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July 16 2010

16:00

“What the audience wants” isn’t always junk journalism

Should news organizations give the audience what it wants?

Swap out “news organization” for “company” and “audience” for “customers” and the question seems absurd. But journalists have traditionally considered it a core principle that the audience’s taste should not be the sole guiding force behind news judgment. Coverage based on clicks is a race to the bottom, a path to slideshows of Michelle Obama’s arms and celebrity perp walks, right?

Item: Last week, when The New York Times wrote about the new Yahoo blog The Upshot, the reporter focused on the angle that it will use search data to guide editorial decisions:

Yahoo software continuously tracks common words, phrases and topics that are popular among users across its vast online network. To help create content for the blog, called The Upshot, a team of people will analyze those patterns and pass along their findings to Yahoo’s news staff of two editors and six bloggers…The news staff will then use that search data to create articles that — if the process works as intended — will allow them to focus more precisely on readers.

Yahoo staffers were dismayed, saying the search tool is just one piece of their editorial process. Michael Calderone: “NYT obsesses over use of a search tool; ignores boring, traditional stuff (breaking news, analysis, edit meetings,etc).” Andrew Golis: “Seriously, NYT misses a forest of brilliant old school original reporting & analysis for an acorn of search insights.”

Item: Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that the Post is steeped in a divide, with web journalists pushing to use user data. Print reporters, meanwhile, fear that “if traffic ends up guiding coverage, they wonder, will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they’re ‘dull’?” Then Alexander noted that the Post’s top trafficked staff-written story of the past year was about…Crocs. “The Crocs story illustrates a sobering reality about The Post’s site. Often (not always), readers are coming for the offbeat or the unusual. They’re drawn by endearing animal videos or photo galleries of celebrities.” Or rubber shoes.

But what if sometimes “what the audience wants” is more serious than what the news organization is giving them?

Item: A Pew study released Wednesday noted that, while public interest in the Gulf oil spill has dropped a bit — from 57 percent surveyed saying they are following the story closely to 43 percent — coverage of the oil spill has fallen off a cliff, dropping from 44 percent of all news coverage to 15 percent. And the drop in public interest followed the drop in coverage, not the other way around. Meanwhile, news consumers were getting a heavy dose of Lebron James and Lindsay Lohan coverage. (Note: The data is from June 10 to July 10, so before news that BP has tentatively stopped the spew.)

Item: Meanwhile, Mother Jones released its second-quarter traffic stats this week. For unique visitors, they’re up 125 percent year-over-year. Their revenue has increased 61 percent. The timing roughly coincides with the site’s decision to double down on oil spill coverage, though it cites other coverage for the uptick as well. The magazine’s Kate Sheppard follows the spill almost exclusively, filing a lively Twitter feed with links to her own work and others. That could help account for a chunk of the 676 percent jump in traffic from social media year-over-year. (Pew also found recently that the oil spill had slowly entered the social media world, picked up speed and hit a point last month where it was accounting for nearly a quarter of all links on Twitter.)

Could giving readers more of what they want mean both good journalism and a stronger bottom line? The two won’t line up every time, but it’s useful to remember that “what the audience wants” doesn’t always match the stereotype.

June 17 2010

09:51

Video: Evidence of more media restrictions on BP oil spill beaches

Interesting footage from Louisiana TV station WDSU-TV showing its reporter arguing the toss with BP security guards attempting to stop him from interviewing clean-up workers on a local beach affected by the oil spill.

The station’s reporter is particularly interested in testing out a recent memo to the media from BP’s chief operating office Doug Suttles, that says “BP has not and will not prevent anyone working in the clean-up operation from sharing his or her own experiences or opinions.”

Last month reports suggested that journalists from CBS, Mother Jones and the Times Picayune had been denied access to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Via News Videographer…

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June 10 2010

16:43

E&P: AP videojournalist in the thick of it in the Gulf of Mexico

Rich Matthews, a videojournalist with Associated Press, decided to report from the Gulf of Mexico’s oil-slicked waters. Not content with looking overboard, he went diving, intending first to go 60 feet but having to cut this back to 20 feet due to the lack of visibility.

I jump off the boat into the thickest, reddest patch of oil I’ve ever seen (…) I open my eyes and realise my mask is already smeared. I can’t see anything and we’re just five seconds into the dive.

Full story at this link…

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May 28 2010

08:35

Newsweek: Is BP restricting journalists’ access to oil spill?

More than a month into the disaster, a host of anecdotal evidence is emerging from reporters, photographers, and TV crews in which BP and Coast Guard officials explicitly target members of the media, restricting and denying them access to oil-covered beaches, staging areas for clean-up efforts, and even flyovers.

Journalists from CBS, Mother Jones and the Times Picayune have been denied access to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, according to reports, raising concerns that the disaster will not be properly documented for the public.

Full story at this link…

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May 12 2010

14:28

DIY Mappers Offer Remarkable Images of Gulf Coast Oil Spill

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Last week, as the mainstream press reported on the worsening environmental and economic crisis that is the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf Coast, I and a small group of DIY mappers flew down to New Orleans to coordinate a grassroots, citizen effort to map the spill. Instead of helicopters and satellites, we deployed a new generation of low-cost tools, including weather balloons and kites with cameras attached.

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Since arriving, we've managed to mobilize small teams of Gulf Coast residents. Thanks to the fishermen and charter boat captains whose livelihood is at stake, we've been able to get teams out on boats almost every day. Taken from balloons at as high as 1500 feet, our photography is of higher resolution and greater coverage than much of what the press has, and we're now coordinating a nationwide effort to stitch the imagery into map overlays, which will be viewable in Google Earth as well as more traditional GIS tools. Most importantly, the data we are collecting is released into the public domain and is available for free here.

Quantifying the Destruction

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Our efforts at building an independent data set of spill imagery is sure to be important for any potential litigation and the decades of environmental remediation and recovery that are ahead. For this reason, we've spent time mapping coastal areas such as Fourchon which have not yet been hit by oil (but likely will be by today). This before-and-after data will help to quantify the destruction. The image resolution we're working with -- often good enough to see individual animals and plants -- can provide specific evidence of the losses to the local ecology.

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What's particularly alarming to me about the cleanup and response is that it's largely organized by British Petroleum. When I called the main volunteer hotline and asked who was on the other end, I was shocked to find out it was a company employee. Because while BP is incentivized to do a good job cleaning up, they probably aren't all that interested in producing good, quantifiable documentation of the damage. Fortunately, it doesn't take million-dollar equipment to produce this kind of evidence -- our kits cost less than $200 each.

The Team

Our crack team of low-cost mappers included Oliver Yeh, a recent MIT graduate who's used balloons to take pictures at up to 100,000 feet, and Stewart Long, who takes pictures from remote control airplanes and used balloons imagery last year to make a map of Burning Man.

Of course, we wouldn't have been able to do anything without our fantastic local partners at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental group that has spearheaded the citizen response to the spill. They are coordinating with Tulane University, in addition to running an Ushahidi system to track the spill by crowdsourced text messages. As people send in reports of oil-covered birds or tar balls coming ashore, we can dispatch a team to capture imagery of the site from over 1000 feet in the air.

Join Us

Our main priority at the moment is to conduct training sessions to make sure volunteers are ready -- not just to use the balloons and kites, but to lead trips. If you're interested in volunteering, read more and sign up at our Gulf oil spill page.

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