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April 27 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert takes the stand, and the Post’s pressure on young aggregators

Fresh accusations and denials for News Corp.: After several months of investigation, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified this week before the British government’s Leveson inquiry into their company’s phone hacking and bribery scandal. Rupert made headlines by apologizing for his lack of action to stop the scandal and by admitting there was a cover-up — though he said he was the victim of his underlings’ cover-up, not a perpetrator himself (a charge one of those underlings strenuously objected to).

Murdoch also said he “panicked” by closing his News of the World newspaper last year, but said he should have done so years earlier. He spent the first day of his testimony defending himself against charges of lobbying public officials for favors, saying former Prime Minister Gordon Brown “declared war” on News Corp., which Brown denied. James Murdoch also testified to a lack of knowledge of the scandal and cozy relationships with officials.

Attention in that area quickly shifted this week to British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, with emails released to show that he worked to help News Corp. pick up support last year for its bid to takeover the broadcaster BSkyB — the same bid he was charged with overseeing. Hunt called the accusation “laughable” and refused calls to resign, though one of his aides did resign, saying his contact with News Corp. “went too far.”

The commentary on Murdoch’s appearance was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple mocked the fine line Murdoch apparently walked in his currying favor from public officials, and the Guardian’s Nick Davies said Murdoch looks vulnerable: “The man who has made millions out of paying people to ask difficult questions, finally faced questioners he could not cope with.” He antagonized quite a few powerful people in his testimony, Davies said, and the Leveson inquiry ultimately holds the cards here.

But Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said Rupert doesn’t use his newspapers to gain officials’ favor in the way he’s accused of doing, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that there’s nothing really wrong with lobbying regulators to approve your proposals anyway. “Don’t damn Murdoch for learning the rules of the regulatory game and then playing them as aggressively as he can,” he wrote.

Plagiarism and aggregation at the Post: A Washington Post blogger named Elizabeth Flock resigned last week after being caught plagiarizing, but the story went under the radar until the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote a column charging the Post with failing to properly guide its youngest journalists. Pexton said he talked with other young Post aggregators who “felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing.”

Poynter’s Craig Silverman wrote a strong follow-up to the column, talking to several people from the Post and emphasizing the gravity of Flock’s transgression, but also throwing cold water on the “journalism’s standards are gone, thanks to aggregation” narrative. Reuters’ Jack Shafer thought Pexton went too easy on Flock’s plagiarism, but others thought it was the Post he wasn’t hard enough on. The Awl’s Trevor Butterworth said Flock’s mistake within the Post’s aggregation empire shed light on the “inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.”

BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza made the same point, criticizing the Post for trying to dress up its aggregation as original reporting. The Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier used the example as a warning that even the most haphazard, thoughtless aggregated pieces have a certain online permanence under our bylines.

Technology, connection, and loneliness: A week after an Atlantic cover story asked whether Facebook was making us lonely (its answer: yes), MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle echoed the same point last weekend in a New York Times opinion piece. Through social and mobile media, Turkle argued, we’re trading conversation for mere connection, sacrificing self-reflection and the true experience of relating with others in the process.

Numerous people disputed her points, on a variety of different fronts. Cyborgology’s David Banks charged Turkle with “digital dualism,” asserting that “There is no ‘second self’ on my Facebook profile — it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood.” At The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel said Turkle is guilty of a different kind of dualism — an us/them dichotomy between (generally younger) social media users and the rest of us. Turkle, she wrote, “assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.”

Like Banks, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pointed out the close connection between online and offline relationships, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci argued at The Atlantic that if we are indeed seeing a loss in substantive interpersonal connection, it has more to do with our flight to the suburbs than social media. Claude Fischer of Boston Review disputed the idea that loneliness is on the rise in the first place, and in a series of thoughtful tweets, Wired’s Tim Carmody said the road to real relationship is in our own work, not in our embrace or denial of technologies.

New media lessons from academics and news orgs: The University of Texas hosted its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, one of the few of the scores of journalism conferences that brings together both working journalists and academics. As usual, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida live-blogged the heck out of the conference, and you can see his summaries of each of his 14 posts here.

Several people distilled the conference’s many presentations into a few themes: The Lab’s staff identified a few, including the need to balance beauty and usefulness in data journalism and the increasing centrality of mobile in news orgs’ strategies. At the Nonprofit Journalism Hub, conference organizer Amy Schmitz Weiss organized the themes into takeaways for news orgs, and Wisconsin j-prof Sue Robinson published some useful notes, organized by subject area.

A couple of specific items from the conference: The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote on a University of Texas study that found that the people most likely to pay for news are young men who are highly interested in news, though it also found that our stated desires in news consumption don’t necessarily match up with our actual habits. And Dan Gillmor touted the news-sharing potential of one of the conference’s presenters, LinkedIn, saying it’s the first site to connect news sharing with our professional contacts, rather than our personal ones.

[Editor's note: Mark's too modest to mention the paper he coauthored and presented at ISOJ.]

Reading roundup: Several interesting debates lurked just a bit under the radar this week. Here’s a quick lay of the land:

— Reuters’ Felix Salmon wondered why the New York Times doesn’t sell early access to its big business scoops to hedge funds looking for a market advantage, as Reuters and Bloomberg do. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that the public value of those is too great to do that, and Salmon responded to his and others’ objections. The conversation also included a lively Twitter exchange, which Ingram and the Lab’s Joshua Benton Storified.

— The Chicago Tribune announced its decision to outsource its TribLocal network of community news sites to the Chicago company Journatic, laying off about 20 employees in the process. The Chicago Reader and Jim Romenesko gave some more information about Journatic (yes, the term “content farm” comes up, though its CEO rejected the term). Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich called it a good deal for the Tribune.

— In a feature at Wired, Steven Levy looked at automatically written stories, something The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield said she didn’t find scary for journalism’s future prospects, since those stories aren’t really journalism. Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite also said journalists shouldn’t be afraid of something that frees them up to do their jobs better, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tied together the Journatic deal and the robot journalism stories to come up with something a bit less optimistic.

— This week on the ebook front: A good primer on the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit of Apple and publishers for price-fixing, which The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz said is a completely normal and OK practice. Elsewhere, some publishers are dropping digital rights management, and a publishing exec talked to paidContent about why they broke DRM.

— Gawker revealed its new commenting system this week — the Lab’s Andrew Phelps gave the background, Gawker’s Nick Denton argued in favor of anonymity, Dave Winer wanted to see the ability for anyone to write an article on it, and GigaOM talked with Denton about the state of tech.

— Google shut down its paid-content system for publishers, One Pass, saying it’s moved on to its Consumer Surveys.

— Finally, a few long reads for the weekend: David Lowery on artist rights and the new business model for creative work, Ethan Zuckerman on the ethics of tweet bombing, danah boyd on social media and fear, and Steve Buttry and Dan Conover on restoring newsroom morale.

Rupert Murdoch artwork by Surian Soosay and texting photo by Ed Brownson used under a Creative Commons license.

June 02 2011

17:30

Is Twitter writing, or is it speech? Why we need a new paradigm for our social media platforms

New tools are at their most powerful, Clay Shirky says, once they’re ubiquitous enough to become invisible. Twitter may be increasingly pervasive — a Pew study released yesterday shows that 13 percent of online adults use the service, which is up from 8 percent six months ago — but it’s pretty much the opposite of invisible. We talk on Twitter, yes, but almost as much, it seems, we talk about it.

The big debates about Twitter’s overall efficacy as a medium — like the one launched by, say, Malcolm Gladwell and, more recently, Bill Keller, whose resignation from the New York Times editorship people have (jokingly, I think?) chalked up to his Twitter-take-on column — tend to devolve into contingents rather than resolve into consensus. An even more recent debate between Mathew Ingram and Jeff Jarvis, which comparatively nuanced, comparatively polite) ended with Ingram writing, “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

But why all the third-railiness? Twitter, like many other subjects of political pique, tends to be framed in extremes: On the one hand, there’s Twitter, the cheeky, geeky little platform — the perky Twitter bird! the collective of “tweets”! all the twee new words that have emerged with the advent of the tw-efix! — and on the other, there’s Twitter, the disruptor: the real-time reporting tool. The pseudo-enabler of democratic revolution. The existential threat to the narrative primacy of the news article. Twetcetera.

The dissonance here could be chalked up to the fact that Twitter is simply a medium like any other medium, and, in that, will make of itself (conversation-enabler, LOLCat passer-onner, rebellion-facilitator) whatever we, its users, make of it. But that doesn’t fully account for Twitter’s capacity to inspire so much angst (“Is Twitter making us ____?”), or, for that matter, to inspire so much joy. The McLuhany mindset toward Twitter — the assumption of a medium that is not only the message to, but the molder of, its users — seems to be rooted in a notion of what Twitter should be as much as what it is.

Which begs the question: What is Twitter, actually? (No, seriously!) And what type of communication is it, finally? If we’re wondering why heated debates about Twitter’s effect on information/politics/us tend to be at once so ubiquitous and so generally unsatisfying…the answer may be that, collectively, we have yet to come to consensus on a much more basic question: Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?

Twitter versus “Twitter”

The broader answer, sure, is that it shouldn’t matter. Twitter is…Twitter. It is what it is, and that should be enough. As a culture, though, we tend to insist on categorizing our communication, drawing thick lines between words that are spoken and words that are written. So libel is, legally, a different offense than slander; the written word, we assume, carries the heft of both deliberation and proliferation and therefore a moral weight that the spoken word does not. Text, we figure, is: conclusive, in that its words are the deliberate products of discourse; inclusive, in that it is available equally to anyone who happens to read it; exclusive, in that it filters those words selectively; archival, in that it preserves information for posterity; and static, in that, once published, its words are final.

And speech, while we’re at it, is discursive and ephemeral and, importantly, continual. A conversation will end, yes, but it is not the ending that defines it.

Those characteristics give way to categories. Writing is X; speaking is Y; and both have different normative dimensions that are based on, ultimately, the dynamics of power versus peer — the talking to versus the talking with. So when we talk about Twitter, we tend to base our assessments on its performance as a tool of either orality or textuality. Bill Keller seems to see Twitter as text that happens also to be conversation, and, in that, finds the form understandably lacking. His detractors, on the other hand, seem to see Twitter as conversation that happens also to be text, and, in that, find it understandably awesome.

Which would all be fine — nuanced, even! — were it not for the fact that Twitter-as-text and Twitter-as-conversation tend to be indicated by the same word: “Twitter.” In the manner of “blogger” and “journalist” and even “journalism” itself, “Twitter” has become emblematic of a certain psychology — or, more specifically, of several different psychologies packed awkwardly into a single signifier. And to the extent that it’s become a loaded word, “Twitter” has also become a problematic one: #Twittermakesyoustupid is unfair, but #”Twitter”makesyoustupid has a point. The framework of text and speech falls apart once we recognize that Twitter is both and neither at once. It’s its own thing, a new category.

Our language, however, doesn’t yet recognize that. Our rhetoric hasn’t yet caught up to our reality — for Twitter and, by extension, for other social media.

We might deem Twitter a text-based mechanism of orality, as the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has suggested, or of a “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong has argued, or of something else entirely (tweech? twext? something even more grating, if that’s possible?). It almost doesn’t matter. The point is to acknowledge, online, a new environment — indeed, a new culture — in which writing and speech, textuality and orality, collapse into each other. Speaking is no longer fully ephemeral. And text is no longer simply a repository of thought, composed by an author and bestowed upon the world in an ecstasy of self-containment. On the web, writing is newly dynamic. It talks. It twists. It has people on the other end of it. You read it, sure, but it reads you back.

“The Internet looking back at you”

In his social media-themed session at last year’s ONA conference, former Lab writer and current Wall Street Journal outreach editor Zach Seward talked about being, essentially, the voice of the outlet’s news feed on Twitter. When readers tweeted responses to news stories, @WSJ might respond in kind — possibly surprising them and probably delighting them and maybe, just for a second, sort of freaking them out.

The Journal’s readers were confronted, in other words, with text’s increasingly implicit mutuality. And their “whoa, it’s human!” experience — the Soylent Greenification of online news consumption — can bring, along with its obvious benefits, the same kind of momentary unease that accompanies the de-commodification of, basically, anything: the man behind the curtain, the ghost in the machine, etc. Concerns expressed about Twitter, from that perspective, may well be stand-ins for concerns about privacy and clickstream tracking and algorithmic recommendation and all the other bugs and features of the newly reciprocal reading experience. As the filmmaker Tze Chun noted to The New York Times this weekend, discussing the increasingly personalized workings of the web: “You are used to looking at the Internet voyeuristically. It’s weird to have the Internet looking back at you….”

So a Panoptic reading experience is also, it’s worth remembering, a revolutionary reading experience. Online, words themselves, once silent and still, are suddenly springing to life. And that can be, in every sense, a shock to the system. (Awesome! And also: Aaaah!) Text, after all, as an artifact and a construct, has generally been a noun rather than a verb, defined by its solidity, by its thingness — and, in that, by its passive willingness to be the object of interpretation by active human minds. Entire schools of literary criticism have been devoted to that assumption.

And in written words’ temporal capacity as both repositories and relics, in their power to colonize our collective past in the service of our collective future, they have suggested, ultimately, order. “The printed page,” Neil Postman had it, “revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism.” In their architecture of sequentialism, neatly packaged in manuscripts of varying forms, written words have been bridges, solid and tangible, that have linked the past to the future. As such, they have carried an assurance of cultural continuity.

It’s that preservative function that, for the moment, Twitter is largely lacking. As a platform, it does a great job of connecting; it does, however, a significantly less-great job of conserving. It’s getting better every day; in the meantime, though, as a vessel of cultural memory, it carries legitimately entropic implications.

But, then, concerns about Twitter’s ephemerality are also generally based on a notion of Twitter-as-text. In that, they assume a zero-sum relationship between the writing published on Twitter and the writing published elsewhere. They see the written, printed word — the bridge, the badge of a kind of informational immortality — dissolving into the digital. They see back-end edits revising stories (which is to say, histories) in an instant. They see hacks erasing those stories altogether. They see links dying off at an alarming rate. They see all that is solid melting into bits.

And they have, in that perspective, a point: While new curatorial tools, Storify and its ilk, will become increasingly effective, they might not be able to recapture print’s assurance, tenacious if tenuous, of a neatly captured world. That’s partly because print’s promise of epistemic completeness has always been, to some extent, empty; but it’s also because those tools will be operating within a digital world that is increasingly — and actually kind of wonderfully — dynamic and discursive.

But what the concerns about Twitter tend to forget is that language is not, and has never been, solid. Expression allows itself room to expand. Twitter is emblematic, if not predictive, of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the notion that, under the web’s influence, our text-ordered world is resolving back into something more traditionally oral — more conversational and, yes, more ephemeral. “Chaos is our lot,” Clay Shirky notes; “the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures.” One of those forces — and, indeed, one of those futures — is the hybrid linguistic form that we are shaping online even as it shapes us. And so the digital sphere calls for a new paradigm of communication: one that is discursive as well as conservative, one that acquiesces to chaos even as it resists it, one that relies on text even as it sheds the mantle of textuality. A paradigm we might call “Twitter.”

Photos by olalindberg and Tony Hall used under a Creative Commons license.

May 21 2011

16:55

News is a subset of the conversation

Here’s a tale that reveals how journalists tend to think of their role in the conversation that makes up news and society.

I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).

That’s why I went theatrically batshit on Twitter against the BBC for holding the first day of a meeting this week about *social media* under Chatham House Rule, which decrees: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

That’s a fancy, British way to say “not for attribution.” Or as I said in another tweet, “Chatham House Rule turns everyone into an anonymous source. Precisely the wrong thing for a journo org to do!” That is especially an issue for a public journalistic institution, which should be setting an example for other journalists and their sources.

But it’s most shocking that the BBC would impose this rule on a meeting that is not only about *social media* — I thought all Brits bragged about having a sense of irony Americans lack; apparently not — but worse, one that carried the haughty ambition to formulate “a universally accepted set of verification guidelines for social media material” and “an accepted ethical framework for using sensitive material from social networks.” Don’t they see that one can can longer set true standards for the rest of the world in closed rooms with invite-only guests who are gagged or anonymous and prevented from interacting with that world? Then the outcome becomes a standard only for that small subset of people, which negates its authority as a standard. At best, it’s another club rule.

The arguments back to me on Twitter were mostly that employees needed the comfort of anonymity to speak freely about their employers. My response: The meeting wasn’t streamed. Anyone could request the courtesy not to be quoted or that what he or she says isn’t to be attributed. But the BBC made secrecy the default. Tone deaf. Shameful.

The next morning, at the open and streamed second day of the conference, Peter Horrocks, head of news for the BBC, attacked critics for attacking the BBC for limiting comments on its site to 400 characters (2.85 tweets), calling them extremists and zealots. Horrocks is bidding to control the conversation about controlling the conversation. Oh, my.

But that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.

Later in the afternoon, by coincidence, I heard from the BBC’s flagship show, Newsnight, asking me to come on to talk about privacy and the superinjunction row in the UK. I told the producer what I had to say about how futile and noxious to my idea of free speech it was for the courts of London to think they could control the conversation and do so in secrecy.

Later, I heard from the producer that “we have booked someone here in London who can make it into the studio, which always works better, and it would imbalance the discussion to have a third person.” Imbalancing a discussion sounds just up my ally. Pity I couldn’t. But that’s fine, it’s their prerogative as it’s their time on their air. But this moment illustrates the point: What journalists have done for a living is manage a conversation.

That is the presumption they now bring to online and the world’s comments.

The problem with comments, I’ve argued lately, is that the form and timing of them is essentially insulting to the public: It says we journalists don’t want to hear from you, the public, until after we are done with our work making content for you to consume. Then the public speaks and journalists don’t listen (because they think their stories are done) and the commenters are insulted and so they insult the journalists and the journalists say that’s the proof that the comments and the commenters aren’t worth the attention. A very vicious cycle. The conversation catches cooties.

The reason the BBC cut its comments down to 400 characters is cost. In a discussion on Twitter with the BBC’s Nick Reynolds, the social media executive who oversees moderation of all BBC social media, that became clear. Comments require moderation and that’s a cost. True enough. But I tried to argue with Reynolds in Twitter that the conversation writ large could also save costs. I couldn’t get it through to him. He kept defining the conversation as comments and “UGC.” I kept defining the conversation as collaboration.

Collaboration is not allowing people to comment. Collaboration is not giving them opinion polls. (Carey, by the way, argued that polling is “an attempt to stimulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming,” but that’s another topic.) Collaboration is not enabling them to send in the pictures of the snow on their back porches, something I hate when TV news does it as it condescends — it says the public can’t provide real news or quality images; we’re merely humoring them. “UGC” is bullshit.

No, collaboration is about sharing the work of journalism. Collaboration brings value and can even save costs. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (he closed the BBC’s conference but, unfortunately, video of it is not online), often talks about the mutualization of news and how opening up its work can enable a journalistic organization to produce journalism it otherwise could not do or afford to do.

At the BBC conference, Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera gave an impressive presentation of the networks’ use of social media to collaborate. Then the BBC moderator quizzed her about whether social media would “drive the agenda” of the news. And a BBC staffer fretted that by providing cameras and training to protestors in the Arab Spring, “aren’t you now intertwining yourselves with the protestors?” The moderator asked whether Al Jazeera’s mission of “giving voice to the voiceless” encourages the revolution. Another BBC staffer suggested that by providing the means for the people to talk, Al Jazeera may be subversive. Dogramaci replied, most articulately, that Al Jazeera is on the side of the people and if that is subversive, then so be it.

In what Al Jazeera does, we see the seed of a new definition of journalism and its role in the conversation: as a service to it.

There is yet a further extension of the model in what Andy Carvin has been doing on Twitter covering the Arab Spring (he also spoke at the BBC event). What strikes me there is that Andy does not start or enable or even necessarily serve the conversation, as the conversation is going on with or without him. The witnesses to news are telling the world what they are seeing. Andy observes it and plucks out the good and reliable witnesses and he passes what they observe on, adding value along the way: vetting, questioning, debunking, context, explanation, assigning….

News, then, begins to take on the architecture of the internet itself: end-to-end. At one end are the witnesses sharing, at the other the readers reading and interacting, asking their own questions, having their own say, passing on and recommending what interests them. No need for a gatekeeper. No need for a distributor. No need for a central hub. No tolerance for controllers. The conversation is occurring on its own.

Journalism is sometimes a subset of that conversation. It can add value. It can serve. But it should not think of itself as the creator of the conversation, the setter of the agenda, though that is what I see in so much of the BBC’s worldview as demonstrated at events this week. They might have learned that better if instead of a meeting, they held a conversation.

The conversation is news.

February 23 2011

21:00

Rockville Central: set to become a Facebook-only outlet

Say you run a community news site. In your spare time. And Patch has moved into your neighborhood.

How do you, with limited resources but a desire to keep contributing to your community, stay competitive?

One site’s solution: Take the “site” out of “news site.” Starting March 1, Rockville Central, a community news outlet for the DC suburb of Rockville, Maryland, will move its operation to…its Facebook page. Entirely to its Facebook page.

“There are always two different conversations going on,” Cindy Cotte Griffiths, the site’s editor, told me — one on RockvilleCentral.com, and the other on the site’s Facebook page. Why force the two to compete with each other, when they’re actually manifestations of the same community? As it is, Cotte Griffiths notes, “a lot of our traffic is driven from Facebook.” (Rockville Central currently gets about 2,000 of its average 20,000 monthly hits from Facebook, she told me.) “Everyone’s always trying to get people out of Facebook,” she notes. “And we’re like, ‘Well, we’re already here.’”

There are some obvious benefits to the all-Facebook approach. Facebook, for one, has a huge built-in audience — one that is used to sharing and commenting on and contributing content. It has a built-in infrastructure — one that easily accommodates multimedia. It has, essentially, a built-in mobile app. For an outlet that’s run by people who do that running in their spare time — that is, publishers who have even less time than most to deal with concerns about site design, server capacity, and other logistical aspects of digital journalism — Facebook’s insta-infrastructure could free up time that may be spent on more traditionally journalistic endeavors: fact-gathering, conversation-guiding, content-aggregating, community-building, etc.

In fact, with the move to Facebook will come, its publishers hope, a more efficient approach to the content of the journalism itself. “One thing that will change is that we will do less duplicative reporting,” Cotte Griffiths and the site’s founder, Brad Rourke, note in a blog post announcing the move. “For a city its size, Rockville is well-covered, journalistically. We don’t need to duplicate the efforts of our friends. (How many recaps of the Mayor and Council meetings can you read, really?)”

Instead, Cotte Griffiths told me, they’ll redouble their efforts at community-building itself, curating conversations around the news. And the hope is that the Facebook move will help facilitate that curation. Again and again, the social network — probably because of the direct connection it enforces between user behavior and user identity — shows itself to be a generally more “civil” place than the rest of the Internet. (That’s one advantage of a walled garden over an open web.) Cotte Griffiths and Rourke are hoping that the authenticity factor itself will serve as a kind of automatic moderator of commentary within the Rockville Central community. (Currently, the pair polices the site’s comments in addition to their other duties.)

“It seems like a place where people are themselves,” Cotte Griffiths says of Facebook — with all the good that can be connected to genuine identities. “We’re curious to see what happens with that.”

Which is not to say that there won’t be downsides to the move — some inevitable, some merely possible. (A Facebook-hosted outlet, for one example, doesn’t allow for easy tagging of content, which means that an easily accessible archive likely won’t be in the cards for the site — at least for the time being.) The most immediately obvious drawback, though, is that a site hosted on Facebook can’t host its own local ads. In fact, to make the switch, Rockville Central had to return money to its advertisers.

And that’s a sacrifice it’s willing to make. Profit, Cotte Griffiths notes, isn’t itself the site’s overall goal: She and Rourke see the outlet not so much as a money-making vehicle as an experiment in civic engagement. (That gives Rockville Central much more financial flexibility than, say, The Batavian or the West Seattle Blog, which function not merely as labors of love, but also as livelihoods for their publishers.) “For entities and organizations that are trying to turn a profit, or have other institutional or organizational reasons to have a separate identity, it can make sense to have a separate web space,” Cotte Griffiths and Rourke note. “But Rockville Central is different and, as we thought hard about it, we realized we could find no compelling reason that Rockville Central needs to exist as a separate rockvillecentral.com site.”

Then again, Rockville Central isn’t, you know, opposed to turning a profit. And building a strong, committed community on Facebook, Cotte Griffiths points out, could be a means toward developing non-ad-based revenue streams in the future, from hosting conferences to staging community events. (Cotte Griffiths’ day job? Event planner.)

Everything’s on the table; “we’re willing to try anything,” Cotte Griffiths notes. And while a Facebook-hosted outlet could have a leg up when it comes to the holy grail that it “community engagement,” there’s always the chance that the hoped-for audience expansion could end up going the other way. Not everyone’s a Facebook fan. As reader Nick Ferris put it in the comments of Cotte Griffiths’ post:

As a loyal reader of Rockville Central for several years, I must say this decision appalls me. Facebook is the garbage dump of the internet, and Rockville Central really deserves to stand separate from it. I also think putting your entire infrastructure in the hands of a third-party service already well known for its growing privacy concerns and ever-changing terms of service is a bad move.

Rockville Central will be making this move without me and certainly many other readers as well.

Still, though, the move — with all its implications for the future of community news — will be an intriguing experiment to watch. “There’s this big party,” Cotte Griffiths says of Facebook. It’s likely only to get bigger. “And we want to be in there.”

January 19 2011

19:30

1.4 million fans can’t be wrong: NPR’s Facebook page

“They swear like sailors, but boy, they’re smart.”

That’s how NPR strategist Andy Carvin described the 1.4 million fans who comment and share stories through NPR’s Facebook page. The page — originally created by an NPR enthusiast from the UK — is one of the more popular media outlets on Facebook.

Carvin talked about NPR’s approach to Facebook last night as part of an ONA-sponsored media event at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto.

We have better comments on Facebook than on our own site,” Carvin said, in response to an audience question about whether NPR was reluctant to divert audience engagement from its own homepage to an outside site.

In part, Carvin said, that’s because comments on the NPR site tend to be highly political and polarized, and because comments sections are also constantly beset by spammers. For many news stories — particularly ones where reporters are filing from abroad — the author of the story isn’t able to moderate the comment thread and, so, to help guide conversation and build community. NPR’s blogs, on the other hand, where this moderation happens, tend to be more conversational and interactive.

But Carvin also emphasized the importance of audience expectations. “They still see our site as mainly dedicated to consuming news,” he said. Facebook, on the other hand, is a web venue in which people are used to chatting with their family and friends.

The result, Carvin said, is that conversations on NPR’s Facebook page can become surprisingly intimate. A story about stillborn children, for instance, attracted comments from “dozens and dozens” of families who talked about their own experiences. “That didn’t happen on our site,” Carvin said.

The referral traffic on NPR’s Facebook page has grown from 1.5 million to 4.5 million pageviews a month, Carvin said. While that traffic used to result largely from fans clicking on links that NPR posted, now as much as half of it comes from links that fans decide to share themselves.

The articles that Carvin and his team post to the Facebook site aren’t typically the day’s lead stories or items of big breaking news. Instead, Carvin said, the question he asks before posting is, “Will our friends want to talk about this?”

It turns out that NPR’s Facebook fans like arts and culture reporting and multimedia stories with video (but not, surprisingly, with audio). In a survey of NPR’s Facebook fans published this summer — which attracted 40,000 responses, the most of any survey NPR has conducted — the outlet found that its science stories are extremely popular on Facebook, but tech stories aren’t. And there’s some hypocrisy at play, as well: While, when surveyed, NPR’s Facebook fans claimed to value foreign affairs and economic reporting, they often won’t actually click through to those stories.

The survey also confirmed that fans thought the tone of the Facebook comments, swearing and all, was appropriate, and that having 7 to 10 articles posted a day wasn’t too much for them. The Facebook fans are also some of NPR’s most devoted listeners, with 70 percent of them tuning into their local NPR station — and averaging 2 hours of NPR consumption a day. Fifty-five percent also visit NPR’s website on a regular basis.

In other words, NPR’s Facebook page is a complement to, not a substitute for, other kinds of NPR news consumption.

While Carvin — very politely, given the venue — suggested that Twitter’s search function was more useful than Facebook’s for journalists, he said that the Facebook page has become “one of our most important sourcing tools.” NPR posts about three or four queries a week — asking, for instance, for jobless 20-somethings who might be willing to talk to an NPR reporter about their experiences. And NPR’s Facebook fans turn out to be very willing to respond. Typical sourcing requests attract 750 to 800 responses, Carvin said. Getting less than 300 is rare.

And of the 140 to 150 sourcing questions asked so far, he said, only two or three have had no results, an extremely high success rate. Facebook was even crucial in Carvin’s recent reporting on Tunisia, even though his query received fewer than 40 responses — in part, Carvin said, because many of those with information were scared to post it on a public site.

One of the most important choices NPR has made in regard to the Facebook page is a willingness to let fans set the tone of what will happen. “We feel like it’s as much theirs as it is ours,” Carvin said. “If they want to swear like sailors, [they can]. We  don’t block comments just because there’s swearing, or even if they’re being snarky.” While NPR staffers will delete hate speech in the comments, they’ll let criticism stand. And Facebook users themselves will often take care of trolls or fake accounts by reporting them to Facebook on their own.

As for criticism of NPR itself, Carvin said, they’ve struck a balance. Fans can’t post on the Facebook wall, which is defined by official NPR postings. But the outlet has given fans free reign over the “Discussions” section on the Facebook page — so users who want to continue to blast NPR over Juan Williams’ firing can do so, just in a slightly separate venue.

September 17 2010

15:00

Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. ”People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

September 14 2010

14:00

Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

September 13 2010

17:00

#Wherewereyou: WaPo puts the humble hashtag to work

In our new age of two-way news, news organizations sometimes struggle to find a way to foster productive conversation: to move beyond superficial gestures of inclusiveness — empty questions, atomized responses — and to create conversation that is meaningful and purposeful. This weekend, The Washington Post found a way to create that kind of conversation, by way of commemorating Saturday’s nine-year anniversary of September 11: It created a Twitter hashtag, #wherewereyou, asking readers to share where they were when they first learned that the towers had been hit.

Anthony Dale: I was late to work at the Pentagon. I heard the news when I was 10 minutes away.

Katie Roberts: 7th grade gym class.. and they wouldn’t let us turn on the news.

Stuart Berlow: 13th&K, watching the Pentagon smoke behind the Monument

Ethan Horowitz: was in college at the u of md. came out of class & everyone was standing around listening 2 news on a car radio turned way up.

The Post’s solution was elegant and organic at the same time: It took a basic question — a question everyone, anyone can answer — and molded it into a simple but powerful piece of journalism. The tag — a more creative, dynamic version of MSNBC’s yearly replay of its initial, frenzied 9/11 coverage — invited its participants to take part in the yearly ritual of collective memory. And it defined the news organization not merely as a collector of news, but as a curator of experience.

“I think the fact that we have a brand like The Washington Post pushing the conversation helped a lot,” notes Melissa Bell, the Postie who oversaw the effort, “but I think that the Twitter hashtag was something people responded to because everyone felt really passionately about it.”

The idea for the #wherewereyou curation actually started not with the anniversary of 9/11, Bell told me, but rather with the commemoration of another national tragedy: the five-year anniversary of Katrina. On the paper’s Voices section, Bell posted a pastiche of the Post’s front pages during Katrina. (“I love doing that,” she notes, “because it really brings you back to the moment — there’s an immediacy that the front pages give you that I don’t think any other story can tell you.”) In the same post, Bell put out a call for “where were you” stories: “Where were you when the storm hit? When did you realize the real magnitude of the event?” Rather than Twitter, though, the call used a Post community group forum — which solicited some lengthy, thoughtful responses…but not very many of them. Since, Bell notes, “we’re trying to push these things out in the world to get a bigger conversation going,” they wanted to think bigger. When the 9/11 anniversary came along, Bell and the rest of the Post’s engagement and interactivity teams were looking for a call-and-response platform that would feature, in the end, much more “response” than “call.”

The solution: Twitter. And, for that, “we were thinking about a question that would capture that sense of immediacy,” Bell notes. “People remember the John F. Kennedy assassination” — pretty much every American alive at the time has an answer to the “where were you when” question — and “I think, for our generation, ‘where were you on 9/11?’ is something that has a memory attached to it.” So they kept the “where were you” query about Katrina — a more evocative question when applied to 9/11, an event that hit at a single moment, rather than over several days — but sent it out both on the forum…and on the @washingtonpost Twitter feed.

They got a flood of immediate answers. “It was really amazing to see how quickly people responded to it,” Bell notes. Since the team wanted to collect the replies, though — the idea was to curate the most evocative replies on the new Blog Post blog (“The Washington Post’s sounding board for news and conversation that’s reverberating in your world — online, on TV, and in your community”) — they realized they needed a way to round them up. Thus, the #wherewereyou tag.

Within a few hours, the tag was a trending topic in DC. “People have to be engaged,” Bell notes. “They’re not going to respond to a hashtag like #washingtonpost911 or something like that; they have to respond to the simplicity of the hashtag.” The tag needed to be evocative in order to be inviting. And “it seemed like a lot of people would be able to identify what it meant,” Bell notes, “because of the conversation about 9/11 already happening on the web.”

The thing with hashtags, though — their genius and their drawback — is their semantic malleability. Hashtags mean what their users decide they mean; they’re entirely dependent on context. They are context. And a funny thing happened with this one: After the initial burst of 9/11-related answers…the tag lost some of its initial meaning. Tweets like “Where were you when you first heard Glenn Beck exploit 9/11?” and, more commonly, “I was always there when you needed me, #wherewereyou when I was in need of you?” began to pop up in the #wherewereyou stream. Follow the stream now, and you’d have very little idea of its original purpose. If the @washingtonpost Twitter feed was the locus, the current tweets are the spokes — and the further the tag spread from the center, the more the meaning became disconnected from its origin. Users took it and made it their own. (As did other news organizations: On Saturday morning, NBC News asked its followers, “Where were you nine years ago today? #wherewereyou“)

And yet: “The side conversation going on — these sort of plaintive love posts coming out of it — fit, in a weird way, with the conversation that was happening,” Bell notes. “They were totally apart from 9/11, but they were touching in their own heartbreaking way.” The news organization put out a call for responses, curated from that…and then let the initial call resolve on its own, organically. Check the #wherewereyou tag now, and the stream feels more like an indignant love song than an elegy to a national tragedy.

And that’s okay. The point is the conversation, the incitement to expression. The point is a media organization subtly expanding its mandate to include guiding conversations rather than simply providing the raw material for them. “We wanted to really let people know that we were listening, and that we were really enjoying the stories, and they were really touching us,” Bell says. “It wasn’t just being put out into the ether, with nobody paying attention”; on the contrary, “we wanted to let people know that we want to be a repository of conversation — on our site and off our site. We don’t want to exist in a vacuum.”

July 23 2010

10:53

#cnnfrontline Mobile and journalism: Part one- some clarification

Big cameras at the Frontline

Big cameras at the Frontline

Last night I found myself at the infamous (and very pleasant) Frontline club to sit on a panel talking about Mobile technology in newsgathering and journalism (Disclosure: It was an invite from CNN and Edleman who bought me tea and put me up in a hotel, which was very nice of them).
The event was a chance for CNNi to launch their new iphone app and, if the chat on twitter was anything to go by, the audience to be a bit frustrated.
One commentator noted the white, male flavour of the panel. I agree and I’ll not go next time. But for many the problem was we didn’t really get round to what a lot of people wanted to know – what are the business models for mobile?
@thevideoreport report tweeted that it was all “a bit 2002” and @adamwestbrook noted that, lovely though the panel was, nothing new was learned.
I understand the frustration. The conversation ranged round some of the usual subjects – citizen journalism vs. journalism, big cameras vs. little cameras (a subject I’ve blogged in repeatedly) – and it seemed only vaguely touched on mobile itself.
I suppose I should apologise for that, I was on the panel when all is said and done. But I just wanted to clarify some points and maybe develop the conversation a little more in to the areas people felt we missed. As I was drafting this post it started to get a little long so I’m going to do it in a couple of parts.  So,to start, some clarification.
One point I wanted to pick up was the brief kick around of the ‘attitude’ of students to news and opinion. I was quoted as saying that “journalism students come in thinking everything they think is news” It’s not quite what I said but the point is worth amplifying.
Students do come in with very strong opinions and ideas. Opinions about what journalism is, what they will be as journalists, right and wrong etc. As they should and, as I always say, that’s brilliant – not that they need my permission or approval. I love opinionated people and I love the passion that brings. But the reality is that for most jobbing journalists expressing their opinion is a luxury. It isn’t what journalism is about. It’s my job to help them understand that framework perhaps to frame expectations. But it doesn’t mean I don’t thing they should have opinions or that they are wrong (or that journalism is wrong or right for that matter). It’s just there is a time, place and form.
What takes time is building a professional identity that separates that opinion and journalism in a visible and transparent way. I suppose the web blurs that slightly as we still labour under the distinctions of journalists and bloggers for example. But the truth is journalism works a certain way and if you want to be ‘in journalism’ its worth learning how to bend to that when required.
The issue of citizen journalists also came up. I said that I kind of liked the term because it described what the person was and what they did. They were a citizen, concerned and motivated by what was happening around them and they wanted to tell the world about that. The discussion prompted a question from the floor asking why, if it was so good,  it hadn’t taken over from traditional news sources?
For me that isn’t it’s job. It’s there to amplyfy the concerens and interests of a collection of people; hyperlocal, niche, whatever. In that sense it doesn’t aim to replace the mainstream media, just live in the gaps. And, I might add, there is a nice opportunity for a business model there. Not, as I have said before, for the big guys. But big enough to support the  community it amplifies.
That’s a challenge for mainstream media. Not the threat itself but the fact that it’s happening because of them as they seemingly ignore or having only a passing interest in those communities.
I’m going to stop there because I’ve blogged on all of these areas at length before.

December 21 2009

06:54
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