of homoerotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA became a key front in the US Culture Wars.

Journalists in the US who look to the BBC model for funding journalism or want their own government bailout would be wise to remember the Culture Wars. They’ve loved covering it, but if they took state funding, they wouldn’t be just be covering it, they would become embroiled in it, even more than they already are. As I said to Jay on Twitter, People in US arguing for gov’t support for newspapers forget what a political football arts or public broadcast funding is.

Kevin said:

the key question is are newspapers a public good that can’t be addressed via normal supply/demand mechanisms …

To which I replied: “No, the question is about about journalism not about newspapers. Public funding for journalism is not a panacea. (says as ex-BBC)”.

I’ll agree with Kevin who said in a follow up comment that “smart capitalism doesn’t rely on mkt for everything”, but I’m not sure that the market is failing in terms of support for professional journalism. Rather, I think we’re in the midst of changing business models and that the dominant print model has given way to a multi-platform model with much greater diversity of revenue streams than the recession sensitive over-reliance on advertising. Newspaper and broadcast journalism are capital-intensive, industrial businesses that rely on advertising rates that were under threat before the recession and are unsustainable during the recession. The market has been sending clear signals to newspapers for 30 years that their business model was under threat, and those trends have only accelerated in the last five years. However, the Great Recession is a rupture in business as usual. Assumptions, business projections and companies are now being swept away as this credit bubble bursts.

Now, like the banking and auto industry, the newspaper industry is looking for a solution, and many journalists share Kevin Garber’s view that newspaper journalism is such an important public good that it merits public funds. You hear it when journalists argue that they play a role essential to democracy.

Even non-journalists make this argument. Suw was at Social Web Foo Camp recently at O’Reilly HQ in California, and she said that many people during a “design the future newspaper” pointed to the BBC as the model that could save journalism. Public service broadcasting is a funding model for journalism, but even in the UK, it hasn’t been extended to newspapers. And I doubt it will be. I think journalists also need to realise that such a model probably couldn’t roll back the job cuts that are hitting US newspapers. This shouldn’t be seen as some full employment act for journalists. Also, let’s get real. As an American, I think it’s safe to say that we would have to be living in some Star Trek-variety parallel universe to even contemplate significant public support in the US for a $200-plus annual licence fee payment to watch live broadcast television (either other-the-air or down a cable of some description). It ain’t gonna happen. Seriously. Also, while many other state broadcasters benefit from a licence fee, the UK is unique in the level of funding, and I think a poll of senior executives at the BBC would find most of them preparing for a dramatically reduced level of public funding in the future.

But apart from the political feasibility of a publicly funded journalism institution at the level of the BBC, let’s take a look at some of the cons stemming from public funding. And I say this coming from the point of view of having worked for Auntie for eight years. I love the BBC, and I was very proud to work there. However, public funding doesn’t come without its downsides (and strings attached, just ask the banks or Chrysler for that matter).

  1. What one administration giveth, another can taketh away. And the cuts might even come from an administration that you think will like you. Bill Clinton didn’t really like the press when he left, and Labour, while it might seem would have much more kinship with the BBC and public broadcasting, has not exactly been a supporter of the BBC. Just ask Director General Mark Thompson who thought he was going to get a much more generous licence fee settlement than he got.
  2. Your commercial competitors will spill tankers of ink, pay lobbyists and rant endlessly on air (cough, Fox News) to make sure that your funding will be as low as possible. Just ask the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the US. (Maybe you should take a page out of NPR’s books and start subscription drives.)
  3. You’ll have to subject new ideas to a ‘public value test‘ and make sure that it doesn’t distort the commercial market. In other words, you can be successful, but not too successful.
  4. Public funding won’t insulate you from job cuts. As I said, I worked for the BBC for eight years. There were cuts four out of the eight years I worked there. One year, the cuts were 18%, which was a blessing because the Head of New Media at the time, Ashley Highfield, had asked for 25%. And the cuts continue. This year, they are looking to find £400m of savings.

There are pros, of course, and the BBC is a great journalistic institution. But it’s not in the ruddy health that most American journalists assume it is. Like much of the media, it reached a high water mark in the early part of this decade, and it’s now swimming against the tide. This is not to say that public funding shouldn’t play a role in journalism, but it already does in the US in the form of NPR and public television. Also, based on the experience of Sweden, state support might help for while, but it’s not a long-term solution.

I’ll be interested to see what if anything comes out of the US Senate hearings today, but if it’s government support you want, be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: A timely example of what I’m getting at. If journalists are anxious over a sense of powerlessness from market forces, it’s no different when the government can change your budget by fiat. See: (Conservative Party leader) Cameron to force vote to halt increase in BBC licence fee. He might not get his way now, but he might when he’s prime minister.

BeebCamp: Eric Ulken: Building the data desk at the LATimes

A fun example of structured data from the LATimes, which showed the popularity of dog names in LA County by postcode.

A fun example of structured data from the LATimes, which showed the popularity of dog names in LA County by postcode.

This is from one of the sessions at BeebCamp2, a BarCamp like event for BBC staff with some external folks like Suw, me, Charlie Beckett and others. Charlie has a great post on a discussion he led about user-generated content and what it adds to news, video games and also Twitter and Radio 4.

Eric Ulken, was the editor of interactive technology at the LATimes. He was one of the bridges between technology and the editorial

News organisations:

  • We collect a lot of data but don’t use it (We always thought that was a shame. We had a computer-assisted reporting team at the LATimes, wouldn’t it be nice if we used that.)
  • What online readers want from us is bigger than ‘news’ in the traditional sense
  • We need to be an information soure.

They did a homicide map, which mapped all of the murders in LA in a year on a map and which illustrated a blog that reported all of the murders in LA County in a year.

The project was well received, and they decided to develop a data desk. It brought together the computer-assisted reporting unit, investigative reporters, the interactive technology team and the graphics team to bring together the data desk. They all sat together in the newsroom. A lot of synergies were created. The Times had 10 to 15 investigative reporters on different desks from different disciplines.

Ten bits of advice:

  1. Find the believers.
  2. Get buy-in from above
  3. Set some priorities
  4. Go off the reservation (We had a real problem with our IT department. They had their priorities and we had ours. We invested in a server system using Django.)
  5. Templatize. Never do anything once. Do things you can reuse.
  6. Do breaking news. There is data in breaking news. They did a database of the victims. They added information to the database as it became available. The database was up in 24 hours after the crash. They had built most of the pieces for previous applications. (There was a question about accuracy. Eric said the information was being gathered, but it wasn’t structured. The information was edited by a line manager.)
  7. Develop new skills. They sent people out to workshops. They had hired a Django develop who was also a journalist. He taught Django to others in the office.
  8. Cohabitate (marriage is optional). The investigative reporters and computer-assisted reporters still reported to the pre-existing managers, but by being together, they saw possibilities for collaboration without reworking the organisation.
  9. Integrate.
  10. Give back. They worked to give back to the newspaper.

They used Javascript to add this to other parts of the site. They created these two datasets from the train crash and the homicides, but they also have used publicly available data in their projects. He showed their California schools guide. Apart from the standard data analysis available from state and national educational agencies, they also created a diversity rank that showed the relative diversity of the schools. They did do some reporting on the data. In analysing the schools data, they found discrepancies in reporting about the performance of the schools.

In a slightly more humourous example, he showed dog names and breeds by postcodes.

UPDATE: Eric has added some more details in comments below, and you can follow Eric’s work and follow his thoughts on his site.