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June 30 2013

20:31

There are no journalists

There are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism.

Yes, I know that in condensed form, that may sound like a parodic tweet. But please consider the idea.

scrivener

Thanks to the Snowden-Greenwald NSA story, we are headed into another spate of debate about who is and isn’t a journalist. I’ve long said it’s the wrong question now that anyone can perform an act of journalism: a witness sharing news directly with the world; an expert explaining news without need of gatekeepers; a whistleblower opening up documents to sunlight; anyone informing everyone. It’s the wrong question when we reconsider journalism not as the manufacture of content but instead as a service whose goal is an informed public.

Why must we define a journalist? Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan felt compelled to because the newspaper took it upon itself to decide who may wear the cloak, because of debates about Glenn Greenwald as an advocate, and because of questions of law. Her wise and compelling conclusion: “A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.” Sadly, we don’t often see that definition of journalism played out from TV or the Beltway or especially the overlap of the two.

John McQuaid felt the need to ask why Greenwald is driving other journalists crazy. He concludes that asking who is (and isn’t) a journalist is often “a prelude to delegitimizing their work and what they have to say. It quickly devolves to tribalism.” Read: journalists v. bloggers. Sigh.

God help us, Dick Durbin felt empowered to propose that legislators should decide who is (and isn’t) a journalist, though in truth they already are when it comes to deciding who is protected by shield laws. But I certainly don’t want government licensing (or unlicensing) journalists.

All that discussion in just a few days. All that rehashing a question that has been asked and not answered — or answered all too often and in too many ways — for years. Enough.

Journalism is not content. It is not a noun. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.

So then what the hell is journalism?

It is a service. It is a service whose end, again, is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I give them a broad umbrella of a definition: Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.

Thus anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task. That, in the end, is why I wrote Public Parts: because I celebrate the value that rises from publicness, from the ability of anyone to share what he or she knows with everyone and the ethic that says sharing is a generous and social act and transparency should be the default for our institutions.

Is there a role for people to help in that process? Absolutely. I say that organizations can first help enable the flow and collection of information, which can now occur without them, by offering platforms for communities to share what they know. Next, I say that someone is often needed to add value to that process by:
* asking the questions that are not answered in the flow,
* verifying facts,
* debunking rumors,
* adding context, explanation, and background,
* providing functionality that enables sharing,
* organizing efforts to collaborate by communities, witnesses, experts.

So am I just rebuilding the job description of the journalist? I’m coming to see that perhaps we shouldn’t call it that, for it’s clear that the word “journalist” brings a few centuries’ baggage and a fight for who controls it. These functions — and others — need not come from one kind of person or organization.

Well but what about the legal question? Shouldn’t we at least have a definition of journalist so we know who is protected by a shield law? No. For that also defines others who are not protected. Those others are sometimes called whistleblowers and instead of protecting them, our government is at war with them and what they share: information, information about our government, information about us, information that will help us better organize ourselves as a free society.

No, we should be discussing this question — like others today — as a matter of principle: protecting not a person with a job description and a desk and a paycheck but instead protecting the ideals of a transparent government and an informed society as necessary conditions of democracy.

I’m speaking next week before the third World Journalism Education Congress. I was planning to ask them to challenge our industrial age assumptions about the relationships, forms, and business models of news and to reconsider what and how we teach journalism. I was also planning to suggest that if they call their programs “mass communication,” they should change that, since the title itself is an insult to the public we serve. For as Jay Rosen taught me long ago, sociologist Raymond Williams said: “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways to see people as masses.” No more.

Now I’m wondering whether we should discuss the idea that we’re not journalists. Even trying to define a journalist — to fence in the functions and value of the role to a particular job description — is limiting and ultimately defeats the greater purpose of informing society.

So what are we? We are servants of an informed society. We always have been.

June 18 2013

11:56

How do you ensure busy journalists see important tweets? Introducing 'The retweeter'

image

 

Owning an story can be hard on social media when you operate a subscription model. Not all of our followers or fans have access to The Times or The Sunday Times and therefore can’t access the full article when you post a link from an account like @thetimes or @thesundaytimes. This means that people often read a rewritten version of our story on another news site. 

We thought about how we could change this and realised that our best weapon was our journalists, each with their own network of followers and fans. But we were asking a lot to expect them to keep track of stories breaking on social media (especially when on deadline) so we knew we needed a way of making it easy for them.

We enlisted the help of Alex Muller, a clever chap who up until recently for News International’s R&D Labs and now works over at gov.uk. We tasked him to come up with an easy way to send HTML email from company Gmail accounts inside the browser.

Alex used a copy of the Google Apps script available here which prompts the user for a recipient, a subject and gives space to input HTML email. The script authenticates against the Google Apps account you’re currently signed in with, and uses that to send the email.

He then created an HTML template to display a single tweet inside an
email, and used Twitter’s Web Intents to add links to simplify the
process for journalists and others to retweet - one click in the email,
and then one confirmation click on twitter.com to complete the action.

It’s a simple solution to the problem, and manages to sidestep some
headaches with authenticating a third-party application to send email from Gmail (which would have significantly increased the time required for the project).

The result of using ‘The retweeter’ is that our big stories reach more people. For example, The Sunday Times Insight team had a big story on lobbying in Westminster which was retweeted by 30 people, most of whom were Sunday Times staff. Twitter analytics showed us that this tweet had reach three times greater than our usual tweets.

image

So if you see a Times or Sunday Times journalist retweet a big story, there’s a good chance we used ‘The retweeter’ to make it easy for them to do so. We’ll continue to use it on our big stories and perhaps look at developing a similar version for other networks where we see an opportunity. 

Thanks for reading.

- @benwhitelaw

June 17 2013

20:20

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote a insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practiced by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

May 29 2013

13:27

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

downton1

(Crossposted from Medium.)

May 15 2013

10:57

4 Lessons for Journalism Students from the Digital Edge

This past semester, I flew a drone. I helped set up a virtual reality environment. And I helped print a cup out of thin air.

Nice work if you can get it.

Working as a research assistant to Dan Pacheco at the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair for Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, I helped run the Digital Edge Journalism Series in the spring semester. We held a series of four programs that highlighted the cutting edge of journalism technology. Pacheco ran a session about drones in media; we had Dan Schultz from the MIT Media Lab talk about hacking journalism; we hosted Nonny de la Peña and her immersive journalism experience, and we had a 3D printer in our office, on loan from the Syracuse University ITS department, showing what can be made.

For someone who spent 10 years in traditional media as a newspaper reporter, it was an eye-opening semester. Here are some of the lessons I learned after spending a semester on the digital edge. Maybe they can be useful for you as you navigate the new media waters.

1. The future is here

During our 3D printer session, as we watched a small globe and base print from almost out of thin air, I turned to Pacheco and said, "This is the Jetsons. We're living the Jetsons."

photo.JPG

This stuff is all real. It sounds obvious to say, but in a way, it's an important thing to remember. Drones, virtual reality, 3D printing all sound like stuff straight out of science fiction. But they're here. And they're being used. More saliently, the barrier to entry of these technologies is not as low as you'd think. You can fly a drone using an iPad. The coding used to create real-time fact-checking programs is accessible. 3D printers are becoming cheaper and more commercially available. And while creating a full-room 3D immersive experience still takes a whole lot of time, money and know-how (we spent the better part of two days putting the experience together, during which I added "using a glowing wand to calibrate a $100,000 PhaseSpace Motion Capture system, then guided students through an immersive 3D documentary experience" to my skill set), you can create your own 3D world using Unity 3D software, which has a free version.

The most important thing I learned is to get into the mindset that the future is here. The tools are here, they're accessible, they can be easy and fun to learn. Instead of thinking of the future as something out there that's going to happen to you, our seminar series showed me that the future is happening right now, and it's something that we can create ourselves.

2. Get it first, ask questions later

One of the first questions we'd always get, whether it was from students, professors or professionals, was: "This is neat, but what application does it have for journalism?" It's a natural question to ask of a new technology, and one that sparked a lot of good discussions. What would a news organization use a drone for? What would a journalist do with the coding capabilities Schultz showed us? What kind of stories could be told in an immersive, virtual-reality environment? What journalistic use can a 3D printer have?

These are great questions. But questions become problems when they are used as impediments to change. The notion that a technology is only useful if there's a fully formed and tested journalistic use already in place for it is misguided. The smart strategy moving forward may be to get the new technologies and see what you can use them for. You won't know how you can use a drone in news coverage until you have one. You won't know how a 3D printer can be used in news coverage until you try it out.

There are potential uses. I worked in Binghamton, N.Y, for several years, and the city had several devastating floods. Instead of paying for an expensive helicopter to take overhead photos of the damage, maybe a drone could have been used more inexpensively and effectively (and locally). Maybe a newsroom could use a 3D printer to build models of buildings and landmarks that could be used in online videos. So when news breaks at, say, the local high school, instead of a 2D drawing, a 3D model could be used to walk the audience through the story. One student suggested that 3D printers could be made for storyboards for entertainment media. Another suggested advertising uses, particularly at trade shows. The possibilities aren't endless, but they sure feel like it.

Like I said above, these things are already here. Media organizations can either wait to figure it out (which hasn't exactly worked out for them so far in the digital age) or they can start now. Journalism organizations have never been hubs for research and development. Maybe this is a good time to start.

3. Real questions, real issues

This new technology is exciting, and empowering. But these technologies also raise some real, serious questions that call for real, serious discussion. The use of drones is something that sounds scary to people, and understandably so. (This is why the phrase "unmanned aerial vehicle" (UAV) is being used more often. It may not be elegant, but it does avoid some of the negative connotation the word "drone" has.) It's not just the paparazzi question. With a drone, where's the line between private and public life? How invasive will the drones be? And there is something undeniably unsettling about seeing an unmanned flying object hovering near you. 3D printers raise concerns, especially now that the first 3D printed guns have been made and fired.

To ignore these questions would be to put our heads in the sand, to ignore the real-world concerns. There aren't easy answers. They're going to require an honest dialogue among users, media organizations, and the academy.

4. Reporting still rules

Technology may get the headlines. But the technology is worthless without what the old-school journalists call shoe-leather reporting. At the heart of all these projects and all these technologies is the same kind of reporting that has been at the heart of journalism for decades.

Drones can provide video we can't get anywhere else, but the pictures are meaningless without context. The heart of "hacking journalism" is truth telling, going past the spin and delivering real-time facts to our audience. An immersive journalism experience is pointless if the story, the details, and the message aren't meticulously reported. Without a deeper purpose to inform the public, a 3D printer is just a cool gadget.

It's the marriage of the two -- of old-school reporting and new-school technology -- that makes the digital edge such a powerful place to be.

newhouse.jpgBrian Moritz is a Ph.D. student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and co-editor of the Journovation Journal. A former award-winning sports reporter in Binghamton, N.Y. and Olean, N.Y., his research focuses on the evolution of journalists' routines. His writing has appeared on the Huffington Post and in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has a masters' degree from Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree from St. Bonaventure.

May 13 2013

02:25

AP Video Chief: Engagement Time Around Video is Shrinking

LONDON – Usage data gathered by the Associated Press around video news shows that consumption is getting shorter, with most viewers watching content from a minute to 90 seconds,  says Sandy MacIntrye, global chief of video, in this interview with Beet.TV.  This duration is “shorter than any of us journalists would like,” he says.   Viewership of raw, unscripted video can sustain viewership for around 20 seconds.

We spoke with him in London last month.  This is the second of two interviews with him.

 

 

 

 

May 09 2013

16:42

TIMES’ RICK BERKE: Video Will Become as “Central” as Text on the Web and the Printed Paper

The New York Times, long a pioneer in producing feature video for the Web, is readying a significant expansion of its video news programming, says Times veteran editor Rick Berke, who has the new title of  senior editor and director of video content development.

In this interview with Beet.TV, the former assistant managing editor says that video will become “as central” to the Times offering as text on the web and the printed paper.

Berke’s new role as a video editorial czar, along with recent appointment of Rebecca Howard as GM of Times video who came from AOL,  are part of an institutional push to create more video under the paper’s new CEO Mark Thompson,  a former BBC director general.

Last month, the Times lifted its paywall restriction of video views.  Earlier this week, the paper launched a new documentary series.

April 09 2013

13:22

Asking data questions of words

The vast majority of my contributions to the web have been loosely encoded in the varyingly standard-compliant family of languages called English. It’s a powerful language for expressing meaning, but the inference engines needed to parse it are pretty complex, staggeringly ancient, yet cutting edge (i.e. brains). We tend to think about data a lot at ScraperWiki, so I wanted to explore how I can ask data questions of words.

Different engines render English into browser-viewable markup (HTML): twitter, wordpress, Facebook, tumblr and emails; alongside various iterations of employers’ sites, industry magazines, and short notes on things I’ve bought on Amazon. Much of this is scrapeable or available via APIs, and a lot of ScraperWiki’s data science work has been gathering, cleaning, and analysing data from websites.

For sharing facts as data, people publish CSVs, tables and even occasionally access to databases, but I think there are lessons to learn from the web’s primary, human-encoded content. I’ll share my first tries, and hope to get some feedback (comment below, or drop me a line on the Scraperwiki Google Group, please).

NLTK

There’s a particularly handy Python package for treating words as data, and the people behind NLTK wrote a book (available online) introducing people not only to the code package, but to ways of thinking programmatically about language.

One of many nice things about NLTK is that it gives you loads of straightforward functions so you can put names to different ways of slicing up and comparing your words. To get started, I needed some data words. I happened to have a collection of CSV files containing my archive of tweets, and the ever-helpful Dragon at ScraperWiki helped me convert all these files into one long text doc, which I’m calling my twitter corpus.

Then, I fed NLTK my tweets and gave it a bunch of handles – variables – on which I may want to tug in future, (mainly to see what they do).

from nltk import *
filename = 'tweets.txt'

def txt_to_nltk(filename):
    raw = open(filename, 'rU').read()
    tokens = word_tokenize(raw)
    words = [w.lower() for w in tokens]
    vocab = sorted(set(words))
    cleaner_tokens = wordpunct_tokenize(raw)
  # "Text" is a datatype in NLTK
    tweets = Text(tokens)
  # For language nerds, you can tag the Parts of Speech!
    tagged = pos_tag(cleaner_tokens)
    return dict(
                raw = raw,
                tokens = tokens,
                words = words,
                vocab = vocab,
                cleaner_tokens = cleaner_tokens,
                tweets = tweets,
                tagged = tagged
                )

tweet_corpus = txt_to_nltk(filename)

Following some exercises in the book, I jumped straight to the visualisations. I asked for a lexical dispersion plot of some words I assumed I must have tweeted about. The plot illustrates the occurrence of words within the text. Because my corpus is laid-out chronologically (the beginning of the text is older than the end), I assumed I would see some differences over time:

tweet_corpus.dispersion_plot(["coffee", "Shropshire", "Yorkshire",
                                            "cycling", "Tramadol"])

Can you guess what some of them might be?

plot1

This ended up pretty much as I’d expected: illustrating my move from Shropshire to Yorkshire. It shows when I started tweeting about cycling, and the lovely time I ended up needing to talk about powerful painkillers (yep, that’s related to cycling!). I continuously cover the word “coffee” in my tweets. This kind of visualisation could be particularly useful for marketers watching the evolution of keywords, or head-hunters keeping an eye out for emerging skills. Basically, anyone who wants to see when a topic gathers reference within a set of words (e.g. the back-catalog of an industry blog).

Alongside the lexical dispersion plot, I also wanted to focus on a few particular words within my tweets. I looked into how I tweet about coffee, and used a few of NLTK’s most basic functions. A simple: ‘tweet_corpus.count(“coffee”)’, for example, gives me the beginnings of keyword metrics from my social media. (I’ve tweeted “coffee” 809 times, btw.) Using the vocab variable, I can ask Python – ‘len(vocab)’ – how many different words I use (around 35k), though this tends to include some redundancies like plurals and punctuation. Taking an old linguist’s standby, I also created a concordance, getting the occurrences within context. NLTK beautifully lined this all up for me with a single command: ‘tweetcorpus.concordance(“coffee”)’

I could continue to walk through other NLTK exercises, showing you how I built bigrams and compared words, but I’ll leave further exploration for future posts.

What I would like to end with is an observation/question: this noodling in the natural language processing on social data makes it clear that a very few commands can be used to provide context and usage metrics for keywords. In other words, it isn’t very hard to see how often you’ve said (in this case tweeted) a keyword you may be tracking. You could treat just about any collection of words as your own corpus (company blog, user manuals, other social media…), and start asking some very straightforward questions very quickly.

What other data questions would you want to ask of your words?

March 31 2013

17:49

10 examples of bespoke article design and scrolling goodness

Have you been noticing all the pretty sliding/scrolling articles that are popping up around the Internetz? My students think they’re wonderful, and so do I. So let’s look at a roundup of some great ones.

Screenshot: Snow Fall

Of course we’ll begin with Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. This New York Times multimedia feature had the world journalism community talking and tweeting like crazy as soon as it appeared online. This blog post – More than 3.5 million page views for New York Times’ “Snow Fall” feature – reproduces an internal New York Times memo about how popular the multimedia feature turned out to be. In this post at Source (a project concerning journalism code) – How We Made Snow Fall: A Q&A with the New York Times team – the graphics director, graphics editor, video journalist, and deputy director for digital design who created this feature explain how they did it.

Screenshot: America: Elect!

America: Elect! (from The Guardian) is not only a fun, slidy mini-graphic novel – it’s also the subject of a short but very helpful how-to article: How we built our “America: Elect!” graphic novel interactive, by interactive developer Julian Burgess. Parallax scrolling libraryskrollr (check this one out).

Screenshot: Dock Ellis 1 of 2

Screenshot: Dock Ellis 2 of 2

ESPN was ahead of the pack with The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis, a lavishly illustrated story about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. Plugincurtain.js.

Screenshot from Pitchfork 1

Screenshot from Pitchfork 2

Pitchfork magazine used the technique as a showcase for photography, featuring Bat for Lashes singer Natasha Khan, in a cover story titled Glitter in the Dark.

Screenshot: Lost and Found

Lost and Found, an NPR story about photographer Charles W. Cushman, has a beautiful horizontal scrolling audio story in the middle of the page. Look for the Play button below the heading “The Year Is 1938.” Frameworkpopcorn.js.

Screenshot: Fracking

Screenshot: Every Last Drop

The Guardian‘s Burgess linked to a scrolling graphic story about fracking — What goes in and out of hydraulic fracturing (it appears that designer Linda Dong rolled her own scrolling code for this one) — which reminded me a little of Every Last Drop, which uses scrolling graphics to tell the story of how much water we waste every day (parallax scrolling libraryskrollr). I found the fracking story to be more journalistic, especially given the sources listed at the end.

Screenshot: Cycling's Road Forward

Another long-form narrative dressed up very nicely with this technique: Cycling’s Road Forward, from The Washington Post. Framework: Bootstrap. Tools include Modernizr.

Screenshot: Unfit for Work

Unfit for Work (from Planet Money, a program that runs on NPR) has a beautiful responsive article design. I love the big data graphics embedded throughout the article. I’ve been all over the code looking for the bit that slides the sections up and down, but all I can find is very clean CSS and HTML, great attention to responsiveness, and assorted JavaScript files that don’t reference the section element, the H3, or the wallpaper class. I’m super-impressed by the code, because it looks like it can be replicated for other articles. In other words, this design is repeatable.

Screenshot: Too Young to Wed

Too Young to Wed (from the United Nations Population Fund) is a little harder to navigate than the others, in my opinion (it interrupts the vertical scroll with horizontal-scrolling slideshows), but the gorgeous photography and heartbreaking story make it well worth a look. jQuery plugin: ScrollTo.

There are many tutorials for parallax scrolling — here’s one.

Related: The future of the feature: Breaking out of templates to build customized reading experiences, by Kevin Nguyen, November 2012

Do you have other examples to recommend? Please share links in the comments!

17:49

10 examples of bespoke article design and scrolling goodness

Have you been noticing all the pretty sliding/scrolling articles that are popping up around the Internetz? My students think they’re wonderful, and so do I. So let’s look at a roundup of some great ones.

Screenshot: Snow Fall

Of course we’ll begin with Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. This New York Times multimedia feature had the world journalism community talking and tweeting like crazy as soon as it appeared online. This blog post – More than 3.5 million page views for New York Times’ “Snow Fall” feature – reproduces an internal New York Times memo about how popular the multimedia feature turned out to be. In this post at Source (a project concerning journalism code) – How We Made Snow Fall: A Q&A with the New York Times team – the graphics director, graphics editor, video journalist, and deputy director for digital design who created this feature explain how they did it.

Screenshot: America: Elect!

America: Elect! (from The Guardian) is not only a fun, slidy mini-graphic novel – it’s also the subject of a short but very helpful how-to article: How we built our “America: Elect!” graphic novel interactive, by interactive developer Julian Burgess. Parallax scrolling libraryskrollr (check this one out).

Screenshot: Dock Ellis 1 of 2

Screenshot: Dock Ellis 2 of 2

ESPN was ahead of the pack with The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis, a lavishly illustrated story about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. Plugincurtain.js.

Screenshot from Pitchfork 1

Screenshot from Pitchfork 2

Pitchfork magazine used the technique as a showcase for photography, featuring Bat for Lashes singer Natasha Khan, in a cover story titled Glitter in the Dark.

Screenshot: Lost and Found

Lost and Found, an NPR story about photographer Charles W. Cushman, has a beautiful horizontal scrolling audio story in the middle of the page. Look for the Play button below the heading “The Year Is 1938.” Frameworkpopcorn.js.

Screenshot: Fracking

Screenshot: Every Last Drop

The Guardian‘s Burgess linked to a scrolling graphic story about fracking — What goes in and out of hydraulic fracturing (it appears that designer Linda Dong rolled her own scrolling code for this one) — which reminded me a little of Every Last Drop, which uses scrolling graphics to tell the story of how much water we waste every day (parallax scrolling libraryskrollr). I found the fracking story to be more journalistic, especially given the sources listed at the end.

Screenshot: Cycling's Road Forward

Another long-form narrative dressed up very nicely with this technique: Cycling’s Road Forward, from The Washington Post. Framework: Bootstrap. Tools include Modernizr.

Screenshot: Unfit for Work

Unfit for Work (from Planet Money, a program that runs on NPR) has a beautiful responsive article design. I love the big data graphics embedded throughout the article. I’ve been all over the code looking for the bit that slides the sections up and down, but all I can find is very clean CSS and HTML, great attention to responsiveness, and assorted JavaScript files that don’t reference the section element, the H3, or the wallpaper class. I’m super-impressed by the code, because it looks like it can be replicated for other articles. In other words, this design is repeatable.

Screenshot: Too Young to Wed

Too Young to Wed (from the United Nations Population Fund) is a little harder to navigate than the others, in my opinion (it interrupts the vertical scroll with horizontal-scrolling slideshows), but the gorgeous photography and heartbreaking story make it well worth a look. jQuery plugin: ScrollTo.

There are many tutorials for parallax scrolling — here’s one.

Related: The future of the feature: Breaking out of templates to build customized reading experiences, by Kevin Nguyen, November 2012

Do you have other examples to recommend? Please share links in the comments!

September 05 2012

13:33

Tor Project Offers a Secure, Anonymous Journalism Toolkit

"On condition of anonymity" is one of the most important phrases in journalism. At Tor, we are working on making that more than a promise.

torlogo.jpg

The good news: The Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.

The bad news: People who were used to getting away with atrocities are aware that the Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.

New digital communication means new threats

Going into journalism is a quick way to make a lot of enemies. Authoritarian regimes, corporations with less-than-stellar environmental records, criminal cartels, and other enemies of the public interest can all agree on one thing: Transparency is bad. Action to counter their activities starts with information. Reporters have long been aware that threats of violence, physical surveillance, and legal obstacles stand between them and the ability to publish. With digital communication, there are new threats and updates to old ones to consider.

Eavesdroppers can reach almost everything. We rely on third parties for our connections to the Internet and voice networks.The things you ask search engines, the websites you visit, the people you email, the people you connect to on social networks, and maps of the places you have been carrying a mobile phone are available to anyone who can pay, hack, or threaten their way into these records. The use of this information ranges from merely creepy to harmful.

You may be disturbed to learn about the existence of a database with the foods you prefer, the medications you take, and your likely political affiliation based on the news sites you read. On the other hand, you may be willing to give this information to advertisers, insurance companies, and political campaign staff anyway. For activists and journalists, having control over information can be a matter of life and death. Contact lists, chat logs, text messages, and hacked emails have been presented to activists during interrogations by government officials. Sources have been murdered for giving information to journalists.

If a journalist does manage to publish, there is no guarantee that people in the community being written about can read the story. Censorship of material deemed offensive is widespread. This includes opposition websites, information on family planning, most foreign websites, platforms for sharing videos, and the names of officials in anything other than state-owned media. Luckily, there are people who want to help ensure access to information, and they have the technology to do it.

Improving privacy and security

Tor guards against surveillance and censorship by bouncing your communications through a volunteer network of about 3,000 relays around the world. These relays can be set up using a computer on a home connection, using a cloud provider, or through donations to people running servers.

When you start Tor, it connects to directory authorities to get a map of the relays. Then it randomly selects three relays. The result is a tunnel through the Internet that hides your location from websites and prevents your Internet service provider from learning about the sites you visit. Tor also hides this information from Tor -- no one relay has all of the information about your path through the network. We can't leak information that we never had in the first place.

The Tor Browser, a version of Firefox that pops up when you are connected to the Tor network, blocks browser features that can leak information. It also includes HTTPS Everywhere, software to force a secure connection to websites that offer protection for passwords and other information sent between you and their servers.

Other privacy efforts

Tor is just one part of the solution. Other software can encrypt email, files, and the contents of entire drives -- scrambling the contents so that only people with the right password can read them. Portable operating systems like TAILS can be put on a CD or USB drive, used to connect securely to the Internet, and removed without leaving a trace. This is useful while using someone else's computer at home or in an Internet cafe.

The Guardian Project produces open-source software to protect information on mobile phones. Linux has come a long way in terms of usability, so there are entire operating systems full of audiovisual production software that can be downloaded free of charge. This is useful if sanctions prevent people from downloading copies of commercial software, or if cost is an issue.

These projects are effective. Despite well-funded efforts to block circumvention technology, hundreds of thousands of people are getting past firewalls every day. Every video of a protest that ends up on a video-sharing site or the nightly news is a victory over censorship.

There is plenty of room for optimism, but there is one more problem to discuss. Open-source security software is not always easy to use. No technology is immune to user error. The responsibility for this problem is shared by developers and end users.

The Knight Foundation is supporting work to make digital security more accessible. Usability is security: Making it easier to use software correctly keeps people safe. We are working to make TAILS easier to use. Well-written user manuals and video tutorials help high-risk users who need information about the risks and benefits of technology in order to come up with an accurate threat model. We will be producing more educational materials and will ask for feedback to make sure they are clear.

When the situation on the ground changes, we need to communicate with users to get them back online safely. We will expand our help desk, making help available in more languages. By combining the communication skills of journalists and computer security expertise of software developers, we hope to protect reporters and their sources from interference online.

You can track our progress and find out how to help at https://blog.torproject.org and https://www.torproject.org/getinvolved/volunteer.html.en.

Karen Reilly is Development Director at The Tor Project, responsible for fundraising, advocacy, general marketing, and policy outreach programs for Tor. Tor is a software and a volunteer network that enables people to circumvent censorship and guard their privacy online. She studied Government and International Politics at George Mason University.

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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August 25 2012

23:49

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

August 24 2012

20:44

Without mediation

The shooting near the Empire State Building today demonstrated in yet more ways how news will arrive without mediation.

On Twitter, some objected to my linking to photos from the scene taken by witnesses immediately after the crime, without warning of their graphic nature. The murder victim lay in his blood, so bright red that someone else on Twitter wondered whether the image had been doctored. No, we’re simply not accustomed to seeing so much blood so fresh. We have waited until news photographers arrived, until after the bodies have been taken away, replaced by chalk outlines behind yellow ribbons with only dried, brown-red stains remaining. We are used to seeing the sometimes ugly world packaged and sanitized for our protection by media.

So it’s doubly shocking, perhaps, when media now shows such images from those witnesses.

Jim Romenesko asked The Times about running that photo on its home page, albeit briefly, and they gave what I’d call a right answer: “It is an extremely graphic image and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

I say it is a good thing that we see a more unvarnished world. Perhaps then we’ll have a real debate about guns the way we were forced to face Vietnam through scenes of death on the evening news, as some of my defenders on Twitter pointed out. “Death by gunshot is graphic. Now uncontainable,” said the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (though the Guardian tried to contain it)

I also say that in any case, we’d best get used to it, for as we all well know, news and images of it won’t come from reporters and credentialed photographers first and won’t be filtered through media before it comes to us. It is coming from witnesses who go by names like @yoassman [the name and a Seinfeld tribute, no doubt] and Mr. Mookie, who may write indelicate comments like, “They shoot, aw made you look. No really tho. Dude got popped!” and “Why yall keep saying it could be someone I know? I don’t have anymore room for RIP tatts on my arm. I’ve seen my friends with they heads blown off in the street. Yea it happens to me too and I get over it. Its life.”

Yeah, welcome to life. Most such life isn’t reported with such a splash because it doesn’t happen in such a public place. It happens in the Bronx or 19 times in a weekend in Chicago.

I think we’ve become much too accustomed to mediated news, to a world sanitized for our protection. That’s what makes people ask for warnings before being shown reality, even if the discussion is about murder, and even if they had to click on a link to see what I was writing about. They had to be curious enough to do that. But they weren’t curious enough to see news as it really happened. The image didn’t come into their homes on a TV screen with kids on the couch. It came through my Twitter feed. It was insensitive of me to link to it without warning, I was told. No, I think the problem is that media have made us insensitive — desensitized would be the cliché — to such a fact.

Don’t tell me you’re offended by murder. If you weren’t, that would be the problem. Of course, you are. So don’t tell me not to offend you with what it looks like once you click. And don’t tell me what to say and what not to say.

A man was killed in New York this morning. Now we know better what that looks like. That is news.

:Later: On the Media tells the story of that photo on The Times homepage. And here’s Poynter on the photo.

August 21 2012

16:17
15:58

August 17 2012

18:08

Twitter changes should concern journalists

The forthcoming changes announced by Twitter limiting what others can do with tweets has angered developers.

But news organisations and others involved in aggregating and curating material from social media should also be concerned.

The “Display Guidelines” will become “Display Requirements” and impose strict rules over how tweets can be shown, in order “to ensure that Twitter users have a consistent experience wherever they see and interact with tweets.”

As part of that “consistent experience”, the guidelines on the timeline say that “Twitter tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks.”

In other words, don’t combine tweets with material from Facebook, YouTube or anywhere else. Yet this is exactly what many news organisations do when they cover breaking news, using tools such as ScribbleLive or Storify.

In his analysis of the guidelines, Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper noted that the rule “ is very broad and will bite more services and apps than you may expect. It’s probably the clause that caused the dispute with LinkedIn, and why Flipboard CEO Mike McCue just left Twitter’s board.”

The restrictions on mixing tweets in with other material could hamstrung news outlets. The practice of live blogging, pulling together material from reporters, news agencies and social media, has become common on news websites.

Live blogs have proved a powerful means to provide compelling and multifaceted coverage of news events, weaving a rich tapestry of human experience by pulling in from different networks.

It points to a more collaborative form of journalism, where the journalist acts as a curator, selecting the most relevant and powerful material, be it a tweet, a YouTube video or a photo on Flickr.

The stricter guidelines on the use of tweets go against the trend towards more inclusive, open and networked forms of journalism.

15:53

August 15 2012

11:12

News sites should be Islands in the stream

Islands in the stream
That is what we are
No one in-between
How can we be wrong

Dolly Parton! Well, actually the BeeGees (well if we are being really pedantic Hemingway). What the hell is that about Andy!

Well, Mary Hammilton (a must follow @newsmary on twitter) highlighted a post by entrepreneur, writer and geek living imploring us to stop publishing webpages and start publishing streams:

Start moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices. Insert your advertising into those streams using the same formats and considerations that you use for your own content. Trust your readers to know how to scroll down and skim across a simple stream, since that’s what they’re already doing all day on the web. Give them the chance to customize those streams to include (or exclude!) just the content they want.

I found it a little bit of a mish-mash really. In principle, lots to agree with but the practice was less clear. It makes sense if you’re in to developing the ‘native clients’ but harder to quantify if your’e a content creator.

More interesting was the twitter discussion it generated between Mary and her Guardian colleague Jonathan Haynes (the equally essential @jonathanhaynes) which I hitched my wagon to.  Haynes didn’t agree with the premise of the post and that generated an intersting discussion.

I’ve created a storyfy below but it got me thinking about some general points which are a little ‘devils advocate’:

  • What is this stream anyway – is it the capacity to filter  or is the depth and breadth of content you have to filter. I would say it’s the latter. Facebook and Twitter are streams because of the sheer weight of numbers and diversity of users.
  • Why be the stream when you can be part of it – Part of what Anil posted about was making stuff available to use in streams. I can’t disagree with that but it strays in to the idea of feeding the content ecosystem that, in blunt terms, is often played as parasitic. For all the advocacy of allowing user control, the one thing news orgs are still loathed to do is move people outside the site. Is looking at new ways to recreate the stream experience within a site simply a way of admitting that you aren’t really part of the stream?
  • Are you confusing your consumption habits with your users – whilst the stream might be useful for information pros like journos is it really what consumers want for their news. The stream suits the rolling nature of journalism. Not in the broadcast sense, just in the sense of ‘whats new’. Do your audience consume like you do?
  • Are you removing the value proposition of a journalist? – by putting the control of the stream in the hands of the user are you doing yourself out of a job. I know what the reply to that will be: “No, because the content of the stream will be done by us and  we will curate the stream”. Well in that sense it’s not a stream is it. It’s a list of what you already do. Where’s that serendipity or the compulsion to give people what they need (to live,thrive and survive) rather than what they want?
  • Confusing presentation with creation - That last point suggests a broader one. You can’t simply repackage content to simply ride the wave when your core business different. It’s like calling a column a blog – we hate that don’t we. So why call a slightly different way of presenting the chronology of content a stream?

That’s before we have even got to the resource issue. News orgs can’t handle the social media flow as it is.

So, Islands in the stream?  Well, thinking about the points above, especially the first one, what’s wrong with being something different. What’s wrong with being a page is world of updates.  What’s wrong with being a place where people can step out of the stream and stay a while to dry off and get a bit of orientation.

[View the story "What should news sites be - pages or streams" on Storify]

What should news sites be – pages or streams

Entrepreneur, writer and geek Anil Dash has posted a request that people stop publishing pages and start creating streams.

Storified by Andy Dickinson · Wed, Aug 15 2012 04:17:12

Stop Publishing Web PagesMost users on the web spend most of their time in apps. The most popular of those apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Tumblr and others,…
Start moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices. Insert your advertising into those streams using the same formats and considerations that you use for your own content. Trust your readers to know how to scroll down and skim across a simple stream, since that’s what they’re already doing all day on the web. Give them the chance to customize those streams to include (or exclude!) just the content they want.
An interesting post which generated some interesting discussion when Guardian Journo Mary Hamilton posted it to twitter. 
@newsmary I *hate* that piece. Am I the only person left who likes the web, and webpages, and tolerates apps whilst sincerely hating them?Greg Callus
@Greg_Callus No, I don’t think you are. But I do think there’s room for other presentations as well as single static URL.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary There is, I just hate the Appify movement & ‘streams’. And there’s a reason Guardian Network Front isn’t RSS feed of our content.Greg Callus
@newsmary Where’s the evidence readers ‘like’ streams & apps? Rather than utility sacrificed for convenience b/c that’s what mobile could doGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus Where’s the evidence they don’t? Don’t think people are using Facebook/Tumblr etc while disliking the approach that much.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary Drop/plateau in Facebook numbers since move from Profile to Timeline? Not universal but thnk his claim they ‘like streams’ not metGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus But significant rise since the introduction of the news feed, which is a stream.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary Touche! Thing is I love Twitter as a stream. Where chronological key, it works (like comments). Where content needs hierarchy, notGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus Yeah, there are def some big issues with streams wrt hierarchy – but also with pages too. It’s not a solved problem.Mary Hamilton
It wasn’t the only chat. Mary’s tweet had already attracted the attention of her Guardian colleague Jonathan Haynes who took issue with the basic premise.
@newsmary no! Much more important is: Stop thinking you’re the medium when you’re the content provider!Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Different issues, surely? You can be a content provider with a stream.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary what’s a stream Mary, what’s a stream? it’s a load of contentJonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Compared to a flat page, it’s a different way of organising that content. That’s not a difficult distinction…Mary Hamilton
@newsmary it’s the same content! *head desk*Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes And the point of the piece I linked is that news orgs should present it differently. Struggling to see your point.Mary Hamilton
@JonathanHaynes Compared to a flat page, it’s a different way of organising that content. That’s not a difficult distinction…Mary Hamilton
@newsmary present it how? it’s presented in every way alreadyJonathan Haynes
@alexhern @newsmary *head desk*Jonathan Haynes
I wondered whether, given the content hungry nature of the stream if media orgs had the resource or know-how to take Dash’s advice.
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes also the issue here that stream implies a constant flow. A mechanism of displaying constantly changing content.Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes not sure that most orgs can promise that without USB and sm. something most have no talent or resource for.Andy Dickinson
@digidickinson @newsmary indeedJonathan Haynes
Mary didn’t think that was the issue. It was more about what you did with what you had and how people used it.
@digidickinson @JonathanHaynes Not certain that’s true – using a single blog as the example. More talking about customisation & user flow?Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @digidickinson how does a blog show importance? it’s just a stream.Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Sticky posts, design highlights. Not a new problem.Mary Hamilton
But that still didn’t answer the core question for me – where does the content needed to create a stream come from?
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary that’s about relevance- is timeliness relevance or curation. Can see a case for chronology but still needs ‘stuff’Andy Dickinson
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary stuff that is new to appear ‘chronologically’Andy Dickinson
Jonathan was still struggling with the idea of the stream
@newsmary @digidickinson then how is that a stream?Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson How is a blog a stream if it has sticky posts? *headdesk*Mary Hamilton
I could kind of see Jonathan’s point.
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes slightly different issue there. One to watch as you are talking about subverting (damming it with sticky posts)Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes that changes the consistency of presentation for publishers sake, without the users permission. Breaks the premiseAndy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes like twitter being able to keep one tweet at top of your feed when it suitedAndy Dickinson
But Dan Bentley pointed out that there are a number of sites that seem to do ‘the stream’ well. 
@digidickinson @newsmary @jonathanhaynes you can stream content and still tell people what’s important http://itv.co/NDpTxdDaniel Bentley
Latest News – ITV NewsTia accused faces Old Bailey No application for Hazell bail by Jon Clements – Crime Correspondent Lord Carlile QC (representing Stuart Ha…
@DJBentley @digidickinson @JonathanHaynes Good example, that. Cheers.Mary Hamilton
But sites like ITV rely heavily on UGC and that’s a big issue. It still comes down to where you get the content from and if the org is resourced to do that.
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes true but the itv example better illustrates the point I made about where the content comes fromAndy Dickinson
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes it’s curating content but it’s still content and it has to come from somewhere at regular intervals.Andy Dickinson
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes that’s not an impossibility but it is a core challenge for orgs – always has been online esp. with smAndy Dickinson
@JonathanHaynes @djbentley @newsmary think that highlights core issue here-presentation separate to mechanism to create content to presentAndy Dickinson
Another example 
@DJBentley @digidickinson @newsmary @jonathanhaynes Breaking News does similar with their verticals (sorry to butt in) http://breakingnews.com/TomMcArthur
Breaking news, latest news, and current events – breakingnews.comThe latest breaking news around the world from hundreds of sources, all in one place.
@TomMcArthur I like @breakingnews style for streams a lot – suits it perfectly.Mary Hamilton
But Jonathan is not a fan of the ITV approach.
@digidickinson @DJBentley @newsmary ITV site is a car crash though. and how a minority want news presented isn’t necessarily representativeJonathan Haynes
And has an example of his own to highlight that the page is not quite dead…
@digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary @DJBentley most successful UK newspaper website is Mail Online. sticks rigidly to articles.Jonathan Haynes
Home | Mail OnlineMailOnline – all the latest news, sport, showbiz, science and health stories from around the world from the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday…
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary is the Mail Online a good news source?Daniel Bentley
Another example pops up later on as an aside to the conversations
The Reddit Editundefined
@newsmary @TomMcArthur The news site of the future looks a lot more like that or http://bit.ly/NDsuHw than 240 hyperlinks and 60 picturesDaniel Bentley
@DJBentley @TomMcArthur Yes, I agree.Mary Hamilton
and Mary takes the chance to voice her view of the term newspaper site.
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @DJBentley “Newspaper website” is an oxymoron that cannot die quickly enough for my liking.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley agree with sentiment but sadly it is still a very apt description of the general process and mentalityAndy Dickinson
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley touché. sorry, news site.Jonathan Haynes
In the continuing conversations Jonathan is concerned that this might be a bit of the thrill of the new…
@DJBentley @digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary consumption and creation are different. and early adopters are not the norm.Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @DJBentley @digidickinson Thing is, stream consumption isn’t a minority or early adopter thing any more.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley true but danger is going for mode of presentation without considering the mechanics.Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley number of individuals needed to make a stream vs number needed to present it.Andy Dickinson
So Jonathan asks about a concrete example.
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley so how would that look for "the Guardian" streams works as multiple source and crows editingJonathan Haynes
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley crowd, not crows. what I get from Twitter I want, but I also want websites to show me hierarchy.Jonathan Haynes
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley and content is discrete elements. should be available in all forms but need to be ‘page’ to do soJonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @DJBentley Let me subscribe to tags; filter my stream on my own interest & curated importance?Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @DJBentley @digidickinson you want to subscribe to tags?! might as well have an RSS feed! ;)Jonathan Haynes
Dan highlighted a problem which, I guess, he would see the stream as helping to solve.
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson I don’t feel current news site frontpages do a particularly good job at hierarchy. Too much stuff.Daniel Bentley
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson Google News or the new digg http://bit.ly/NDuNuc do a better job and that’s mostly algorithm.Daniel Bentley
Google News- As the courtroom emptied after Barry Bonds’ obstruction-of-justice conviction Wednesday afternoon, the slugger stood off to one side, h…
DiggThe best news, videos and pictures on the web as voted on by the Digg community. Breaking news on Technology, Politics, Entertainment, an…
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson too much stuff? and yet you want an endless stream??Jonathan Haynes
But for Dan the stream has a purpose 
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson the stream tells me what’s new, the traditional frontpage doesn’t know what it’s doing.Daniel Bentley
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson Am I what’s new? Am I what’s important? Am I everything that has been written in the last 24hrs?Daniel Bentley
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson no, you’re the carefully edited combination of all of the below!Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson carefully edited? How is 240 links on Guardian and 797 (!) on Mail Online carefully edited?Daniel Bentley
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson *sigh*Jonathan Haynes
Frustrating as it may be it’s a real problem and which Mary sums up with
@DJBentley @JonathanHaynes @digidickinson Part of problem with hierarchy on fronts is trying to be all things to all visitors.Mary Hamilton
But, to be honest, I can’t see how the stream would be any better other than to put the responsibility back on to the user. But I’ve more to add in a blog post….
News sites should be Islands in the stream | andydickinson.netIslands in the stream That is what we are No one in-between How can we be wrong Dolly Parton! Well, actually the BeeGees (well if we are …

 

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August 07 2012

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