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November 30 2010

17:00

Team of volunteer journalists wants to train locals in conflict zones to tell their own stories, improve their lives

What if online video could prevent genocide? That’s what three USC Annenberg School graduate students wondered when they hopped a flight to Rwanda a few years ago, Flip cameras in their carry-ons.

“The idea was, in a time where YouTube exists, it’s immoral for genocide to exist in human history,” Jon Vidar told me recently. The group wanted to give survivors tools to tell their own stories. “Honestly, we were pretty idealistic going in.” Since that first visit to Rwanda, Vidar, a freelance photojournalist, and his journalist friends have taken the concept to neighboring countries and then, earlier this year, to Iraq. Their ad hoc trips have morphed into a nonprofit, kept going by volunteers, called The Tiziano Project, named for an Italian journalist who liked to go where he shouldn’t. Their mission is straightforward: Train locals in conflict zones and post-conflict zones in the craft of journalism, particularly new media, and give them the tools they need to tell their own stories.

“We’re trying to train locals to be journalists,” Vidar said.

The group’s most recent project, Tiziano360, trained 12 locals in Iraq in new media, producing a website that “documents the life, culture, and news in present day Iraqi Kurdistan.” Vidar worked in the Kurdish region of Turkey for four years doing archaeological research, a motive for the region selection. Logistically, it was easier to work on the Iraq side of the border, Vidar said.

The site has a slick design and the content is high quality. It recently won an award from the New Media Institute for multimedia storytelling. But Tiziano also has a practical aim. “A direct goal of the project is job creation,” Vidar said. “We don’t care where people get jobs, as long as they are using the skills in new media storytelling.”

Four of the participants credit the project with new job offers. Other trainees from past projects now string for Western outlets.

“The best thing in this project was the practical aspect of it,” Shivan Soto, who participated in the Iraq project, wrote in an email. “[It] was a very good and new experience for me.”

Since picking up new skills, Soto has been offered a variety of gigs from news organizations and NGOs. And another participant, Sahar Alani, took a job with a large corporation in the region working in new media.

For now, Tiziano is funded project-by-project. For the 360 experiment, they submitted a pitch to a Facebook contest backed by the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. They won $25,000, Andrew McGregor, a Tiziano founder, told me.

“During the competition, we really motivated the Kurdish community [on Facebook],” Vidar told me. “We had 600 Kurdish friends, friends in the government. We had friends in NGOs.”

Next up for Tiziano is a project that will start by working with students in Los Angeles and move on to the Congo. The trainer himself is a genocide survivor.

November 23 2010

17:00

Why spreadable doesn’t equal viral: A conversation with Henry Jenkins

For years, academic Henry Jenkins has been talking about the connections between mainstream content and user-produced content. From his post as the founder and former co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, Jenkins published Convergence Culture, which is about what happens when, as the book puts it, “old and new media collide.” It’s a tale of fan mashups and corporate reactions.

And now he’s back with a new catchphrase. If convergence culture was 2006, spreadable media is now. The argument: If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead. For things to live online, people have to share it socially. They also have to make it their own — which can be as participatory as just passing a YouTube clip on as a link or making a copycat video themselves.

But what does this mean for news? If news is growing more social, how does Jenkins’ notion of spreadability work for traditional media? And how can traditional media harness user energy to make content not just meaningful but also profitable?

These were some of the questions I had when I first heard the concept, which Jenkins and his collaborators first put out in a white paper in 2009. But I’ve had a chance to read the first few chapters of the book, due out in late 2011. Spreadable Media (coauthored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) doesn’t mention traditional journalism. But as I’ve had a chance to work with Jenkins, who’s now a professor at USC, I wanted to see what spreadable media might mean for news. Here’s how Jenkins explained the idea’s implications for journalism in an email interview. Among the topics: why all journalists are citizen journalists, journalists and their possible conversations with audiences, paywalls, and most-emailed lists.

NU: What is spreadable media?

HJ: The concept of spreadable media rests on the distinction between distribution (the top-down spread of media content as captured in the broadcast paradigm) and circulation (a hybrid system where content spreads as a result of a series of informal transactions between commercial and noncommercial participants.) Spreadable media is media which travels across media platforms at least in part because the people take it in their own hands and share it with their social networks.

This kind of informal circulation may be solicited or at least accepted by media producers as part of the normal way of doing business or it may take forms which get labeled piracy. Either way, the widespread circulation of media content through the conscious actions of dispersed networks of consumer/participants tends to create greater visibility and awareness as the content travels in unpredicted directions and encounters people who are potentially interested in further engagements with the people who produced it.

So, at its heart, our book is interested in the value being generated through this grassroots circulation and how various sectors of the media industry are being reconfigured in order to accept the help of grassroots intermediaries who help expand their reach to the public. Along the way, we dissect many of the myths about how media circulates and how value gets generated in the digital era.

NU: How does spreadable media relate to your term convergence culture?

HJ: Convergence culture starts by rejection of the technologically focused definition of convergence as the integration of media functions within a single media device — the magic black box — in favor of one which stresses the flow of media content across multiple media channels. Certainly the rise of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, have made the magical black box much closer to reality now than it was when I wrote Convergence Culture, but I would say we’ve had much more experiencing living in a convergence culture than living with convergence devices. We live at a moment where every story, image, or bit of information will travel across every available media platform either through decisions made in corporate bedrooms or decisions made in consumers’ living rooms.

The book outlined what this means for entertainment, branding, education, politics, and religion, placing a strong emphasis on what I call participatory culture. Citizen journalism is the application of participatory culture to the news sector but similar kinds of trends are impacting each of these other spaces where media gets produced and distributed. The emphasis in that book though is on participation in the form of cultural production — people creating videos, writing fan fiction, and otherwise generating their own media.

Spreadable Media takes the convergence culture context as given. We are now half a decade deeper into the trends the first book describes. Since the book was published, we’ve seen the expansion of mobile communication, social network sites, Web 2.0, and the rise and fall of Second Life, all extending our understanding of participatory culture and transmedia communication. So, what are the consequences of those shifts to how information, brands, and media content circulates? We certainly are still interested in participatory models of cultural production but we are now much more interested in acts of curration and circulation, which on both an individual and aggregated level, are impacting the communication environment.

NU: Let’s talk specifically about what spreadable media might mean for news. What are your thoughts on the way the news industry might make sense of this concept?

HJ: A central idea animating the book is “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” There is a constant tension at this moment of media transition between wanting to lock down content and meter access on the one hand (a model based on “stickiness”) and wanting to empower consumers to help spread the word (a model based on “spreadability.”) We can see that tension in terms of the desire to gate access to news content and the mechanisms of spreading which characterize Twitter and blogs. Journalists have long embraced a central idea in this book — that content represents a resource which community use to talk amongst themselves. Journalists need to know how they fit into those circuits.

In the book’s opening chapter, I reflect on the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I argue that its central role was not in helping to organize the protests but rather in getting information about what was happening to the outside world and to increase people’s emotional engagement with it. Twitter stepped in to bring what was happening in the streets of Tehran closer to people in the west — with key roles played by the Iranian diaspora in the United States and Europe who helped to facilitate the circulation of this information. The general American public felt greater closeness to the people in Iran because they were learning about these events through the same tools as they used to share cute cat pictures with their friends. And they felt a greater investment in what was happening because they were actively helping to alert others about the events.

As this unfiltered information was flowing through Twitter, those on the social networks started putting pressure on news agencies to provide more cover. You could imagine Twitter as a self-contained news system, but the opposite happened: they used #cnnfail because they wanted the skills and resources that professional journalists could bring to the process. They were signaling how much they still relied on legacy media to sort through the pieces and help provide a context for the information being circulated. While it was framed as a critique of journalism, it was actually a call for help. News organizations need to be more alert in registering these signs of public interests and more nimble in responding to them.

NU: Are bloggers an example of people experimenting with media spreadability? What do we do for news organizations who want to bring all of that user engagement and monetize it?

HJ: We’ve long known that news stories generate conversations that people cut out news articles to put on bulletin boards and refrigerators, that we clip news stories and send them to friends. This happened in a pre-digital world and it happens now with more speed and scope thanks to the affordances of digital networking tools.

Blogs originated as a tool for sharing links; Twitter is now used extensively to share links with other consumers. News sites which prevent the sharing of such content amongst readers may look like ways to protect the commercial interest of that content, but in fact, they kill it, destroying its value as a cultural resource within networked communities, and insuring that the public will look elsewhere for news that can be spread.

In the book, we use the example of how the Susan Boyle video moved through the blog community, being situated into a range of different ongoing conversations wherever she was relevant — with science blogs talking about her vocal cords, church blogs organizing prayer groups, mommy blogs dealing with her role as a caretaker for her elderly mother, music blogs discussing her song choices, and fashion blogs talking about her make-over for the show. Every news story today spreads through these grassroots intermediaries and gets inserted into various conversations across a range of different communities. The better journalists understand how value gets created through this process, the more effective they will be both at serving their ever more diverse constituencies and at developing a business model which allows them to capture value through circulation.

NU: You say in your white paper and current drafts of the book that content that users can’t manipulate and whose intellectual property is controlled by organizations will be the least likely to spread. That seems to describe a typical news article, and maybe a typical news organization. How can news organizations make their content more spreadable?

HJ: Spreadability is partially about technical affordances. YouTube videos spread well because they allow users to embed them on their blogs and Facebook profiles. At the same time, the embedded video’s interface makes it easy for us to follow it back to its original context on YouTube. It is content which is designed to be spread.

Spreadability is also about social relations with consumers. Many of those who create spreadable content actively encourage readers to spread their materials, often directly courting them as participants in the process of distribution. We are certainly seeing news sites right now — Slashdot comes to mind — which encourage readers to gather and appraise content, but far fewer are encouraging us to help create awareness through actively circulating their content.

It is interesting to think about groups which have a strong investment in seeing content spread and a lower investment in controlling its distribution. Think about political campaigns with low budgets who want to maximize their reach to voters. Think about religious media who place a higher value on spreading the gospel than monetizing the circulation of information. Think of activist groups who want to reach beyond their core group of supporters. In each case, they build in direct appeals to their fans to help them spread the content rather than constructing prohibitions on grassroots circulation.

Right now, news organizations are caught between their civic mission — to meet the information needs of their communities and their economic needs — to stay in business long enough to serve their publics.

NU: What does spreadable media mean to the conversations journalists need to have with their audiences?

HJ: As information spreads, it gets inserted into a range of conversations which help people to process the information and understand its value for them as members of a community. In the book, Sam Ford, my co-author, draws on his experience in the PR world to talk about companies who actively listen to and respond to what their consumers say about them. He argues that the conversations seeded by spreadable media are much richer ways to monitor public response than narrowly structured focus groups. And he cites some examples of companies which identified problems in their customer relations and rectified them as a result of listening closely to what consumers said about them.

Newspapers have historically relied on letters to the editor to perform some of these functions, but this focuses only on those groups who seek to influence directly their editorial decisions, while there are other things a news organization might learn by actively listening to conversation people are having around and through the circulation of their content.

NU: Spreadable media seems to be a reaction to the idea that things are viral and that people have no agency. But doesn’t the whole idea of viral mean that people are actually taking action to share something? Don’t we want our news stories to be most-emailed and our videos to be viral?

HJ: Very much so. Viral media asks some of the same questions we are asking, having to do with how media content circulates through grassroots communities outside the direct control of the people who originates it. But the language of viral media mystifies how this process works. Many talk as if things just happened to “go viral” when they have no way to explain how or why the content has grabbed the public imagination. Other framings of “viral media” strip away the agency of the very communities whose circulation of the content they want to explain. It is a kind of smallpox-soaked blanket theory of media circulation, in which people become unknowing carriers of powerful and contagious ideas which they bring back to their homes and work place, infecting their friends and family.

Our work starts from the idea that people are making conscious decisions to aid the circulation of certain content because they see it as a meaningful contribution to their ongoing conversations, a gift which they can share with people they care about. As they circulate this content, they first are playing key roles in appraising its value at a time of exploding media options; they also help to frame the content, helping it to fit better into the ongoing social interactions; they may also build upon, appropriate, transform, and remix the content further extending its shelf life and enabling its broader circulation.

NU: One of the things I found most fascinating about your current exploration was your distinction between ordinary Internet users, who operate according to the gift economy, and media companies that operate according to market logic. Can you explain?

HJ: Basically, spreadable media moves between commercial and noncommercial economies. For the producer, the content may be a commodity or a promotion; for the consumer, it is a resource or a gift. The producer is appraising the transaction based on its economic value. While the consumer makes a decision about whether the price is too high for the value of the content, they are also making decisions based on the social or sentimental value of the content. When they pass that content along to their friends, they do so because they value their friends far more than because they want to promote the economic interests of producers. When they consume media, they often do so so that they have currency they need in the social interactions we have around media.

Media producers need to understand the set of values and transactions which shape how their media flows in order to understand when and how it is appropriate to monetize the activities of their consumers. We are used to transforming commodities into gifts. We do it every time we go to a store to buy a bottle of wine to a dinner party. We bought it as a commodity, we give it as a gift, and the moment of transformation comes when we remove the price tag. We need to better understand the same transformation as consumers take content from commercial sites and circulate it via Twitter or Facebook to their communities.

NU: If you had to project, what might this mean for user-generated content? And what happens when we start putting paywalls up on sites?

HJ: In the case of news, we might think about many different types of user-generated content. Often, we are talking about the citizen as reporter (especially in the case of hyperlocal news), producing content which can be uploaded to news sites. We might also think about the citizen as editor, determining which news matters to their community and passing it along in a more targeted way to their friends. We might think about the citizen as commentator, who responds to the news through what they write on their blogs or updates. We might think of these media as amplifying their role as consumers, allowing them to more fully express demands for what should get more coverage, as occurred in the #cnnfail debates after the Iranian elections.

Right now, we dump all of this into a box called “citizen journalism,” which is in its own way as misleading as categories like “viral media.” We might start from the fact that journalists are themselves citizens, or that these groups are doing many things through their sharing of news, only some of which should be understood as producing journalism. Focusing on citizen journalism results in an oppositional framing of blogging as competing with professional news production. Spreadable media would push us to think about journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology.

NU: And finally: How many people do you expect to actually engage in making media mashups? I see more people watching Auto-Tune the News mashup videos on YouTube than making their own media out of existing media.

HJ: Our book makes the point that there are many different forms of participation, some requiring more skills, more technical access, more community engagement than others. Spectacular forms of grassroots cultural production rest on one end of a continuum of different forms of community participation. So some people certainly will be mashing up the news, just as they are remixing songs, films, and television shows. And we can point to many exciting examples of political remix videos which emerge from people’s engagement with news and commentary — think about the recent mashup of Donald Duck and Glenn Beck.

But many more people will help to shape their news by appraising its value and passing it along to specific people or groups who they think will be interested in it. We all probably have friends or relatives who mostly communicate through forwarding things. They may or may not be exerting great selectivity in their curatorial roles, but they are helping to insure the circulation of that information. More people in the future will be engaging with news on that level and their acts of circulation will play a larger role in shaping the flow of information across the culture.

Photo by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

October 18 2010

17:14

NPR: What's the Point of Journalism School, Anyway?

NPR has an interesting piece on why students spend thousands of dollars to get a degree that prepares them for what many believe is dying profession.

Several people in the report question the conventional wisdom that journalism is on the skids.

"It's a renaissance, a re-creation," says Geneva Overholser, director of journalism at the USC Annenberg School, where NPR based its story. "I don't

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

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