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August 30 2012

13:13

The Rise of Ad-Hoc Journalist Support Networks

Journalistic collaboration isn't just something that happens between newsrooms. Increasingly, journalists working outside of traditional news organizations are coming together to support each other in a range of ways, from offering safety advice when covering protests to sharing news tips, local resource recommendations and more.

Safety in Numbers

"When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse," Clay Shirky wrote in a post on his blog, "their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to." In the news industry, an ecosystem is emerging that's fueled by independent and citizen reporters, along with a new generation of small non-profit news sites. These new journalistic entities are putting themselves on the line without the kind of legal, administrative or technological support of major newsrooms.

"Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections," Rebecca Rosen noted in The Atlantic almost a year ago, "not because of laws that protect them but because of the legal power their companies can buy." That means journalists outside such institutions need networks of support to provide protection for them, and for the work they do.

The lack of support and protection for journalists has made this one of the most deadly and dangerous times to be an independent journalist. The International News Safety Institute lists almost 90 journalists and media staff who have been killed in 2012 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that of the 179 journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2011, 86 were digital journalists and 78 were freelancers. Here in the U.S. nearly 90 journalists have been arrested or detained in the past year, and in state after state citizens have scuffled with police over their right to record. As these statistics make clear, in journalism's changing ecosystem, networks that provide protections for journalists are essential.

Emerging Networks

reporters-protest.jpgIn my work tracking press suppression and journalist arrests I'm beginning to see some of those networks emerging. For example, in the week leading up to the NATO summit, a group of independent journalists organized a Google Group email list to share information and connect on the ground in Chicago. Roughly 50 journalists from all over the world joined the list, and in the days leading up to the protests they used it to plan their coverage, share local tips (like this map of places to buy camera equipment in a pinch), and socialize. As the protests swung into high gear, the list was alive with posts from people comparing notes, sharing where the action was, and helping each other confirm details or track down sources.

Joe Macera, a local Chicago journalist who works with Truthout and the Occupied Chicago Tribune, set up the NATO email list in hopes of connecting journalists around the nation to local Chicago independent media. One member of the list, Aaron Cynic, said via email that he found it useful for journalistic support and collaboration, but also for legal support. He said the list was helpful for "creating solidarity between us, fostering relationships, sharing information and photos, and also, getting information to the NLG [National Lawyers Guild] to help with people that had been arrested." Another member of the list, Ryan Williams, lamented via email the lack of diversity on the list, but acknowledged that "the list was great ... as a networking resource, and as a good early warning system for developing stories."

Journalists used the list for everything from meeting up for dinner to providing information on movements of marches and protests. Kevin Gosztola, another list member, pointed out via email, "You could run questions by others, ask what to do next if you hit a roadblock, inform others of something that happened that you think is an abuse of power, etc." After NATO, the members decided to keep it going as a forum and network for journalists who are covering protests, Occupy and a related set of issues. (Disclosure: I have been on the email list since before the NATO summit, using it to monitor reports of press suppression at protests.)

Rising Solidarity

The NATO email list was unique as it merged online and offline components and was truly ad-hoc in nature. Other networks that have emerged tend to occupy either an online or offline space, but rarely both. The local meet-ups by Hacks/Hackers and Online News Association chapters that have developed and spread quickly across the country (and world) are great examples of how local journalists are connecting and collaborating in person to support their work. Online, Twitter chats like #WJCHAT and the email and blog network Carnival of Journalism represent the digital equivalent of such collaboration where journalists are debating critical issues about the field, sharing lessons about their work, and supporting each other.

Both online and off, these new networks are designed to provide something the journalism ecosystem is largely lacking: solidarity. In a passionate post, Bryan Westfall, an independent journalist in the Bay Area, writes, "The work we do in these circles is up against something violent, self serving, and relentless ... we need each other in a way that must be personal in a way no version of simple 'networking' could ever be."

Many independent and freelance journalists I talk to describe feeling isolated in their work. "We need to continue to foster that solidarity," Cynic told me. "We don't have the same resources or protections as corporate media -- all we have is each other."

Networking with the Audience

During a recent Free Press webinar Pool, one of the best-known livestream journalists who has covered Occupy protests for the last year, said, "The Internet is my fixer." He was referring to the way his audience would step up during his coverage to help get him out of a bind, whether it was to get him food or water or a spare battery. Indeed, the webinar itself was designed less as a formal panel and more as an open conversation, drawing on the legal and safety expertise of the panelists but complementing that with personal stories and advice from the audience. The event helped connect independent journalists before the Republican and Democratic national conventions and foster more ad-hoc networks of support. This highlights the potential of new networks that enable audience members to become media allies -- both part of the journalistic process and advocates or defenders for that process.

More is Needed

To remake journalism, we need to build new networks of resiliency for the future of news. When we talk about the journalistic resources we have lost in recent years we tend to focus almost exclusively on the number of jobs lost, not on the capacity of the entire field to fight for the First Amendment, protect each other and our reporting, and support experimentation and eventually sustainability. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no comprehensive effort to map the needs of the new journalism ecosystem in these terms. Perhaps now is the time.

Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of "Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy," "Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules," and "On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media." Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Photo above by Flickr user Paul Weiskel.

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April 26 2012

13:12

How 'Screenularity' Will Destroy Television as We Know It

Yesterday I announced the next project I'm going to work on which will focus on mobile news consumption. As a result, I've been thinking a lot about screens.

In the future, consumers will not make a distinction between their television, phone or computer screens. The only difference will be the size of each screen, its placement and, therefore, what you most likely do with it. 

iphone sky.jpg

But one will not call the handheld-sized screen their "mobile phone." That you might use it to make phone calls will be happenstance. You will just as easily make a call on the 15-inch screen at your desk or the 40-inch screen in the living room.

Let's call this future moment the "Screenularity." It is the moment in the future when, as a consumer, there's no distinction in functionality between the various screens we interact with. Much like Matt Thompson's "Speakularity," this will be a watershed moment for how we consume information and, therefore, journalism.

THE DEATH KNELL OF TELEVISION

For the entire television industry as we know it, this will be a back-breaking moment. It's not a question of "if" but "when." We see early signs of it in Netflix and Hulu, but the cracks in the dam haven't even started to show. For national broadcast journalism organizations like CNN, Fox and MSNBC, it will create a lot of disruption. For local broadcast journalism, it will leave them utterly decimated. 

Local broadcast journalism simply has no added value when compared with the wealth of information on the Internet. They rely on personality-less hosts that talk at you (not with you). Combine this with high overhead to do local reporting about topics many people simply don't care about, and you can start to see how this looks bleak for local broadcast affiliates. Breaking news is broken. Local broadcast websites are offensively bad and nowhere near competing on the open web. Their continued existence relies on the fact that the majority of people still get their news from television. But once the Screenularity hits, that will no longer be the case. There won't be a "television" just various screens. People will get their "lean back" information from the same screen they can engage with. Dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria!

THEY'RE NOT HAVING THIS CONVERSATION

Whether you love or hate the "future of news" crowd, we should admit that it's painfully devoid of broadcast journalism. I am not 100 percent sure why. I've heard Jay Rosen give a decent explanation, and it can be summarized as: "They just don't care, it's not in their interest."

I'm not saying there aren't any folks within broadcast who are forward-thinking. But considering the disproportionate size of their organizations/budgets/audience to more traditional print mediums, they are painfully absent from conversations about the future of the industry. From what I can observe, the television journalism world has no interest in the future-of-news conversation, and their websites speak louder about this than any defense they could possibly make. This is dangerous, because the majority of people still get their news from local broadcast networks. There is no plan b. There is no fallout shelter.

A DANGEROUS IDEA

For this month's Carnival of Journalism the question is: "What's a dangerous idea to save journalism." Mine is the Screenularity. Local broadcast outfits need to operate as if it's here. I recognize this is dangerous, because it assumes that an industry will disrupt itself. That inherently means there will be danger involved. People will lose their jobs. Organizations will falter and crumble. But others will come out the other end and reinvent an industry on their own terms.

Media companies must become technology companies so they can create the platforms that define the type of media they produce. If they're the ones who create the platforms, they will continue to create media on their own terms.

If local news broadcasters don't embrace the Screenularity and create the platforms themselves, they'd better hope that somebody else does it for them. And "hope" is a horrible strategy. That's what leads to complaints about "Google" or "Craigslist" killing journalism. All they did was create platforms that define the type of media produced. If you aren't creating those platforms then you have no excuse to complain about the terms those organizations create.

June 03 2011

18:37

On CNN - New York Times' Jill Abramson: transition to online media is "thrilling but challenging"

Mediaite :: Last night, Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the New York Times gave an interview to CNN’s Jessica Yellin. The increasing digitalization of news is an issue for her that is changing journalistic practices, but at the helm of a paper that has made its mark as just that, a paper, Abramson was optimistic about the future of print. Although she refused to speculate how much longer we will be reading actual papers, she called the transition to online media “thrilling but challenging”.

Continue to read Lizzie Manning, www.mediaite.com

July 08 2010

20:14

News Organizations Must Innovate or Die

People in news don't generally think of innovation as their job. It's that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). "How's it going?" I asked him. "Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?"

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. "Here," he said, "Call this guy. He's our technical director -- he'll be able to help you out."

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it's not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia...I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a "thief" and a "parasite." The U.K.'s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a "Facebook killer" (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let's not even start to take apart various news commentators' dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch's purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it "is beginning to look like a liability." The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn't become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week's Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. "Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted," Schmidt said. "Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don't continue to innovate."

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt -- and one that is even more acute for news organizations -- is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. "I'm surprised at how random the future has become," Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that "allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline." It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world's academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup "most likely to change the world for the better."

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. "The future is harder to predict," Shirky said, "but easier to see."

That's why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee's hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it's why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up "Euston Partners" under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the "Digital Futures Division."

But mostly people in news don't really do innovation. They're too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn't pay -- it doesn't even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

June 04 2010

15:02

#fong: New business bootcamps for journalists from Adam Westbrook

Freelance multimedia journalist Adam Westbrookauthor of this book and this blog, is planning a series of ‘bootcamps’ to come up with new business ideas for journalism. The idea for the meetings, which Westbrook will host in his own London flat, follows the success of the Future of News Group – a network and series of events set up by Westbrook to discuss, debate and find new ideas for journalism and journalists.

The first Future of News Business Bootcamp will focus on making money from reporting on the developing world and human rights and will run on Tuesday 22 June. The group is limited to six people and the deadline to apply for a place is 11 June. To secure a spot, you need to email a pitch to Adam Westbrook explaining why you need to be at this bootcamp, what your interest in this niche is and (in one line) give an idea for how the niche might be made into business.

“The meet-ups have been running for about six months now and the group has more than 300 members so it’s been going really well. When I set it up I wanted it to be a forum for actual new ideas to emerge, rather than more talk about the future of journalism. The individual meet-ups have been great but I got the sense they’d reverted back to the speaker/Q&A format we see at all the other conferences. I thought of ways I could bring them back to the main mission of the group and realised smaller groups are often better for brainstorming and ideas. They’re going to be really focused sessions, diving straight into what the business models could be and how to package them into profitable products. Fingers crossed one of the bootcamps will bring up a gem,” Westbrook told Journalism.co.uk.

If the first session goes well, Westbrook says he’ll look into holding other ‘bootcamps’ for travel journalism, sport journalism, environmental journalism, local journalism and more.

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June 03 2010

17:02

The Future of News: Not So Bleak, Not So Rosy

What's the future of news? I'm tempted to say "not very much" since no one really knows too much about the future of news right now. You know this is true because senior news folk have given up on the doom and gloom stuff and are starting to talk about "the golden age of journalism" and how it's a "bright dawn" and that sort of thing. This would make sense if there had been any structural change in the economics of news, but there hasn't; so their optimism has the hollow twang of hope over reason.

Still, the optimists have got it half right. As Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of the Caledonian Mercury, said at a #futureofnews conference a week or so back (I paraphrase): "This is a great time to do journalism. It's just not a great time to earn your living as a journalist."

What I Know

But, in these turbulent times, as I earnestly make my way from one news conference to another, a few things are starting to become clear. So this much I know:

  • Even if pay walls provide a secure financial future for news organizations -- which right now seems unlikely -- they will reduce the pool of shared information, and cut those news organizations' content off from the openness, sharing and linking that characterizes the web. "You cannot control distribution or create scarcity," Alan Rusbridger said in his January Hugh Cudlipp lecture, "without becoming isolated from this new networked world."
  • The pay wall is not the only way to sustain the digital newsroom. Advertising, though much maligned by many, could yet make online non-pay wall newspaper content viable within five years. Peter Kirwan did the math in Wired, calculating that if Guardian News Media manages a 20 percent annualized growth of digital revenues (it estimates growth will be 30 percent this year) it will be able to maintain a £100m digital newsroom seven days a week by 2015.
  • There are other revenue models for online news -- ones that allow you to keep your news open, linked and shared, and make money. For example, there is what I call the "carrier pigeon model." In this model you let people share, link to, recommend, search, aggregate, and even re-use you content -- you just make sure it's properly marked up and credited so you can keep track of it and develop revenue models off the back of it. You do this with -- excuse the geek terminology -- "metadata." Embedded metadata has all sorts of potential benefits we're only just starting to take advantage of (hence why we've spent so much time on hNews and linked data). I call it the carrier pigeon model because the news doesn't just go out, it comes back.
  • The cost base is still going to have to go down. The cost of producing news will necessarily have to be a lot lower than it has been historically. This doesn't have to mean cutting journalist's jobs or getting out of print. There are lots of ways to rethink costs in a digital world. One of the most inventive is Roman Gallo's Czech model. Gallo opened cafés in the centre of towns across the Czech Republic. He then put his news teams in the cafés. Not only does this mean they have very low office overhead (the café covers basic costs), but it means the journalists are working in amongst the local community and getting readers directly involved in production.
  • There will need to be accessible, re-usable public data provided regularly and in a consistent format. Without this it will be much harder to keeps costs low because of the amount of time it takes to coax information out of public authorities and then analyze that data. This is why the launch of data.gov.uk was such an important development, and why we need to join Sir Tim Berners-Lee's quest for "raw data now" (as he shouts in his wonderfully quirky TED appearance).
  • Whether or not pay walls work or online news makes money, there will be a public interest gap. Some newsgathering and reporting will almost certainly never again be commercially profitable in an open market. Online news is highly unlikely ever to pay for a journalist to sit in a local court for days on end, for example. This was one of the most important things to come out of Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie's report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Schudson and Downie could not find a market solution to some of the news problems they were exploring, and so settled instead on a mixture of tax breaks, subsidies, foundation grants, and donations.
  • We will rely, for aspects of watchdog journalism, on a combination of journalists, NGOs, and motivated members of the public. Note the use of the word "motivated." News organisations will need to find ways -- other than money -- to motivate and sustain people to help them scour data, dig through school and healthcare records, and alert them to corruption and injustice.
  • As well as motivating people, news organizations will need to build the tools that help the non-professional journalists be watchdogs -- tools like whatdotheyknow.com, a site built by MySociety that makes it relatively easy for people to make freedom of information requests and share the results of those requests with a wider community. Or the way the Guardian got the public to search through the millions of MPs expenses claims.
  • News organizations and journalists will need to form and re-form partnerships with other organizations, journalism co-operatives, NGOs and members of the public. We're seeing this start to happen with sites like the Bay Citizen in San Francisco (see a good post by Mallary Jean Tenore on Poynter) and OpenFile, the beta site just launched by MediaShift managing editor Craig Silverman et al in Canada.

Even taking all this into account there's a good chance that, without some tweaking of the market, a few tax breaks here, maybe a start-up fund there, there will be a lot of public interest news blackspots.

So there it is. Not so bleak, but not so rosy, either. And take it with a big pinch of salt since the only ones who seem to know about profitable business model for news just now are those running #futureofnews conferences.

May 19 2010

12:34

Future of News meetup: Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

I get tired of bloggers and journalists (let’s face it, like me) who spend their time opining about the problems and challenges for journalists. Which is why I’m a fan of Adam Westbrook’s Future of News Group in London, which he founded to discuss the latest in practical solutions for the news biz instead of lofty theory.

So I came down to the latest #FONG meet-up – concerned with “entrepreneurial journalism” – on Tuesday night to find out more. Westbrook – who himself has a very healthy entreprenuerial streak – kicked off the session by admitting, with blunt accuracy, that “lots of us are coming round to the idea that we can be entrepreneurial journalists, but none of us have a bloody clue how.” Here’s Adam’s take on the event, but here’s what I made of it:

Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

First up was Emi Gal, founder of Brainient, a Romanian video advertising start-up – it adds a layer of contextual or affiliate-led ads over any video content. (I’m not entirely sure how this engages with Google/YouTube’s own increasingly profitable overlay ad programme, but that’s for another time…)

24-year-old Gal is a good person to listen to because this is far from his first attempt at making a start-up work. He founded his first business aged 18, a social network which became very successful, and then went on to found an online TV start-up, which he admits “failed big time”. Brainient was one of six winners at the Seedcamp start-up competition in 2009, which landed it $50,000 in seed funding, and Gal has since received more funding.

Gal has lots of advice for would-be entrepreneurs, though much of it is the kind of thing you will hear from other enthusiastic entrepreneurs: things like pick a good co-founder, get the right team, pick a massive market, figure out the “minimal viable product” that people will pay for. Check out coverage of this Techcrunch’s GeeknRolla conference for similar advice, particularly the excellent Morten Lund (funded Skype at an early stage, made gazillions, went bankrupt) and Rummble founder Andrew J Scott.

But for me the best advice Gal had for news professionals looking to either sell themselves of a product they’ve built is that “you are marketing, your product is marketing, your mum is marketing.” In other words, everything you do as an entrepreneur should contribute to the buzz about your business.

Being personable and memorable when meeting people is a big part of that: it sounds flippant, but Gal made a big deal of his vibrantly red shoes. But, he says, at least it makes him memorable.

But how do you fund journalism about human rights?

Up next was YooDoo, which provides advice and tools for new businesses. Tony Heywood and Nick Saalfield talked about what they do – I wasn’t entirely sure how they might specifically help news entrepreneurs but I’m sure they’ll offer help to some people out there and the service is free.

This was Saalfield’s harsh but accurate approximation of the print media: “Start feeling sorry for newspapers and publishers. They’re badly managed, they work very slowly, they’re fragile and not very agile.”

I was more interested in the debate that started after their talk. Deborah Bonello – aka @thevideoreport – founded Mexicoreporter.com and carved out a niche as a multimedia freelance journalist (she spoke at the Frontline Club alongside Adam last month at a great event on freelance journalism).

Bonello hit the nail right on head by describing the economic barrier for anyone wanting to make a living from original content: the FT can make money from writing about stock markets and emerging markets; Gizmodo sells ads by writing about gadgets – this is all actionable content, stuff that will inspire readers to click on an add or affiliate link and buy something.

But what about reporting focusing on human rights? Who’s going to click on an ad surrounding that? She said:

The problem is, if you’re not writing about the decisions about why people make investments, [but about things like] immigration, or culture, art… there’s not that same market for people that might like to pay for that.

As she so rightly says, “as journalists we’re taught to questions the powers.” The plan for most people who go into the industry – I would say – is not to think about how to give the capitalist classes exactly what they need to make more money.

Here’s what content entrepreneur Evan Rudowski said on paywalls on PCUK in February:

The paid content opportunity is greatest if the content is unique, actionable, targeted at a relevant niche, frequently updated and from a credible or trusted source.

Availability of free alternatives can be a limiting factor, but not the determining factor – there are barrel-loads of free content about wine, for example, but plenty of people are nevertheless willing to pay FT wine columnist Jancis Robinson £69 a year for her unique expertise.

So “actionable” is one of the things journalism needs to be to be profitable. But could you tick the other boxes on Rudowski’s list and still make a living? Or, more likely, is there a public or charitable solution to this problem that takes news production out of the corporate, profit-driven, assembly line model?

I have no “bloody clue” either but I’m looking forward to more FONG meet-ups in the hope of getting closer to some answers.

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and event organiser, and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at psmithjournalist.com and is psmith">@psmith on twitter.

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February 03 2010

16:57

Future of News meet-up spreads to West Midlands, Brighton and (maybe) Scotland

Having set-up a discussion group online and run two successful offline meet-ups, Adam Westbrook’s Future of News initiative has inspired new events in the West Midlands, Brighton and Scotland. The idea: to discuss new tools, new directions and share ideas for the future of UK journalism.

West Midlands

The first ever meeting of the West Midlands branch of the Future of News group will be held at Birmingham City University on Monday 8 February at 6.45pm. To register you’ll need to sign up here. All is explained in a post on the site Journal Local and there’s a short introductory video from organiser Philip John:

Brighton

On the same date Journalism.co.uk’s own Judith Townend has set-up the first meeting of the Brighton group – with scheduled talks from the Brighton Argus’ web editor Jo Wadsworth and the Guardian’s Simon Willison. It’s at The Skiff from 7.15pm – and you can sign up here.

Scotland

Both of which have got digital editor Iain Hepburn wondering what demand there is for a similar meet-up in Scotland. If enough people register an interest, he says he’s happy to get the ball rolling. If you are, let Iain know on this blog post.

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February 01 2010

08:40

Come to the West Midlands Future of News Group February Meetup

The Future of News gathering first organised by Adam Westbrook has its first West Midlands meetup next week (organised by The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John. I’ll be there, along with leading Portuguese blogger Alex Gamela, Brummie alpha blogger Jon Bounds, Andy Brightwell of Hashbrum and Grounds Birmingham; the UK’s top student blogger Nigel Barlow and Pits n Pots‘ Mike Rawlins, among others.

It’s taking place from 6.45pm on Monday February 8 at Birmingham City University. Places are free but limited – book at http://www.meetup.com/The-West-Midlands-Future-of-News-Group/calendar/12461072/

December 10 2009

15:39

Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010

I’ve helped organize a lot of future of journalism conferences this year, and have done some research for a few policy-oriented “future of journalism” white papers. And let’s face it: as Alan Mutter told On the Media this weekend, we’re edging close to the point of extreme rehash.

This isn’t to say there won’t be more such confabs, or that I won’t be attending most of them; journalists (blue-collar and shoe-leather types that they are) may not realize that such “talking” is actually the lifeblood of academia, for better or worse. However, as 2009 winds down, I do think that it might be worthwhile to try to summarize a few of the things we’ve more or less figured out this year, and point towards a few of the newer topics I see looming on the horizon. In other words, maybe there are some new things we should be having conferences about in 2010.

In the first section of this post, I summarize what I think we “kinda-sorta” learned over the past year. In the next, I want to point us towards some of the questions we should be asking in 2010.

To summarize, I think were reaching consensus on (1) the role of professional and amateur journalists in the new media ecosystem, (2) the question of what kind of news people will and won’t “pay” for, and (3) the inevitable shrinking and nicheification of news organizations. And I think the questions we should be asking next year include (1) the way changes in journalism are changing our politics, (2) the relationship between journalism, law, and public policy, (3) what kind of news networks we’ll see develop in this new ecosystem, (4) the future of j-school, and (5) the role of journalists, developers, data, and “the algorithm.”

But first, here’s what we know.

What we kinda-sorta know

As Jay Rosen has tweeted a number of times over the past few months, what’s remarkable about the recent wave of industry and academic reports on journalism is the degree to which they consolidate the “new conventional wisdom” in ways that would have seemed insane even a few years ago. In other words, we now kinda-sorta know things now that we didn’t before, and maybe we’re even close to putting some old arguments to bed. Here are some (big) fights that may be tottering toward their expiration date.

1. “Bloggers” versus “journalists” is (really, really) over. Yes yes. We’ve been saying it for years. But maybe this time it’s actually true. One of the funny thing’s about recent pieces like this one in Digital Journalist or this one from Fast Company is just how old-fashioned they seem, how concerned they are with fighting yesterday’s battles. The two pieces, of course, show that the fighting won’t actually ever go away…but maybe we need to start ignoring most of it.

2. Some information won’t be free, but probably not enough to save big news organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” was the battle of 2006, the battle of 2009 was over that old canard, “information wants to be free.” We can expect this fight to go on for a while, too, but even here there seems to be an emerging, rough consensus. In short: Most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else. Whether or not this kind of money will be capable of sustaining journalism as we’ve known it isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem likely. All of the current battles — Microsoft vs. Google, micropayments vs. metered paywalls, and so on — are probably just skirmishes around this basic point.

3. The news will be increasingly be produced by smaller, de-institutionalized organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” is over, and if consumers won’t ever fully subsidize the costs of old-style news production, and if online journalism advertising won’t ever fully equal its pulp and airwaves predecessors, than the journalism will still get produced. It will just get produced differently, most likely by smaller news organizations focusing more on niche products. Indeed, I think this is the third takeaway from 2009. Omnibus is going away. Something different — something smaller– is taking its place.

What we might be fighting about next year

So that’s what we’ve (kinda sorta) learned. If we pretend (just for a moment) that all those fights are settled, what might be some new, useful things to argue about in 2010? I’ve come up with a list of five, though I’m sure there are others.

1. What kind of politics will be facilitated by this new world? In the old world, the relationship between journalism and politics was fairly clear, and expressed in an endless series of (occasionally meaningful) cliches. But changes on one side of the equation inevitably mean changes on the other. The most optimistic amongst us argue that we might be headed for a new era of citizen participation. Pessimists see the angry town halls unleashed this summer and lament the days when the passions of the multitude could be moderated by large informational institutions. Others, like my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at Columbia, take a more nuanced view. Whatever the eventual answer, this is a question we should be trying to articulate.

2. What kind of public policies and laws will govern this new world? Law and public policy usually move a few steps “behind” reality, often to the frustration of those on the ground floor of big, social changes. There’s a reason why people have been frustrated with the endless congressional debates over the journalism shield law, and with the FTC hearings on journalism — we’re frustrated because, as far as we’re concerned (and as I noted above), we think we have it all figured out. But our government and legal system don’t work that way. Instead, they act as “consolidating institutions,” institutions that both ratify a social consensus that’s already been achieved and also tilt the playing field in one direction or another — towards incumbent newspapers, for example. So the FTC, the FCC, the Congress, the Supreme Court — all these bodies will eventually be weighing in on what they want this new journalistic world to look like. We should be paying attention to that conversation.

3. What kind of networks will emerge in this new media ecosystem? It’s a strong tenet amongst most journalism futurists that “the future of news is networked,” that the new media ecosystem will be the kind of collaborative, do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest model most recently analyzed by the CUNY “New Business Models” project. But what if the future of news lies in networks of a different kind? What if the news networks we’re starting to see emerge are basically the surviving media companies (or big portals) diversifying and branding themselves locally? This is already going on with the Huffington Post local initiative, and we can see national newspapers like The New York Times trying out variations of this local strategy. A series of “local networks,” ultimately accountable to larger, centralized, branded organizations may not be what “networked news” theorists have in mind when they talk about networks, but it seems just as likely to happen as more “ecosystem-esque” approach.

4. What’s the future of journalism school? This one’s fairly self-explanatory. But as the profession it serves mutates, what’s in store for the venerable institution of j-school? Dave Winer thinks we might see the emergence of journalism school for all; Cody Brown thinks j-school might someday look like the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Either way, though, j-school probably won’t look like it does now. Even more profoundly, perhaps, the question of j-school’s future is inseparable from questions about the future of the university in general, which, much like the news and music industries, might be on the verge of its own massive shake-up.

5. Human beings, data, and “the algorithm.” This one fascinates me, and it seems more important every day. In a world of Demand Media, computational journalism, and AOL’s news production strategy, questions about the lines between quantitative, qualitative, and human journalism seem ever more pressing. If we are moving towards some kind of semantic web, what does that mean for the future of news? What role are programmers and developers playing? How will they interact with journalists? Is journalism about data, about narrative, or both? Is journalism moving from a liberal art to an information science? And so on.

These are all big, big questions. They get to the heart of democracy, public policy, law, organizations, economics, education, and even what it means to be a human being. They may not be the same questions we’ve been debating these past several years, but maybe its time to start pondering something new.

Photo by Kate Gardiner used under a Creative Commons license.

December 03 2009

18:10

Best of Twitter: FTC Workshop Discusses Future of Journalism

For two days this week, some of journalism's most high profile executives and experts descended upon Washington, DC, for "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" a workshop hosted by the FTC.

One exchange of note came between Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington, who spoke separately but did a good job of representing two divergent points of view. Murdoch kicked things off with a paean to paid content.

"In the new business model, we will be charging consumers for the news we provide on our Internet sites...The critics say people won't pay," he said. "I believe they will, but only if we give them something of good and useful value. Our customers are smart enough to know that you don't get something for nothing."

He also took aim at aggregators and websites that he said misappropriate content.

"Some rewrite, at times without attribution, the news stories of expensive and distinguished journalists who invested days, weeks, or even months in their stories, all under the tattered veil of 'fair use,' " he said. "These people are not investing in journalism. They are feeding off the hard-earned efforts and investments of others. And their almost wholesale misappropriation of our stories is not 'fair use.' To be impolite, it's theft."

Later, Huffington took her turn at the mic.

"It amazes me that Murdoch and Brill and the pay wall team at the [New York] Times continue to believe that people are prepared to pay for news online, despite the recent survey showing that 80 percent of U.S. news consumers say they wouldn't bother to read news and magazines online if the content were no longer free," she said.

Huffington also stood up for citizen journalists, bloggers, and other groups that she felt were maligned by Murdoch. "The contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers, and others who aren't paid to cover the news are constantly mocked and derided by the critics of new media who clearly don't understand that technology has enabled millions of consumers to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation -- from couch potato to self-expression," she said.

Their speeches were only a small part of the event, and we've culled the best and most interesting tweets about the workshop to offer a sense of what struck home with people. We removed the #ftcnews hashtag from most of these tweets, and cleaned up some typos. You can read the raw feed of tweets on the workshop by going to the Twitter hashtag #ftcnews.

Morning Session: Day One

ereuben RT @jeffjarvis: Murdoch: "Let aggregators desist +start employng own journalists." Let news orgs desist & do own mkting, then. <YES


DebGH Good to see all players in one place at FTC hearing, but seems the usual suspects are giving us the usual spiel. Where's the "wow"?



AccuracyInMedia A question? Someone got to ask a question at #ftcnews? Oh, wait, it was just FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz. Way to engage the public!



Riversiderider No consumer groups reps here. Only biz insiders & professors paid by donors.



TonyFratto RT @jeffjarvis Scripps brags about building a new printing plant in Florida. // Building it next to the typewriter factory, I hear.



amandachapel @javaun "The low barrier to entry means amateurs can hop on, but there pros here too" Like water and a farmer watching a tsunami.



candacejeanne We are 1 month away from 2010. Here's a #newyearsresolution: Let's finally stop calling it "new media."



jeffjarvis FTC bureaucrat: you are leading the witness and betraying your legacy protectionist prejudice.



DebGH Finally: News media biz models must have quality product for success -- crap in a fancy package is still crap.

spj_tweets Huffington at #ftcnews: calling aggregators parasites and thieves is the news industry equivalent of "your momma wears army boots."


javaun Huffington: having glenn beck not searchable on google is good for democracy, bad for business.



jen_mcfadden Arianna might be giving the ballsiest FTC testimony ever.



paidContent Murdoch: Ask consumers to pay for products they consume. Gov't power should promote innovators, not prop up failure.

Afternoon Session, Day One

jcstearns Irony of pundits who tell govt. stay out of journalism & lobby for policy changes benefiting them bit.ly/6EDovD via @jeffbercovici

jpshankle Trying to tweet fairly neutral but not clear if most presenters understand aggregators, links, or internet conceptually at all

Danny_Glover Lem Lloyd of Yahoo just used the word "taxonomy" at #ftcnews, so I'm officially tuning him out. Unofficially, I've been bored a while.

SaveTheNews Brill: "The whole idea of government makes me uncomfortable except for the IRS reforms Len Downie describes."

yelvington In the boom years, the Net was occupied by rainbows and ponies. Now it's full of vampires and kleptomaniacs.

Edgecliffe Robert Thomson: govt handouts would create new class of content concubines

LeavittDC Solid advice from Reuters: "Stop replicating things that are already done by people who, frankly, do it better than you."

SaveTheNews People keep talking about the low bar of entry to online publishing but roughly 40% of America doesn't have high speed internet.

jcstearns Mike Bloxham says those of us who frequent future-of-news events like #FTCnews are freaks of nature. / Knowing laughter in the room.

spj_tweets From #ftcnews: Are newspapers like typewriters (i.e. dead) or bicycles (i.e. adaptable and vibrant)?

sydneyin140 Can someone explain why FTC can hold a thoughtful wkshop like this while the FDA still thinks the internet is radio with pictures?

Blasiol2_uwm #ftcnews is ravaging my thesis topic.

Morning Session, Day Two

jessdrkn Rosenstiel: revenue of newspaper from print is like sands of hour glass where one day it will be gone

bobwyman The faith in "Journalistic Exceptionalism" is no more healthy than are the many similar nationalistic or faith based prejudices.

AccuracyInMedia Rep. Henry Waxman now speaking about "the future of journalism," and he's not even on #Twitter. Clueless and backward.

dannysullivan Government's going to have to be involved in one way or another. waxman on journalism reform #ftcnews no he didn't say obamapaper :)

jen_mcfadden I'm sorry, Rep. Waxman, it will be solved by itself. It's called capitalism. Bring on the start-ups.

tgdavidson Dumb thought of the day, from Waxman: Have cities fund news! How might that work in Balt., Mayor Dixon?

wrldtree Interesting presentation at #ftcnews by Gentzkow that show that newspaper closings leads to less voting, at local and national levels.

jen_mcfadden "Journalism encourages people to act in their role as citizens" So do new tools like seeclickfix.com - need to think more broadly

tgdavidson More proof the #futureofnews won't be created at a conference: RT @jcstearns Only two software developer in the room at #FTCnews


jessdrkn Eric Newton, Pres, Journo Program, Knight Foundation: journalism does not need saving, so much as creating



Tracyvs The Big O!, Recipes, and Networks: What the FTC's Journalism Summit isn't Talking About http://bit.ly/6Pcwae

pilhofer Starting the Joaquin Alvarado fan club. The guy utterly, totally, completely gets it.

alisaamiller Eric newton fr knight. It's professional ethics. It's about firewalls. The fear of more govt funding and prejudicing content =bogus

Afternoon Session, Day Two

keverhart Pubcasting reform workshoped by FTC panel: there's more to it than expanding newsrooms. http://tinyurl.com/yb2qwz2

digiphile Spotty wifi fix: Stenographer tosses 3G USB modem to US CTO Chopra, who hands it to @pilhofer & @ericuman. Public-private coop FTW!

SaveTheNews At #FTCnews @pilhofer says "I'm a reporter by trade and a nerd by avocation"

sydneyin140 Journalism not content, it's what people take into their minds and hearts. It took 2 days at #ftcnews before anyone used the word "story."

sdkstl PBS.com's Seiken: added a "failure" category to performance reviews. If an employee doesn't fail enough, gets marked down.

sydneyin140 Oh dear, bdcst union rep missed the memo: "A person tweeting from a news scene is not a journalist."

martindave Missing from the debate: Not enough diversity focus on serving the truly needy in our society. Poor, elderly, youth esp children.

PotatoPro My view: journalism may turn from a job into a skill. Like "public speaking" you write in you area of expertise

jmhaigh To recap #FTCnews this will get sausaged into summary doc, consensus points highlighted, collab w/FCC & proposals @ part deux, springtime?

densmore53 Aggregation of #ftcnews FTC journalism event running notes at: http://bit.ly/5ymuoj #rji

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media project at American University's Center for Social Media. There, she conducts and commissions research on media for public knowledge and action, and organizes related events like the Beyond Broadcast conference. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, "Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media," due out from the New Press in February.

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