One Man and His Blog

April 18, 2014

Scenes from a working week

The Telegraph from above


Not sabotageLunchAnother week at the digital journalism coalface...

US Airways: that tweet explained

An excellent explanation of how US Airways ended up tweeting the pornographic plan - which explains why the social media guy didn't get fired.

I'm pleasantly surprised about how maturely this has all worked out. Is the social media business finally growing up?

April 15, 2014

Verify social media content - or look like an idiot

Declan Curry

The above photo was circulating Twitter yesterday, and at least two media outlets - Romenesko and FishbowlNY - ran it as an example of a BBC captioner having a bad day.

They found the image and they ran with it. They didn't contact Declan or the BBC. And today, they're both apologising.

As it happens, I was at university with Declan - we worked on Imperial College's student newspaper Felix together. I'd seen the photo before - when he posted it to Facebook, sharing a joke he'd written himself. Yup, the caption was by him - and was the best part of a year old:

click on the comments link to see the discussion

And there we have it. Two media outlets turned their journalistic instincts off when presented with something fun on social media, and made fools of themselves.

You don't get to stop applying the basic techniques of journalism just because you found something on social media. Verify, check, double-source. Or you'll be apologising to your readers - or your editor - pretty quickly.

Back on the blog

Today has been defined by server problems and vomit. Server problems kept me from posting this morning, and vomit (as produced by my daughter) for the afternoon.

But I am back.


April 9, 2014

One for my regulars: the Digital Publishing Irregular


If you're reading this, you're almost certainly a regular reader of my blog - because I'm going to do exactly no promotion whatsoever of this post. This is just something for my regulars, if you like, and those they choose to share it with.

I'm going to start doing a newsletter in the next few days, which will be called the Digital Publishing Irregular.

It will be, as the name suggests, about digital publishing, and it will be irregular. It will be more opinionated and broad than posts on this blog, and will represent, in many ways, the first draft of ideas that will eventually make their way here.

If you're interested in this, feel free to sign-up below:

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Expect occasional missives thereafter…

A New York Moment

Yellow Cab in Flatiron

Apologies for the silence - I'm in New York delivering some training and very, very busy.

Not too busy to grab a few photos, mind you, but busy.

April 3, 2014

Productive Social Business and the Post*Shift launch

Livio and Lee at Post*Shift

When some of the social media gurus of the world started proclaiming that "social business was dead" a while back, my immediate thought was "this is where it gets interesting".


Well, when the shiny suited bandwagon jumpers move on it's pretty much a sign that the peak of inflated expectations is over, and that we're passing through the trough of disillusionment towards a plateau of productivity. And yes, gentle reader, I am alluding to the Gartner Hype Cycle here:


Once the flash and dash of the early hype is over, the serious work gets done. We're seeing some interesting new businesses emerging in the space, like my friends Agile Elephant and now a post Headshift/Dachis Lee Bryant and Livio Hughes with Post*Shift.

They held their launch part last night, and while I can't claim to completely understand what the company is right now - some hybrid of an incubator, an investor and a strategic consultant as far as I could tell - I'm certainly interested to see what they do over the next couple of years.

A few interesting notes from the introduction talks

  • Existing companies are prone to "innovation tourism" - where they go visit innovators and startups, and then go back to doing exactly what they did before.
  • Existing companies tend to become entities whose purpose is protecting their business model. They're disruption-adverse.
  • Startups may be more professional than many businesses, as they run lean and with zero waste - they just can't afford it.
  • There are many company structures which have existed conceptually for decades - but which social technology is finally making practical
  • The management consultancy model hasn't significantly changed in a century. It needs rethinking.

Right at the end of the talks, Lee touched on a small obsession of mine, when he started talking about how the disruption that the internet can bring could interface with more physical businesses - industry, manufacturing and the like (I've written about this for NEXT Berlin). I'm desperate to see startup thinking and social business start to spread beyond the obvious confines of knowledge workers and mobile apps. Looks like Post*Shift could be planning on making some inroads into a much wider discussion about the future of work - and that could be worth watching.

March 26, 2014

Hacks/Hackers London liveblog: Peter Jukes tweets and Al Brown videos

Liveblogging so be warned: typos, inaccuracies and vile, vile abuse of grammar and syntax ahead.

Peter Jukes: Livetweeting the Phone Hacking Trial

Peter Jukes

Peter is better known as a dramatist, but has always been interested in technology and journalism. He's fascinated by dynasties, power and corruption, as his books show. So, he started going to the pre-trial hearings on the hacking allegations.

And he realised he could tweet it. And he found it a more interesting process than writing conventional articles about it. He knew some of the things coming - but couldn't tweet them until they were told to the jury. That's contempt of court.

He built an audience rapidly - but he couldn't afford the tickets the loss of earnings from attending the trial to live-tweet the whole thing. He gave up for a few days, and there was a clamour for him to return. Someone suggested that he crowd-fund he tickets. He was initially resistant to this - despite the fact that his book has been crowd-funded. He was funded in 8 hours when he actually capitulated. Why? Because he was providing a service that people wanted.

With great crowd-funding comes great responsibility

The financial support came with emotional strings and he found he felt an enormous responsibility to his funders. He generally goes in the annex downstairs rather than the gallery, as he finds you have more freedom to work there, watching the streams, than in the gallery itself. But it's a grim, difficult environment for a writer. Over time, the trial became an incredible drama, unfolding as the trial went on. Why? Both the British justice system and the British media are on trial. That's a precarious situation.

People are following him, including court officials - and they're alert to any prejudicial statement he makes. What British journalism does is mix fact and opinion. That's a completely different situation to court reporting. If you comment, you're in contempt of court - so sticking to just the facts is an incredible discipline. Of course, you can't tweet everything. So he targets every salient fact or date - and the best of the quotes. The only editorial decisions he makes are compressing quotes.

Why did people fund him? Because he's independent - he doesn't work for any of the media organisations.

All his tweets are being archived to be made available as a searchable database on his blog after the event.

Put to the Question

Questions from the audience:

  • Did he do any media law training first? No. He wished he did. But he learnt from other journalist, and from getting it wrong.

  • He tweets from an iPad with a Logitech keyboard.

  • Did he pay tax on the crondfunded money? He needs to talk to his accountant about that...

  • What's the difference between what he does and lifestream of video or audio? How do you database or search or video? The internet is the revenge of words.

Al Brown, Vice News

Al Brown from Vice News

The most popular videos they did were the hard-hitting news and documentary work - the one about being in the middle of stories. So, they started building Vice News to focus on that, and launched about a month ago.

The documentary film-making they were doing was labelled news long before they started it calling that. They find the news cycle quite boring - and so do many of their readers. "The News" as it exists now is something you have to be plugging into all the time to understand what is going on.

They wouldn't cover the missing plane, for example, because there's nothing to film, and nothing they can add. They're quite opinionated in their reporting. They want journalists on site, saying what they see in front of them - and what it means. Henru Langston's tweets from the Ukraine racked up 20m impressions. But he followed that up with long-form work, and the camera team were using Instagram and Vine as they worked, which was followed by a documentary. That final result si something that can be looked back on in a year.

They're trying to use as many forms as possible - short form, long form. Whatever it takes to tell the story. Length isn't something they're hugely pre-occupied with. On YouTube they get people watching on average 20 minutes of video. The idea of the short video is beginning to be dispelled - because people are watching on mobile at tablets.

Money and People

He's not allowed to talk about revenue split with YouTube - but it's easier for content makers to make revenue from their own platforms than YouTube. YouTube is about audience growth for them. They have so many different ways of monetising on their own platforms, that they want to bring people there.

He's always looking for hungry young journalists with access and a desire to tell stories. There's lots of tattooed 22 year olds - and some older heads who stop everyone getting killed. They like growing their own talent. People start by writing for the, and then transition to film-making if they're interested.

Equipment? A lot of it is very conventional. They're not citizen journalists. They use phone for live streaming - and high end cameras with DoP for their serious filming. They spend quite a lot of money per minute you see on screen. What makes it feel "rough" is what they choose to show.

They're always been a counter-culture kind of brand. How will they build news? Do more of it. But they won't chase the news cycle, or cover things they don't think they have anything new to offer.

Over half of their audience arrive via social media.

They're safety compliance is pretty much that the same as traditional broadcasters. Their stuff just feels more dangerous because ether show journalists freaking out which other media outlets would cut.

Everything you need to know about modern life...

Power points at every table

Oculus joins the Facebook flotilla

Is Facebook becoming a good old fashioned conglomerate? Felix Salmon thinks so:

Zuckerberg knows how short-lived products can be, on the internet: he knows that if he wants to build a company which will last decades, it's going to have to outlast Facebook as we currently conceive it. The trick is to use Facebook's current awesome profitability and size to acquire a portfolio of companies; as one becomes passé, the next will take over. Probably none of them will ever be as big and dominant as Facebook is today, but that's OK: together, they can be huge.

Facebook is no longer a one trick pony company. That's a survival strategy.

March 24, 2014

The dangers and rewards of Data Journalism

Data journalism at work

Allison Schrager has a problem with data journalism:

But I worry that data give commentary a false sense of authority since data analysis is inherently prone to bias. The author's priors, what he believes or wants to be true before looking at the data, often taint results that might appear pure and scientific. Even data-backed journalism is opinion journalism. So as we embark on this new wave of journalism, we should be aware of what we are getting and what we should trust.

How, though, is this different from traditional journalism? Inevitably, a journalist brings her bias to any story - and however hard we strive to eliminate that, it will find expression, whether we like it or not.

There's some very useful advice towards the end of her post about how to avoid distorting the data too much, and how to make sure that you're looking at the whole story, but she doesn't address that central question hinted at my her use of "a false sense of authority".

My gut instinct is that people are more wary of bias in data journalism, because there's a tendency to believe that the "numbers don't lie". And they might not. But how you chose to present them has a very big impact on the message a particular truth tells...

That's art, my friend, not science

Tim Hartford wrote about how misinformation can be beautiful for the FT a little while back:

Data visualisation creates powerful, elegant images from complex data. It's like good prose: a pleasure to experience and a force for good in the right hands, but also seductive and potentially deceptive. Because we have less experience of data visualisation than of rhetoric, we are naive, and allow ourselves to be dazzled. Too much data visualisation is the statistical equivalent of dazzle camouflage: striking looks grab our attention but either fail to convey useful information or actively misdirect us.

Visualisation, in particular, is in danger of dressing art up as science. You need to be very careful that the data tells the story it actually claims it does, and that you don't distort things for the sake of a more compelling "angle" or aesthetic representation.

And, y'know, check your own assumptions at the door when you dive into this. But this is all good, standard journalism practice anyway - not something new or unique to data journalism.

The fox knows his pivot tables, that's what...

Of course, this whole discussionon has been triggered by various interviews that Nate Silver has given around the launch of FiveThirtyEight. Matthew Ingram sums up the discussion pretty well:

When it comes to using data of any kind in the creation of journalism, Silver says that traditional journalists are quite good at the first two steps of the process -- namely, the collection of data and the organization of it into a news story or other format. However, they often fail to do as good a job at the next two steps, he says, which include the explanation or analysis of the data and some kind of generalization about its future implications.

Lurking in this is an explanation for the current obsession with data journalism: traditionally, we've only had very limited access to significant datasets. The arrival of digital technology has made collecting, sharing and analysing datasets significantly more simple, and so has opened up a whole new field of journalism, that we've only scratched the surface of before. It's difficult to complain about this (although some people try...), because more sources of stories is pretty much always a good thing.

But for an industry which tends to bend liberal in its politics, journalism can be very small "c" conservative in its outlook. There's an inherent suspicion of the new that anyone who has been working in online digital development will be familiar with. Coupled with the mistrust of journalists that the last few years of revelations has engendered, it's not a surprise that people are slightly suspicious of what we're doing with the numbers.

An oasis of fact in a desert of opinion

However, I think that the Economist's robust defence of Silver and his approach to journalism actually gets to the heart of the matter. Right now, we have far, far too much opinion-based journalism and not nearly enough fact-based reporting.

As the piece concludes:

There is, and always will be, a place for bullshit--or if you prefer a more dignified construction, a place for arguments driven by ideas, belief and feeling rather than data. Positivism is in no danger of sweeping such journalism away in toto; American newspapers and airwaves are full, far too full, of shouters, table-bangers, aspersion-casters and heartstring-tuggers. They drive ratings and traffic (and inspire blogposts). But to the extent that Mr Silver's mission is to shrink bullshit's share of our national conversation, I can only wish him Godspeed.

Who can argue with that? I meet more journalism students interested in becoming opinion columnists than I do those interested in data journalism. I've talked to managing editors at our national papers who despair of finding graduates keen to get on a do reporting, rather than writing leader-type columns.

Data journalism is actually a form of back-to-the-roots movement, of focusing our journalism back on finding facts and the stories within them. We're just using different tools to do that.

Employment and the ageing journalist

Talking of team diversity (as we were), how about age?

For all but a very small minority of people at the top, the corporate world is a cult of youth. The 'up or out' mentality favours younger employees, if only because they have more rungs of the corporate ladder before them, have fewer competing responsibilities, and are cheaper. But as a communicator I know that messages that resonate well with one audience (in this case, shareholders), don't necessarily meet the needs of others (such as society, local communities, employees), or indeed benefit the company itself in the long-term. That's why some enlightened companies are adapting to the challenges and even benefits of an aging workforce.

This seems to be particularly common in journalism businesses, where the number of 40-plus people in the companies is often significantly lower than the 20 to 40 bracket. Some of them take the PR shilling, some of them go freelance (hello!). But what happens to the rest of them?


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