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June 15 2011

21:32

Speed journalism: some stories need just a tweet, but some ...

The Daily :: "... real thought", writes Trevor Butterworth, The Daily, and continues to ask: "Would you prefer to read this column as a string of tweets?" - After a New York Times reporter forgot his pen and tweeted a report about tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., someone might think that the future of storytelling had arrived, and that it came in increments. Is it Twitter speech or is it writing, asked the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard? Are articles now luxuries, wondered Internet guru Jeff Jarvis? Would the State Department turn Twitter into a propaganda tool, worried Read Write Web?

Speed journalism - continue to read Trevor Butterworth, www.thedaily.com

May 05 2011

18:27

Is Non-Profit Journalism A Safeguard for Press Freedom?

wpfd2011logo200.jpg

WASHINGTON, DC -- Since May 3, 1991, World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated worldwide annually to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect it. Marking the 10th anniversary last Tuesday, an international conference was organized in Washington, DC, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the U.S. State Department to debate the "new frontiers" of the media. You can see the entire agenda here.

Online freedom and the changing media landscape had pride of place and I was given the opportunity to debate online censorship on May 2 as well as discuss the actual situation between "traditional" and "new media," as a representative of Reporters Without Borders. (Note that Reporters Without Borders also has a special World Day Against Cyber-Censorship focused entirely on online expression.)

In countries where online platforms are tightly controlled -- but also are some of the rare places to get uncensored information -- the lines between traditional and new media is very vague. It's possible that non-profit journalism websites (or sites where the news isn't a profit center) might help safeguard press freedom.

Reports from Malaysia, France

In Malaysia, Premesh Chandran had to adapt to the fact that advertisers were staying away because the info published on Malaysiakini.com was not fitting in with the control imposed on media by the government. Malaysia is ranked 141st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Without ads, Malaysiakini began to install a pay wall for its English version. The website thought it might take a non-profit business model but according to Chandran, "It became obvious that [they] had to become more professional." The subscription allows the core of an audience to support the news activities of the website. But Chandran acknowledges that "readers don't pay."

In France, OWNI.fr depends on the expertise of reporters and licensed content for their free website, but make money by sell journalism services to online publishers. (You can read more about OWNI in this story by Mark Glaser on MediaShift.)

"In terms of client acquisition, this is very helpful," according to OWNI's director of data journalism Nicholas Kayser-Bril. OWNI worked with WikiLeaks on a non-profit basis and organized the crowdsourcing for documents that were released. It is now an expertise that they can sell to other organizations. For this website, the content and features are a non-profit activity, because the income is generated by services instead. "This a way of adapting journalism to the technologies," said Kayser-Bril.

Open Source Software at AllAfrica.com

Convinced that mobile phones were making a huge impact on the way media are operating in Africa, Amadou Mahtar Ba, co-founder of AllAfrica.com, insisted that "traditional media need to adapt to technology. Many media organization are losing relevance and there is a fundamental growth of mobile phones."

"Media owners and operators need guidelines and principles, as journalists have theirs," Ba said.

AllAfrica.com is a news content publisher and relies on the development of systems based on free and open source software, such as XML::Comma, released under the GNU General Public License. It has become the entry point to a global, Africa-interested audience, as well as a pioneering set of technologies. Here again, journalism is a non-profit activity.

newseum feeds.jpg

According to Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, there is a role for non-profit journalism to take over the economic failures of the "traditional" media by taking the risks the latter could not afford anymore.

"We are going to a new territory based on a technological revolution," he said. "We need experimentation and a willingness to take risks almost every day to discover these new ways," said Tofel, when asked about the training journalists should receive to handle these different ways of making the news.

Press freedom is not only about journalists being killed and harassed and newspapers being forced to close by oppressive governments. It is also about guaranteeing independence -- independence from advertisers is no less complicated than independence from donors. At the panel discussion, one of the solutions was making money from readers and services. These publications do bring in money and are trying to get their readers to adapt to new technologies. Non-profit journalism, in the sense of news not being the profitable activity, is a way of helping to guarantee more editorial independence. This is one more possible safeguard for press freedom.

Photo of the Newseum by Clothilde le Coz

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

March 15 2010

14:30

Global opinions, visualized: The State Department’s “Opinion Space”

How much do you agree with the following questions?

1. The most urgent security threat to the United States is a terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon.
2. Continuous diplomatic efforts are required to produce lasting, sustainable peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
3. Climate change poses a threat to political stability around the world.
4. Investing to increase food production in other countries will ultimately benefit me and my family in the future.
5. The best way to advance a country’s economic development is to empower its women.

We’re not asking; the State Department is. If you go to State.gov and answer the questions (via a ’strongly agree’ to ’strongly disagree’ slider), you’ll see your answers plotted as a single dot on a broad constellation of lighted, white orbs — some static, some pulsing. You’ll see where your opinions fall next to the opinions of others who have answered the questions…people, ostensibly, from around the world.

Welcome to Opinion Space, the State Department’s opinion-mapping tool — a collaboration with Berkeley’s Center for New Media — that launches, officially, this morning. The site describes itself as a “discussion forum designed to engage participants from around the world”; and, fittingly enough, the map it produces — in which every participant represents a point of view — is based more on geometry than geography: Its layout is constantly in flux, with each respondent plotted according to the responses of others. So if you find your own dot on the far right side of the constellation…no need to subscribe to The National Review just yet: The point is to transcend traditional liberal/conservative dichotomies. As the site puts it: “Opinion Space is designed to move beyond the usual left-right linear spectrum to display ‘constellations’ of opinions.”

New ways of generating input

That display, however, is only half the goal. The other half is more open feedback via a comment box asking for users’ responses to a specified question. (The inaugural query: “If you met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what issue would you tell her about, why is it important to you, and what specific suggestions do you have for addressing it?”) The site asks its users to rate each others’ comments, Digg-style, with the hope that the most insightful contributions will rise to the top. After Opinion Space has been up and running for a month, its coordinators plan to cull the hundred highest-rated recommendations and present them to Secretary Clinton and her staff.

The site’s immediate aim, says Ken Goldberg, a new media professor at Berkeley and the Center for New Media’s director, is to “find some good ideas that the State Department can act on” — diplomacy meets the wisdom of crowds. But it’s the approaches underscoring the project that may prove more meaningful. One of those is to find new ways to leverage the Web’s connective power to overcome the dilatory effects of Web-enabled scourges like cyber-polarization — and to re-imagine opinion itself as something that can be shared and even quantified. There’s information overload; but there’s also opinion overload. Too often, Goldberg told me, we “simplify things down to extremes where your position gets reduced down to ‘for’ or ‘against’” — to the extent that nuances, the atomic units of opinion, get lost. “It’s not that people are stupid,” Goldberg says, “it’s just that they’re overwhelmed.”

Opinion visualization suggests the same benefits that data visualization does: comprehensiveness, comprehension. And, yes, complexity. Simply to see “the sheer idea of diversity out there, on one plane,” can be eye-opening. And not just visually. “If you find someone far away from you who you find insightful, that means a lot,” Goldberg says. In rating comments, users are asked to separate agreement-with-argument from validity-of-comment: “How much do you agree with this comment?” is the first question the site asks in its feedback request; “How insightful is this comment?” is the second. That disaggregation — sympathy on the one hand, validity on the other — is a core premise of Opinion Space. As Katie Dowd, the State Department’s director of new media, put it to me: “Talking over the coffee table, we can agree to disagree but ultimately learn from one another.” Opinion Space, she says, is a test of whether that same tolerance can be leveraged online.

Mapping opinion in multiple dimensions

The project has its roots in Eigentaste, the eigenvector-based collaborative filtering algorithm that Goldberg and his colleagues developed in 1998. Back then, they applied the algorithm to Donation Dashboard, a tool that provided users with customized portfolios of charities based on their ratings of particular non-profits. They started thinking about how the algorithm could be used not just for recommendations, but for visualization — to map a range of opinions.

One challenge for such a map that lives on a State Department web page: figuring out which opinions to solicit in the first place. “It’s very delicate, as you can imagine,” Goldberg points out, “because there are so many issues, and protocol is everything — if you just phrase it wrong, you can create an incident.” At the same time, range is required, since “it works best when there’s a real diversity of opinions.” The final five questions were selected, Dowd notes, with the goal of “taking a breadth of issues” — and with the Department’s primary foreign policy objectives in mind.

Those questions will remain the same for the foreseeable future — “we really want to see how we keep people coming back,” Dowd says, and static questions make for a nice control factor in the Opinion Space experiment — but the open-ended discussion question will change every three to four weeks, meaning that the tool will test two different forms of user engagement over time. “Test” being the key word. As TechPresident’s Nancy Scola put it, “At this point, Opinion Space looks very much proof-of-concept. But what’s striking is that it seems a lot more like something that you expect coming out of the MIT Media Lab than the United States State Department. It’s a redefinition — or, really, one more tweak in a continuing redefinition — of the mission and means of U.S. development and diplomacy, and it’s been happening under the purview of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a pretty quick pace.”

At this point, indeed, it’s hard to know whether Opinion Space will redefine diplomacy or turn out to be another of Politics 2.0’s bright, shiny things. But the ideas anchoring the experiment are sound, and the goal inspiring it — comprehension, not just for world citizens, but for the people attempting to quantify their viewpoints — is a worthy one. “We really like the potential for this to scale,” Dowd says. For the State Department, the aim is “to reach a bigger audience and increase our transparency.” But opinion-mapping is a tool with applications that could extend far beyond statecraft. Through the project, “we’re hoping that we’ll understand these kinds of dialogues better,” Goldberg says — “and that we’ll be able to develop some new tools from them.”

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