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December 21 2011

14:00

Emily Bell: 2012 will be the year of the network

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Emily Bell, formerly the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media and currently the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Making predictions about journalism is a hopeless business: Jay Rosen, who is much wiser than I am said he never does it, and I salute him for that. But like Karaoke, some of the things you end up doing during the holiday period are regrettable but fun.

What we saw in 2011 was a sudden consciousness among news organizations and individual journalists that the network, and the tools which create it, are not social media wrappers for reporting but part of the reporting process itself. The poster child for this is the inimitable Andy Carvin, with his amazingly valuable journalism conducted throughout the Arab Spring. The network sensibility will grow in newsrooms which currently don’t tend to have it as part of their process — it is still seen in the vast majority of places as more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” The strongest news organizations we know are those which can leverage both the real time social web and provide relevant timely context and analysis.

While this use of distributed tools and new platforms continues at speed, I think we will also see some much-needed closer scrutiny on what this new reality means for journalism and its constant redefinition of products and services. Or at least I hope so. While a fan of a networked approach, there are important caveats. It is remarkable how much journalism is now conducted on third party commercial websites which do not have journalism as a core purpose — Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. — and the attendant ignorance of what this means in the long term will begin to be addressed. Issues about privacy and user information, about the protection of sources, about ownership of IP , about archiving, and about how we can have a “fourth estate” in a digital world will all become vital for individual journalists and institutions to understand.

Journalists have always been very skilled at stories and projects and fairly awful at thinking about platforms. We need more engineers who want to be journalists, and we need to teach students more about the implications of publishing in a digital environment — whatever the format their journalism originally takes.

April 04 2011

18:30

“Of the web, not on it”: Emily Bell on the success of The Guardian and what she plans for the Tow Center

Before Emily Bell crossed the pond to head up the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s J-school, she led the Guardian’s website, helping to build it into one of the most heavily trafficked news sites in the world.

At a lunch talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center today, Bell shared her insights into what made the Guardian successful in its online efforts, her plans for the Tow Center — and her thoughts about the challenges facing the news industry in an increasingly networked world.

Three reasons Bell pointed to to explain the Guardian’s online success:

1. They put a high priority on technical excellence

Bell took over as the Guardian’s director of digital content in 2006. And “people actually thought, when I said that I was going off to work on the web, that I had been sacked.” At the paper, however, there was a core of people “who really understood the web,” Bell notes. And having that technical expertise didn’t just mean understanding code and web design and all the rest; it also meant understanding, almost implicitly, user behavior — and transforming the Guardian into a digital-first proposition. (It’s about being, as Bell has said before, “of the web, not on the web.”)

One of the most important shifts in mindset at the Guardian came in the form of the separation between form and content (which “now seems absolutely obvious,” Bell said, “but at the time seemed revolutionary”). And a lot of that process involved “freeing ourselves of the legacy mindset” and, in general, “getting the newsroom converged.”

2. They had a financial model that encouraged innovation

At the Guardian, which until 2008 was owned by the Scott Trust, the profit motive gave way to a broader emphasis on long-term thinking and experimentation. That led, in turn, to “a much higher tolerance for innovation” than the paper’s competitors, Bell said. The two most successful outlets in Britain, online, were the BBC and The Guardian, she noted — “neither of whom had to speak to shareholders.” Guardian staffers had greater financial leeway than most of their revenue-focused counterparts to experiment, innovate, and, importantly, fail.

3. They had a clear aim in their innovation strategy

“I’m not a massive fan of PowerPoint,” Bell confessed. But! Part of what allowed for the Guardian’s nimbleness when it came to innovation, she said, was that it “developed a really clear strategy.” The paper took the original tenets of Guardian journalism laid out by C.P. Scott and fused them, essentially, onto the networked infrastructure of the Internet. “Really, we’re about reaching as many people as possible in the world,” she said — and so the question for the Guardian’s staff became how to extend their reach using the tools of the web.

Part of that came down to a general openness to users. Bell created the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section (“which I think some of the Guardian columnists would like to see me imprisoned for!”) based on the recognition that the future will be increasingly networked, conversational, and participatory. In fact, “I stole it directly from Arianna Huffington,” she said. Through watching what Huffington was doing with her then-new news site — leveraging the unlimited space of the Internet to invite commentary from thinkers both professional and amateur — Bell figured that Huffington had it right. “This was the way that commentary would work under a collective brand for the foreseeable future.”

At Columbia

Bell’s work at the Tow Center is a continuation of that recognition — but also the product of another recognition that innovation, to some degree, requires stepping outside of the industry in order to observe it and affect its course. “As an operative in a daily news organization, it was getting harder and harder to connect” to the innovation side of journalism, Bell noted. Increasingly, “I think the space for doing that in your daily lives, as working journalists, is extremely limited — and the necessity to do it is greater than ever.”

The Tow Center, Bell said, focuses on three things: experimentation and research in the field; bringing the results of that experimentation back into the classroom; and creating a stronger digital presence for Columbia’s j-school. And “how those three things inform each other is important.” Part of the work the center will do will be to extend the purview of news innovation beyond journalism itself — to “expand the skill set” of journalism to include and embrace expertise in law, technology, the digital humanities, and the like.

“The solutions to what will make the Fourth Estate and constitute the press in the future lie largely outside the field as it’s practiced at the moment,” Bell said. After all, it’s not just news outlets that are developing ways of creating communities and connecting them — which is something that remains central to journalism’s core mission. Now everyone’s rethinking connectivity and influence. Looking to industries beyond the news, Bell noted, can help answer a key — perhaps the key — question when it comes to innovation: “what you need to support and guard a free press in the future.”

June 08 2010

09:22

#VOJ10: Polis director to publish report on value of ‘networked journalism’

As part of Friday’s Value of Journalism conference to be held in London by the BBC College of Journalism and media thinktank Polis, former broadcast journalist and now Polis director Charlie Beckett will release a new report looking at ‘networked journalism’.

In the report Beckett describes ‘networked journalism’ as a “synthesis of traditional news journalism and the emerging forms of participatory media enabled by web 2.0 technologies such as mobile phones, email, websites, blogs, microblogging and social networks”. It looks at:

The current running order for the event is available at this link. Tickets can be reserved online for the conference, which will be held at the London School of Economics. Journalism.co.uk will be reporting on the day’s events – to follow on Twitter follow @journalism_live and the hashtag #VOJ10.

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March 31 2010

20:46

Hey, journos: ProPublica wants to find you a find, catch you a catch

ProPublica: investigative news outlet, public-interest advocate, matchmaker.

No, seriously. If you’re a journalist, and you cover the economy — in particular, the federal mortgage modification program intended to assist struggling homeowners — then the nonprofit outfit wants to connect you to potential sources.

“Allow us to make an introduction: homeowners, local journalists,” Paul Kiel and Amanda Michel write in a post just launched on ProPublica’s website. “Local journalists, homeowners. We’d like to set you up.”

Since last May, nearly 800 struggling homeowners from all over the country have shared their stories with ProPublica about their efforts to get a loan modification through the federal program. Their stories have driven our coverage – dozens of stories. With their help, we showed the incredible delays and frustrations applicants typically face: mortgage servicers have repeatedly lost documents, misinformed homeowners, and denied modifications for reasons that run contrary to the program’s guidelines. Among the 1.1 million homeowners who’ve begun the program’s trial stage, which is supposed to last three months, hundreds of thousands have waited in limbo for six months or more.

We have no doubt that there are many more important stories to be told. By any account, millions of homeowners are facing possible foreclosure. Although we read every homeowner’s story, we can only use a fraction in our coverage. That’s why we’re offering to set up our readers with local journalists (with the homeowner’s permission, of course). Often, the media can be the most effective recourse for homeowners who have nowhere else to turn.

We talk about disintermediation; this is, in its way, reintermediation. Reporting Matchmaker, part of ProPublica’s “Eye on Loan Modifications” coverage, brings together struggling homeowners — it asks them to share their stories, and (confidentially) their contact information — and local reporters who might want to tell their stories. (“Struggling homeowners, share your stories with us,” the service asks; “journalists, sign up here and we’ll put you in contact with struggling homeowners in your area who want to talk with local journalists.”) And then it maps everyone, homeowners and journalists together, to determine local matchups.

The service is of a piece with the outlet’s other efforts in collaboration: its Reporting Recipe, its Stimulus Spot Check, and so on. It’s another twist on what we tend to think of when we imagine the ways journalism can effect change: Essentially, ProPublica is amplifying its impact through helping other outlets to have impact.

“Collaboration is very much a part of our DNA,” Michel told me. “We’re always looking for ways to effect change by sharing resources.” And with Reporting Matchmaker, they’re doing that by sharing not only resources, but also, simply, sources.

The idea for the project came from Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. Klein remembers listening to a Planet Money episode on loan modifications last fall: “They were trying to do stories about people with loan mod problems,” he told me, “and they would call — and the loans would be approved, suddenly.” Kiel was finding the same thing in his ProPublica work: Curiosity, when it comes from a reporter, can be a powerful weapon. So they figured: If all it takes to get reticent loan officers moving is a call from a curious reporter — “if that’s all it takes for this to get a fair hearing,” Klein says — then why not amplify reporters’ ability to make those calls?

“I’ve used the network to do a lot of stories,” Kiel says: “looking for patterns, being able to drum up half a dozen cases when I identify a problem — that’s what it’s been useful for.” Now, though, it’s “a resource that can be leveraged beyond our use of it.”

One of the powers of the web, Jay Rosen argues, is that it allows people who were formerly separate — geographically, and thus experientially — to find each other and converse with each other. He calls this “audience atomization overcome”; essentially, it’s community that transcends geography. Reporting Matchmaker is one more way — a highly systematized, efficient way — to bring people together.

Whether they’ll want to be brought together is an open question; collaboration can sometimes be more appealing in theory than in practice. Still, what reporter would decline an offer of assistance in finding story sources? Kiel points to a recent Good Morning America segment that profiled a couple trying to modify their loan — and getting rebuffed, repeatedly, by Chase bank. It was Kiel, using the ProPublica database, who put the show in touch with the couple — at the show’s request. And only thirty minutes after the Reporting Recipe post went live this afternoon, Michel points out, she and Kiel had already received twenty-five match-up requests from journalists. Middlemen aren’t always redundant; and Reporting Matchmaker may well prove that sometimes even the media can benefit from some mediating.

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.

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