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: Joi Ito of Creative Commons

Again, this is a live blog. I’ll try to tidy things up later. I’m trying to do as many of these speakers as possible. I might miss a few.

Joi wanted to start first to frame the discussion. New media is fundamentally different than old media. Media is about access, and the business model defines the media. Looking at newspapers and satellite TV, it costs a lot of money. The big difference with new media is that it has significantly lowered the cost to create media and to connect. It’s fundamentally different than the past. To understand how it’s different and why it’s different. The architecture of the internet is open.

Before the internet, governments, corporations and experts create specifications. They costs millions of dollars. They are robust and they sell products an services to consumers and they pay fees to services. Telecommunications companies are still big business in the Arab world, even for governments.

In the internet, you have users, venture capitalists, standard organisations and a credo “Rough consensus running code”. It evolves over time. Internet standards are lighter weight than in the past.

The internet “open stack” consists of the internet protocol. The proprietary standards for networking gave way to the internet protocol. The standards for IP are shepherded by the IETF. Anyone can participate. It’s a very open system. The World Wide Web is another standard shepherded by the IETF. W3C is the standards body. It’s an ad hoc committee without specific government standard. Governments are uncomfortable that there is no government involvement in the web standard.

Creative Commons looks at the copyright layer. The copyright system used to make sense.

We are trying to create an open stack for the legal layer.

The other section is open source software. Open source and free access to the university network. Google ran a web server, probably Apache, and they accessed Stanford’s network. A couple of students built Google thanks to open source software. It existed before the internet, but the internet allowed people to connect with each other to build this software.

He next highlighted open video. YouTube and other sites, most of them use Flash. It’s proprietary. You can’t participate in this video internet stuff without permission. In HTML5, we were working very hard on video initiatives for open video. Google acquired a company that had a video technology called VP8. This is going to be the core video technology in an open video format called WebM. This is going to be a significant change in the video structure. (It looks like VP8 is being challenged by MPEG-LA, the vide licencing body for the MPEG standard.)

Giving things away for free doesn’t seem like a great business model. However, Creative Commons give users a choice in how they want they want their work used. He quickly walked through the different types of Creative Commons licence. Free is not just about not making money. Nine Inch Nails released a CD called Ghost. They gave their music away for free. They used an attribution Non-commercial share alike licence. They created their own site instead of selling it through a company. It’s about taking more money from fewer people. They made $6m. (I need to check that figure.) UPDATE: I checked that figure after the talk, and Joi said NiN made $1.6m in a week.

Al Jazeera has released content under Creative Commons. Until last year, it didn’t use the Creative Commons licence. It used a Free Software Foundation licence for creating computer manuals.

Joi said that he’s worried about licence proliferation. He talked about different organisations creating ‘vanity licencing’ schemes. The White House now uses a Creative Commons licence.

Generosity and post-scarcity economic media models: Why I love participatory culture

One of the stumbling blocks for media companies looking to create sustainable digital business models is that the economic models differ in fundamental ways from the predominant models of the 20th Century.

Look at the media models of the 20th Century, and they are all based to some extent on scarcity and monopoly. Printing presses are expensive and create an economic limit to the number of newspapers that any given market will support. Satellites are incredibly expensive. Cable television infrastructure is expensive. Scarcity leads to the development of stable, de facto monopolies. Sky dominates satellite television in the UK. Cable television providers are usually granted monopolies in all but the largest of cities. Again, in all but the largest markets, newspapers have come to enjoy a monopoly position. (It is why I find it a bit rich that media monopolies are railing against Google. Monopolists trying to use the law and courts to defend their position against a rising monopolist should be the plot for a farce. Why don’t we create a web television series?)

The internet is different because media companies don’t have monopoly control over the means of distribution. News International and Gannett don’t own the presses that power the internet. BSkyB doesn’t own the satellites. Comcast owns the last mile of copper, but much of the internet is beyond its control.

The cost of media production has also dramatically decreased allowing people to create media with motivations that are not economic, which seems insane and alien to people who make a living creating media. However, creating media and sharing it with others is key to many communities online. Note, I’m talking about people sharing the media that they create, not sharing media created by people whose motivations are economic. Why the distinction? Sharing is a loaded term to the ‘creative industries’ which they want to redefine as theft. I’m not talking about sharing their content.

For those who don’t understand the “culture of generosity” on the internet, please read Caterina Fake’s moving defence of participatory culture. Caterina was one of the co-founders of photo sharing site Flickr and launched “a collective intelligence decision making system” called Hunch last year. Drawing on examples from her own experience going back to 1994, she explains why:

people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money

That’s about as foreign as one can think to mass media culture. Not doing something for ego or money? Why bother?

I can tell you why I bother. A global culture of participation has been, for me, key in meeting one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Belonging. Originally participatory culture was something I did in my spare time because their was no place for it in my professional work, but co-creation in journalism has been one of the most richly rewarding aspects of my career.

This is a mental bookmark for a much longer post looking at the economics of post-scarcity media, something I’ve been thinking about after meeting Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. I first met Matt when I chaired a discussion about his book at the RSA, and I interviewed him for the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast about piracy, copyright and remix culture. Matt said that we need more study of “post-scarcity economics”, something  not seen in real-world goods but definitely in the virtual world of digital content.

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News organisations miss opportunity to build community with online photo use

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:

Leaving (the copyright) issue aside, this is another example of the news industry missing an opportunity to build community around what they do. When I use Creative Commons photos from sites like Flickr, firstly, I honour the terms of the licence. Secondly, I drop the Flickr user a note letting them know that I’ve used a photo on our site. It’s not only a way to use nice photos, but it’s also a way to build goodwill to what we’re doing and do a little soft touch promotion of our coverage. It takes a minutes out of my day to create that email, but instead of a backlash, I often get a thank you. They let their friends know that the Guardian has used their picture. It’s brilliant for everyone. Their are benefits to being good neighbours online, rather than viewing the internet as a vast repository of free content. As a journalist, I wouldn’t use a photo on Facebook without permission. Besides, the photos on Flickr are very high quality, and with the common use of Creative Commons, I know exactly what the terms of use are. As a user of Flickr who licences most of my photos under Creative Commons licence, I also feel that whatever photos I use, I’m also giving back to the community. It’s a much more honest relationship.

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.