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June 17, 2013
Warning: liveblogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling typos. Some of them will be mine, some of them auto-correct's. But don't say you weren't warned...
Libby Powell became a hack through entering a Guardian competition and writing an article about the overseas development work she was doing. She became a freelancer, but after a year began to feel like a bit of a fraud, writing about things she had no experience of. During a trip to Sierra Leone, she became aware of how much people's inability to tell the story of what they'd suffered was damaging to them. Everyone had phones, and was recording this stuff - but it wasn't getting published because it wasn't sexy enough for the mainstream media.
The media is powerful. You're telling people everything about people they've never met. Get it wrong, and you can do so much damage. People from the margins can improve quality and accountability more than those in the centre.
People kept telling her she was joining a sinking ship: journalism. She didn't feel that - to her it was a rising body, but one that was shedding some old skin. Media is still an elite, production of media is elite. 2/3s of the world's population is not yet online. As we switch to online, we shed those. That matters if you care about freedom, truth and exposure.
Rivers used to be the medium of communication and trade. Africa suffered because it lacked navigable rivers - and then road, and now connectivity. Those who are the last to connect, will be the last to tell their stories, or trade their goods. The most vulnerable are the ones least able to tell their stories.
Give people in the margins a digital voice
So, she formed radar. They'd use their currency as journalists to train the next generation to tell their own stories. They'd give people access to digital channels, via mobile to digital technology. They'd give people access to decision making, both editorial and political. Anyone who thinks that the whole world will be connected by 2020 is out of their mind. Social exclusion will control access to connectivity. Women will be prevented from accessing technology by social factors. People with disabilities are in the margins of society. So, they identify the people in the margins. They don't set up local offices, but find the people they trust - and approach them.
They started training using recycled NCTJ material. They started micro - with stories told by SMS. How can you teach people how to tell stories in 140 characters? It's easier to teach non-journalists that than people who have been trained to write lots of words. They teach the five "w"s. It centres people in a crisis. They are not technology-based, but human-based. They keep a human connection to people - and so they will never sclae to the Reuters level. They want to know the people they work with. The big platforms are getting so greedy for user content that they can't realisticly verify it anymore. Knowing the person make s ahuge difference to them.
She doesn't want this to be Doom Zone. Things are really ahrd for the reporters they work with. Some of that is unlearning steroetypes - you're not just interesting ebcause you've lost a limb. A disabled person doesn't have to report in disability all the time. It opens the floodgates once people understand that. They've had stories on Sollywood, Sierra Leone's emerging film industry.
They started on Tumblr, and used a SMS to Gmail tool to get it to work. But it's designed as a personal tool - so they ahd to work around the limitations. They run their digital hub from the UK. They don't write the stories - they amplify them. They tweet them, and send them to journalists. They get the repoerters interview slots. They do everything from their reporters they would do for themselves.
Tumblr is "great, love it". But they decided to invest in tech of their own - which was bold, because they weren't paying themselves yet. They built a microsite around the idea that mapping is really exciting right now. The maps show the stories as they come in, allowing people to explore the stories geographically. In August, they hope to have an "Explore" tab on their site. They can't talk much about it yet, but they're talking to gamers and thinking about how to sue multimedia to really engage with stories. Too often stories from the margins are treated as add-ons. They want to build one of the best storytelling platforms in the world to support this.
They want to move rights beyond the "right to be told" to the "right to tell". The idea of right to communicate is very stunted - we need to be very away of creating dialouge. They're doing Kenya, India and Siarra Leone - and new the UK. The majority of Bradford's population are middle-aged Muslim women, When do you see one of them as a reporter?
They've had coverage on the BBC and Al Jazeera. Their reporters "owned" Twitter during the Sierra Leone elections. Most of the groups they work with are off-grid and reply on SMS to communicate.
In Kenya, the women are almost invisble in the technology development and media. They targeted mothers and grandmothers, and mapped their work, reporting crimes and violence - but also "cool spots" where everything was OK. Stories are built SMS by SMS - often the base team text question back for more details.
In India, much of their work focuses on the untouchables. There have been seven acid attacks on girls in one district - and they triage by caste in the hospitals. One woman and her father wasn't allowed into the police station because of their caste. They're working with digital storytellers on ways of telling these stories more vividly. Stories need graphics and they need to move, if they're to move you...
Google and The Guardian invited them to an event - Big Tent Activate - and they brought some of their reporter with them - and evey one of them was rejected by the hotel security staff. But they got them in, and they got to pitch their stories to the Guardian.
Her experiences as an aid worker and a journalist have horrified her, ebcasue of the ease in which she can come and go from these troubled parts of the world. Can she make herself a mule to bring people's voices in and out? They need other people who feel this. They need editors, listeners, hackers... If you have a couple of hours to give, then let her know.
The SMS Gateway
They're using standard SMS gateways, based on http. They're putting teh data into a graph database to track relationships inherent in the stories. Each bit of data goes in, and the relationships get modelled. Intially they produce flat form stories, but as they develop the website, they'll start to expose how the story came about and developed, from the point the first text came in.
The UK pilot will include multimedia attachments, as even the cheapest UK phone can take photos.
How do you give back to your reporters?
We let them know we got it. A Tweet of a submission is one credit, used in a blog post is two and external publication is five. Credits can be used for more training. If they ask for stories, they give them $10 - more than the average weekly wage. Texts are always local - and they're looking at a free system, but there is a value in the cost as an editorial check. 5 to 6% of the stories have been published - and they get all of that money. One person in Sierra Leone has earned £250 for his stories - and has bought a new laptop and training with some of it. It's hard to walk the line between news agancy and campaigning group. They're linking with change.org. They lobby via Twitter, by directing articles at people.
How are you funded? How are you going to stay funded?
Having worked in development, she realises that the tools they have developed are valuable. Most of the third sector are woring off-grid, and they're finding it hard to communicate, which means projects are fading. A visit every two years isn't going to get real answers, because people are afraid you'll take it away. So - they're planning on pimping their tools. The training is lucrative, but adding the hubs and technology makes it far more so. They're going to split radar into a charitable entity and a shark-like consultancy firm, that will bring in money to fund the groups who can't pay.
How much knowledge transfer is going on from those you've trained? Can you create native language reporter networks?
The first few countries they worked with were primarily English speaking - but in India they weren't - and many were deaf. So she was working both through a translator and a signer. Theire tool needs to be developed to work with non-Roman alphanumeric language systems.
How are you approaching getting editorial impact?
She loves that she was just linked with Wikileaks. Ideally they wouldn't have gatekeepers - but they've always been a collaborative news agency. The editing gives people confidence to submit. They went without a website for a while - why move something from a closed community - a slum - to another - their website - when they can partner with people with traffic? They "shamed" The Guardian and the BBC into taking their coverage. They use Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter because they have traffic. And sometimes their reports are the only ones that come out of a country that month.
Warning: liveblogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling typos. Some of them will be mine, some of them auto-correct's. But don't say you weren't warned...
USvsth3m is an experiment funded by Trinity Mirror to see if they could reach new audiences. They were aware that there was a type of traffic that they just weren't getting - and they were locked into a certain way of producing content.
This is a product prototype, both in the product itself, but also in the way the team works. He hates the phrase "web native" - but that's what we're talking here. It was a very fast experiment. He was brought in for one day's consulting. From the "yes" to launch was 5 week! It's set up so that it's OK fail. If it didn't go well, they'd shut it down after two months. the launched on the first day the team were in the room together. There weren't weeks of trial runs - but there was some content in place when they launched.
The name is a bit of a gimmick - they're both producing original content and linking out to the funniest stuff elsewhere on the web. They're trying to break the silo mentality of many publishing - you can only do this sort of thing if you acknowledge that you're part of a wider web. Every day they send out a newsletter asking who did better - them, or the rest of the internet. The newsletter is a key part of it. Rob Mansfield who launched B3ta is involved and knew that newsletters are a great way of interacting with an audience. The 3 in the name is because one guy has the usvsthem Twitter account. He doesn't use it.
Tumbring into life
They launched on Tumblr. Why? Wrong question. Why aren't more people doing this? is the right question. It has a fully featured CMS, and a huge community already there. If you build your own - that's fine, but it's not a priority. They're prototyping the content right now. Prior to this, he set-up a site called "Is Twitter wrong?" which does social media verification. It became a big thing around Hurricane Sandy and he launched that on Tumblr and Twitter. Can you fact-check in close to real time? Close enough to get the correction to go as viral as the error?
- It's not SEO-based - it's social-based. Publishers know how to do SEO - but you're fighting for scraps at this point. This is about working out how to appeal directly to the audience - that's the knowledge that reaps long-term rewards. With SEO a single Google update can leave you dead in the water.
- It's visual - not articles. Articles are great but not the answer to everything.
- Every sentence should be a tweet. They haven't quite stuck to that, as it's too restrictive, but the principle remains.
- Kill the section. It's a stream, not broken down into sections. Fussy navigation doesn't work on phones and tablets.
- It's a minimum viable product. No staff to do stuff at weekends? Fine. No content at weekends.
They were aware of the BBC Radio One middle manager problem. A bunch of people in their 30s or 40s going "Hey, internet, we have cool stuff for you." So, they hire people a bit younger than you, and you don't pretend that you're talking the language of younger people. As you grow, you can hire people who do things more naturally.
There's a sliver of ice in their soul - it's not just silly stuff, there's some political material in there, too.
The skill sets of the teams are designed to overlap. Everyone can do words, Photoshop and a bit of coding. They're all part of the creative output of the site, and they're all contributing constantly. They can have an idea in the morning can ship it that afternoon. A bug can be corrected within 3 minutes. The whole site was built fast in Tumblr, through hacking around in the code.
The design is deliberately basic - but they're done five versions of it in three weeks. They measure every change, and aim to learn from it. Every action on the site records into their analytics.
Where do they get those wonderful toys?
Their toys - standalone Interactives - are designed to be shared, but also something a bit different from what other sites are doing. Their first was a parody of the New York Times' Snowfall. It was a big media in-joke to target their friends. The next was a Doctor Who plot generator to reach to a bigger, established fan base. They recycled the code from that to do a newspaper comments generator, or anti-gay marriage argument generator. But every time they added a bit more to the code.
Games of Thronesbook was their first Facebook app - designed to build on the Game of Thrones fanbase. However, their new console headline generator failed. So, they turned to Ed Balls. Twitter's appetite for Ed Balls-related content is insatiable. The game tested how fast you can you type Ed Balls.
Twitter gets them attention - but Facebook gets traffic. The most traffficed post was one about the 14 kind of people on Facebook you want to block - but kinda can't. Facebook still drives huge amounts of traffic - but you can't see the sharing. It happens between friends. It's harder to insert yourself into then Twitter, but drives people to visit. And so does Google+ - sorta.
They've built internal tools, including "stormy" - a brainstorming tool, which allows voting on the funniest ideas from brainstorming sessions from comedians. That code's being reused on the site, for a sick euphemism battle mode...
They pay attention to internet detail - everything has Easter eggs built in. There are references to in-jokes and memes - and stuff hidden in the source code. The home page is only 9% of traffic.
They have four potential commercial models, and display ads ain't one. The models? SEEKRIT. They're in audience acquisition right now - but this will come.
No regrets, yet. Almost certainly something is going to go wrong soon - but it hasn't happened yet. They'll be hiring staff soon, publishing earlier in the day and expanding to weekends.
Mobile traffic is the "agonising" 49%. Despite being mobile-first, that's not quite there in the traffic yet.
How much hacking was needed? They're not at the point of rewriting the platform. The platform is more fiddly from an editorial point of view than an design one. He suspects that when they hit the limits of Tumblr, they'll roll their own CMS. Tumblr has "mad traffic" - it's very unlikely they'll every bring it down. The interactive toys are not on Tumblr.
Is the responsive design from Tumblr, or something they did? It's less than it's responsive, it's that they designed the mobile site first, and then designed the desktop version to look just like it. The initial idea was that the desktop would be three column, and respond down to one column on mobile. In the end they abandoned that in favour of the single column.
The audience? They're young people in the 18 to late 20s age group, who are very mobile-centric and into viral content. Very Buzzfeedy. What's in it for Trinity Mirror? They knew this was an audience they weren't hitting. They want the institutional knowledge of understanding how to do this. Traffic has been good, but not comparable with most of the Trinity Mirror titles yet - but they are ahead of some of them.
Isn't there enough inanity on the web already? That's where the stuff with an edge to it comes in. Sometimes it can seem like your drowning in endless lists of 28 cats that look like Ryan Gosling - but Buzzfeed have been hiring proper journalists to do proper journalism for a couple of years. It's much easier to go from an internet culture to traditional journalism than the other away around. Get good at making stuff that's shared, and then get good at doing serious stuff.
June 11, 2013
The 26-year-old Mills, a once promising young writer in BuzzFeed's Animals division best known for authoring the popular posts "First-World Bear Problems" and "Seal And Owl Are BFFs," admitted this week that he copied captions from other reporters' slideshows without proper attribution and lifted various images of grinning llamas and wig-wearing alpacas directly from competing websites.
The fracas has left veterans of the social web feeling both vindicated and a little bemused. On the one hand, social media has become so central to a newsroom's mission that dedicated functionaries may be obsolete. On the other, doesn't every outlet need a boy or girl wonder to lend a human touch to the Twitter handle? Whether it's a day of reckoning or a sign of maturity for the social media editor, the role has never before been more embattled.
As one senior editor at a leading news outlet told me, "I both agree that the social media editor is dead and I just hired a social media editor."
There was an awful lot of noise and very little signal around this discussion. The end state is pretty obvious:
- Social media skills will be integral to all journalists' work
- The specialised social media editor will disappear
- The need for dedicated community-centric editors will remain, but their role will be larger than just social media
May 30, 2013
Bit of a farmyard metaphor at work in the journalism blogs this morning:
You have to hand it to Newsquest/Gannett. They certainly know how to milk a cow to death.
Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die.
This is what people often miss about the more bizarre decisions some publishers make: they're not trying to build sustainable business models for the future - they're milking what profits they can out of titles before they die.
A really compelling tale of behind-the-scenes life at Wikileaks from James Ball:
Faced with the bizarre situation of being asked to sign a gag order by a whistleblowing organization, I, alone, refused. Encouraged by Julian (I later learned), WikiLeaks staffers kept me up until 3 a.m. pressuring me to sign. Early the next morning, I awoke with Assange sat on my bed, pressuring me to sign--even before I was dressed. I held out, eventually left our remote location, and didn't go back.
It seems like a shame that the terrible personal failings of Julian Assange come to overshadow the good work being done in the early days of the service.
I'm speaking tonight at the Brighton Content Strategy Meetup, on all things multichannel, and why your iPad doesn't give a damn about your content strategy.
I'd invite you to come along, but, uh, the event is sold out. I probably should have blogged about it before now, shouldn't I?
UPDATE: Places available... Go, go, go, grab 'em now...
Ah well. This photo has a critical role to play:
All will be explained later. Well, if you already have a ticket, that is.
May 29, 2013
iPad has grown three times faster than iPhone did. This might be the most overlooked/underestimated fact about Apple today.
I did not know that. That's just changed the way I think about the future of journalism.
May 28, 2013
At least, that's what I hear. Personally, I was stuck inside marking, a result of having spent part of the past nine months or so as a pretend academic. It's been a fascinating insight into the future of what is probabaly still my profession. (Great unwritten blog posts: 2012 - the year that journalism wouldn't let me go).
And it was... fascinating. There were the standouts and the ones who didn't put in the work. All par for the course (as my wife, who is a real academic and has way more experience with this stuff than me, tells me). But most of all, it was so clear that some of them were regular consumers of online content and some of them weren't, and that shaped very heavily the way they produce content. I suppose that's an obvious observation: we all have our influences, and at first we emulate them and then - if we have any skill - we eventually grow beyond them and find our own voices.
If anyone's foolish enough to rehire me to work with students again next year, that's the major lesson I'll take away from this year. It's not enought to talk about the theory, the techniques and the working methods. You need to offer people as many great examples of the kind of work you're talking about. Colleagues like Paul Bradshaw are already pretty good at this - but it hadn't really sunk into my rather dense noggin just yet. You can't force students to read them, but you can at least offer them the choice.
May 15, 2013
opinionated rant online commentators about journalism, I get fairly regular e-mails from students asking for my comments on journalism, blogging and social media. Inspired by Jon Bernstein making his responses to one set of questions public, I've decided to do the same, if only so I can point any future student who wants to ask about this to the post. Because, really, this is probably my last word on "citizen journalism".
1) What are your thoughts on citizen journalism?
It's a horribly dated, misbegotten concept from the mid-2000s that really should have died by now. It's the bastard child of early online enthusiasts who had an axe to grind with the journalism profession, and wanted to see it wiped out, and the arrogance of journalists, who assumed that as soon as the general public had access to publishing tools, they'd start doing journalism. Instead, as we know, they mainly use these tools to publish pictures of babies, cats and inspirational quotes. That, if nothing else, is the lesson of Facebook.
There are three types of people:
- Professional journalists - people who are paid to do journalism
- Amateur journalists - people who do journalism for free
- Ordinary people - some of whom, once in a while, will do something that might be called "citizen journalism".
2) Do you think that organisations with a valued reputation such as the BBC are losing out in terms of journalistic content to amateurs that just happen to be in the right place at the right time?
No, because they're actively looking for such material, passing it through their social media verification processes and then building it into stories. "Citizen journalism" isn't competition. It's a source.
5) Do you think that citizen journalism endangers any professional aspects of news gathering and the production of news today or do you think it displays a positive effect?
I think it's a threat to lazy, inaccurate news gathering, as we've seen repeatedly. People can correct shoddy journalism publicly far more easily than they could in the past, and journalists' reputations can be destroyed. It may have a positive effect in the long term, as the media learns how to operate in the knowledge that it will almost always be second reporter on any major breaking news, as people on the groups will end up pushing it out through social media instead. There's a role for journalists in the social media chaos in the immediate aftermath of a major event - but that's fodder for another post.
April 30, 2013
This time last week I was in Berlin for NEXT Berlin. One interesting thing I noted was how hard the German publishers were working to get the digital industry to look at their tablet offerings.
I can't imagine UK publishers stuffing a local tech conference's godies bags with flyers and offers like this, can you?
April 16, 2013
This morning's launch of GuardianWitness has created some debate about what it actually is. The Guardian's digital development editor Joanna Geary (friend of the blog ;) ) was kind enough to give me a ring and answered some of my questions about the background of the service.
First up: this was built in two months. The sponsorship pot from EE gave them a budget and time to get the job done, but not necessarily have everything they wanted at launch. She says it's a complete, working system that can be built upon. I suggest the phrase "minimum viable product" to Jo but she suggests that it's a full product - one that will be built on. Do they have aspirations for more integration with social media? Yes, they do. And it's something they're looking at as the system develops.
The key part of the development which is invisible to us right now is that the Guardian Witness system is deeply integrated with the Guardian's CMS. Once the content has passed through verification, it's available to the journalists, and they can insert it into a story or liveblog just by inserting an URL, which creates an embedded version of the contribution that links back to the contributor's profile.
"The really exciting thing is not what you see now, but what you see when Witness is included in a story," she says. It's a tool to facilitate genuine collaborative working between the journalist and external witnesses. Jo says they'll collaborate with people on the ground, or with expert knowledge, in any way they can - and already do, via phone and other traditional methods. This adds another tool for doing that.
Verification is journalism
Verification is critical, and there are basic verification tools built into the system, that look at things like a photograph's EXIF data and compare it to the claimed location, for example. Once something's through that front line, it goes through a series of journalist-driven verification checks, that start at "is this a tall building or is it actually a hippopotamus?" and ends with detailed checking of the veracity of the contribution. "People suggest this is about free content, but it's actually costing a lot in time," she suggests - although she acknowledges that the issue of payment (or not) for contributions will likely be a point of discussion and criticism.
More than 100 journalists have been put through training around Witness, focusing on good stories for assignments and verification techniques, which was delivered by Jo and Claire Wardle. Jo describes the reaction from the newsroom as "exciting", which, in my experience, is pretty uncommon in a launch like this. It's a hopeful sign, if true. Generally it takes time and some successes to persuade the oft-skeptical journalism community that this is the right sort of initiative.
An experienced team
Jo is clear that she and the team are aware of previous failures in this space - that's why they've so consciously steered away from tainted terms like "user-generated content" and "citizen journalism". They are not, she emphasises, just creating a place for the community to talk to itself, or for The Guardian to grab free content, but a system that facilitates collaboration between professional journalists and The Guardian community.
Talking of the team - there's some interesting talent on board. Phillipa Law is ex-BBC and is in the process of doing a PhD in online collaboration, while Caroline Bannock is a news producer from Channel 4 news. They've been working with both key community members and the journalists in the weeks building up to the launch to explain to them what The Guardian are trying to do
"We're just getting started with it," says Jo. "I'm really excited to see where it goes."