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November 29 2010

16:30

Why We Gave Our Students Droid Smartphones to Capture News

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

On a cold fall night about 20 years ago I was standing in a phone booth alongside the Welland Canal. The deck of the lake freighter I was writing about was slowly sinking down as the lock level lowered. In front of me was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer with a faint 8-line LCD display. It was acoustically coupled to the grimy pay phone's handset and was sputtering my copy at 300 characters per second back to my newsroom. It spurted the last period of my story in time for me to leap down to the descending, ice-rimmed deck and continue my journey.

Now, two decades later, I want my students to have the same experience. I want them to witness and then file from the scene. But, I want them to use smartphones connected to a high speed, 3G network. And I want those phones to be capable of capturing video, stills and text and sharing.

Okay, I don't want them to back a pig-slow file transfer in a race against a departing lake freighter. But, the idea remains the same.

Droids for All

This semester at Ryerson University in Toronto, thanks to help from Motorola and Telus, a major Canadian cell phone provider, my fellow third-year online journalism instructor Vinita Srivastava and I have been able to provide all our two dozen students with Android-powered Droid smartphones.

While some of the students already have feature phones and Blackberries (and a few iPhones), it's great to have them all at the same level and give them equal and free access to a technology that can get pretty pricey when you factor in a monthly data plan, especially in Canada.

Our intention is to have the students, where possible and appropriate, do as many aspects of their reporting on the phones. That includes research, using social media, recording audio, capturing video, taking still photos, writing and editing stories and filing online to Flickr, YouTube, our class blog and the Toronto-based hyper-local news site, OpenFile. (Disclosure: MediaShift managing editor Craig Silverman is the digital journalism director of OpenFile.)

We are working with OpenFile because they have created a very interesting model for hyper-local news. They fully engage communities in their own coverage and encourage non-journalists to open files on the site on issues or events that interest them or that they are curious about. Site editors then assign freelance journalists to follow up on the leads and produce stories for the site. And, those stories can be followed up by anyone and leave an online comet trail of evidence and additions in their wake.

While the recent municipal election was going on in Toronto, the students used their smartphones to bring citywide election issues down to the neighborhood level. They also live-tweeted candidate meetings and, on election night, results and reactions. They've already used them to capture and share video interviews with candidates, share photo essays of wards, write their stories in coffee shops and even catch breaking news in the form of a dramatic fire in a Wellsley Avenue apartment that led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Some of those residents were interviewed by video using a smartphone.

Other students roamed the streets, looking for local stories. Here's a video interview that student Claire Penhorwood conducted with the owner of a local business:

Device of the Future

All well and good, but why is using smartphones important?

First, because mobile devices like smartphones are not only perfect little tools for journalism; but, equally as important, more and more people are using these devices to consume content and also to create and distribute photos, gossip, events and the other little flakes of experience that are taken for news by those that care deeply about them. So, if we want to tell and share our stories, we should learn to use and master the devices more and more people are using to consume and create it.

ryerson.pngSecond, if you want to explore community-level hyper-local journalism, smartphones are a natural tool for a diffuse, mobile news team.

Third, smartphones are powerful multimedia tools capable of capturing high quality audio and video, but they are also light, unobtrusive and non-threatening for folks not used to media attention.

Fourth, these devices are built for social networks, online sharing and diffuse content creation. If you want to teach the journalistic application of these things, they're an ideal ally.

Finally, they help us model the future. These devices will only get faster, smarter and more capable (and probably thinner). Networks will get faster and ubiquitous. Devices like tablets and smartphones will be our go-to devices for consuming news. We should help our students get used to it.

There's one other aspect of this experiment I should mention. The students post final stories to OpenFile, but also collectively contribute notes on their progress and process to our shared blog, Rye Here, Rye Now, which is built on the Posterous microblogging platform. Students contribute text, video, photos or photo slideshows from their phones just by emailing them to Posterous.

That combination gives students an on-the-ground tool for news capture and a near-instant place to post it. We want to make mobile news coverage gestural. We'll let you know how that turns out.

Wayne MacPhail began in the industry as a magazine photographer, feature writer and editor. In 1983, he moved to the Hamilton Spectator where was a health, science and social services columnist, feature writer and editor. In 1991, he founded Southam InfoLab, a research and development lab looking into future information products for this Canadian national newspaper chain. After leaving Southam, he developed online content for most Canadian online networks. He now heads up w8nc inc., helping non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, charitable organizations and associations develop and implement technology-based, marketing driven communications strategies. He also teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University.

news21 small.jpg

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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June 03 2010

17:02

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

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

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

What I Know

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

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

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

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

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