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March 30 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Grappling with ground-up activism, and a new ‘pay-less’ form of paywall

Activism and journalism from the ground up: Now that the story of Trayvon Martin’s killing has moved fully into the U.S.’ national consciousness, a few writers have taken a look back to examine the path it took to get there. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter traced the story’s rise to prominence, highlighting the role of racial diversity in newsrooms in drawing attention to it. Poynter’s Kelly McBride gave a more detailed review of the story’s path through the media, concluding: “This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care.” (This week, there was also bottom-up sourcing of a more dubious nature on the story, as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum pointed out.)

The New York Times’ David Carr looked at the Trayvon Martin story and several other web-driven campaigns to assess the value of “hashtag activism,” acknowledging its limitations but concluding that while web activism is no match for its offline counterpart, it still makes the world a better place.

There were several other strains of conversation tying into digital activism and citizen journalism this week: the Lab re-printed a Talking Points Memo story on the unreliability of Twitter buzz as a predictor of election results, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing wondered whether social media movements have surpassed the impact of traditional journalism on many issues.

Meanwhile, the report of an embellished photo from a citizen journalist in Syria led some to question the reliability of that information, but GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram countered that citizen journalism isn’t displacing traditional journalism, but helping complement it when used wisely. One of Ingram’s prime examples of that blending of traditional and citizen-powered journalism was NPR tweeter extraordinaire Andy Carvin, who was the subject of a fine Current profile, in which he described Twitter as “the newsroom where I spend my time” and pinpointing news judgment as the key ingredient in his journalistic curation process.

Debating the effectiveness of news paywalls: Google formally unveiled its new paywall alternative in partnership with publishers this week: News sites include surveys that users need to answer in order to read an article. Google pays news sites a nickel per answer, advertisers pay Google for the survey, everybody goes home happy. Just a few publishers have signed up so far, though. (You might remember that the Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote on Google’s testing of this idea last fall.)

Elsewhere in paywalls: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said his paper has not ruled out a paywall plan, though he also clarified that there’s “nothing on the horizon.” His publication is, obviously, far from the only one grappling with the prospect of charging for content online: The New Republic’s new owner dropped the magazine’s paywall for recent articles, and The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, explained why he doesn’t see a paywall in that paper’s future.

Pexton said the Post first needs to build up its reader base and make sure the site’s technology runs better, and he cast some doubt on the helpfulness of The New York Times’ pay plan for its bottom line. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum picked apart Pexton’s analysis of the Times’ numbers, and asserted that a paywall’s purpose isn’t to be enormously profitable, and non-paywall digital revenue plans aren’t, either. “The point [of a paywall] is to stop or slow the bleeding and to help make the transition to an all-digital future five or ten years down the line — one that includes more than one flimsy revenue stream based on volatile and not-very-lucrative digital ads,” he wrote.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram suggested a “velvet rope” approach to paid content instead of a paywall, in which users would volunteer to pay in exchange for privileges and perks. The Times’ David Carr was skeptical — on Twitter, he summarized the post as, “Don’t build a paywall, create a velvet rope made out of socmedia pixie dust and see if that pays the bills.”

The Guardian opens up: The Guardian is firmly positioning itself at the forefront of what it calls “open journalism,” as it hosted a festival last weekend called the Guardian Open Weekend, during which more than 5,000 readers visited its London offices. The paper recapped the event, and Polis’ Charlie Beckett urged The Guardian to go further and faster in incorporating readers into its production process, turning them from “readers” to “members.”

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger held a Q&A with readers on open journalism, in which he spoke of the tension between the print and digital products in enacting change: “In order to be effective digital companies newspapers have to free themselves of some of the thinking that goes into the creation or a printed product…But most of the revenue is still in print, so the transition is bound to be a staged one, involving fine judgements about the pace of change.” Rusbridger also tweeted the paper’s 10 principles of open journalism, which were helpfully Storified by Josh Stearns, along with some other open journalism resources.

New accusations against News Corp.: A new branch grew out of News Corp.’s ever-growing tree of scandals this week, when two news orgs in Britain and Australia almost simultaneously broke stories about alleged hacking by NDS Group, a British satellite TV company of which News Corp. owns 49 percent. According to the BBC and the Australian Financial Review, NDS hired hackers to break into its competitors’ systems and get codes for satellite TV cards to illegally leak them to the public, giving them pay-TV services for free. The New York Times knitted the two allegations together well.

The Australian Federal Police is now looking into the case, and Reuters reported on the growing pressure for new investigations against News Corp. in Britain and Australia. Meanwhile, Frontline aired a documentary on the scandal, and The Guardian reported on Rupert Murdoch’s attacks on the accusations on Twitter.

Mike Daisey, journalism, and advocacy: Interest in last week’s blowup over This American Life’s retraction of Mike Daisey’s fabricated story about abuses of Chinese factory workers turned out to be more intense than expected: As the Lab’s Andrew Phelps reported, the retraction was the most downloaded episode in TAL history, surpassing the previous record set by the original story. Daisey himself gave a much more thorough, less defensive apology this week, and Gawker’s Adrian Chen said he wished Daisey would have been so contrite in the first place.

In Current, Alicia Shepard examined the story from the perspective of Marketplace, the public radio program that exposed Daisey’s falsehoods. In a long, thoughtful post, Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center compared Daisey’s story to the Kony 2012 viral video, using them to pose some good questions about the space between journalism and advocacy.

Reading roundup: A few other interesting pieces that surfaced this week:

— A couple of pieces succinctly laying out some of the growing challenges for those trying to control online content and discourse: First, a piece in The Guardian by Michael Wolff on the trouble that the rise of mobile media poses for news business models, and second, a post by JP Rangaswami positing Africa as the next site of resistance against online media control.

— In a similar vein, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote about the ways in which the giants of tech are all moving in on the same territory of user data and control, arguing that the real challenge is getting users to care about whether we end up with an open or closed web.

— NYU j-prof Jay Rosen wrote an insightful piece on how journalists claim the authority to be listened to by the public: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

— Finally, at Poynter, Matt Thompson put together an interesting typology of journalists: Storyteller, newshound, systems analyst, and provocateur. He’s got some great initial tips on how to work with each type, and play to each one’s strengths within a newsroom environment.

July 18 2011

17:21

Alan Rusbridger: how the Guardian broke the News of the World hacking scandal

Newsweek :: Early in 2009 veteran Guardian writer Nick Davies came into Alan Rusbridger's office. He’d discovered that James Murdoch, the son and heir of the most powerful private news-media company on earth, had done a secret deal to pay more than $1 million to cover up evidence of criminal behavior within the company. Interested? - The answer was—of course. Followed by a small inner gulp at the sheer scale and implications of the stories. ...

Continue to read Alan Rusbridger, www.newsweek.com

June 30 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of the British invasion

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

With the United Kingdom one of the countries suffering the economic doldrums more than the U.S., maybe it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a British online invasion. In short order, the Guardian, Mail Online, and the BBC, among others, are targeting American eyeballs and wallets in the urgent search for growth.

With Independence Day (from you know who) upon us, and memories of the Beatles’ assault on America rapidly fading into history, let’s look at the newsonomics of this new invasion. It tells us reams about the precarious states of news companies. As they scrape for revenue in the traditional home markets, and transition from print or broadcast to digital, they’re looking for new digital revenue building blocks.

The arithmetical imperative is crystal clear: The huge audiences that the distance-defying Internet has given UK news companies has not yet, largely, been accompanied by huge, even significant, pots of revenue.

Companies like the Guardian have seen this phenomenon: A third of its traffic comes from the U.S., a third from the UK, and a third from elsewhere. I’ve heard that tale widely, from the pre-wall Times, the Telegraph, and the FT, among others. When we first spotted big numbers for UK publishers among U.S. audiences, a lot of people attributed it to George W. Bush, whose cowboy policies alienated some Americans from American media, the idea went, delivering them into the hands of the more trustworthy Brits. But the big U.S. population — a population five times greater than the UK’s — is, W or no W, is still embracing non-national news sites. Maybe the math is fairly simple: We’ve got about a third of the English-reading people in the world, so serving up a third of the audience makes some sense.

While America provides the audience, it doesn’t provide much revenue for most UK news companies. The Guardian derives all but a couple of points of digital revenue from its home market — leaving two-thirds of its audience, in the U.S. and elsewhere, effectively un-monetized. That’s largely true of the other UK-based general news dailies, with the Financial Times much more effective at driving print and digital revenue in the U.S., and the Wall Street Journal, conversely, having figured out how to drive non-U.S. revenue as well. Both, in addition to The New York Times’ long-established sales operations in Europe, are the exceptions that prove the rule about foreign market digital monetization.

As the Guardian, BBC, and Daily Mail plan new offense, each reacts to its woes back home.

The Guardian is in danger of running out of cash within three to five years, at its current trajectory, Guardian CEO Andrew Miller said plainly in mid-June. So he’s leading a top-to-bottom reappraisal of the outfit’s 190-year-old enterprise. On the examination table: a restructuring of the entire company, reducing the number of pages in the six-day-a-week print paper; rethinking (under digital innovator and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger‘s leadership) what readers expect in print and what online; upping its re-commitment to its open platform strategy led by Matt McAlister; doubling its digital revenue (which currently stands at 17 percent of its total revenue); and getting more money out of the U.S. market.

The Guardian’s U.S. plan includes the deployment of a revitalized editorial staff under Guardian vet Janine Gibson, and a re-strategizing of ad sales in the States. The Guardian’s new plan follows on a failed one, the Guardian America plan, tried and abandoned over several years. The new idea: Don’t put an American face on the trusty Guardian; keep the British face, but offer more British perspective on and from the U.S. The thinking: The Guardian’s very Britishness is why American readers come to its site.

For the Daily Mail, it’s about finding growth in a national news business (Associated Newspapers) that struggled toward revenue break — even last year, even as its parent, the diversified, global DMGT (events, B2B publishing, and institutional investment products), produced £320M in profits.

Mail Online, of course, is the new darling of those who religiously follow Big Numbers. It has surpassed HuffPo to claim the #2 unique visitor trophy globally, behind the New York Times, and a few days ago claimed 77 million global uniques, about a third of those from the U.S. The outlet’s rocket fuel is a heady mix of tabloid gossip fodder, great SEO, aggressive mobile productization, and, now, expanded commercial and editorial staffs in New York and L.A.

The BBC, funded by household TV licenses back home, has seen significant public funding cutbacks and staff reductions, buffeted both by UK politics and by the deep recession. While in the UK, the BBC can’t sell advertising, it can do so outside its home territory. Consequently, it has placed a first big target on the U.S., where it now claims about 18 million uniques.

The BBC’s American build-up is well underway. Herb Scannell, ex of Viacom, and Ann Sarnoff, ex of Dow Jones, joined to head up BBC Worldwide America as president and COO, respectively, last year. Seven weeks ago, Nick Ascheim, ex of the AP and The New York Times, became senior vice president for digital media. Back in 2008, ad veteran Mark Gall began building out the BBC Worldwide America ad sales team, focusing on multi-platform (BBC America TV  + BBC.com) revenue.

Ascheim identifies two major initiatives, as BBC.com — the BBC’s first separate-from-the-mothership website — tries to leverage and build on its found audience. One is video — a core strength of broadcaster BBC, which dominates much of online news video in Britain with its iPlayer — and the other is feature verticals, building beyond the Travel section that BBC built out, with its Lonely Planet acquisition, last year.

Let’s take a quick look at what it will take for the new invasion to be successful, doing a little handicapping of these three entrants:

  • Ad revenue: All the newbies face hyper-competition in the world’s most competitive digital marketing marketplace, one built both on the seemingly paradoxical tricks of leveraging long-term buyer/seller relationships and satisfying the dreaded “23-year-old” media buyer, one who may never have heard much about these foreign brands. Here, give a big lead to the BBC. It’s got a couple of years’ head-start on U.S. sales, and the brand that is most recognizable — and it can sell multi-platform, TV, and digital. Mail Online has a tough effort here, with comparatively little brand recognition and the suspicion that its pageviews are less-than-premium, more TMZ than NYT. The Guardian has a good story, but a history of failed ad attempts, including a Reuters network deal that fizzled. For all three of them, breaking through the noise — and providing more actionable audience analytics — is key.

    Beyond the sales infrastructure, these companies have different experiences monetizing their UK traffic, and that informs what may happen in the U.S. Compare the digital ad revenue per unique visitor for the Guardian and the Mail Online, and we see a differential of four-to-one, in the Guardian’s favor. (The BBC doesn’t break out digital ad revenue well enough for comparison.)

    The Guardian took in £37.5 million in digital revenue in 2010. Using the December ABCe number of 39 million uniques, each unique is worth about £.96, or $1.53 at today’s exchange rates.

    For the Mail, I extrapolate about £16 million in digital revenue for last year. Using the March (aligning with its reporting period) ABCe unique number of 66 million, I figure each unique visitor is worth about £.24, or 38 American cents, to the Mail.

    That’s a 4x greater yield for the Guardian than Mail Online, relating to some combination of brand, sales packaging, and engagement beyond simple unique visitor metrics. How much would/could that differential carry across the sea?

  • Brand: It’s clear that both the BBC and the Guardian have real brand meaning among certain news followers, but it ‘s not clear how growable the brands are. Are they second or third reads, or can they break through top-of-mind? Yes, they may both believe that Americans want a Brit take on things, but just how much of one do they want? Mail? Online? Wasn’t that the one with Meg Ryan? Does having a dot.com domain make a big difference? BBC and Mail have them; the Guardian doesn’t.
  • Digital circulation: That’s a big N/A — not applicable. The Guardian has been one of the most outspoken proponents of “open,” and while that doesn’t equate with free, it’s a close cousin. As the outlet moves away from print, it faces a huge question of where it is going to get “circulation” money. In the short-term, in the U.S., look for Guardian to try app or niche vertical reader revenue streams. The BBC’s news play is high-end mass and free, while Mail Online plies the pop free market.
  • Video: Hands down, the BBC has the edge here. Ascheim talks about adding new original U.S.-produced video to the riches of what BBC produces daily. In a coming 4G world, video may be BBC.com’s major point of differentiation in the States.
  • Mobile: Consider this the wild card. As mobile, especially the tablet, reshapes what we think is true about news reading “The newsonomics of the missing link“), it re-levels the field. So newer entrants, like all three of these invaders, can establish new habits for readers. Mail Online is already attributing 15 percent of its UK uniques to its new iPhone app. Guardian’s Eyewitness iPad app has seen a half million downloads and good sponsorship money from Canon. BBC has seen more than two million downloads of its BBC.com iPad app. As new habits form for iPad news reading, listening, and watching, these new contenders all have new shots at the American audience.

It could well be we’re reaching the end of the line for a much-cited quote often attributed to Churchill: ”England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Well, he or G.B. Shaw may have said it, but marketers believe the differences are becoming more minor. It’s not just news people who grok the revolutionary economics in re-using and redistributing the same content you’ve already paid for; both Netflix and Hulu are moving to license more Brit TV for the same reason. In strong part, the new Brit invasion is just a re-stating of the produce-once, distribute-many core digital principle. In this case, though, it’s produce-once, (profitably) distribute overseas as well.

Image by Andy Helsby used under a Creative Commons license.

June 17 2011

06:08

Guardian's digital-first is in fact a "no-choice" strategy: out of cash in 3-5 years?

The Telegraph :: GNM's "Digital-first" is more precisely a strategy to cut costs. Guardian News and Media (GNM) is to axe dozens of staff after it revealed it lost £33m (€37.6m) in the last financial year. The company, which is owned by Guardian Media Group and backed by charitable foundation The Scott Trust, plans to make £25m (€28.5m) of savings over the next five years and to prioritise digital over print.

GMG declined to put a figure on the number of jobs set to go in the next wave of redundancies but it is thought it could be as high as 175. Chief executive Andrew Miller told staff in a series of briefings yesterday that the group could run out of cash in three to five years unless it underwent a "major transformation".

Continue to read www.telegraph.co.uk

05:36

Guardian's major digital-first transformation: publisher staffs up planned U.S. website

Yahoo News | The Cutline :: The Guardian is in the process of putting together the team that will steer its forthcoming U.S. website, which the U.K. broadsheet's parent company hopes to have up and running by the fall. Starting next month, four editorial hands, "a few techies and a few promotional people" from The Guardian's London headquarters will start recruiting the New York-based staff, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger told The Cutline by phone Thursday.

Continue to read Joe Pompeo, news.yahoo.com

May 28 2011

05:22

The Guardian - Alan Rusbridger: no credible 5-year business plan for newspapers

Brandrepublic :: Alan Rusbridger’s assessment of the current woes of the newspaper industry came as he fielded questions from guests at The Guardian offices, after he and Guardian writer Stephen Moss gave a snapshot review of the paper’s history.

[Alan Rusbridger:] ... nobody can point to a credible five-year business plan.

Rusbridger and Moss answered questions on disparate subjects, including the future of newspapers, The Guardian’s push into the US, phone-hacking, cut-price newspapers, and their favourite Guardian moments.

Continue to read John Reynolds, www.brandrepublic.com

November 19 2010

17:21

September 20 2010

11:37

September 07 2010

14:00

“A completely new model for us”: The Guardian gives outsiders the power to publish for the first time

Last week, the Guardian launched a network of science blogs with a goal that perfectly mixed science with blog: “We aim to entertain, enrage and inform.”

Now, on the paper’s website, you can find hosted content from four popular and well-respected blogs: “Life and Physics” by Jon Butterworth, a physics professor at University College of London who does work with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; “The Lay Scientist,” the pop-science-potpourri blog by researcher and science writer Martin Robbins; the science policy blog “Political science” by former MP Evan Harris; and “Punctuated Equilibrium,” by the evolutionary biologist known as Grrrl Scientist.

The idea is both to harness scientific expertise and, at the same time, to diffuse it. “This network of blogs is not just for other science bloggers to read; it’s not just for other scientists,” says Alok Jha, a science and environment correspondent who came up with the idea for the network and now — in addition to his reporting and writing duties — is overseeing its implementation. The network is intended to reach — and entertain/enrage/inform — as many people as possible. “We’re a mainstream newspaper,” he says, “so everything we do has to come about through that prism.” And it marks another small shift in the media ecosystem: the media behemoth and independent bloggers, collaborating for audiences rather than competing for them.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because the new network is a direct response to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s goal of journalistic “mutualization.” (Okay, okay: mutualiSation.) “It’s good to have criticism from scientists when we do things wrong,” Jha notes, “but it’s also good to have them understand how we write things — and give them a chance to do it.” Guardian reporters don’t spend days in the control room at CERN; someone who does, though, is Jon Butterworth. Having him and his fellow scientists as part of an extended network of Guardian writers benefits both the paper and its readers. “The science desk here will essentially become a channel for these guys to report from their worlds they’re all seeing,” Jha notes. The scientists “are going to lend a bit of their stardust to us”; in return, they’ll get exposure not just to a broader readership, but to a more diverse one, as well.

Exposure and payment

The Guardian network comes at time when science blog networks populated by writers with particular — and highly focused — areas of expertise are proliferating. Last week, the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher of open-access journals emphasizing the biological sciences, launched its own 11-blog network. PLoS Blogs joins Wired Science, Scientopia, and others. And, of course, science blogs have been in the news more than usual of late, with ScienceBlogs and the scandal that was PepsiGate. That scandal — in which PepsiCo tapped its own “experts” to contribute content to the otherwise proudly independent blog network — didn’t precipitate the Guardian’s own foray into science blog networking, which has been in the works since this spring. However, “it certainly accelerated everything,” Jha says. “I think there was soul-searching going on among the bloggers out there: ‘What do we do next? How do we do it?’ And that, in turn, gave the Guardian staff the sense that, okay, now is the time to do it.”

The general value proposition here is the most typical one: “more content” on the side of the media outlet, and “more exposure” on the side of the content providers. Many scientists are interested in writing, Jha points out; but there are far fewer who understand the mysterious alchemy required to successfully pitch stories to news organizations. The blog setup reframes the relationship between the expert and the outlet — with the Guardian itself, in this case, going from “gatekeeper” to “host.”

The upshot of all that, for the scientists, isn’t exposure in the Huffpostian sense, in which getting your name out there = money. The Guardian pays the bloggers for their work. Which is a matter of principle as much as economics: Even though some of the scientists were already writing their blogs without compensation, Jha notes, “we thought we can’t possibly just take a blog for free, because it would be exploitative.”

The solution: a 50/50 ad revenue split. The Guardian sells ads against the bloggers’ pages; the bloggers, in turn, get half the revenue from the exchange. But this being an experiment — and web ads being notoriously fickle, even on a high-traffic site like the Guardian’s — the arrangement also includes a kind of financial insurance policy for the bloggers: If ad revenues fall below target, they’ll revisit the deal.

“Independent of all interference”

Though the blogs’ flags vary, they feature, in their Guardian presentation, a uniform tagline: “HOSTED BY THE GUARDIAN.” Which is a way of clarifying — and reiterating — that, though the blogs’ content is on the Guardian’s site, it’s not fully of the Guardian’s site. “The idea is that this is not an internal reporters’ or editorial blog,” Jha says. “It’s these guys — it’s their thoughts, independent of all interference.”

And “independent” really means “independent.” The blogs aren’t edited — for content or for copy. Unlike some other newspaper/blog hosting arrangements (see, for example, Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight is licensed by The New York Times — and whose content is overseen, and edited, by Times staff), the Guardian’s science blogs are overseen by the bloggers themselves. For these first couple weeks, yes, a Guardian production editor will read the posts before hitting “publish.” But that’s a temporary state of affairs — a period meant to work out technical kinks and to foster trust on both sides. The goal, after this initial trial period, is to give the bloggers remote access to the Guardian’s web publishing tools — something, Jha notes, “that no one apart from internal staff had been able to do before.” The vision — a simple one, but one that’s nicely symbolic, as well — is that the bloggers will soon be able to publish directly to the Guardian site, with no intermediary. “It’s a completely new model for us,” Jha notes — because, at the moment, “nothing here is unedited.”

Jha is well aware of the potential for legal headaches that accompanies that freedom — a potential that’s particularly menacing in the U.K., whose legal system plays so (in)famously fast-and-loose with libel. “As a news organization, we’ve been very careful to be on the right side of the law,” Jha says; then again, though, “we’d never try and censor.” Balancing freedom-of-expression concerns with their organizational imperative to protect themselves from liability is something Jha and his colleagues have spent a lot of time discussing in the run-up to the network’s launch. Ultimately, though, the vision won out over the caution. “We always err on the side of ‘let’s publish’ rather than not,” he notes; and, as far as the site’s new bloggers go, the goal is less top-down authority, not more. “Eventually, we do want them to have complete control,” Jha says. “That is the ambition.”

July 30 2010

17:03

Wikileaks: The media industry’s response

Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has been online and publishing leaked documents and data since July 2007. Prior to this week, I wouldn’t have hesitated in initially referring to it as “whistle-blowing website Wikileaks” and getting in a definition of what the site does and how it works.

Writing this afternoon though, that bit of exposition feels a lot less necessary. Last Sunday’s coordinated publication of the Afghanistan war logs by Wikileaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel has catapulted the small, independent organisation – and it’s director Julian Assange – into an entirely new realm of public notoriety.

This post is a round-up of some of the media industry’s responses to the biggest leak in US military history.

On Monday the story took up the first 14 pages of the Guardian, 17 pages of Der Spiegel, and numerous lead stories in the New York Times.

Too much, too soon, writes Slate’s media commentator Jack Shafer.

By inundating readers with Assange’s trove, the three news organization broke one of the sacred rules of journalism: If you have a big story—especially one based on a leak like this one—drip, drip, drip it out to your audience rather than showering them with it. The reader can absorb drips better than torrents.

Ultimately, more time, and care, was needed, says Shafer: “There was too much material for the newspapers and magazines to swallow on such a short deadline.”

His assessment echoes that of BBC College of Journalism director Kevin Marsh, who reports on Assange’s press conference at the Frontline Club on Monday.

[W]hat was danced around (…) was how much the three news organisations were able to verify and test the documents – and, crucially, their exact provenance – to which Wikileaks gave them access. In the way they would if they were dealing direct with their own assessable sources.

How much did they know about the source or sources of the document pile? His/her/their motivation? Track record? What was not there and why not? What was incomplete about what was there?

This matters. A lot. Especially if Wikileaks is to become – or has already become – a kind of stateless brokerage for whistleblowing.

NYU’s Jay Rosen also picks up on the ‘no-fixed abode’ quality of Wikileaks, calling it the “world’s first stateless news organisation”:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that (…) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system.

According to Assange, Wikileaks, which is sort-of based in Sweden due to the country’s extremely progressive freedom of information laws, does “not have national security concerns” and is “not a national organisation.” He frequently claims the site’s loyalty is to truth and transparency. Writing for the Telegraph, Will Heaven (whose piece may smack ever so slightly of sour grapes), questions the idea that the organisation has no political agenda.

Wikileaks is a website with no political agenda, its founder Julian Assange would have you believe. So I’m puzzled by today’s “Afghanistan war log” story. It doesn’t strike me – or many of my colleagues – as politically neutral to feed such sensitive information to three Left-leaning newspapers: namely the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel. Even more puzzling that Wikileaks would choose, very deliberately, to contravene its own mission statement – that crowdsourcing and open data are paramount.

It was Nick Davies of the Guardian with whom the possibility of this kind of publication was first discussed by Assange. The Guardian team threw everything but the kitchen sink at their run on the material, with all the interactive and data know-how we have come to expect of them. Editorially, they focused on bringing to light the abhorrent disregard for the lives of civilians detailed in parts of the logs but largely covered up by the military.

The logs detail, in sometimes harrowing vignettes, the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed “blue on white” in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents (…)

Accountability is not just something you do when you are caught. It should be part of the way the US and Nato do business in Afghanistan every time they kill or harm civilians. The reports, many of which the Guardian is publishing in full online, present an unvarnished and often compelling account of the reality of modern war.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger if he thought the newspaper should have started Wikileaks itself, to which Rusbridger responded that he felt it worked better separately. Jarvis claims that the joint publication effort showed that the future of journalism lay in “adding value”:

If you don’t add value, then you’re not needed. And that’s not necessarily bad. When you don’t add value and someone else can perform the task as stenographer or leaker or reporter — and you can link to it — then that means you save resources and money. This means journalists need to look at where they add maximum value.

There were plenty of journalists in attendance when Assange appeared at the Frontline Club again on Tuesday night, this time for an extended discussion with both press and just the plain curious.

“We are not an organisation for protecting troops,” he told the audience. “We are an organisation for protecting human beings.”

To that end, Wikileaks held back 15,000 of the 92,000 documents contained in the archive because, the organisation claimed, they had the potential to put the lives of civilians and military informers in Afghanistan at risk.

But on Wednesday morning the Times alleged that:

In just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, the Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names. US officers recorded detailed logs of the information fed to them by named local informants, particularly tribal elders.

The backlash against Wikileaks and its director gathered steam on Thursday when New York Times editor Bill Keller strongly criticised the organisation in an email to the Daily Beast for making so much of the material available without properly vetting it.

In our own publication, in print and on our website, we were careful to remove anything that could put lives at risk. We could not be sure that the trove posted on WikiLeaks, even with some 15,000 documents held back, would not endanger lives. And, in fact, as we will be reporting in tomorrow’s paper, our subsequent search of the material posted on WikiLeaks found many names of Afghan informants who could now be targets of reprisals by the insurgents (…)

Assange released the information to three mainstream news organizations because we had the wherewithal to mine the data for news and analysis, and because we have a large audience that would take this seriously. I think the public interest was served by that. His decision to release the data to everyone, however, had potential consequences that I think anyone, regardless of how he views the war, would find regrettable.

Wikileaks has acted grossly irresponsibly in the eyes of some press organisations, but it has been lauded by others as a pioneer for both its commitment to increasing transparency – and in doing so encouraging reform – and for its approach to publicising the logs and trying to achieve the maximum amount of impact for material that people have risked a great deal to expose. From the Editorsweblog:

Getting media outlets involved early was a way to make sure that there was comprehensive coverage of the information. Wikileaks is not trying to be a news outlet, it wants to get the information out there, but does not intend to provide the kind of analysis that a newspaper might. As Nick Davies told CJR, agreeing to release the information simultaneously let each of the three newspapers know that they had an almost exclusive story in which it was worth investing time and effort. And as Poynter noted, its exclusivity caused competitors to scramble and try to bring something new out of the story.

Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it is difficult to deny that the method of the leak marks a significant change in the organisation’s relationship with the news media and in the role the industry has to play in events of this kind.Similar Posts:



May 19 2010

15:24
09:16

Beehive City: Alan Rusbriger vs John Witherow on BBC Radio 4

This afternoon tune into BBC Radio 4’s Media Show at 1.30 pm to hear Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger go head to head with John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times.

In the meantime, Dan Sabbagh of the Beehive City blog has a preview from the pre-record, peppered with a little of his own (unverified) insider knowledge:

John Witherow said that the editorial budget of The Times and The Sunday Times is about £100 million, and it is this budget that is being cut by 10 per cent. (Those who have worked with the figures tell me that splits £60 million for The Times and £40 million for The Sunday Times, but I can’t verify that)

Alan Rusbridger said that The Guardian does about £40 million annually from its digital business, and the current growth rate in revenues is 100 per cent. (But I also know from separate conversations that of that £40 million, or rather £38 million, about £10 million comes from its dating and other non-Guardian newspaper websites).

Full post at this link…

[Press Gazette also has a report]

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April 30 2010

08:29

Alan Rusbridger on his vision for a ‘mutualised newspaper’ (video)

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, recently appeared on the Charlie Rose show, now available online.

Asked about free versus paid content and newspapers, Rusbridger talked about a future of collaboration rather than competition.

The collaborative possibilities of the web are the interesting ones, he said, citing how the Guardian invited external environmental websites to sit on its site.

Rusbridger, who has spoken out against pay walls in the past, talked about his vision of a “mutualised newspaper”.

“We have to get over this journalistic arrogance that journalists are the only people who are the figures of authority in the world,” he said. Using the example of theatre coverage, he said you didn’t need to get rid of the critics, but you could invite other members of the audience in.

“If you can open your site up, and allow other voices in, you get something that’s more engaged, more involved – and actually, I think, journalistically better.”

Full clip at this link…

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April 20 2010

08:29

THE INMA/INNOVATION OXFORD TABLET SUMMIT (3): MORE SPEAKERS

2010-04-20_0920

More details about the INMA/INOVATION Oxford Tablet Summit.

Two new speakers.

The right quotes from the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger:

“A tabloid newspaper page seemed exotically large, a broadsheet like a street hoarding. The iPad just seemed natural.”

“Has the Guardian ever looked more beautiful?”

And a great illustration by Luis Grañena.

Click here for more information and the full program.

March 31 2010

07:55

Beehive City: Alan Rusbridger on the Times, paywalls and industry in-fighting

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, adds some “industry context” to other paper’s reports of the Guardian and its business, in particular the departure of Carolyn McCall, CEO of Guardian Media Group (GMG), last week.

In a memo to staff reproduced by Beehive City, Rusbridger takes on the Times:

The Times’ print circulation is falling at exactly the same rate as the Guardian’s – but the Times’ web traffic is down seven per cent year on year while the Guardian’s rose by 22 per cent.

The Independent:

Having vociferously argued (in 2006) that newspapers were dangerously under-priced and that the future was about boosting cover price rather than hoping for increased advertising revenues, it is now talking about going free.

Paywalls:

What’s right for Murdoch (with Sky as a digital subscription model in the background and infinitely deep corporate cross-subsidies) may well not work for us at GNM, and vice versa. There may be different models within one newspaper. We’ll all make some mistakes along the way. We can all learn from each other.

And why the Guardian and GMG will stick to its plans and be swayed by “the pecking and sniping of outsiders”.

Of all media companies I truly believe we are better placed than the great majority to make the transformative change that will be demanded of us. The editorial future has the potential to be richer than anything any previous generation of journalists could have imagined. We can imagine it – and we are well on the way to achieving it.

Full memo at this link…

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March 16 2010

13:33

Guardian launches Student Media Awards 2010

The Guardian Student Media Awards are now open to entries. The 2010 competition features a new category designed to recognise developments in digital journalism and the rise of social media. Blogs and Twitter feeds are now eligible for the ‘Digital Journalist of the Year’ category, meaning students unconnected to student newspapers or radio stations can enter.

The judging panel includes Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, and NME editor Krissi Murison. Winners each receive a month’s work experience at the Guardian.

The six categories this year are:

Publication of the Year
Reporter of the Year
Writer of the Year
Photographer of the Year
Digital Journalist of the Year in association with NME.com
Broadcast Journalist of the Year

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March 03 2010

16:27

The police’s “narrow” approach to phone hacking: not a crime if message had been listened to first

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger raised what he said was a little known fact about phone hacking evidence, in yesterday’s press regulation debate in the House of Lords.

He had been told by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Yates, he said, that the police only considered the interception of phone messages an offence if they hadn’t been listened to.

Once messages were stored after they were listened to by the message recipient, subsequent access by a third party was not considered a criminal offence. The public should be aware of the “narrow definition” of phone hacking, the Guardian editor warned.

As reported in last week’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee report:

“The police also told us that under Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) it is only a criminal offence to access someone’s voicemail message if they have not already listened to it themselves. This means that to prove a criminal offence has taken place it has to be proved that the intended recipient had not already listened to the message. This means that the hacking of messages that have already been opened is not a criminal offence and the only action the victim can take is to pursue a breach of privacy, which we find a strange position in law.”

The committee recommended that “Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is amended to cover all hacking of phone messages”.

“Narrow definition” line is a “convenient PR shelter for Scotland Yard”, argues Davies

The Guardian’s evidence of widespread phone hacking attempts contradicted police reports that only a ‘handful’ of victims had been targeted, so Scotland Yard is trying to “justify its position” by raising the narrow legal definition of the criminal offence, Guardian journalist Nick Davies told Journalism.co.uk.

Davies also challenges the legality of any kind of phone hacking:

“The narrow legal definition is highly contentious. The idea is that it is illegal to listen to somebody’s voicemail only if they have not themselves already heard it. This not written in the law at all; it was clearly not parliament’s intention. It’s an interpretation – not one that has been tested and accepted by a court, simply something that was said during a legal conference at the Crown Prosecution Service while the police were investigating the original case.

“It was said by David Perry, Crown counsel in the case, but he didn’t even produce a written opinion and never mentioned it in court when Goodman and Mulcaire came up.” A future court may or may not agree with this definition, Davies added. “At the moment, however, it is a convenient PR shelter for Scotland Yard who are embarrassed by their handling of the case.”

Satchwell claims phone hacking case has ‘grey areas’; challenges Guardian’s proof

The liveliest part of yesterday’s House of Lords debate came when executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, challenged some of the Guardian’s claims and insisted there were “grey areas” in the case.

Journalist Nick Davies vehemently disagrees: the black and white is there, he later told Journalism.co.uk, but newspapers and the Press Complaints Commission don’t want to see it.

“Satchwell says editors don’t know the truth about all the material confiscated by the Information Commissioner’s Office from [private investigator] Steve Whittamore in March 2003 because the ICO didn’t investigate it. That isn’t correct.”

“The ICO analysed all the material and produced spreadsheets – one for each newspaper organisation – and the spreadsheets lists all of the journalists who asked Whittamore to find confidential information, all of the targets, all of the information requested, how it was obtained, how much was paid.

“The ICO and police worked together to prepare three court cases: one led to four convictions, the other two collapsed for technical reasons. You really can’t say that there wasn’t an investigation. Furthermore, when the new information commissioner, Christopher Graham, gave evidence to the media select committee, he said he would not publish the spreadsheets, but he clearly indicated his willingness to talk to any editor who got in touch in search of detail.

No editor has asked for extra information from ICO
“I checked last week with the ICO as to how many editors had now got in touch to ask which of their journalists are named in the spreadsheets and also to ask whether the PCC had approached them and asked for information,” said Davies.

“The answer was that no editor and nobody from the PCC had asked.” Furthermore, Davies said, he had written detailed stories about the contents of the spreadsheets.

“So, if editors are still in a grey area on all this, it’s because they refuse to look at the facts in black and white, even though the facts are there for them.”

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February 05 2010

12:54

PCC’s credibility under attack

The Press Complaints Commission is once again under attack for its structure and effectiveness as a self-regulatory body.

Last night the Guardian reported how Sir Ken Macdonald, ­visiting professor of law at the LSE and the former director of public prosecutions, had called for “all credible media organisations” to withdraw from the “farcical” Press ­Complaints Commission (a plea which was made by Geoffery Robertson QC last year).

The event for editors and lawyers, also featured Max Clifford, former Formula 1 chief Max Mosley, former TV presenter Anna Ford, the editors of the Guardian and the Financial Times, and the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph. The Guardian also reported:

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, said the credibility of the PCC was “clinging by its fingertips” and that recent investigations had been “embarrassing”. The PCC’s current review should work out whether it has the capacity to be a regulator or a mediator, he said.

It’s timely then, to compare Rusbridger’s quotes from last night, with Stephen Abell’s comments this week, in his first media interview since becoming director of the PCC:

Abell told Journalism.co.uk that he didn’t believe Rusbridger’s resignation from the PCC code committee weakened the body at all:

Alan Rusbridger has said it [the code committee] does a good job (…) I think these arguments happens within industries but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to move on from that. I don’t think it weakens the PCC in any way that Alan is leaving an industry body that he was a member of for a while. You don’t have every editor on the code committee anyway (…) I think it’s tremendous merit that Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian was on the code committee for as long as he was.

Journalism.co.uk’s interview with Stephen Abell (who took over as PCC director in December 2009):

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February 03 2010

11:41

paidContent:UK: Guardian’s paywall warning ’sounds like B.S’ to Murdoch

paidContent:UK has a report from yesterday’s News Corp. conference call in which CEO Rupert Murdoch brushed off a paywall warning made by Alan Rusbridger last week. Murdoch hadn’t read the Guardian editor’s Hugh Cudlipp speech but when asked what he made of its content, said: “I think that sounds like B.S. to me.”

In regards to paywall progression at the Times, Murdoch said:

“We’re looking at various alternatives – and I don’t think we’re ready to announce yet …We’re in the midst of a lot of talks with a lot of people that are coming to a head – and you’ll hear a lot more from us in the next two months.”

Full post at this link…

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February 01 2010

16:00

Denise Searle: Blogging or flogging? Why NGOs face challenges in embracing the Internet’s potential

[The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world's best known NGOs, explores that in this, the final part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

At the offices of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London during December 2008, the customary Christmas and New Year parties were supplemented by a round of often tearful farewell drinks as staff at the respected broadsheet newspapers reeled from the third round of redundancies in two years. The Telegraph Media Group’s desire to invest in its online activities was a key reason for the cuts in print journalist jobs, with the global economic downturn adding to the pressures.

The Telegraph is far from alone. Most UK and U.S. newspapers and news broadcasters have been building up their online presence, which has usually involved spreading editorial resources more thinly to create round-the-clock multimedia online outputs from existing or even reduced staff complements. In January 2009, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was axing 300 jobs, 70 of them in the editorial department, which had already been virtually halved in size over the past five years. The timing was surprising. According to Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at the City University of New York and writing in The Guardian newspaper, the LA Times editor, Russ Stanton, had claimed earlier that month that the paper’s online advertising revenue was sufficient to cover the entire print and online editorial payroll.

There is growing concern about the combined effect on news coverage of financial pressures and the needs of the internet. In January 2008, the UK and Ireland’s National Union of Journalists sent out an e-alert to members asking them to blow the whistle on where cutbacks are undermining journalism standards.1 The same month the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University published “What’s Happening to Our News: An Investigation into the Likely Impact of the Digital Revolution on the Economics of News Publishing in the UK.” International news is particularly vulnerable because it’s costly. According to the Reuters Institute report, there has been a large-scale cull of foreign news staff in newspapers and broadcasters in the UK and abroad. Independent Television News (ITN), a major broadcast news provider in the UK, has more than halved the number of permanent overseas bureaux and staff since 2000. ITN now allocates just five per cent of its overall news budget to a network of six foreign bureaux.

“To feed the appetite of 24/7 media platforms, news publishers increasingly rely on a range of external suppliers for the raw material of journalism,” says the report, “not only trusted wire agencies, but also the public relations industry and, more recently, citizen journalism.” It’s safe to assume that NGOs and charities could be included in the list.

While few NGOs would celebrate the loss of jobs and the squeeze on foreign news coverage, many of those involved in international humanitarian and development work are certainly eyeing up the opportunities these changes present for increasing coverage of their concerns and activities by the media, particularly on their digital/internet platforms. International NGOs have access to human interest stories, so the logic goes, so surely the content-hungry news websites can’t afford to be as choosy as their parent publishers and broadcasters have been in the past and will snap up news and features to fill the gaps left by shrinking foreign reporting teams.

Be there or be square

The reach of the internet and associated digital platforms, such as mobile phones and online social networking sites, continues to grow. According to the Internet World Stats website, which aggregates data from the International Telecommunications Union and Nielsen/NetRatings among others, more than 1.5 billion people around the world use the internet, which is 23.4 per cent of the total global population. This has grown by 305.5 percent since 2000. The fastest expansion has been in the global south and east in recent years but even mature markets such as the United States and UK continue to grow. Almost 47 million or 76 percent of people in the UK use the internet, a growth of 203.1 percent since 2000. In the United States, 228 million people use the internet, representing 74.1 percent of the population and 138.8 percent growth since 2000.

NGOs need to engage these internet users for funds and general support, and because the people they need to influence for policy change and major donations are increasingly influenced by the internet. The internet is no longer simply an alternative or accompaniment to traditional print-based communications. Internet experts point out that many “digital natives” (usually defined as people aged 18-28, largely in industrialized countries) are uncomfortable with more traditional forms of communication. In other words, they probably won’t read the lovingly produced mail shots. Even “digital immigrants” (those over 30-ish) expect their NGO of choice to have a substantial online presence.

Plus, the internet theoretically enables NGOs to communicate directly with existing and potential supporters, without having their messages filtered by the media or the commercial prospecting agencies that many use to recruit new members or supporters via the telephone or on the street. This must be a benefit, given that the 2009 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual international survey commissioned by Edelman Public Relations, based on 30-minute interviews with 4,475 individuals aged 25-64) showed that trust in nearly every type of news outlet and spokesperson is down from last year — apart from NGOs. In fact, NGOs are the most trusted institutions globally: 54 percent of the older part of the age group surveyed (35 to 64 year olds) trust them to do what’s right. If only NGOs could reach their publics, they’re bound to be won over by their case. Simple. Or is it?

The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs. In the early days, in what we now realize was merely “web 1.0,” businesses and non-profits alike used their websites as shop windows for electronic versions of the sorts of materials they published anyway. There were probably some pictures and maybe a bit of video and audio and even a “contact us” facility, but on the whole the relationship with audiences was on a “read (or watch) only” basis. Through a gradual process of increasing interactivity, “web 1.0″ has morphed into “web 2.0,” which is based on participation, and where many users expect to share their own content and ideas and be listened to. The underlying technology is largely the same, but more people are using it in many different ways. Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world.

What’s more, this dynamic online environment continues to change. In July 2008, the U.S. business website Forbes.com tapped the internet analysts Nielsen Online to get a sense of where and how U.S. residents are migrating on the web. They drew up a list of the 20 most trafficked websites, compared with three years earlier, and found that the top slot went to Google, with 123 million unique visitors a month, seven million more than Yahoo, the second most popular site, and 62 per cent more than the 76 million unique visitors Google attracted three years previously, when it ranked fourth.

The survey indicates that the Internet is still about searching for information. Out of the top five sites most visited in the United States — Google, Yahoo, MSN, Microsoft’s home page, and AOL Media Network — four are portals to other websites. This means that: “web surfers are ‘leaning forward,’ looking for something in particular, versus ‘leaning back’ as browsers of traditional print publications do,” concludes Forbes.com. “In theory, that dynamic should spell opportunity for online enterprises peddling products and information that truly meet specific needs, be it t-shirts or health advice (if only it weren’t for the myriad competitors, now on similar footing, trying to do the same thing).”

The United States’s sixth most popular web destination is YouTube, the user-generated-video site, with 75 million unique visitors a month, each of whom spent an average of one hour per visit. In fact user-generated content of all sorts has redrawn the digital map. Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, jumped to 9 on the list from 57 three years ago. Online social networks are also popular, with Facebook ranking 16 on Nielsen’s list with more than 34 million unique visitors, compared with 4 million in July 2005, when it ranked 236, according to the Forbes.com article. The picture is similar in the UK, which has the highest level of online social networking in Europe.

I’m speaking but are you listening?

“We’ve only just begun the journey of involving readers,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News Media, in an interview in the February 2009 edition of UK Press Gazette, in which he described the group’s move to new premises accompanied by a switch to 24/7 multimedia publishing across The Guardian, The Observer and guardian.co.uk (with no compulsory redundancies).2 The Guardian has the UK’s most popular newspaper website, with 26 million unique users a month.

“I think journalists are going to get much more at ease with the idea that we don’t know it all, and that we’ve got incredibly intelligent readers who live and breathe The Guardian and who love the opportunity to get involved with it,” Rusbridger said. “What that means in terms of the systems and how you edit and aggregate all that, I don’t know — but that’s what makes it so interesting.”

All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them.

Feeding the voracious internet beast takes extensive human and technical resources. While most NGOs have established substantial web teams, they are not geared up for 24/7 content provision and updating — and probably should not be, given that their core business is in a different field, such as tackling poverty or defending human rights. Plus, the fast turnaround and response demanded by the internet (which is putting a strain on the quality of output from traditional print and broadcast newsrooms) conflicts with the longer-term, planned activities of most humanitarian and development NGOs, and simply could not be met by the lengthy approval processes most NGOs operate for any kind of external communication. The contradictions are illustrated in “Virtual Promise,” a survey published in 2008 by the UK think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy into charities’ use of the internet. Of 376 organizations surveyed, 80 percent said they used their website for “news and regular updates” yet only 25 percent said they updated their website on a daily basis.

There’s also a difference in perspective and culture, particularly when it comes to involving supporters and giving them a voice. The big humanitarian and development NGOs work on the basis that supporters give them money and trust them to spend it wisely in working to achieve their mission. It’s genuinely difficult to decide how much information and transparency to provide around an NGO’s work and objectives, and the strategic decisions that have shaped the particular activities and approach being undertaken. How should these processes be translated for the digital sphere to make them accessible in a sound-bite culture while not being misleading over the challenges of building rural livelihoods, protecting biodiversity, ending the arms trade and so on? How much detail can internet visitors be expected to absorb?

It’s all very well having snappy, web-friendly outreach or media and commercial advertising activities that drive audiences to the website. But when people get there, very often they find that the optimistic, passionate promotional materials have dissolved into stark content about suffering, hardship, injustice, and the other myriad issues NGOs are dealing with. Or conversely, they are presented with slight web features that imply that the problems are all being dealt with.

NGOs have made real efforts over recent years to engage with the internet beyond simply building an attractive website. A visit to Facebook brings up more than 500 results for Oxfam, including pages from various Oxfam national chapters, pages on specific campaigns and links from supporters. Some are current, while others are old and/or out of date. There are similar Facebook presences for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and other major international NGOs. On Youtube there are 3,860 videos about Amnesty International, both official videos and those posted by supporters. [Please note that the number of videos cited was current as of the time this essay was written in 2009; the numbers today may be substantially different.] The situation is similar for Oxfam (2,460 videos), Greenpeace (12,700 videos), Save the Children (13,900 videos), and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (286 videos). NGO content on MySpace includes videos, weblinks and dedicated pages by the organizations themselves and supporters, and again the big players are there, including Greenpeace (101,000 entries); Oxfam (30,000 entries); Amnesty International (38,100 entries); Save the Children (207,000 entries); and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (around 15,000 entries).

But go to most large NGOs’ websites and it’s near impossible to find information about the volume of visitors to the website or numbers of supporters. For example, Amnesty International USA quotes 2.2 million global supporters for the total Amnesty movement but doesn’t give its own national membership (although Amnesty International UK does give its 230,000 “financial supporters”). Others don’t even do that, including Medecins sans Frontieres UK and Liberty. Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Amnesty International USA give financial figures (Amnesty International USA and Save the Children UK publish their audited report and accounts). Greenpeace US provides Greenpeace International accounts. But all take some finding.

This is not very web 2.0. Digital natives and frequent internet users tend to expect more information about what an organization is doing and who else is involved to decide whether they are in good company. Peer feedback and activities are key drivers of web activity, hence the popularity of blogging and the “swarm of bees” effect that can drive huge numbers of users to view a video on YouTube or to sign up to a particular petition.

Promoting impact

The Kiva website, which enables users to give loans to businesses in the developing world via local microfinance partners, has an “Impact This Week” box on its home page that tells you how many people have made a loan in any one week, and how many new lenders there are. There’s also easy-to-find information on different lending teams, now many are in them and how much they’ve loaned. Kiva enables lenders to see the actual project they will be supporting and to monitor progress. Avaaz.org, the international civic organization that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, and religious conflicts, states at the top of its homepage how many actions have been taken since it was set up in January 2007 (15,277,937 as of January 2010). Prominently, on its “about us” page, it says: “In less than three years, we’ve grown to over 3.5 million members, and have begun to make a real impact on global politics.” The front page of the U.S. liberal public policy advocacy and political action group Moveon.org says: “Join more than 5,000,000 members online, get instant action updates and make a difference.” It also gives clear facts about actions and money in the website’s “” section.

It is obviously easier for small, single (or limited) issue groups to provide this kind of apparently transparent data than larger, more complex, long-established NGOs whose claims are likely to be more closely scrutinized by their own members as well as outside audiences and regulatory bodies. Who is going to count whether Avaaz actually has more than 3.5 million members in every nation of the world? Whereas Amnesty International spent a couple of years painstakingly compiling the returns from its 80 offices round the world before releasing the figure of 2.2 million members, supporters, and subscribers. Even so, big NGOs do have a way to go before they are truly embracing the spirit of the internet.

nfpSynergy’s 2007 fundraising benchmark survey of 109 charities showed that online fundraising raises on average just 2 percent of total voluntary income. This compares with supporter development and retention raising 27 percent of voluntary income and major donors raising 7 percent. Ironically, online fundraising is highly cost-effective, raising an average of around £10 for every £1 spent on direct costs, including salaries. “Most charities have not started to implement best practice and maximize their income. Most are missing the opportunities from both web and email communications and from the various ways of collecting online income,” wrote independent charity ICT and internet consultant, Sue Fidler, in Third Sector Magazine.

She reckoned the reasons are often simple: charities do not have the time, the resources or the knowledge to get the various tools and mechanisms in place, or the management buy-in to get more resources. But for many there is a more frustrating reason: they have the tools but are not using them to sell the charity’s proposition. If the route to donate and the ask are wrong, the tools won’t help.

“We have learnt that having a donate button isn’t enough. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ hasn’t worked,” Fidler wrote. “Until we learn to sell ourselves online, using our stories to engage our supporters while offering them every opportunity to help, we will not see an increase in online income.”

Nick Aldridge, Chief Executive Officer of MissionFish, is slightly more optimistic. In the forward to MissionFish’s June 2008 report, “Passion, Persistence, and Partnership: the Secrets of Earning More Online,” he states that “Charities of all sizes are becoming more confident and sophisticated in using the web to attract, engage, and develop potential supporters. They are learning that success depends on the passion and persistence they show, and the strength of the partnerships they’re able to form.” User-generated content, online auctions, affinity schemes, and e-commerce are all growing in popularity.

“Those representing and speaking for charities online are finding that they need to engage the public in less formal and more personal dialogue. They must be prepared to take part in lively real-time discussions about the value of their work, rather than posting out their annual reports,” he emphasized. “It’s clear that an online strategy now involves far more than ‘click here to donate.’ Charities must recognize the difference that online interaction can make in helping them to achieve their goals, and incorporate online work in all their major initiatives.”

However, Aldridge concluded that there’s still a long way to go. “Staff who specialize in internet communications or fundraising often feel sidelined, and have a hard time explaining the potential of their work to managers. Meanwhile, many small charities still struggle to develop the tools and content they need for a basic online presence.”

Only a few years ago a senior member of the governance board of a major international NGO demanded to know who had approved the NGO’s entry in Wikipedia and why they hadn’t had it changed because the tone wasn’t as flattering as she would have liked. At that time it was pretty remarkable that she was actually aware of Wikipedia. It’s hard to envision such a conversation happening now. Yet awareness of the internet doesn’t equate to understanding or benefit. Most NGOs accept that they must exploit the potential of the digital sphere if they are to stand a chance of achieving their mission but many still believe that their core business can function as usual, which is where media organizations used to be. Websites were seen as an add-on to the main activities of publishing or broadcasting, which is now not the case, as illustrated by the current job cuts and concerns about quality of journalism.

How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz, plus numerous national and local advocacy and development groups that can apparently provide digital native audiences with direct, tangible ways of making a difference? And will it stop there if governments and major institutional donors start fully embracing the internet as a way of doing business? They are already listening to online constituencies. Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?

Denise Searle is an independent communications consultant. Her current projects include helping to develop a digital strategy for Oxfam and serving as part of the coordinating group for the communications strand of aids2031. She previously served as senior director of communications with Amnesty International and chief of UNICEF’s Internet, Broadcast and Image Section.

Notes
  1. Interview with Miles Barter, campaigns officer, National Union of Journalists, January 2009.
  2. UK Press Gazette. “Inside the Guardian’s New Home.” February 2009, p. 34.
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