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August 03 2011

06:55

7 books that journalists working online should read?

Image by B_Zedan

While it’s one thing to understand interactive storytelling, community management, or the history of online journalism, the changes that are affecting journalism are wider than the industry itself. So although I’ve written previously on essential books about online journalism, I wanted to also compile a list of books which I think are essential for those wanting to gain an understanding of wider dynamics affecting the media industries and, by extension, journalism.

These are books that provide historical context to the hysteria surrounding technologies; that give an insight into the cultural movements changing society; that explore key philosophical issues such as privacy; or that explore the commercial dynamics driving change.

But they’re just my choices – please add your own.

1. The Master Switch – Tim Wu

The best mainstream history of media technologies I’ve certainly read (although Winston’s ‘Media, Technology and Society‘ is very good too, if a more academic read). Wu tells the story of how radio, film, television and other media technologies went through a consistent path from ‘democratised technologies’ to media monopolies.

It’s a salutary tale for those who think the internet is different. If it is, then it will need to avoid the mistakes made by regulators, legislators and inventors. And those who don’t learn from history…

2. The Information – James Gleick

An astonishing masterwork that begins with why African talking drums were so wordy (it’s all about redundancy), takes in genetics, code-breaking and quantum physics, and in the process draw some very useful lessons about the changing nature of communication and information that help you take a step back from our own assumptions.

3. The Pirate’s Dilemma – Matt Mason

This covers the histories that lie behind the rise of mashups, guerilla marketing, and other cultural movements. A valuable lesson on where to look for change, and how that movements themselves change as different groups adopt their ideas. The book is available as a free download at http://thepiratesdilemma.com/, as is Lawrence Lessig’s book exploring similar themes, Free Culture.

4. The Wealth of Networks – Yochai Benkler

Widely recognised as the most comprehensive book on network dynamics. Given that these are so integral to everything that takes place online, that makes this a pretty vital book. And this is not just about online networks: the book draws on research into real world networks and communities and where they succeed and fail – vital foundations for any online project.

5. The Spy in the Coffee Machine – O’Hara & Shadbolt

A compact exploration of privacy in the networked age, and how digital technologies are impacting on that. Particularly useful are the passages that explore different cultures’ attitudes to privacy, and the case studies that help the reader explore the ethical issues raised by recent developments and technological possibilities.

6. Search Engine Society – Alexander Halavais

Another compact book, this explores research around how people use search engines, including some types of behaviour that you would not otherwise think about, such as the importance of re-finding, and different types of search literacy. Useful in understanding how people navigate the virtual world.

7. Creative Disruption – Simon Waldman

Although there are many books exploring the successes of new digital businesses, Simon Waldman’s book attempts something much more difficult: looking at how established businesses have tried to adapt to survive in the midst of great change. The book is very well written and does a particularly good job of explaining the various elements that form the basis of any business’s competitive advantage; how the internet changes those; and methods that have been used to respond. It’s a welcome reminder that, like any business, publishing is not just about content, but advertising, distribution, manufacturing and numerous other factors too.

A good book on the legal or political history would be particularly welcome to add to the list – or just something very good that I’ve never heard of. What books would you add?

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February 23 2011

11:31

Dan Gillmor nudges media chicks from their shells with his new book, "Mediactive"

Dan Gillmor is such a smooth writer and so media savvy that we readers hardly realize he is hurling a challenge at all of us, from average citizens to professionals, in his new book, Mediactive, which can be purchased at store and online outlets or can be downloaded at http://mediactive.com.

Gillmor identified the phenomenon of "consumer as creator" in his first book, We The People, published in 2004. His latest book is a practical, common-sense 2.0 version, assuming we no longer are receptacles of information but active participants in the process, who are called on to break out of our "comfort zone" like a chick cracking open its shell.

A longtime high-tech newsaper columnist now blogging, teaching and directing a media center at Arizona State University, Gillmor makes a positive case for being mediactive (his word), then tells you how and why. Journalists use a technique called a "nut graf", a single paragraph that sums up the essence of an article. You don't have to wait long with Gillmor. On Page 3 he writes:

Information overflow requires us to take an active approach to media, in part to manage the flow pouring over us each day, but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we see. Being passive receivers of news and information, our custom through the late 20th Century era of mass media, isn't adequate in the new century's Digital Age mediasphere, where information comes at us from almost everywhere, and from almost anyone.

With that gauntlet thrown down, Gillmor explains the positive side ten pages later: "Above all, hands-on mediactivity is satisfying, often fun. By being mediactive, you'll get used to gauging the reliability of what you see, pushing deeper into various topics and following the many threads of arguments to reach your own conclusions — not on everything, of course, but on the issues that you care about the most. And when you've made that process part of your life, you'll have trouble waiting for the next break in your day so you can get back to the satisfaction that it brings."

The aspect of this book that is most compelling to me concerns the phrase, "gauging the reliability". Gillmor reminded me of my father (although I am old enough to be Dan's), who had a stern, curt answer anytime I asked him the meaning of a word or an issue: "Look it up," he would say. Gillmor makes the case that the new consumer/creators are obliged to be skeptical about the information they absorb and take steps to verify it. He devotes a chapter to the principles of media consumption — often called "media literacy" — that include use of due diligence, exercising judgment, opening your mind, continually asking questions and learning media techniques.

He backs up these principles with the use of solid, revealing examples and insightful injection of nuances that reflect his experience grappling with these issues in his own media journey. In some cases he doesn't mince words, slamming home the axiom that "early news is so frequently wrong" that a heavy dose of skepticism is called for. Gillmor's associate, Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center, suggests that it isn't just the early reporting that often is in error but also the accepting mindset of many news consumers in early stages of fast-moving, developing stories. Gillmor says that mindset must change.

Somehow Gillmor does an exhaustive job of outlining how to be media savvy in only 180 pages. He deliberately omits an index, given that a computer search can easily be done on the text at http://mediactive.com. But that means booting up, going to the site, calling up the book and searching. An index of a few pages at the end of the book would seem to be an easily achieved reader service.

Shortly after reading the book, I had an email exchange with a friend who sent me the following: "We have a whole generation or two that has gone over to cell phones, tweeting, and facebook, which means they don't have the interest or attention span for anything but headlines." I was Gillmor-skeptical.

The friend then added (and you could almost see him smiling) that he realized he should be accepting of this new trend, because at the local pool hall he overheard someone say that, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

That sent me to Wikipedia (or was it Google?) to check my memory that the author of that line was poet Robert Graves. O no, It was poet Thomas Gray. I was skeptical of myself, and it paid off. Hey, I'm a mediactivist!

(Jack Driscoll is author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism and is an adviser for the Center For the Future of Civic Media.)

October 21 2010

07:58

Review: Yahoo! Pipes tutorial ebook

Pipes Tutorial ebook

I’ve been writing about Yahoo! Pipes for some time, and am consistently surprised that there aren’t more books on the tool. Pipes Tutorial – an ebook currently priced at $14.95 – is clearly aiming to address that gap.

The book has a simple structure: it is, in a nutshell, a tour around the various ‘modules’ that you combine to make a pipe.

Some of these will pull information from elsewhere – RSS feeds, CSV spreadsheets, Flickr, Google Base, Yahoo! Local and Yahoo! Search, or entire webpages.

Some allow the user to input something themselves – for example, a search phrase, or a number to limit the type of results given.

And others do things with all the above – combining them, splitting them, filtering, converting, translating, counting, truncating, and so on.

When combined, this makes for some powerful possibilities – unfortunately, its one-dimensional structure means that this book doesn’t show enough of them.

Modules in isolation

While the book offers a good introduction into the functionality of the various parts of Yahoo! Pipes, it rarely demonstrates how those can be combined. Typically, tutorial books will take you through a project that utilises the power of the tools covered, but Pipes Tutorial lacks this vital element. Sometimes modules will be combined in the book but this is mainly done because that is the only way to show how a single module works, rather than for any broader pedagogical objective.

At other times a module is explained in isolation and it is not explained how the results might actually be used. The Fetch Page module, for example – which is extremely useful for scraping content from a webpage – is explained without reference to how to publish the results, only a passing mention that the reader will have to use ‘other modules’ to assign data to types, and that Regex will be needed to clean it up.

Regex itself – possibly one of the most useful parts of Yahoo! Pipes – is cursorily tackled, and the reader pointed to resources elsewhere. The same applies to YQL – the language that allows you to interrogate data sources. Likewise, the Web Service module which allows you to connect with an API, isn’t illustrated with any practical guidance on how to use it.

The book makes no mention of the ability to clone pipes published by others on Yahoo! Pipes, and misses a big opportunity to provide links to working pipes that the user can clone and play with themselves – or indeed any online support that I can see other than a blog that currently has 2 instructional posts.

Despite all the above omissions, the lack of similar books mean this is still a useful resource for aspiring data journalists. It provides an insight into the possibilities of Pipes, even if it doesn’t quite take you through how to exploit those.

PS: If you’ve read any other books on Yahoo! Pipes (including this one) let me know whether they’re any use.

April 08 2010

13:58

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

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