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.

Your questions about US Elections: a(nother) experiment in journalism

Suw and I talk about the US elections over breakfast all of the time, and I realised since I came back to Washington last week that despite having very little interest in politics when I first came to Washington DC ten years ago, my geekiness has now spilled over into politics. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about politics and the economy with a range of people since I came back. Suw was asking questions that I’m sure on the on the mind of many Guardian readers, and instead of letting these conversations disappear, I realised that I wanted to capture and share those conversations.

We recorded this conversation this morning over Skype. She was sitting in our flat in London, and I was sitting in my hotel here in Washington. We used the Skype Call Recorder from Ecamm (a bank breaker at US$14.95), but if you use a PC, Pamela will do the same things plus can automatically handle uploads to FTP servers and auto posting to several blog services. I used Pamela to record broadcast quality interviews when I was at the BBC. If you use a nice broadcast quality mic such as the Snowball from Blue (a lovely wedding present that Suw and I received from our friend Vince), the sound quality is stunning. We simply used the mics on our MacBooks. The Call Recorder software has a side-by-side split screen option so we didn’t have to do anything to edit the video apart from top and tail it (edit out our pre-call and post-call chatter). In the end, it took very little production time apart from the time for the call. Viddler, the site we used to host this doesn’t like stereo audio so I had to merge the channels, but QuickTime Pro handled that with ease.

That’s the technical side of things. Technology is simply a means to a journalistic end for me, and the real aim is to expand my little experiment to anyone with a Skype connection, a webcam and a question about the US elections. Sure, I love talking to Suw about anything and everything, and she wants to talk after the vice presidential debate next week between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. I want to use this to open up a discussion with as many people as possible about the US election, around the US and around the world. I’d also like to see how feasible this is on the road. After next Thursday, I’ll be traveling across the US. The technical challenges are pretty minor, especially compared to previous election trips that I’ve taken. The real measure of success for this and many other journalistic experiments I have planned for the next month is the depth and breadth of the conversation. If you’d like to take part, drop me an email or leave a comment. Let’s talk. There are lots of important issues on the table, and I’m so excited about how technology opens up new possibilities for civic dialogue.

Conventions, journalism workflow 2.0 and Chrome as a Web OS

Suw and I are still bedding in, so to speak, with the brilliant new WordPress-powered Strange Attractor, and one of the things that I haven’t quite set up is auto-posting (although ‘auto’ might be a stretch seeing as the feature seems to work when it wants to). Until we get it working again, I’ll just have to post some of the things that catch me eye.

Convention opportunity costs

I’ve already written about my views on the excessive coverage of the US political conventions. It doesn’t take 15,000 journalists to cover a four-day informercial by the political parties. I would be thrilled if the 15,000 journalists actually cut through the stage-managed crap and told the American people and the world what these candidates actually planned to do, but they don’t.

Jeff Jarvis has much the same view and put it excellently both on BuzzMachine and his weekly column at the Guardian (my day job):

The attention given to the conventions and campaigns is symptomatic of a worse journalistic disease: we over-cover politics and under-cover the actions of our governments. We over-cover politicians and under-cover the lives and needs of citizens. . . .

We don’t need the press to tell us what the politicians say; we can watch it ourselves on the web. We don’t need pundits to tell us what to think; we can blather as they do on our blogs. The rise of mass media – primetime TV – ensured that conventions would never surprise again: they became free commercials. The internet then took away the last reasons to devote journalistic resources to the events – there’s nothing we can’t see and judge on our own.

Brooke Gladstone at On the Media flagged up the childish behaviour of the on-air ‘talent’. At FoxNews, Bill O’Reilly petulantly complained about a newspaper that had insulted him, and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews had a go at colleague Keith Olberrmann for making a ‘yackity-yack’ hand gesture for whittering on. I agree with Ms Gladstone when she says:

After Obama’s speech, true to form, the pundits told us how to feel about it. This week, the cable news talkers told us that Obama had to reveal himself, but so did the news channels. They all saw this week as promotion for themselves, as much as Obama, and they tried to tell us how to feel about them.

But I don’t feel that good, frankly, because they got in the way of the story, because they made themselves the story. Because if this truly was the historic event they kept telling us it was, then they all talked way too much.

Pundits are getting in way of the story. They think we need them to tell us how to feel or think. I don’t think I’m alone in resenting when people try to tell me how to think or feel. Besides, now if I feel the need to entertain myself with anchors behaving like children, I can always watch it the next day on YouTube.

‘Lifecycle of a New Story’

Alison Gow wrote an excellent post of how the journalism work flow differs now in the age of the social media. She expertly and succinctly walks journalists through traditional reporting and how things can be. (I originally wrote have changed, but this is a work in process.) Every step of the reporting process can draw on new social media tools and tap into a broader range of expertise. I’ll flag up one of her five steps:

Step Two

Reporter researches story (Web 1.0)

Phones/meets contacts to verify information; searches Google for background/experts; finds expert and emails questions; includes response in article; sets up photo opportunity with picture desk; writes article and sends to newsdesk.

Reporter researches story (Web 2.0)

Crowdsources idea using social networks; uses blog searches and blog translators to find posts and experts worldwide; uses own blog to post developing and ask for input and suggestions from readers; sets up online survey and poll (promotes these using links to it from own blog, Facebook page and online forums); posts links and questions on specialist messageboards; searches social bookmarking tools for related issues; uses video discussion site to seek views; records telephone interview for podcast; collates findings and discusses package with print and digital news editors; films video report; begins writing detailed, analytical article for print product, accompanied by quality images – some found by picturedesk searching photo-sharing websites’ Creative Commons pool.

It’s a great post. Keep it handy. Distribute it to your staff, and flag up her conclusion. “I had no idea when I started doing this how thin the ‘old’ opportunities for investigating stories would look compared to the tools at our disposal now; it’s quite stark really.”

Read the comments. Alison talks about the tools she uses.

I’ll be writing more about the tools that I plan to use to manage all the work I will be doing on my upcoming US Election road trip, mentioned in my post about how to geo-tag photos. The blog launches next week, but I’m already reaching out into the social networks that I am part of.

Chrome as a web operating system

Steve Yelvington consistently writes insightful posts about new media, the newspaper business and community. Steve is a journalist through and through, and he also has an excellent grasp of the web and technology. Last year, he told me over dinner how he wrote a Usenet news reader for the Atari ST in 1985.

Steve sees Google’s Chrome not simply as a web browser but as a ‘Web operating system’.

The vision for Chrome, as documented in a 38-page Web comic, is to create an environment that optimally manages and coordinates Web-based applications. That sounds a lot like the classic definition of an operating system: “An operating system (commonly abbreviated OS and O/S) is the software component of a computer system that is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of the computer. The operating system acts as a host for applications that are run on the machine.”

He sees Chrome as a game-changer.

NOTE: People have taken issue with the EULA, saying that by using Chrome you give Google “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license” to do what the search giant wants to do with content submitted using the application. Gizmodo says that Google is updating the EULA to ‘be less creepy‘.