A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts tagged digital journalism

Sad news:

Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19 at age 62 of pancreatic cancer, his third major cancer.

If you’re not familiar with Steve, he was one of the most prominent voices exploring the role of digital in reshaping newsrooms, through both his work for the last decade or so and through his blog, The Buttry Diary. I can’t claim to have known Steve (the Venn diagrams of our worlds clearly overlapped, but we were never really in each other’s orbit), but I am deeply familiar with his work.

Unlike too many other of the main voices in that conversation, Steve was deeply embedded in working newsrooms until relatively recently:

Buttry visited the newsrooms of all DFM daily newspapers, visiting some of them in multiple locations as newsrooms moved as well as some weekly newsrooms. In all, he visited 84 DFM newsrooms, leading workshops for staffs as well as coaching editors and other staff members. Two primary focuses of his work at DFM were training new editors in leading Digital First newsrooms and “unbolting” newsroom culture from the newspaper factory model.

The DFM experience ended when the hedge fund that controlled DFM, Alden Global, changed its strategy. Buttry’s job was cut April 2, 2014, along with other members of the company’s Thunderdome newsroom. Brady and Paton eventually left DFM as well.

For the last few years, Steve taught at Louisiana State University. Friends and colleagues are building a scholarship fund in his name. When he announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t help but shudder. I know from my own Dad’s death from it back in 2001 that, for most people, it’s a short-term death sentence. He did well to delay his passing for seven months.

With Steve’s passing, it feels like another of the elder statesmen of the online journalism discussion has been silenced. Romenesko has retired, Buttry has passed. But, true to his vision, Buttry has left behind his wisdom in digital form, even blogging his own obituary, creating that rarest of things, a blog that ends, rather than peters out.

Thank you, Steve.

The Guardian’s SnowCuck-General* Martin Belam has hit the nail on the head with some of the problems inherent to the current fact-checking culture in response to a political movement prepared to flat-out lie to us:

[…] I’m reminded of Clay Shirky complaining during the US presidential campaign that, “We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war”, and Hussein Kesvani writing recently that “fact checkers are terrible at telling stories”, whereas the neo-Nazi “alt-right” movement is great at building and maintaining a narrative.

Here’s Shirky’s tweet:

Narrative. Culture war. These are important ideas to bear in mind, as you analyse this situation.

Narratives versus facts

Journalism in general is much more comfortable with facts and stories (in the 350 word, inverted pyramid sense) than narratives. The development of a narrative has been a fundamental part of the best digital native publishing, which tends to have a view and a tight focus, and then explore that narrative through posts and links. It’s a difference of form born of the contrast between the daily newspaper and the infinite scroll of the internet.

And right now, we’re seeing a full-on clash of those two cultures. And it’s not going well for the older version.

Belam again:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First – the sort of websites and organisations that are spreading the far right’s anti-Muslim, conspiracy-theory-ridden ideology – are not going to be afraid to double-down on spreading their message. Fact-checking their spurious claims is one thing – but what does it achieve? To really challenge the spread of this nonsense we need to work out what we are going to do about more effectively spreading the truth.

It’s a fine distinction, but picking away at the lies that build a political narrative does stop falsehood spreading – and that’s valuable – but it does very little to undermine the central narrative that the extreme right are putting out in the US. This problem is not exclusive to the US – we’ve certainly seen elements of the Brexit-supporting right in the UK do much the same. Given the current success in the States, I’m sure we’ll see more political movements copycatting this approach.

The guerrilla war on truth

However, Martin might be guilty of burying the lede a little – not down in the depths of the article, but in the comments (yes, those much-derided comments):

I started thinking that maybe we just have a rota and instead of us all having two journalists each fact-checking every Spicer appearance, we just have one news organisation with the short straw, and everyone links to their fact-check.

I mean, I can’t see it happening, but it’s interesting if you watched things like GamerGate organising, then they had a distributed crowd who could (mostly) agree on one line to take and then push out. It’s very efficient – and the media don’t really have that collaborative mindset because traditionally it’s been about exclusives and being first.

That latter paragraph highlights a really crucial issue. This battle over the narrative is an asymmetric one on a lot of levels. There’s no doubt that the weight of numbers – people – is still very much on the side of traditional media. Despite the brutal cuts to print newsrooms over the years, in aggregate we’re still talking a heck of a lot of people – especially when you figure broadcast into the equation. But those numbers are being wasted in repetition and duplication. This is the classic “over-supply of news” problem given a rather macabre twist.

Asymmetric information warfare

But it’s worth thinking about this in terms of asymmetric warfare. Look at the “opposing forces” Martin cites in the quote above:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First

These are all digital outfits and, in the case of Britain First, Facebook-first. These are people who have been honing their techniques for 15 years on blogs, forums and other online services. They were birthed in the rants against the “MSM” in right-wing blogs in the early 2000s, and they’ve only got more effective as the social media tools have got more powerful.

How many people today are aware of Breitbart’s origin’s as the late Andrew Breitbart‘s blog, where he developed a vision of publishing honed at The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. Who remembers Milo Yiannopoulos as a would be mainstream right political and tech journalist in the UK? Or as a hanger-on to London and Berlin’s startup scenes?

Too many saw the #GamerGate battle as a side issue, relevant only to techies and geeks. But it was the testing ground for the techniques that the alt-right are using on a much wider scale right now.

This is a classic piece of asymmetric warfare, with a small, but highly-distributed but well-ordinated group of people punching far above their weight because they are focusing on a central narrative, and are using more powerful digital techniques than their sluggish, divided mainstream competitors. The newspapers and broadcast media have very big guns, but they’re all firing them at the same place – and it’s not where the opposition really are.

The Meme is the longbow of the 21st Century

Don’t believe me? Look at this analysis of Breitbart’s use of Facebook:

[…] although Breitbart posted 12 times more links out of Facebook than images and videos combined, images and videos account for 79 percent of the total shares out of these top 100 posts. This disparity is even greater when you sum up the total shares of those 100 posts.

Breitbart shares

And this is the most shared post:

Such a simple message. So central to the alt-right narrative. So easily spread. So easily assimilated into your thinking. This is the propaganda power of Facebook at its most might.

These are the digital tools of narrative warfare. Use of memes – and this is what this is – is a fundamental part of the new language of communication. But we’re still fighting with the tools of the last century – the 1000 word article, debunking the lies, but which reaches a tiny fraction of the people as that simple meme above.

Are we prepared to step up and use these tools? Or will be as the French at Agincourt, cut down by the new technology of the age? Then, it was longbows. In the culture wars, it’s memes.

Even when Spicer, Conway and the others use the traditional media, it’s to spread messages that will be picked up and repeated through digital – and especially social media – by their base. They are subverting the mainstream, and turning it into an additional and reinforcing distribution challenge even as they subvert trust in it.

Are you of digital or merely on digital?

At a fundamental level, there’s a war being waged between organisations which are on digital but are not of digital, and those whose very way of operating has been forged in the fires of digital culture wars over decades. And they’re using the power of direct communication – a power that was prophesied as long ago as 1999’s Cluetrain Manifesto, albeit in rather hippier form:

  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  • People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

Politics has fluffed around the edges of this. The Obama years used social media very effectively: remember this?

Great image. But a carefully planned and staged image. Trump has subverted all that by talking like a person – although, admittedly, a particular kind of person – and his voice is undeniably his own. So many of his compatriots in this movement do the same. This has the power to make one of the elite – as Trump’s wealth and status make him – feel like one of the guys. They sound like people. We sound like – brace yourselves – elites hectoring people from our positions of power.

We won’t win the battle for truth with the weapons of the past. We need to take up the longbows of the digital era, and prove ourselves on the battleground of 21st century ideas.

*Sorry Martin, couldn’t resist.

Someone has a cynicism problem:

The art of good headline writing and image selection in order to get someone to click and go to a website is usually called “clickbaiting,” but I think we should call it “bullshit curation.”

Oh, because clearly there’s no way you could use the same techniques to get people to read good journalism is there?

Idiotic comment.

[via the IFJ Weekly Roundup – which is worth a follow or a subscribe]

Some good advice for journalists from Om Malik, even if it swims against the “volume over all” tide:

At Gigaom we didn’t push our reporters to do 10 posts a day. I always advised folks to write on an average 1,250 words a day. That could be a single piece, two pieces or four. More than 25 years of writing have taught me that if you keep writing more on a daily basis, you get sloppy and repetitive and lose your edge. You end up using the same words again and again. There is a blandness when you have to write 3,000 to 4,000 words a day.

I have had 6,000 days and even 10,000 days – but it’s just not sustainable. If I’m in writing mode regularly, around 1,250 to 1,500 seems right and sustainable – if you’re going to do anything than recycle the words of others.

I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you’d told me five years ago that Hacks/Hackers London would become so popular that people are screaming and complaining at the organisers because they can’t get tickets to the event – which is moving into ever-larger venues.

And even with larger venues, the wait list for tickets for the latest event is 25% of the attendance. That’s a lot of disappointed people.

It’s a big old event – central to the journalism calendar of digital journalists, and a tribute to the hard work of the team that have been organising it.

But here’s the thing: just four years ago, Hacks/Hackers London fitted comfortably into the basement of a pub not far from Liverpool Street. Here’s The Guardian‘s Martin Belam playing up for the camera, with pint in hand, at one such event:

Belam at hacks hackers

And a couple of years before that, the event was even smaller – it was Ruby in the Pub – an evening for journos who had decided that they needed to learn to code. By 2011, when I first wrote about it, it had evolved into the London branch of Hacks/Hackers.

A pint and a talk on information security

And how did we still fit into a pub two years on from the start of this process? Well, even four years ago, the digital journalism development community were outliers. Only a relatively small proportion of us took the issues being explored by Hacks/Hackers – the intersection of coding and development skills with journalism – seriously enough that we’d give up an evening to hear journalists and coders and security experts and all sorts of other people talk.

In fact, when we held a Hacks/Hackers event at Reed Business, back when I worked for them, my boss was told off by the security team for the company for using the word “Hackers”, as they thought it would bring negative attention to the company from digital criminals…

The world has changed since then, and for the better. Digital journalism – and a wide range of digital skills that go with it – have hit the mainstream. And with that mainstreaming comes a massive surge in people wanting to know more. And one of the place they can go for that – one of the few ones – is Hacks/Hackers London.

It was always going to be thus. There were only two possible destinies for Hacks/Hackers: either the organisers were wrong about the future of journalism and the event would fail. Or they were right – and as the issues discussed trended towards the mainstream, ever increasing numbers of people would want to attend.

Guess which happened?

Victim of its own success

Geary and her mates

Yeah, that’s right. The event got so popular that people are struggling to get places – and giving the organisers a hard time. Imagine that: a digital journalism event in the country’s biggest concentration of media businesses selling out. Quelle surprise.

As Martin put it grumpily a year ago:

One of the problems Hacks/Hackers London faces is that demand for the event vastly out-strips supply. And people are understandably frustrated at not getting tickets and missing out.

The stress associated with keeping a career in this rapidly shifting environment probably triggers the worst of the behaviour you see. People feel that they need to attend events like this, and not being able to do so is putting an unnecessary bar on their career development – or their job security.

With relatively few companies offering good, comprehensive and up-to-date digital journalism training, the need for events like Hacks/Hackers is great.

The question everyone should be asking is: should Hacks/Hackers London be the only group providing it? My friends at are going some way to remedy that with the diversification of the news:rewired events into a greater range of niches, but surely we’ve reached the point now where there are enough people interested in specific niches of digital journalism, that we can get a management number of them into a cosy space. Like, say, the basement room of a pub…

Hacks/Hackers London is great – and long may it continue. But what else do we need to supplement it?

The future of journalism hidden in a pub

I must confess: I’m rarely seen at Hacks/Hackers London any more. I live in Sussex, I have two small children I want to be home for, and I’m rarely available at the right moments to apply for tickets. And so I leave it to the younger and more agile to attend.

(And then I feel guilty about how I’ve neglected Hacks/Hackers Brighton since Sarah Marshall left for London… Anyone fancy helping me with that?)

I’m still interested in the content, and follow the events as best I can, even though Martin isn’t liveblogging them any more (boo!). But one thing is niggling at my mind. And it worries me.

The thing that I can’t quite let go of is this: who are the dozen people in a pub somewhere discussing the next big thing to change journalism?

And what are they talking about?

Because somewhere out there, the new Ruby in the Pub is happening. And we’re all too busy looking at today’s digital challenges to see it coming.

The stranglehold of the journalistic orthodoxy

A brutal condemnation of the mindset that has stopped traditional journalism embracing change – and still does – from Om Malik:

Instead of trying to understand this change in behavior, the media establishment kept saying, “It’s not journalism.” It focused on how and what, failing to ask, “Why do people read blogs? Why do people blog?” If they had, then it would have been easier to understand how the business was changing. In December 2001, I started blogging “tech news,” mostly because it seemed obvious — an industry as fast-paced and constantly changing as technology is going to need more than a monthly magazine to cover it. An industry as pervasive as technology would need something more consistent than just the occasional piece or two in the business section.

So much here that resonates deeply – and so depressing that we haven’t moved beyond it.

Here’s a tweet that cheers me immensely:

Beth Ashton – who created the slide – is a former student of mine. She was one of the very first generation of Interhacktives I taught at City back in 2012 and 2013. I don’t think she’ll mind me saying her talent wasn’t immediately visible in the lecture room – but, my goodness, did it shine through when I marked her first piece of assigned work.

Her skill in combining social media and journalism has led her to a rapidly rising career, and she’s now the (highly successful) social media editor of the Manchester Evening News.

And you know what? She’s exactly right about this. Too many people on either side of journalism’s digital divide talk as if traditional, print-centric journalism and online journalism are completely operate things – a venn diagram with no overlap, if you like. And that’s complete nonsense – disinformation spread by the politically-minded or the afraid.

We’re in the midst of a long process of separating what are the characteristics of good journalism, from the characteristics of good print journalism, and then discovering how they’re best expressed through a new, complicated and ever-changing medium. And that’s an exciting challenge. Hard? Sure. But that’s part of what make sit exciting.

But there’s still a core of commonality that we mustn’t lose sight of.

[via David Higgerson, who applied this to local journalism – but I think it’s a wider issue than that.]

Lovely quote here from Wolfgang Blau, The Guardian‘s director of digital strategy:

5. Why (the hell) do so many young journalists still want to write
the title story of a print (!) magazine?

Why (the hell) would you even care? Let them. If they have contempt for digital journalism, view it as your competitive advantage and enjoy it while it lasts. And print is a beautiful, delightful medium. It won’t go away. May it always exist, just not stand in the way of progress.

I couldn’t agree more.

His two recent posts – The ever same questions some European media journalists just can’t stop asking and Good questions trigger conversations – are both worth reading in their entirety.

Apparently the Mirror has had enough of experimentation:

Sources close to the online team told BuzzFeed News that they believe Picton’s vision for The Mirror’s websites is based around the MailOnline model, so the current crop of brands do not fit with his plan.

Oh, goody. The world needs a new MailOnline imitator.

The consequences?

BuzzFeed News understands that 14 jobs across UsVsTh3m, Ampp3d, and Row Zed are at risk of redundancy after a 30-day consultancy period. All three brands will continue to publish content, but on a reduced basis.

Well, the good news is that there will be some decent digital journalists with skill in producing viral content hitting the market pretty shortly. I would put money on many of them following Malcolm Coles – who built the Mirror new formats team – to the Telegraph, if it wasn’t for the political difference that might be too much for some to bridge.

Start up your poaching engines, people…

Editor-in-Chief-elect of The Guardian, Katharine Viner is a speech 18 months ago:

In fact, digital is a huge conceptual change, a sociological change, a cluster bomb blowing apart who we are and how our world is ordered, how we see ourselves, how we live. It’s a change we’re in the middle of, so close up that sometimes it’s hard to see. But it is deeply profound and it is happening at an almost unbelievable speed.

Further on in the talk:

A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.

This is all really excellent stuff. I have great hopes that The Guardian have made exactly the right choice.