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

Posts tagged joanna geary

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.

joanna-geary.jpgThis 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

Thumbnail image for GuardianWitness on the iPhoneVerification 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.”

Guardian Witness

Joanna Geary:

The GuardianWitness platform, and supporting iPhone and Android apps will help us to carry on this tradition. It will allow you to tell your story – by desktop or mobile – by submitting pictures, videos and text to journalists directly from an assignment.

It also has its own site, which allows you to submit and browse news, opinions and creations submitted to those assignments.

If your submission is picked up by a journalist it could go on to be featured across the Guardian – in print and online – which means you can help set the news agenda and become part of the Guardian’s award-winning journalism.

Guardian Witness is part of their Open Journalism initiative, of course, which is itself just a branded version of the idea of networked journalism.

But it does seem to offer a method of smoothing the journey from an isolated act of citizen journalism to that act being part of an orchestrated piece of journalism conducted by a journalist. Is it needed? Aren’t people more likely to contribute via their own social presences? I suspect that this experiment will tell us one way or another. 

Update: there’s an obligatory “tinkly music” app demo video that startups have made de rigeur

Update 2: Graham has a good point: 

Yes, this does feel very much like a 2006/2007 “come, create user generated content on our site” effort. But there are good people that I respect involved in this effort – I’d be interested to hear from them how this differs from that… 

Update 3: Graham has articulated this further on his own blog.

Update 4: And now we know the commercial relationship with EE at work, thanks to Joanna speaking at Shift 2013:

Update 5: Joanna has some interesting hints in her response:

Liveblog of a talk given by Jo at Hacks/Hackers Brighton in September 2012

Joanna Geary

In 2010, the last national reporter picked up a Twitter account, and we’re done with online community.

I’ve noted one or two people have been appointed and everyone thinks it’s all done. Back in 2009, we decided that the two-way communication thing with the readers was a good thing. Lots of people got got community-related job title. [Liveblogger’s note: I take issue with some of this characterisation of history. Will post about it later…) Sky appointed a Twitter correspondent. In 2009, the news world’s way in to social media was one person to “deal with the Twitter thing”. 

We still considered people who knew how to do this stuff as trailblazing. Trailblazing is nice. You get to go into uncharted territory, noodle around and so on. But we should be past that now. And we were in 2009. What she could do at The Times in 2009 was pointless, unless you could teach other people, and get support for them to do things. We need to get our Brunel on – start creating routes for other people to follow. 

Questions to ask:

Why are you doing community?

“Common practice should be a factor that we consider…” came back to her in an e-mail. It’s the heads-in-an-oven principle – we should do it if other people are. It should be there to: improve your journalism, or increase your traffic from social platforms, get people spending more on your sites, improve customer relationships, or get customer data. You need to know what the reasons are. 

How are you measuring that? 

The Guardian has a suite of proxy metrics – identifying x number of stories helped by readers, or growth in contact lists. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the metrics you’re using. The Britney Dilemma – if all you care about is unique browsers, Britney’s lack of underwear is the height of your journalism…

Are you paying attention to the results?

Experiments are a good thing – but she’s seen them used as an way of forcing through ideas, that get developed, but never really checked. They shouldn’t be a distraction technique. Know what the results should be.

Are you sharing what works?

So far, they have stand-ups at morning meetings, they have lunch-time talks, they have formal trainings, they have informal training, they have daily and weekly e-mails. It’s not enough. They’re starting community clinics, based on social media surgeries. A session where people can come and get advice and help from those who know, in an informal atmosphere. They’re going to be Guardian-only initially, but they’d like to open them to readers eventually, too. You can never stop – and people forget easily. And new people come in.  

Are you doing enough to support them?

She helped get a live stock update option into The Times‘s CMS. She was really excited – but it didn’t get used. It was too much extra to ask people to do without support. 


Jo GearyQ. When you’re talking about journalists about social stuff, is it more effective to persuade or tell?

A. In my experience, no-one likes being told what to do. Persuading them that they’ll reach so many more readers is more effective. 

Q. Is there a future for hacks who don’t turn into hackers?

A. I’m aware of people who are frustrated because they can’t get their ideas implemented because they can’t code. But… hackers don’t have a preserve on communicating clearly. Neither do journalists. The current culture is that hackers are always right – and they are, apart from when they’re terribly wrong. Sometimes the ways hackers look at data isn’t the best way to communicate it. 

Q. (From me): There was a generation before the 2009 one, who started in 2006 or earlier. Meg Pickard at The Guardian is pretty much the only one left. How do you think the 2009 generation can do differently – and survive better? 

Meg came from a very different view point on community – anthropology – when she came to The Guardian. She knew why they were doing it, and she had a relationship with Alan (Rushbridger, the editor) at the top of the business. But it wasn’t easy. A lot of other organisations never knew why they were doing social stuff – the common practice element mentioned earlier came into play. Meg kept that focus. The journalism business is very good at employing people to do new things, but we need to give them the resources – and keep the high level relationships – to make sure they create the Brunel pathways. 

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Last night, in the downstairs of a pub on the fringes of the city, two groups of people met. One group builds tools, the other uses them. They came to learn from one another, to swap and ideas and secrets, and to help define the way we see the world…

They came from many different organisations, some of them notionally competitive. Some were old hands at this, meeting regularly over the course of the last year. Others were taking their first steps into a new world. One key organiser works for an organisation that has come under considerable public scrutiny in recent months for its illicit activities. Another, a speaker, in fact, was from the very organisation that has done so much to expose those activities. With a crowd like this, the talk was bound to be of paranoia, of safety and privacy, and of wresting control from the moribund hands of those who fail to understand the reality of today.

Hacks and Hackers London

Who were these shadowy denizens of London? What brought them together?

They are hacks. And they are hackers. And this was Hacks/Hackers London.

Hacks and Coders in a bar

So, yes, it was just a bunch of journos and coders sat together in the downstairs bar of a pub, drinking painfully expensive beer and talking about security and the perpetual digital revolution we’re in right now. But you know what? They all had something in common: a desire to learn, and an excitement about the future. (And slightly lighter wallets by the end of the evening)

The hackers are the real techies. They are the people who play with code and consider it fun. The journalists? They’re just users of tools, not builders of them, looking for new ways of plying their trades with those new tools the hackers are creating. Most people in that room who are working journalists can’t code their way out of a wet paper bag – myself included. But they are the sort of people who want journalism to keep moving forward, to keep pace with the digital revolution and find new ways of expressing itself.

In fact, this gathering was the the antithesis of the kerfuffle about what editors think about web skills that we’ve seen over the last couple of days. Too much of the commentary around that much-discussed report reflected the attitudes of people who are unwilling to move out of their comfort zone, who like things very much they way they are thankyouverymuch, and who are quite willing to denigrate anyone with a more open mind as “techies” or, as the editor of Press Gazette quite memorably tweeted “new media blowhards“.

Thanks, Dominic. Nice to know that our trade title is so respectful of its whole constituency. This was a gathering of people who care enough about their profession to give up their evening to learn new things, and to share with others. I know which group I’d rather be part of. 

Pragmatic optimism

And it wasn’t an exercise in starry-eyed optimism, either. This was not a gathering of true believers, come to hear a familiar sermon and sign familiar hymns. No, the first presentation was exploring the idea that protecting the identities of sources gets ever harder in the digital age. Stick your head in the sand about digital skills, and you run the risk of failing to protect your sources. 

Live tweeting Hacks and Hackers London

Mary Hamilton and Sarah Booker have both already published detailed accounts of the night:

(I’m spotting a theme in the naming… How can I resist following their lead?) There’s much to learn in there, and it won’t even cost you a £4 pint. 😉

And there are plenty of future meetings planned. So, come along, drink over-priced beer and help us find new ways of making the news matter. 

coffee percolatingStuff crossing my information superhighway radar this morning:

And this is an interesting watch:

Anil Dash at Gel 2011 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.



As well as trundling off to Twestival last Thursday, I also stuck my head around the door of the BrandNew launch event, and jolly interesting it was, too. It’s yet another brainchild from the worryingly fecund imagination of Joanna Geary of The Times (pictured above, looking uncomfortable – this is my revenge for her springing a brief speech on me).

Jo, like many of us who have gone from being social media enthusiasts to prominent roles within our employers where our online identity reflects on the emplyer’s brand, has found herself questioning the need to split personal and business identities, how free she is to blog while being seen as a member of The Times staff, and so on. I’ve been through similar battles in the past. I nearly killed my blog stone dead in late 2005/early 2006 when my colleagues began to become aware of it and I set too many limits on what I posted.

brandnewpeps.jpgIt appears plenty of people are interested, as about two dozen people turned up, from organisations as diverse as the Labour Party, and contract publishers. And all are struggling with this clash of the need of social media identities to personal, open and somewhat intimate, as opposed to the managed, staged and often impersonal brand identities of the past. If I had any doubt that companies were about to go through a profound cultural shift as they adapt to this new communications infrastructure, the quality of the questions being asked put that to rest. 

And beyond that, it was nice to catch up with online acquaintances and to meet some new faces (to me, at least). I look forward with some eagerness to the next event. So, when is it, Ms Geary? 🙂