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April 02 2013

14:28

Dan Gillmor says journalists are uninformed about who controls the platforms they publish on

Dan Gillmor is writing a book (maybe), and he has a lot of questions. The project, which will probably be self published, will probably be called Permission Taken. Gillmor already owns that domain, so why not, he said in a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society last week. (Also, his agent likes the title.)

Gillmor says he’s been thinking about the project for about a year, and he’s come up with a list of questions that he wants academics and practitioners around the country to help him answer. When Gillmor looks at the technologies, services, and platforms most of us use everyday and take for granted, he asks, in slide lingo,

KVESTIONS

The answers are not always clear.

Gillmor’s goal with the new book is a pedagogical one — he said he considers his students (at Arizona State University) to be his primary audience. He intends for the first few chapters to be a primer for the digitally barely literate on how to protect privacy and shore up digital security in day-to-day life. Some of the later chapters, however, will delve deeper into the nitty gritty.

Some of the ideas that will become a part of the new book Gillmor shared back in October at a symposium on digital ethics hosted by Poynter. Gillmor and other presenters also contributed essays to a book, The New Ethics of Journalism: A Guide for the 21st Century, to be published in July.

Generally, Gillmor doesn’t think anyone is fully aware of how vulnerable they are, technologically speaking. Build a back door into every new technology so the FBI can keep an eye on things, he says, “and I promise you it’s going to be used by criminals. The more you unharden the fences, the more room there is for really bad actors.”

Gillmor is especially concerned about how little he says journalists know about security and the extent to which they retain control over their content once it’s published online. “I ask, why are you pouring your journalism into Facebook where you don’t control it anymore? Why are you putting it on other people’s platforms?” In his slide deck, Gillmor gives the example of a New Yorker cartoon that caused Facebook to temporarily ban the magazine from their site — thereby claiming an unprecedented level of control over what is and isn’t acceptable in publishing.

Facebook is a particular concern of Gillmor’s, and he points to a tweet in his slideshow in which Loic le Meur quotes a friend employed by Facebook as saying “we’re like electricity.” “Is Facebook a utility?” asks Gillmor. “What do we do with utilities? We regulate them. Monopolies need regulation. I’m not a fan of regulation, but we have to think about that.”

Gillmor expressed similar concerns in his October talk about the level of control held by payment processors. Whether because of pressure from the government or an internal decision, Gillmor says, if the processor deems your content unacceptable, “then you won’t get paid.” But what journalists really don’t like, Gillmor told me, is when he asks them why they insist on building iOS apps that cede control of what is and isn’t journalism to Apple. In terms of distribution, they say they have no other option — and even journalists who have considered other options say the risk is worth it.

But some risks are never worth it. “Journalists need to learn more about security right away,” says Gillmor. “They are threatening the lives of their sources if they don’t.” In a recent column about the Harvard cheating scandal, in which the university admitted to scanning portions of employee emails, Gillmor showed exactly what can happen when a news outlet doesn’t know enough about how to protect their sources.

It’s not just employees and others who want to blow whistles who need to be more careful — such as using external accounts, encryption and a lot of other tools to be safer. (Note: I didn’t say “safe”, because absolute safety is exceedingly hard to achieve, if it’s even possible.)

Journalists, too, need better tradecraft when it comes to their dealings with sources. My impression of the typical newsroom’s precautions is that there aren’t many.

For six years as a columnist, Gillmor used a PGP at the bottom of each page — a safe, encrypted method by which sources could contact him. He said in six years, it was used twice — once by someone just checking to see if it worked.

For journalists, Gillmor recommends Tor, “a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” (Committee to Protect Journalists when it comes to educating journalists about the dangers of using certain technologies.

But ultimately, Gillmor says, “It’s a crucial issue — and one that has not gotten enough attention inside the craft.” These issues fall very low on the priority list for an industry that Gillmor described as being in a constant state of desperation. But the dangers are real, Gillmor says, and with his new project, he hopes to find ways of bringing the convenience of private platforms to services that are both free and secure.

For now, though, “increasingly, journalists who really are appropriately paranoid in the right situations are learning not to use technology,” says Gillmor.

If you have a better idea, Gillmor is taking questions — and hopefully, answers.

Photo by f1uffster (Jeanie) used under a Creative Commons license.

April 01 2013

18:12

For watchdog stories, ‘who pays?’ is the wrong question

Former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger said that before he retired the paper in late 2007, each investigative story cost up to $500,000. Figuring out how to foot that bill is important, but so is thinking about how to reduce it in the first place. Read More »

April 12 2012

16:49

‘Hypothesis generator’ helps mine huge datasets

A tool created through a collaboration with Harvard and MIT could soon help journalists find relationships in massive amounts of data — even if they don’t know what they’re looking for. Read More »

January 11 2012

16:00

Announcing the Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation

For over 70 years here at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, we’ve run the Nieman Fellowships, which allows a couple dozen journalists from around the world to spend a year studying here at Harvard. And today, we’re announcing a new fellowship partner that I’m really excited about.

I’m happy to announce the Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation. It’s a joint project between us here at Nieman and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the primary unit of the university dedicated to understanding our digital present and future. Berkman runs its own awesome fellowship program that brings technologists, social scientists, legal scholars, journalists, and others to Harvard. The Nieman-Berkman Fellow will be a full Nieman Fellow and a full Berkman Fellow, able to draw on both communities and help strengthen connections between technology and journalism.

So what’s this Nieman-Berkman Fellowship all about? We’re looking for someone who had a specific course of research or project that they’d like to undertake — something that would have a substantial benefit to the larger world of journalism. We’re intentionally keeping the boundaries of that idea wide open — so proposals might deal with social media, with data visualization, with database analysis, with the underlying business models of online journalism, with newsroom structure, with networked journalism, with mobile consumption patters, or anything else that plays a meaningful part in how digital journalism is evolving. If it’s a subject or field that we write about here at Nieman Lab, it probably makes sense for a proposal for the Nieman-Berkman Fellowship.

This fellowship is also open to a wider range of applicants than the other Nieman Fellowships. For instance, someone who works on the publishing or technology sides of a news organization could be a strong candidate, even if they aren’t reporters or editors.

When the Nieman-Berkman Fellow arrives on campus this fall, he or she will work with Nieman and Berkman to advance the work of the proposal, sharing their work and their findings with readers of Nieman Lab and with the Harvard community. It’s a pretty great gig — one I’d be applying for myself if I weren’t already here!

You can read a lot more about the Nieman-Berkman Fellowship over here, and I’m happy to answer specific questions by email. Because we’re announcing this fellowship a little later than usual, we’ve extended the deadline for applications to February 15 — so you’ve got a little over a month to think up a proposal and apply. This fellowship is open to both U.S. citizens and international applicants; we’ll do interviews with finalists in the spring and, if we find the right person, make an announcement in May. We look forward to seeing your ideas.

(An aside: Americans are also still very much welcome to apply for the traditional Nieman Fellowships, which have a deadline of January 31. Unfortunately, the deadline for international applicants was back in December. I’d strongly encourage any journalist who wants to apply for the Nieman-Berkman Fellowship to also apply for the standard fellowship — that’ll help your odds.)

February 25 2011

17:00

Ushahidi Takes First Steps in Evaluating Kenya Projects

This post was written by Melissa Tully and Jennifer Chan. It is the first in a series of blog posts documenting a 9-month Ushahidi evaluation project in partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and supported by the Knight Foundation. A version of the post below was originally published on the Ushahidi blog

During the first two weeks of January, we traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to begin phase one of a 9-month evaluation of Ushahidi's Kenya projects. Ushahidi is a web application created to map the reported incidents of violence during the post-election crisis in Kenya.

As part of a team, Jennifer and I met with individuals and groups who have incorporated the Ushahidi software into their programming as well as other partners to better understand how organizations have implemented and used the platform to improve their programming and organizational goals.

This evaluation has multiple purposes. In addition to writing case studies of some interesting and dynamic projects that use the Ushahidi platform: Unsung Peace Heroes and Building Bridges, and Uchaguzi in both Kenya and Tanzania; we plan to document our progress through a series of blog posts and to create practical and interactive tools.

Tracking Progress

These resources can help organizations decide if Ushahidi is right for them through a self-assessment and evaluation process. Implementers can use these resources throughout the entire project period to track their progress and strengthen monitoring and evaluation.

We're in the very early stages of development, but based on discussions with people in Kenya who have used Ushahidi and members of the Ushahidi team and community, we think we're developing some very useful stuff. Currently, we're focusing on the "pre-implementation assessment" and "implementation" resources so that we can get feedback from current and future deployments on these key areas.

We're working closely with the Ushahidi team and others involved in developing the Ushahidi Community page to integrate the case studies and tools into this part of the site and to add to the already existing resources for Ushahidi users.

Another goal is to link to guides, case studies, tips, and tricks -- or anything else out there created by the vast Ushahidi community worldwide -- to better serve the entire user community. Let us know in the comments what you think about our service and how we might better improve it.

January 14 2011

19:30

IRL, FTW: The benefits of in-person collaboration

One of the web’s most obviously awesome features is its capacity to connect us over physical distances. From my desk here in Cambridge, I can, if I choose, chat with a friend in Australia, or help someone in Thailand produce an encyclopedia, or follow a revolution in real-time. A networked world allows for a new kind of working environment: the virtual one, the one where ideas can be divorced from the often inefficient realities — commutes! off-topic conversations! — of the physical.

But, when it comes to making things together: Is virtual always better?

Maybe not. Clive Thompson highlights a study suggesting that, in fact, collaborators’ physical proximity can actually play a key role in the quality of their work. Three researchers at Harvard’s med school studied 35,000 biomedical research papers (which had at least one Harvard author)…and found that, the more closely the teams worked together — the more physically closely — the more impact their work had. So teams that worked in the same building produced papers with greater impact than those who worked only in the same city. And teams whose members worked in different cities produced papers with, generally, less impact overall.

Since you could easily see the thing going the other way — geographical distribution leading to more intellectual distribution leading to more impact — it’s a fascinating finding. And while you wouldn’t want to read too much into it, Thompson notes — neither Harvard nor biomedical research are, you know, automatically indicative of The World at Large — the study does provide a nice nugget of insight into how collaboration can thrive in a digital world. And one that’s especially relevant to news organizations as they navigate their place within both physical and virtual communities.

Sometimes, sure, working separately can have benefits — Thompson mentions the Medici Effect — but just as often, making the effort to get coworkers together in one room, time-wasting chit-chat and all, can be worth the investment. IRL collaborations may not be as efficient as their online counterparts in the short run. In the long run, though, they might lead to better products.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2010

15:00

Nicholas Christakis on the networked nature of Twitter

Earlier this fall, Alyssa Milano — known for being on “Who’s the Boss” and, more recently, for being on Twitter — sent out a somewhat surprising tweet to her nearly 1.2 million followers: a link to the Amazon page of a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives.

For a book like Connected, penned by two social scientists and built on longitudinal research and academic inquiry — a book, in other words, that may hope to achieve influence over our thinking, but doesn’t aspire to huge sales numbers — you’d think that a message broadcast from a heavily followed Twitter account would lead to a proportionally large spike in sales. Amplification, after all, comes from size: The more followers a person has, the more people who will see a message and who will, potentially, retweet it — and, thus, the more people who will potentially act on it. We know it intuitively: In general, the greater the numbers, the greater the viral power.

So, then, how many extra books did Connected’s authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, sell in the wake of their million-follower tweet?

None. Literally, not a one. In fact — insult, meet injury! — in the days and weeks following Milano’s tweet, the book’s sales actually declined. The actress’ follower numbers, in this case, hadn’t been a force for much of anything. “At least with respect to the influence of behavior,” Christakis noted, “these links — these Twitter links — are weak.”

But, hey, maybe it was just an Alyssa Milano thing: It’s pretty fair to figure that the overlap between her followers and the universe of people who might buy a sciency book by two professors would be, you know, low. So Christakis and Fowler asked Tim O’Reillynearly 1.5 million followers, with, ostensibly, more book-interest overlap — to send the Connected link out to his feed.

The result? “We sold one extra copy of the book.”

Same experiment, with Pew’s Susannah Fox (4,960 followers)? Three extra copies.

If you’re interested in the way information spreads online — and if you’re interested in the future of news, you probably are — then the low volume-to-impact rate the authors found (which, though completely anecdotal, flies in the face of so much conventional wisdom) is fascinating. And it begs a question that appears so often in academic inquiry: What’s up?

In a talk yesterday evening at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Cambridge (we wrote about another IBM event, with dataviz guru Jer Thorp, this summer), Christakis, a professor both at Harvard Medical School and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, dove into that question, discussing the particular (and peculiar) ways that social networks — online and off — work.

The talk focused on the epidemiology of action — how and whether certain behaviors spread through a population. (More on that here.) Though we often talk about social connections in terms of simple binaries — friend vs. not-friend, weak ties versus strong — the ties that bind people together, Christaskis’ research suggests, are nowhere near as simple as we often assume. There’s the obvious — your Facebook friend may not be your friend friend — but also, more murkily but more fascinatingly, the complex of connections that affect our behavior in surprising ways.

For the Lab’s purposes, one especially intriguing element of the discussion focused on Twitter — and the extent to which ideas spread through Twitter’s network actually catch on and have impact. One binary that might actually be relevant in that regard, Christakis suggested: influencer versus influence-ee. “If we’re really going to advance this field, we need to figure out how to identify not just influential people, but also influenceable people,” the professor noted. “We need not just shepherds, but sheep.” And “if we’re going to exploit online ties,” Christakis said — say, by creating communities of interest around news content, and potentially monetizing those communities — then “measures of meaningful interactions will be needed”: We need metrics, in particular, to determine “which online interactions represent real relationships, where an influence might possibly be exerted.”

For that, he continued, “we need to distinguish between influential, or real, ties online, and uninfluential, or weak, ties online.”

The next question: How do you do that? How do you look beyond standard (and, per Christakis’ anecdotal evidence, misleading) metrics like Twitter follower/Facebook friend counts and find more meaningful metrics of influence? One benefit of social networks’ movement online is that their dynamics are (relatively) easily trackable: We’re able as never before to put data behind the interactions that define society as a whole, and, in that, understand them better. (Connected, on the other hand — whose conclusions are based on data sets of social flow that were cultivated, over a period of years, from physical documents — didn’t have that luxury.)

And while Christakis’ talk raised as many questions as it answered — we’re still in early days when it comes to measuring behavioral influences online — one of his core ideas is an insight that several news organizations are already putting to practice: the power of the niche. Much more significant and influential than single celebrities — individual nodes in a network — are the “niches within the network where you have the particular assemblage of influential people and their followers.” When influence is layered — when its fabric is made stronger by tight connections across a smaller network — it’s more predictable, and more powerful.

And that has big implications not only for news organizations, but also for the platforms that are hoping to translate their ubiquity into financial and social gain. If you want your work to have impact, then targeting a bundle of closely connected networks — with news, with links, with messages — may make more sense than going for numbers alone. Spreading a conversation is not the same as affecting it. “I’m not saying that Twitter is useless,” Christakis said, “but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different than its ability to influence behavior.”

November 10 2010

17:00

Be our boss! A big opening at the Nieman Foundation

The Nieman Journalism Lab is a part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. (The basement part, to be specific.) Harvard doesn’t have a traditional journalism school, so the Nieman Foundation has for 72 years been the primary home for those of us at the university who work with and care about the news.

When the original gift for the foundation was given in 1937, one of the ideas tossed around was that the foundation might be a repository for a microfiche archive of great journalism. With that library science idea in mind, it was decided that the head of the foundation would be called its curator. The idea didn’t stick, but the title did.

Our curator since 2000, Bob Giles, announced his retirement last month, and the search is on for his replacement. So unlike my previous job postings — all of which involved working for me — this one’s a chance to be my boss.

Below is the job posting Harvard’s put together. I’m happy to chat with any potential applicants who have questions about the foundation, but actual inquiries should go to the email address in the posting.

Harvard University invites applications and nominations for the position of Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The University seeks a visionary leader with significant journalistic accomplishment and a demonstrated passion for the field.

The next Nieman curator will begin his or her tenure at a time when the field of journalism is facing multiple challenges. This presents a unique opportunity for the next curator to shape an innovative future for a strong and respected institution whose mission is “to promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate individuals deemed specially qualified for journalism.”

The curator should be capable of marshaling the resources and exercising the convening authority of the Nieman Foundation and Harvard to bring together representatives from all areas of journalism to maintain a national and global discourse on mutual concerns and opportunities. Applicants should be knowledgeable of the emerging media landscape and its effect on journalistic models and practices.

Applicants must possess a deep understanding of the principles of journalism and be able to articulate their views to a worldwide audience. The curator will serve as mentor to the Nieman Fellows while actively shaping the Foundation’s programs. He or she should lead engagement with faculty, students, and staff at Harvard, integrating the Foundation and its Fellows fully into the intellectual life of the University. The curator must possess proven administrative and management capabilities. Experience with or knowledge of academic institutions is not required but would be helpful.

Applications as well as nominations may be directed to the search committee at Nieman_Search@harvard.edu.

Harvard University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

September 13 2010

15:00

When journalism meets academia: Reporter teams up with the Carr Center to research violence in Juárez

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, which focuses on the current state of international reporting. There are lots of interesting articles — check out the whole issue — but we're highlighting a few that line up with our subject matter here at the Lab. Here's Monica Campbell, a veteran journalist and former Nieman Fellow, on how her partnership with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard allowed her to continue her work researching and reporting on the drug trade in Juárez. —Josh]

Eight o’clock Monday morning in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Federal cops, their high-powered weapons pointed outward, packed pickup trucks and patrolled the city’s streets. Women waited at a bus stop to head to factory jobs. A newspaper’s front page featured grisly crime scene photos. It was July, searing hot, and I headed to my first interview.

Unlike my previous trips to Juárez, I was not there on a traditional news assignment. On this reporting project my partner was the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This opportunity arose during my Nieman year when I noticed a growing interest among academics in Mexico’s escalating drug cartel-related violence. Having reported from Mexico for several years, I developed a proposal for research that would focus on citizens’ response to the violence in Juárez, the epicenter of Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

September 02 2010

12:36

HARVARD TABLET SUMMIT (6): A MASS MEDIA GADGET

2010-09-02_1320

You know…

It will not fly.

It’s a flop.

It’s just crap!

I am returning my iPad.

Well, the last handbook from the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) has good news for us the tablet fans.

We are not a minority.

We are not crazy.

We are not alone.

We are not the exception.

We were right!

Almost 60% of the US consumers plan to buy a tablet within the next 3 years.

Not only iPads but just tablets.

The mobile media revolution is over us.

Another reason not to miss the INMA/NIEMAN/INNOVATION Harvard Tablet Summit.

Cambridge, December 2-3, 2010.

A Worldwide Summit to learn, master and share new ideas.

Be there!

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