The Guardian is back from the brink

The Guardian and Observer offices back when I worked there, by Kevin Anderson (me) from Flickr

The top story in my international media newsletter is The Guardian’s great news that it has broken even for the first time since 1998. I worked at the Guardian from 2006 to 2010, and it has been great to see the turnaround since Kath Viner took over as editor.

I think that the BBC article, an extra link not on the newsletter, summarises all of the things that went into this change in fortune. My friend and Indian media-tech superstar Durga Raghunath has the tl:dr version of the BBC’s coverage:

In the BBC analysis, they attribute part of the change in fortune from cost cutting: closing of 450 positions, largely through voluntary redundancy (buyouts) and also reducing the costs of printing by ditching its bespoke Berliner format and going tabloid. But the switch to a membership, reader support led business model has also helped. A lot.

Emily Bell who ran the digital editorial operations when I was there also had a couple of excellent points on Twitter.

Other top stories in the newsletter today:

That is the newsletter today. If you have a story that you think is worth including, shoot it to me on Twitter @kevglobal. And if you want to subscribe to the newsletter, go here.

Journalists must set the tone for their communities

Robert Niles has a must-read post on the Online Journalism Review about the role that journalists should play in terms of interactivity and community on their sites. Online communities need leadership: Will journalists provide it, or will someone else? he writes:

…writing in any interactive environment is an act of leadership. Your words, your tone and your style not only inform your audience, they provide a model – an example – for those in the community who will write for that community, as well. And your silence creates a vacuum of leadership that others may fill.

Since my career shifted six years ago to become more interactive, I am often asked how to get ‘them’ to be nicer. The ‘them’ is always those nasty commenters, members of the public who aren’t as pleasant or as deferential as journalists would like them to be. I respond that the blogger or journalist sets the tone of interaction. If as a columnist, you write a link-baiting attack piece, expect a counter-attack. If a journalist actively invites constructive participation from readers, over time, that journalist can build a positive community (rather than a passive audience) around his or her journalism. The key part of that comment is ‘over time’. It takes time and effort to build a community. It doesn’t take much time or creativity to whip up an angry mob.

The initial response I always get is that sharp writing sells and that I’m somehow advocating overly polite pablum instead of incisive commentary. First off, poisonous communities don’t sell. They don’t sell to most readers, and they damn well don’t sell to advertisers. It’s really interesting the different responses I hear when talking about some high profile engagement-based comment sites. People in the media laud them as visionary, ground-breaking and industry leading. When I speak to members of the public, they call the same sites toxic, offensive and aggressive. I often joke that a lot of publishers engagement strategy is really an enragement strategy. Find the hot button issues of the day and push those buttons until they bleed.

I’m also drawing a distinction between journalism and comment, which is getting awfully blurry these days whether online, on air or in print.

Robert talks about a ‘ladder of engagement‘, and I’ve written about taking the concepts of ‘leveling up’ from gaming and applying it to news communities. I’m not necessarily talking about gamification of news but rather increasing rewards for increasing levels of participation. Robert has some good ideas in his post, and the entire idea is that we’re building loyalty and engagement.

Loyalty is the new currency of the online realm. If you look at the difficulty that major, major news websites are having in creating a sustainable business around high volume traffic, you can see that millions of unique users aren’t necessarily the key to success. It’s about pages per session, dwell time or time on site. A smaller number of highly engaged users can often be more valuable, especially when those users are focused on some high return verticals.

‘You’ journalists must be part of your community

However, putting the business side of things aside for a moment, the resounding message from Robert’s post is that journalists need to be active in our own news communities. We set the tone. If you’ve ever been to a good party or dinner, the host brings people into the discussion. The host introduces new topics, and he or she makes sure that a number of voices and points of view are heard. Whenever I’m out at such a dinner, I come away feeling invigorated and better informed. Without journalists playing this role in our news communities, we’re not only abdicating responsibilities for the conversation on our sites, we’re missing a huge opportunity. I love the quote from Arthur Miller:

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.

In the past when a newspaper was defined by the paper, that conversation was a construct, and the conversation was very limited in who could participate. Now in the digital age, that conversation is a reality. It’s a lot more raucous of a conversation, but it’s also more inclusive. My passion is public service journalism, and journalists who can host such a great debate (not just kick off one) are rare. It’s a new skill, and I’m glad Robert has provided such great advice in how to hone that skill.

As our communities and our countries face such pressing problems and challenges, it’s imperative that journalists join these discussions and help foster them. We do that implicitly by providing people with the best information that we can find, but we can also engage our audience to be more active in making these key decisions.

Three years ago, I was back in the US covering the presidential election. One of the people I interviewed, Ralph Torres began following me on Twitter. The day after the election, he wrote this to me on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie id=”991306753″]

We have the opportunity to pull our audiences further into critical civic conversations but we have to seize it, not believe that interaction is only for ‘them’.

Social media is part of journalism

Adam Tinworth has highlighted a comment on Fleet Street Blues that sees social media as “an administrative task” rather than a journalistic one and says that editors want to hire “web monkeys” because they are cheaper than real journalists.

This commenter wouldn’t be the first person to mistake social media journalism for nothing more than a promotional function best left to “cheap web monkey”. I’m sure if the commenter works for a large enough organisation to have its own press office that they would love to be called cheap web monkeys for . However, smart journalists long ago realised how valuable interacting, not merely promoting one’s work or broadcasting on Twitter, was to their journalism.

Megan Garber of Harvard’s Nieman Lab wrote:

Carvin’s work cultivating sources and sharing their updates has turned curation into an art form, and it’s provided a hint of what news can look like in an increasingly networked media environment.

I’m back in Doha working again with Al Jazeera. I spent five weeks in November and December conducting social media training with more than 100 Al Jazeera English staff. Social media has been key in how they covered this story, and it has been a part of the story, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. As Egypt cracked down on their television staff, Al Jazeera sent its web journalists to Egypt to help tell this historic story.

We’re not “web monkeys”. You can just call us journalists from now on.

Live blogging evolved: Context and curation not just collection

When I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, I was a big booster of live blogging. We now think of Twitter and Facebook as “real-time”, but in terms of news, we’ve been living in a real-time environment now for decades. With the advent of radio, we stopped waiting for the news to arrive when we got the newspaper. Sometimes rolling news can descend into self-parordy, but after working for the BBC for eight years, I know that live and continuous news can be done well. For me live blogging and real-time curation allow newspapers via their websites and via mobile to compete against broadcasters in rolling news.

Seeing this post via Martin Belam that the Guardian Newsblog might somehow be “the Death of Journalism” by John at The Louse & the Flea* gives me a chuckle but it also raises some valid points. Martin responds to some of those points, and I know that he and others at The Guardian are actively working to address some of the deficiencies in the format. Martin says:

Nevertheless, John does identify some of the issues that concern me from an information structure point of view of the way we do live blogging now – notably it is very difficult within our templates to display a summary prominently enough, and the strict reverse chronology of entries whilst a live blog is “active” can lead to the more important chunks of the content getting buried. We could also probably do an improved job of permanently sign-posting packages of more conventionally formatted stories from within the live blog itself.

As anyone who works in online news knows, some of this is just down to the limits of technology, as Martin admits, but they are limits that can be addressed both technically and editorially. Live blogging began with sports coverage at The Guardian and moved on to media and tech conference coverage and also live blogging TV shows. The length of a post was limited by the event – 90 minutes of football or an hour episode of Big Brother, but I’m not sure that this format is really well suited for events that carry on all day for several days.

Drowning in a ‘River of News’

However, John does raise some issues that I think are worth addressing. John says that The Guardian’s live blog is:

a mish-mash of baffling tweets, irrelevant musings from the Guardian’s comments, contact details for those who want to find out about loved ones or make donations (including one from the New Zealand Red Cross, who actually says it doesn’t want donations just yet, and another from the Auckland University Students’ Union, the relevance of which escapes me), musings from a boffin at that world renowned centre of earthquake research, Bristol University, and speculation on how the tragedy might affect the Rugby World Cup, due to kick-off in NZ in seven months’ time. Scattered meagrely throughout, like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, are bits of what you and I might call “hard news”.

I really do worry that some of the aggregation that we’re doing is really difficult to navigate unless you’re a news junkie. We have to make sure that a stream of news aggregation doesn’t feel like a maddening stream of consciousness. I have the utmost respect for Guardian live blog masters (and friends) Matthew Weaver and Andrew Sparrow, but I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to package their prodigious and highly professional output. Andy said that some days during the election last year he was sometimes producing CORRECTION: 14,000 40,000 words a day. (Andy corrected me on Twitter. I thought 40k words in a day was ambitious, but he is prolific!) How does the average reader easily navigate this? The Guardian did a lot of work during the election to improve the format. They added better formatting for different elements such as blockquotes and contributions from other members of Guardian staff, but the reader still has to rely too much on searching within a page.

I know that Martin and Co will come evolve the format, but I still can’t help but wondering if simply breaking up the posts at major inflection points might be a good interim solution. I agree with Martin that there is a lot that can be done with better packaging.

Martin flags up the prodigious output of The Guardian yesterday, much of it in more traditional formats. However, looking at the headlines, I have to admit that I’m overwhelmed. With some of the headlines, I’m not entirely clear how the stories are different. In saying that, I don’t want to pick on The Guardian. Frankly, I’m really think that over-commissioning is part of a problem that newspapers are suffering from right now. They can publish continuously, but I know there is a better way to mix slow and flow news coverage.

Curation and context not just collection

I also think that John has hit on an issue that has become a real problem in real-time news coverage in the last couple of years. I’m a journalist. I’m a news junkie. I keep tabs on a wide range of stories in some considerable depth, but even with the background knowledge that I have, I’m sometimes lost. If I’m lost and overwhelmed in stories that I know really well I know that our audiences don’t even know where to start.

Whether it’s live blogging or new tools like Storify, I worry that sometimes we’re training a fire hose of news on our audiences. We’re not curating. We’re not making editorial choices and adding context. Instead I do fear that we’re causing information overload rather than helping people make sense of the world. Storify and live blogging are great tools and techniques, but they work when a journalist makes editorial choices and adds value through context. Who is this person on Twitter? What is their role in the story?

On Twitter, I occasionally hear the claim that to edit out information is some form of censorship. If people want the fire hose, they can use Google Realtime. People have a choice to swim in the waterfall, and our editorial choices don’t preclude people from digging deeper and in different ways than we have. Journalists report and choose what they think are the most important bits of information. That’s one of the services that we provide, and in the deluge of real-time news, that service is actually more important than before.

I guess to do that, to be trusted guides, we have to win rather than assume trust. That’s another change in terms of people’s relationship to journalism, but we can do that because we don’t have the walls that separate us from audiences.

Real-time in motion

Some of these super-long live blogs are also is a terrible experience on mobile even on light-weight mobile templates. The downloads are huge, and they don’t work well on small screens. As we increasingly move to mobile consumption, we’re going to have to rethink this format or more likely than not think of a new format entirely.

I hope that my friends and former colleagues at The Guardian don’t think I’m picking on them. These are more general observations than The Guardian’s live blogging, and I know that Martin and the great live bloggers on staff there don’t rest on their much deserved laurels. It’s a big challenge. We can relay so much more information than in the past when we had a few sources and the wires, but that means that we have to find new ways to help audiences make sense of that information.

*Note to John
This isn’t a snarky comment but honest advice. If you’re an unemployed journalist, I’d really suggest adding some links on your blog to your past work and an up-to-date CV. Suw and I use LinkedIn and have a link to our work histories there. Hopefully your blogging won’t just keep you sane while you look for another job but actually help you land it. It’s working really well for me, and I hope it helps you find a job soon.

Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.

* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

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: Robin Sloan of Twitter

Robin Sloan works for Twitter with their media partnerships. He started off with a few statistics.

  • Twitter has 105m users worldwide.
  • 30% of users are mobile.
  • Growing faster internationally than in the US.
  • 1bn SMS per day.
  • 60m tweets a day.

Robin said that inventors don’t always understand why their inventions work or how people use it. However, they do believe that there are some reasons why it does work.

We think that Twitter works because it’s an information network not a social network.

Many people are using it for ‘one-way’ relationships, such as following news organisations or TV shows. It is much like a traditional broadcast network.

They believe that Twitter works because there is “less friction”. They believe that this allows people to use Twitter in moments when they are waiting, interstitial time. What if news presented itself with no friction, without entering “news mode”. To read The New York Times or watch Al Jazeera, you have to enter this headspace, this focus, “news mode”. What happens if you could get information without entering “news mode”?

We just figured out websites, but he said: “Am I saying that news websites have too much information? Yes.” I think this is about presenting information in the flow of life without friction. This reminds me a lot like TV. In some ways, this becomes the new programme guide. They don’t look at the EPG; they look at Twitter.

Google just released Google TV this week. TV is still the world’s biggest medium. It has an audience of 4bn people. Google want to change the operating system of TV. Twitter and TV, these things really do go together.

How does this argument mean for news? How can you present information in context, in the interstitial moments in people’s lives. How can you make consuming news ridiculously simple? How can you present pure information, pure message? Real-time information happens when that friction approaches zero. This is the challenge. As a platform, as a medium, TV is behind in some ways. It’s ahead in many ways, TV needs no interface.

At Twitter, we still think that it’s way too complicated. There is too much friction.

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.

Focus on editorial ideas, then find the right tool

My esteemed colleague and comrade in digital arms, Jemima Kiss, Twittered this very astute observation, in less than 280 characters, about Twitter and use of the micro-blogging application by news organisations:

jemimakiss: Common mistakes news orgs make with Twitter 1) That it’s all about Twitter, rather than how people are actually using Twitter and..

jemimakiss 2) They get fixed on using a tool, like Twitter, rather than working out what they want to do & finding the best tool for it. That is all.

She’s spot on when it comes to Twitter. There is a tendency for organisations to rush with the herd to a new social media service or site without thinking about what, editorially, they are trying to achieve. I’ve seen the same thing happen with blogs and Facebook. After entering the mainstream, some journalists demanded their own blog. Why did they want a blog? They saw it as a back door to having a column. They had always wanted an opinion column because it was a sign of status and as we all know, blogs are just opinion (sarcasm noted). A typical conversation in the industry might go like this:

Editor: How often are you planning on updating your blog?

Aspiring columnist: Oh, once a week should do.

Editor: Were you planning on linking to anything?

Aspiring columnist: Why would I do that? This is my column, er, I mean blog.

Editor: Are you going to take part in the conversation and respond to comments?

Aspiring columnist:
No, of course not. I’m far too busy for that kind of thing.

Editor: So why do you want a blog instead of a column in the newspaper?

Asprining columnist: *silence*

That’s not to say that the journalist wouldn’t get their own column, er, I mean blog, thus continuing traditional media’s focus on celebrity over interactivity. Some journalists make incredibly good bloggers, but when a blog is used simply to replicate what possible in print, it is an editorial waste.

Functionally, there might not be a great difference between a column-with-comments and a blog, but editorially, there is a huge difference.

  • Bloggers post frequently.
  • Bloggers take part in the conversation and respond to comments and questions.
  • Bloggers link to the conversation on other sites.

Blogs take part in a distributed conversation in ways that columns rarely do, whereas columns – even ones with comments – provide a relatively closed, introspective conversation.

Jemima has flagged up how much the same is happening with Twitter. This all comes down to understanding how social media differs from traditional uni-directional publishing and broadcasting and thinking about the editorial concept and the unique opportunities for engagement.