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August 15 2012

11:12

News sites should be Islands in the stream

Islands in the stream
That is what we are
No one in-between
How can we be wrong

Dolly Parton! Well, actually the BeeGees (well if we are being really pedantic Hemingway). What the hell is that about Andy!

Well, Mary Hammilton (a must follow @newsmary on twitter) highlighted a post by entrepreneur, writer and geek living imploring us to stop publishing webpages and start publishing streams:

Start moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices. Insert your advertising into those streams using the same formats and considerations that you use for your own content. Trust your readers to know how to scroll down and skim across a simple stream, since that’s what they’re already doing all day on the web. Give them the chance to customize those streams to include (or exclude!) just the content they want.

I found it a little bit of a mish-mash really. In principle, lots to agree with but the practice was less clear. It makes sense if you’re in to developing the ‘native clients’ but harder to quantify if your’e a content creator.

More interesting was the twitter discussion it generated between Mary and her Guardian colleague Jonathan Haynes (the equally essential @jonathanhaynes) which I hitched my wagon to.  Haynes didn’t agree with the premise of the post and that generated an intersting discussion.

I’ve created a storyfy below but it got me thinking about some general points which are a little ‘devils advocate’:

  • What is this stream anyway – is it the capacity to filter  or is the depth and breadth of content you have to filter. I would say it’s the latter. Facebook and Twitter are streams because of the sheer weight of numbers and diversity of users.
  • Why be the stream when you can be part of it – Part of what Anil posted about was making stuff available to use in streams. I can’t disagree with that but it strays in to the idea of feeding the content ecosystem that, in blunt terms, is often played as parasitic. For all the advocacy of allowing user control, the one thing news orgs are still loathed to do is move people outside the site. Is looking at new ways to recreate the stream experience within a site simply a way of admitting that you aren’t really part of the stream?
  • Are you confusing your consumption habits with your users – whilst the stream might be useful for information pros like journos is it really what consumers want for their news. The stream suits the rolling nature of journalism. Not in the broadcast sense, just in the sense of ‘whats new’. Do your audience consume like you do?
  • Are you removing the value proposition of a journalist? – by putting the control of the stream in the hands of the user are you doing yourself out of a job. I know what the reply to that will be: “No, because the content of the stream will be done by us and  we will curate the stream”. Well in that sense it’s not a stream is it. It’s a list of what you already do. Where’s that serendipity or the compulsion to give people what they need (to live,thrive and survive) rather than what they want?
  • Confusing presentation with creation - That last point suggests a broader one. You can’t simply repackage content to simply ride the wave when your core business different. It’s like calling a column a blog – we hate that don’t we. So why call a slightly different way of presenting the chronology of content a stream?

That’s before we have even got to the resource issue. News orgs can’t handle the social media flow as it is.

So, Islands in the stream?  Well, thinking about the points above, especially the first one, what’s wrong with being something different. What’s wrong with being a page is world of updates.  What’s wrong with being a place where people can step out of the stream and stay a while to dry off and get a bit of orientation.

[View the story "What should news sites be - pages or streams" on Storify]

What should news sites be – pages or streams

Entrepreneur, writer and geek Anil Dash has posted a request that people stop publishing pages and start creating streams.

Storified by Andy Dickinson · Wed, Aug 15 2012 04:17:12

Stop Publishing Web PagesMost users on the web spend most of their time in apps. The most popular of those apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Tumblr and others,…
Start moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices. Insert your advertising into those streams using the same formats and considerations that you use for your own content. Trust your readers to know how to scroll down and skim across a simple stream, since that’s what they’re already doing all day on the web. Give them the chance to customize those streams to include (or exclude!) just the content they want.
An interesting post which generated some interesting discussion when Guardian Journo Mary Hamilton posted it to twitter. 
@newsmary I *hate* that piece. Am I the only person left who likes the web, and webpages, and tolerates apps whilst sincerely hating them?Greg Callus
@Greg_Callus No, I don’t think you are. But I do think there’s room for other presentations as well as single static URL.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary There is, I just hate the Appify movement & ‘streams’. And there’s a reason Guardian Network Front isn’t RSS feed of our content.Greg Callus
@newsmary Where’s the evidence readers ‘like’ streams & apps? Rather than utility sacrificed for convenience b/c that’s what mobile could doGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus Where’s the evidence they don’t? Don’t think people are using Facebook/Tumblr etc while disliking the approach that much.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary Drop/plateau in Facebook numbers since move from Profile to Timeline? Not universal but thnk his claim they ‘like streams’ not metGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus But significant rise since the introduction of the news feed, which is a stream.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary Touche! Thing is I love Twitter as a stream. Where chronological key, it works (like comments). Where content needs hierarchy, notGreg Callus
@Greg_Callus Yeah, there are def some big issues with streams wrt hierarchy – but also with pages too. It’s not a solved problem.Mary Hamilton
It wasn’t the only chat. Mary’s tweet had already attracted the attention of her Guardian colleague Jonathan Haynes who took issue with the basic premise.
@newsmary no! Much more important is: Stop thinking you’re the medium when you’re the content provider!Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Different issues, surely? You can be a content provider with a stream.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary what’s a stream Mary, what’s a stream? it’s a load of contentJonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Compared to a flat page, it’s a different way of organising that content. That’s not a difficult distinction…Mary Hamilton
@newsmary it’s the same content! *head desk*Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes And the point of the piece I linked is that news orgs should present it differently. Struggling to see your point.Mary Hamilton
@JonathanHaynes Compared to a flat page, it’s a different way of organising that content. That’s not a difficult distinction…Mary Hamilton
@newsmary present it how? it’s presented in every way alreadyJonathan Haynes
@alexhern @newsmary *head desk*Jonathan Haynes
I wondered whether, given the content hungry nature of the stream if media orgs had the resource or know-how to take Dash’s advice.
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes also the issue here that stream implies a constant flow. A mechanism of displaying constantly changing content.Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes not sure that most orgs can promise that without USB and sm. something most have no talent or resource for.Andy Dickinson
@digidickinson @newsmary indeedJonathan Haynes
Mary didn’t think that was the issue. It was more about what you did with what you had and how people used it.
@digidickinson @JonathanHaynes Not certain that’s true – using a single blog as the example. More talking about customisation & user flow?Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @digidickinson how does a blog show importance? it’s just a stream.Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes Sticky posts, design highlights. Not a new problem.Mary Hamilton
But that still didn’t answer the core question for me – where does the content needed to create a stream come from?
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary that’s about relevance- is timeliness relevance or curation. Can see a case for chronology but still needs ‘stuff’Andy Dickinson
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary stuff that is new to appear ‘chronologically’Andy Dickinson
Jonathan was still struggling with the idea of the stream
@newsmary @digidickinson then how is that a stream?Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson How is a blog a stream if it has sticky posts? *headdesk*Mary Hamilton
I could kind of see Jonathan’s point.
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes slightly different issue there. One to watch as you are talking about subverting (damming it with sticky posts)Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes that changes the consistency of presentation for publishers sake, without the users permission. Breaks the premiseAndy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes like twitter being able to keep one tweet at top of your feed when it suitedAndy Dickinson
But Dan Bentley pointed out that there are a number of sites that seem to do ‘the stream’ well. 
@digidickinson @newsmary @jonathanhaynes you can stream content and still tell people what’s important http://itv.co/NDpTxdDaniel Bentley
Latest News – ITV NewsTia accused faces Old Bailey No application for Hazell bail by Jon Clements – Crime Correspondent Lord Carlile QC (representing Stuart Ha…
@DJBentley @digidickinson @JonathanHaynes Good example, that. Cheers.Mary Hamilton
But sites like ITV rely heavily on UGC and that’s a big issue. It still comes down to where you get the content from and if the org is resourced to do that.
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes true but the itv example better illustrates the point I made about where the content comes fromAndy Dickinson
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes it’s curating content but it’s still content and it has to come from somewhere at regular intervals.Andy Dickinson
@DJBentley @newsmary @jonathanhaynes that’s not an impossibility but it is a core challenge for orgs – always has been online esp. with smAndy Dickinson
@JonathanHaynes @djbentley @newsmary think that highlights core issue here-presentation separate to mechanism to create content to presentAndy Dickinson
Another example 
@DJBentley @digidickinson @newsmary @jonathanhaynes Breaking News does similar with their verticals (sorry to butt in) http://breakingnews.com/TomMcArthur
Breaking news, latest news, and current events – breakingnews.comThe latest breaking news around the world from hundreds of sources, all in one place.
@TomMcArthur I like @breakingnews style for streams a lot – suits it perfectly.Mary Hamilton
But Jonathan is not a fan of the ITV approach.
@digidickinson @DJBentley @newsmary ITV site is a car crash though. and how a minority want news presented isn’t necessarily representativeJonathan Haynes
And has an example of his own to highlight that the page is not quite dead…
@digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary @DJBentley most successful UK newspaper website is Mail Online. sticks rigidly to articles.Jonathan Haynes
Home | Mail OnlineMailOnline – all the latest news, sport, showbiz, science and health stories from around the world from the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday…
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary is the Mail Online a good news source?Daniel Bentley
Another example pops up later on as an aside to the conversations
The Reddit Editundefined
@newsmary @TomMcArthur The news site of the future looks a lot more like that or http://bit.ly/NDsuHw than 240 hyperlinks and 60 picturesDaniel Bentley
@DJBentley @TomMcArthur Yes, I agree.Mary Hamilton
and Mary takes the chance to voice her view of the term newspaper site.
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @DJBentley “Newspaper website” is an oxymoron that cannot die quickly enough for my liking.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley agree with sentiment but sadly it is still a very apt description of the general process and mentalityAndy Dickinson
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley touché. sorry, news site.Jonathan Haynes
In the continuing conversations Jonathan is concerned that this might be a bit of the thrill of the new…
@DJBentley @digidickinson @TomMcArthur @newsmary consumption and creation are different. and early adopters are not the norm.Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @DJBentley @digidickinson Thing is, stream consumption isn’t a minority or early adopter thing any more.Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley true but danger is going for mode of presentation without considering the mechanics.Andy Dickinson
@newsmary @jonathanhaynes @djbentley number of individuals needed to make a stream vs number needed to present it.Andy Dickinson
So Jonathan asks about a concrete example.
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley so how would that look for "the Guardian" streams works as multiple source and crows editingJonathan Haynes
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley crowd, not crows. what I get from Twitter I want, but I also want websites to show me hierarchy.Jonathan Haynes
@newsmary @digidickinson @DJBentley and content is discrete elements. should be available in all forms but need to be ‘page’ to do soJonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @digidickinson @DJBentley Let me subscribe to tags; filter my stream on my own interest & curated importance?Mary Hamilton
@newsmary @DJBentley @digidickinson you want to subscribe to tags?! might as well have an RSS feed! ;)Jonathan Haynes
Dan highlighted a problem which, I guess, he would see the stream as helping to solve.
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson I don’t feel current news site frontpages do a particularly good job at hierarchy. Too much stuff.Daniel Bentley
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson Google News or the new digg http://bit.ly/NDuNuc do a better job and that’s mostly algorithm.Daniel Bentley
Google News- As the courtroom emptied after Barry Bonds’ obstruction-of-justice conviction Wednesday afternoon, the slugger stood off to one side, h…
DiggThe best news, videos and pictures on the web as voted on by the Digg community. Breaking news on Technology, Politics, Entertainment, an…
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson too much stuff? and yet you want an endless stream??Jonathan Haynes
But for Dan the stream has a purpose 
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson the stream tells me what’s new, the traditional frontpage doesn’t know what it’s doing.Daniel Bentley
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson Am I what’s new? Am I what’s important? Am I everything that has been written in the last 24hrs?Daniel Bentley
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson no, you’re the carefully edited combination of all of the below!Jonathan Haynes
@JonathanHaynes @newsmary @digidickinson carefully edited? How is 240 links on Guardian and 797 (!) on Mail Online carefully edited?Daniel Bentley
@DJBentley @newsmary @digidickinson *sigh*Jonathan Haynes
Frustrating as it may be it’s a real problem and which Mary sums up with
@DJBentley @JonathanHaynes @digidickinson Part of problem with hierarchy on fronts is trying to be all things to all visitors.Mary Hamilton
But, to be honest, I can’t see how the stream would be any better other than to put the responsibility back on to the user. But I’ve more to add in a blog post….
News sites should be Islands in the stream | andydickinson.netIslands in the stream That is what we are No one in-between How can we be wrong Dolly Parton! Well, actually the BeeGees (well if we are …

 

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September 15 2011

09:44

Daily mail student media awards?

Yeah, wouldn’t happen. But should it?

The always interesting Wannabehacks posted yesterday stating that The industry isn’t doing enough to support student journalists. The post really should have been titled The Guardian isn’t doing enough to support student journalists as it takes a pop at the frankly risible prize the Guardian is offering for its Guardian student media award:

[T]he quality of prizes has diminished year on year: “Seven weeks of placement with expenses paid (offered 2003-2006) is a good way to spend the summer. Two weeks of self-funded work experience is an insult to supposedly the best student journalists in Britain.”

It’s a fair point. Just how good you have to be to actually be paid to work at the Guardian?

Maybe we are being unfair to the Guardian though. Why do they need to carry this stuff? I know plenty of students who don’t want to work for the Guardian. So why don’t more papers step up? If it’s about spotting talent then shouldn’t every media org have a media award?

Truth is there is a bit of black hole out there when it comes to awards. Aspiring journos could be forgiven for thinking that there is very little on offer between that letter writing competition the local paper runs for schoolkids and the Guardian awards. There are actually quite a few – the NUS student awards for example. But none with the direct association of the Guardian awards.

But maybe it’s not about the award. The wannabe hacks post (and the letter it references) suggests that there is more a problem of expectation here.

The Guardian is a very attractive proposition to many aspiring journos. In a lot of respects it plays on that strength; it presents itself as a like the paper where things are happening. But there is a danger that things like competitions exploit that aspiration and begin to suggest a slightly dysfunctional relationship - aspiring journos trying their best to please the indifferent and aloof object of their affection.

Show them the money.

This isn’t just a print problem. The truth is the industry has a bit of problem of putting its money where it’s mouth is when it comes to student journos.

As an academic I see more offers of valuable experience than paid opportunities in my inbox. They tend to coincide with large events where industry doesn’t have the manpower to match their plans for coverage. In that sense there is no secret here, the industry is living beyond its means and it’s increasingly relying on low and no paid input to keep newsrooms running. But student journo’s bear the brunt of that. Yes, they get experience, but not much else.

No return on investment

Of course the flip-side to that argument is that many of those who enter the competitions would happily benefit from the association but don’t put back in. I wonder how many people who enter the Guardian student media awards have regularly bought the paper rather than accessing the (free) website?  You could argue the same when talking about work experience. How many students actually buy the product they aspire to work on?

But the reality is that, regardless of how much is put in, if you court an audience, you have to live up to their expectations – unreasonable or otherwise.

This is happening at a time when those same newsrooms are reporting on the commercial realities of education and how students need to demand value from their investment. As someone trying to respond to those expectations, perhaps I can offer some advice.  Perhaps the industry need to reflect on their advice to prospective students the next time they reach out or connect with student journalists.  Just how much are you expecting them to invest in your newsroom and what’s the return?

 

September 14 2011

07:51

Newspaper video: Time to reconsider your video strategy?

A few issues have popped up in my reading round the web that make me think that if online video has fallen off your agenda then it may be worth thinking again. A few things make me think that.

Engagement with HTML5 by publishers means that the idea of cross platform (web, tablet etc) video becomes a reality. The recent announcement by FT that they were moving away from the apple fold to deliver their apps from a web base shows a certain maturity in that area. It may not be universal but those publishers who engaged with apps with half an eye to html5 and associated tech are starting to see the benefit. They also have an exit route from Apple’s walled garden.

The announcement that the WSJ is upping it’s online video would, on the surface, seem to be a simple illustration of the point. But theres a bit more to it:

The Journal has expanded its video content in spite of its contract with CNBC, the leading business news network on television, and in spite of the fact that The Journal’s parent has its own business network, Fox Business.  The CNBC contract expires in about 15 months, but already Journal reporters tend to appear more often on Fox than on CNBC.

The shifting approaches of print in particular to the challenge of keeping your voice in a spreading market, often rests on the idea of impartiality. An alignment to Fox is as blunt a move to prove the point as you can get. But if you want to establish a ‘voice’ then video can be a key part of that changing ‘brand’.

Newsless broadcast

But there is also a shift on the other side of that relationship. There is a very clear by broadcasters towards product and not a service focus. That will leave a gap that print will have to backfill. Yes there is a big investment in online delivery services but the commercial driver is very much a product proposition. Most of the large broadcasters are seeing a real benefit in exclusive and value-added programming online. The ‘watch again’ of the iplayer-like channels, the webisodes and web exclusive episodes are all examples of how broadcast has ‘finally’ found its feet online.

I think that news is low on the agenda in a broadcasters strategy. For broadcasters, news is very much a service. It’s often something they have to do as a requirement to a license or a sop to public service. It’s easier to advertise around the x-factor than it is news at ten and that’s where the money will go. Non-broadcast providers will pay the price for that.

If you buy in your video from a third party, expect the prices to go up and the quality, range and relevance to go down. 

LocalTV

Here in the UK, we also have the looming Spector of localTV. There is obviously a new market to explore there. I’m skeptical about the range, depth and return that market will have for journalism but, hey, it never hurts to consider it.

So video gives you a good opportunity to extend your identity and cut free those ties with an increasingly newsless broadcast sector. Just invest a little in understanding the technology underlying the new platforms.In the long run it might be a better investment than simply paying to be on those platforms.

 

July 15 2011

10:23

Community journalism or “Local nosey parkers with mobile phones “

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

What’s that Andy?

It’s me banging my head against the desk…

There’s a story about the Beskpoke project on Hold the front page. I was interested in it as (full disclosure) my Uni is one of the partners in the project. Inevitably I got sucked in to the comments.

But just to put things in to context:

The project has been established to look at the issue of digital and social exclusion in the Fishwick and Callon areas of Preston.

Broadly speaking, the project has two parts. The first is for us to set up a team of community/citizen journalists who will report on the issues that are important to them and to their local community.

The second part of the project is centred on innovative design. Partner universities (Dundee, Falmouth, Newcastle, Surrey, and UCLan) will use the news stories, as well as other information gathered during the lifespan of the project, to design digital technologies that can meet the needs of the area. This collaboration between emotive, technological and functional design with hyper-local journalism is a ground-breaking exercise and, as far as we’re aware, has never been tried before.

Hold the Front page focus on the journalism aspect

The group of citizen journalists were trained as part of a project called Bespoke, a scheme that sees members of the public in Preston provided with flip cameras, mobile phones and journalism training in order to generate their own news stories.

One that stood out began:

Years of training, university degrees, shorthand classes ad infinitum.

And the reward? Local nosey parkers with mobile phones are netting page leads.

Given the usual anti-degree tone that pervades it was nice to see degrees get a mention.

Traffic Chaos continues:

So-called citizen journalism should not extend beyond a phone call or submission of on-the-spot footage to the nearest newsroom.

There’s really no such thing as citizen journalism outside of the egotistical “blogosphere”, populated by keyboard warriors and bigots who feel they can do a better job than anybody else at everything – especially the news.

Hmm. I think they actually mean that the term Cit-j has little or no meaning outside a limited circle of egotistical journalists. But everyone is allowed a view (except it seems local nosey-parkers!)

You wouldn’t call a citizen-MD would you?

Update: Jon Walker tweeted to suggest that the phrase MD related to managing director, not Medical doctor.

@digidickinson It's a small issue but I'm pretty sure that moaning hack meant managing directors, not doctors
@jonwalker121
Jonathan Walker

My response is Doh!

Of course you can’t mention Cit-j without a hackneyed and inappropriate comparison. Hacked off duly obliges

 

Can’t wait for the day they introduce Citizen MDs thus clearing out an entire layer of over-paid fools and replacing them with an entire layer of fools for free.

A great comment that:

a) conflates journalism with medicine –  because they are exactly the same aren’t they.

b) insults journalists as well as the apparent cit-j’s in such a short space – nice work!

The general tone of the comments is to wonder what impact this will have on the journos at the LEP. I don’t want to play down the plight of shrinking regional newsrooms for one minute. Or belittle those who lose jobs. But to see one as a cause of the other is a leap.

Room for all

About the same time that the LEP published it’s first newspaper (1886) my great-grandad borrowed money to buy his first house. He didn’t go to the bank, he went to the butcher. The local butcher! (We have the receipt to prove it.) Would the butcher have advertised that service in the LEP? Not sure. No doubt a local nosey parker would have told him. Oh and if that butcher had sold him a dodgy steak the chance are, nearly 60 years before the NHS he wouldn’t have gone to a doctor.

That’s how my great-grandad’s community worked. It’s how communities still work. Not on definitions of professional pratcice but on people who have the means and the skills doing the jobs that need doing.

My point to hacked-off and traffic chaos would be that there is a world outside the newsroom, full of people who do and discover in different ways. They’ve done it that way before you and they will do it that way after you. You only play a role in a community if you are part of it. Please don’t contribute to an attitude that means they chose to do it without you.

And here is that sentiment in morse code…

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!…

May 09 2011

09:59

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

09:57

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

May 05 2011

16:15

Why the man who tweeted Osama bin Laden raid is a citizen journalist (but why he might not care)

There of interest in @ReallyVirtual at the moment. Sohaib Athar an IT consultant in Abbottabad Lahore Pakistan. That’s right. The fella who ‘inadvertently’ live tweeted the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. I don’t need to say much more.

The way twitter responded to the event threw up some interesting areas to ponder.

  • How could a journalist new to twitter build a network that would key them in to this kind of thing?
  • How much the discussion on twitter must have been like a the discussion in the newsroom
  • How amazing networks are.

The way the network raised Athar in to the view of more than just his own part of the twitterverse is explored in an interesting article by Steve Myers who traces back through his own network to try and get to where Athar came from.

But it’s the followup article (whose title I hijacked for the title of this one) that caught my attention. Myers writes:

When I wrote earlier this week about how quickly people around the world learned that Sohaib Athar had “live tweeted” the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, I thought carefully before calling him a citizen journalist.

He was prompted to explore that further by an article refuting the claim that twitter has replaced CNN by Dan Mitchell.

Steve Myers of The Poynter Institute declares that Sohaib Athar, a guy who lives near bin Laden’s compound, is a “citizen journalist.” Athar, an IT consultant, wondered what the hell was going on when the helicopters arrived in Abbottabad. Because he wondered on Twitter, in real time, now he’s a “citizen journalist.”

Even Athar, who had 750 followers as of Sunday night and now has tens of thousands,knows this is ridiculous.

Indeed. Although I think Mitchell uses Athars tweet (below) a little out of context to suit his point.

There was a problem with the blakbirdpie shortcode

All of the articles are worth a read. Myers deconstruction of Athar’s tweets is particularly good. But there is one thing that is ignored.  It’s alluded to. But never asked. Does Athar care?

Does Athar care that he is a citizen journalist or otherwise? Is it important to him.

Pondering that one just reinforces my view that the only people who have a problem with the phrase are the people who use it most – journalists.

I did tweet Athar to ask him if he thought he was a citizen journalist. I don’t expect an answer. His twitter stream make it clear that he’s very busy with interviews.

I suppose one thing you can say for certain in that whether or not he’s a citizen journalist he’s certainly a celebrity.

 

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February 28 2011

20:58

Ethics, online and journalism

By yveshanoulle On Flickr

What follows is the text from a lecture on Ethics and online I delivered to third year journalism students a few weeks back.  I’m putting it online for a few reasons. It’s here to be pulled to pieces, it’s nice to be transparent and  it’s also here to force me to write something new next year! The tone is deliberately challenging, I hope, to stimulate debate.

The title of this lecture is virtual ethics in the era of wikileaks. It may be hard to see what the wikileaks saga has to offer us outside of the rarefied atmosphere of political journalism or easy to write it off as an internal debate. But it makes a good example for what I’m more interested in – does the web change the way we behave as journalists?

In thinking a little broader, I have a few key words that relate to journalism and I want to think about how they might relate to the web.

Let’s start where your reader does with a word that goes to the heart of any debate concerning anything starting with wiki(pedia,leaks) is TRUST

Can you trust what you read? Can you trust people to tell you the truth? Can you trust that people are who they say they are? Can you trust where the information comes from?What are their motivations?

Trust is one of those things goes to the very heart of our identity and role as a journalist.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as Journalists, we claim that you can, in fact should, ʻtrust us’. But why? Why trust journalism rather than a free agent like Assange? What can we offer?

Well, one reason you will hear,  is that the information that journalists provide you with has gone through a rigorous ʻprocessʼ. A process that journalists have been trained for: Trust us, we are professionals.

That ʻrigorous processʼ is the mechanical reflection of our commitment to accuracy, balance and fairness – The way we report, the use of sub-editors and editors, are built in to the structures of journalism organisations.

But I would argue that it’s the structure (and longevity) of the industry more than its value that has helped consolidate this as a defining feature. Rather than reflect any consistent, measurable commitment, it has become self-defining. Its also become self-defending.

It seems that any challenge or or attempt to qualify this definition of a journalist is taken as a challenge to the whole industry. So we have journalism defined and defended by journalists.

This is (one of the many areas) where the web throws a spanner in the works.

The web is place where the mechanical processes of finding, reporting and presenting information are available to anyone. You know the score; everyone can be a publisher! Something that was once the preserve of media organisations alone.

That process is no longer unique to journalism.

A key part of that carefully constructed and refined definition of what makes a journalist is unpicked. Which gives rise to a question:

Are those people who publish on the web journalists?

It seems that when we talk about the web and journalism we can’t avoid getting in to the argument of what a journalist is. In my experience it often starts (and ends) by trying to explain why everyone else is not a journalist.

Regardless of the motivations, many this is a pretty tired debate. But I do think it has some resonance with our topic. So let me rephrase it as:

Should those people who publish on the web have the same privileges and protection journalists?

There obviously are protections and benefits to being a journalist. Wikileaks claims it’s a journalistic organisation with all the protection that offers. But the US have declared Assange a ‘political actor’ rather than a journalist. An attempt to circumnavigate those protections?

You only need to read  Vanity Fair on ‘The man who spilled the secrets’ to see that many in the industry are happy to point out why Assange and wikileaks isn’t journalism.

Maybe I need to change that question round and make it more and direct.

What makes you a journalist?

I donʼt think we can argue that it is the process. It canʼt be about how we do it. Even at their most arch (and pompous) it seems that journalists are prepared to accept that even though it’s not journalism “it works under the same rubric” In other words, many ʻnone-journalistsʼ on the web follow exactly the same processes to create content as journalists do. But they aren’t real journalists…

Call them…Citizen journalism; UGC; amateur journalists.

All terms that have been used to define the difference between ʻthem and usʼ. Without, it has to be said, consensus or success. But that last one, amateur, is interesting to me. It suggests that a person may do everything a journalist does but not professionally.

So something other than the process then, sets journalists apart; Makes them professional.

Perhaps it’s a commitment to TRUTH.

Jane Singer identifies a commitment to truth as one of the ʻcentral normative aspects of professional journalismʼ. But, as Singer points out, even the idea of what constitutes truth is dynamic.

If we were to argue that truth is represented at all,the best we could say is it is represented by the individual journalists view of what is true. Not for example, what a government or individual may tell them is true.

A journalist, as Walter Williams said in 1908 in his Journalist’s Creed, is compelled to

“write only what he holds in his heart to be true”.

A bizarre throwback to virtue ethics in a profession where where the regulation suggests journalism is much more about consiquentialism.

In less prosaic terms a journalist:

“Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (NUJ code)

Accurate. That’s truth, right?

But couldn’t it be argued that the ʻamateurʼ also does this?

Anyone can write a blog post and claim that they believe ʻin their heart that it is trueʼ. You can dump thousands of pages of top secret memos on to the web because it’s true. Can’t you?

In striving to tell us the truth anyone could provide us with a huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view.  Just as a journalist might. Right?

Now you could argue that they may also choose not to strive as hard as they could. They could choose to ignore some facts and not apply any balance or fairness. But so could a journalist.

In their defense , we might say, is that the journalist has a level of responsibility for what they produce.

As professionals, not only is it their responsibility to admit if something is wrong but they will have to explain why – they are accountable for their work. This is often presented as a stark contrast to the online world where responsibility and accountability could be seen to be in short supply.

Critics dismiss the pyjama clad,self obsessives, who answer to no one. Their content, the ‘spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night‘! People who publish without a thought to the risk  - An accusation levelled at wikileaks.

But those who embrace online will claim that the network will decide. The responsibility and accountability  lies in the collective. Nothing can be hidden. Everything is explored.

But is that really accountability?

There would seem to be no punitive impact on those who do not tell the truth; who donʼt
act responsibly. Not like journalists…?

By agreeing to codes of conduct (in principle, if not in practice) – the professional ideals -by being accountable, journalists are compelled to be responsible. Aren’t they…?

The structures and hierarchies of media organisations mean that accountability comes with the ultimate sanction – get it wrong, get sacked. Don’t they…?

Taking those codes at face value could lead to an underlying belief that professional journalists only reside in media organisations (and by extension, not online). Not simply because you are paid (the most common reasoning  in the ‘why am I a journalist and your’e not debate) but because, within that organisation, there is a professional and structural oversight that holds individuals accountable. The ‘establishment’ polices itself.

This form of internal-accountability is often underlined and amplified with the claim that journalists have a social responsibility as a profession to serve the public good. The fourth estate argument. It’s a position that is often used to defend a higher status for journalism, justify the light touch legislation it is subject to and enable that self-policing.

But the lack of legal requirements to obey the codes of conduct and the punishment for failing to meet the standard is often less than obvious. (see page 94!)

Whilst most journalists agree that they must take responsibility for their actions, as an industry, journalism seems reluctant to answer for their mistakes. (Sanders p150) whoever is asking. They claim the internal system is enough.  I would go a step further and say seems that they will actively avoid any effort at outside regulation.

This is where the lines of a corporate responsibility (the self-regulation of the industry) and a more personal responsibility blur.  Any attempt at external regulation challenges the autonomy of the journalist – As I suggested before, the journalist should not (in fact canʼt be) answerable to anyone in their pursuit of truth.

It’s a position that is easy to maintain, if, at challenging times, responsibility is interchangeable between journalist and journalism and accountability rests in such a ʻlight touchʼ form of self-regulation that is essentially internal.

But the internal nature of that ‘regulation’ means it lacks transparency and that’s where journalism begins to butt heads with the online world.

Transparency is a presiding watch word for those who work on the web. Jane Singer argues that is to bloggers (our ‘anti-journalist’) what truth is to Journalists. In fact ʻtransparencyʼ is a standard by which the ʻqualityʼ of work online is often measured and made accountable.

The links and sources used to support an article online – the “huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view” that I mentioned earlier- are there for people to check.  Online, we lay out all of our ‘working out’ and people can hold us to account by questioning which sources we pick and how we use them.

That’s something more than the bland reading of transparency as a “fealty to dumping material in to the public realm” But it raises some interesting questions around fairness and balance. Interesting debates about Objectivity.

Those who practice ‘online’ are often accused of bias and seen to lack any of the recognisable elements of balance claimed by journalists. But, in their defense,  they are almost brazen in their desire to tell you that.

This is in stark contrast with the traditional media. Where the gatekeeper model is still held to be the norm. Somewhere, behind closed doors, one person decides what is news and we rarely, if ever, get to question their actions or motivations. In fact it’s an industry that seems to pride itself on secret connections, unnamed sources and off the record dealings

Consumers can only infer balance and objectivity.

We have to piece together the motivations of a newspaper owner from a broader context. Detect the bias from the omission of content rather than the content presented. Just as critiques would claim we must do with wikileaks. Yet objectivity is often cited as a central tenant of journalism.

But even the industry is having problems with the idea objectivity. Increasingly the traditional commitment to Objectivity is questioned.

Some will ‘blame’ the web for leading journalism astray -

“wikileaks sets the bar. Tempting [journalism] to shock. And awe through more intimate revelation”

Objectivity  has been described as the ‘bastard child’ of journalism; an unobtainable ideal which (in this web world) is at odds with our audiences demands and a barrier to successful business models.

The name Fox News has become synonymous with a move towards subjective journalism - the ‘foxification’ of news.  An organisation that claims to practice journalism but seems to ignore one of its core tenants. The argument is that, in a multi-platform world, this would be offset with a ‘free market capitalist ’ approach to objectivity – the market becomes responsible for objectivity through competition.

And here is where the industry and the world of the web really start to kick-off.

An increasing lack of objectivity and apparent lack of accountability (or visible evidence of accountability working) is bound to attract those who place so much value on transparency.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the mainstream media finds itself the target of scrutiny from a myriad of online sources. Tracking, testing and challenging its output everyday. Self-appointed watchdogs (or watchblogs) will take it upon themselves to hold the journalists and journalism to account.

And true to form the media response is to ask who watches the watchblogs? If they are unaccountable, is this fair?

If one of the defining features of journalism is its accountability to the public – by virtue of the professional practice it claims- then the answer has to be yes.

Journalists are no different than other ʻprofessionsʼ that claim service in the public good – the public interest. Medics, politicians, police, all have their work analysed to within an inch of itʼs life by journalists, more often than not, the gloves are well and truly off. So why not journalists?

For an industry nervous of accountability and committed to individual autonomy this is a strange, painful and sometimes, very personal exercise. Many resist it. But the web makes that impossible.

Like it or not, the medium means that content and the discussion around it is public and uncontrollable. People will talk about you if you are listening or not.

Resistance is there. Indeed the normal mode of engagement is one of threat. Some journalists are very public in their disgust at the apparent compulsion to invite readers to ‘tell me what you think of what I’ve written’. Perhaps they believe that journalism is not about listening to people but listening to what the journalist thinks. But it shows that journalism is more than capable of resisting the re-drawing of the lines of accountability and the emphasis on transparency – even in the face of what can seem like staggering inconsistency.

So what does this say about the definition of journalism.

Essentially it suggests that journalism is a recursive definition:

Who is a journalist? Someone who does journalism.What is journalism? Something done by a journalist…

It’s journalists who get to decide what journalism is. And because large media organisations have lots of journalists, they are the ones who exert most influence in defining it’s norms. They are the ones who play the biggest part on defining the practice, and the moral and ethical constraints.

So it isn’t the web changes things. It has neither the power (or, collectively, the will or desire) to do that. It’s the journalists reaction to it that shapes journalism

So, as a journalist:

  • Is using information from wikileaks any different than using information from ‘hacked’ mobile phones?
  • Is pretending to be someone you are not on Facebook or a chatroom any different than pretending to be a constituent of Vince Cable?
  • Is saying something outrageous on Twitter worse because you are journalist just like it is because you are a civil servant?
  • Does it matter what party you voted for in the election or what your political beliefs are if you are journalist?

Now try and answer those questions without resorting to examples of when others have done it.

When it comes to ethics, virtual or otherwise, we (journalists) make the rules.

But, we should remember that public will hold us to our own rules – rules that we are very good at applying to others- using the whole range of new tools available to them. Journalist may feel they are best equipped to judge public interest but the truth is that the public is now interested in us.

So if the web means anything for journalism ethics it means that we have to stick to our rules regardless of the situation, in spirit and in action. As much as we may feel that is unfair or a loss of control. That’s not their fault; we makes the rules. We police them. We decide who is and who isn’t a journalist.

If we donʼt, regardless of what we may feel is an entirely appropriate level of accountability, we will lose our credibility.

When you are the only game in town credibility can be seen as a right not something that is earned. But the changing media landscape has pushed it the fore. The web means we now need to pay more than just lip-service to Trust and credibility in what we do. We need to be seen to practice what we preach. I think that will turn out to be the most valuable and defining feature of a journalist in an online world.

Many think that sticking to the journalistic rules will hold us back. That whilst we ʻplay by the rulesʼ (if we ever did) the ‘web’ will ride roughshod over us. And what they hell, they are our rules aren’t they? (The argument for our fox news approach to objectivity) But is that really what we want?

The Wikileaks saga tells us that there is a place for journalists and media organisations. Even Assange recognised that. He needed that credibility. But when the exclusive was threatened (for all parties) the result is hardly a shining example of working together.

Assange would have you believe journalists will happily invite you in to the tent but just as quickly stab you in the back and throw you out when they have what they want. Journalism would have you believe that this is what happens when you work with people who don’t understand journalism!

Are we really happy to leave our professional standards to the worst of ego-journalism and let the market decide? Is that really what the web has forced journalism to become?

Of course not.

We need to maintain our independence, focus on our social responsibility (take that fourth estate role seriously) and embrace the transparency of the medium. If we do that our journalistic processes and codes will be a massively valuable asset. A credible journalist as something separate and meaningful from a credible blogger. But we have to learn to measure that by what we do, not by what we do to others or others might get away with.

Journalism needs to do that because I think that journalists are best placed to be a much needed credible source of information in a world where information is plentiful but trust, it seems, is in short supply.

Note: The inclusion of  wikileaks to the title and content was at the request of the module leader to fit with the seminar reading and topics. I think, it does raise some interesting issues but as I (hopefully) argued in the lecture, it doesn’t really matter what example I’d picked. It’s how journalist behave with respect to their own definition that counts.

January 20 2011

09:37

October 28 2010

07:48

Flyposting newspaper websites

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrggggggh!

Imagine the scene. I’m on the bus. I’ve found a seat that isn’t near the bloke who shouts at cars and smells vaguely of rabbits. My headphones are in (but not too loud,of course).

I take out my copy of the Birmingham Post and open it up. Scanning around the page I see an article that catches my eye. But just before I start reading…the person sat behind me pulls out a pot of wallpaper paste and slathers a great billboard poster across the top of the page.

It turns out that in scanning around I inadvertently caught the eye of an advert nestling in the corner of the page.

Sound plausable? No I didn’t think so.

So please stop doing it on your bloody websites newspaper people.

That is all.

October 16 2010

13:39

ScraperWiki: Hacks and Hackers day, Manchester.

If you’re not familiar with scraperwiki it’s ”all the tools you need for Screen Scraping, Data Mining & visualisation”.

These guys are working really hard at convincing Journos that data is their friend by staging a steady stream of events bringing together journos and programmers together to see what happens.

So I landed at NWVM’s offices to what seems like a mountain of laptops, fried food, coke and biscuits to be one of the judges of their latest hacks and hackers day in Manchester (#hhhmcr). I was expecting some interesting stuff. I wasn’t dissapointed.

The winners

We had to pick three prizes from the six of so projects started that day and here’s what we (Tom Dobson, Julian Tait and me)  ended up with.

The three winners, in reverse order:

Quarternote: A website that would ‘scrape’ myspace for band information. The idea was that you could put a location and style of music in to the system and it would compile a line-up of bands.

A great idea (although more hacker than hack) and if I was a dragon I would consider investing. These guys also won the Scraperwiki ‘cup’ award for actually being brave enough to have a go at scraping data from Myspace. Apparently myspace content has less structure than custard! The collective gasps from the geeks in the room when they said that was what they wanted to do underlined that.

Second was Preston’s summer of spend.  Local councils are supposed to make details of any invoice over 500 pounds available, and many have. But many don’t make the data very useable.  Preston City council is no exception. PDF’s!

With a little help from Scraperwiki the data was scraped, tidied and put in a spreadsheet and then organised. It through up some fun stuff – 1000 pounds to The Bikini Beach Band! And some really interesting areas for exploration – like a single payment of over 80,000 to one person (why?) – and I’m sure we’ll see more from this as the data gets a good running through.  A really good example of how a journo and a hacker can work together.

The winner was one of number of projects that took the tweets from the GMP 24hr tweet experiment; what one group titled ‘Genetically modified police’ tweeting :). Enrico Zini and Yuwei Lin built a searchable GMP24 tweet database (and a great write up of the process) of the tweets which allowed searching by location, keyword, all kinds of things. It was a great use of the data and the working prototype was impressive given the time they had.

Credit should go to Michael Brunton-Spall of the Guardian into a useable dataset which saved a lot of work for those groups using the tweets as the raw data for their projects.

Other projects included mapping deprivation in manchester and a legal website that if it comes off will really be one to watch. All brilliant stuff.

Hacks and hackers we need you

Give the increasing amount of raw data that organisations are pumping out journalists will find themselves vital in making sure that they stay accountable. But I said in an earlier post that good journalists don’t need to know how to do everything, they just need to know who to ask.

The day proved to me and, I think to lots of people there,  that asking a hacker to help sort data out is really worth it.

I’m sure there will be more blogs etc about the day appearing over the next few days.

Thanks to everyone concerned for asking me along.

October 14 2010

19:48
16:05

Hacks and Hackers hack day Manchester

Any sufficiently complicated regular expression is indistinguishable from magic

A bit of a nod to Arthur C.Clarke there but something that hits home every time I do any hacking around under the bonnet of the interwebs.

When it comes to this data journalism malarky some might say (to steal another movie quote) a mans got to know his limitations. But I firmly believe a good journalist, when stuck, knows who to ask. I’m very excited that more and more journos are realising that there are no end of tools and motivated people who can be part of the storytelling process.

So I was delighted to be asked to be one of the judges for ScraperWiki’s hacks and hackers hack day in Manchester tomorrow and see that in action.

The event just one of a number of similar days around the UK.  The successes in Birmingham and Liverpool amongst others, mean that tomorrow should be fun.

If your going, see you there (later on). If not I’ll tweet etc. as I can.

October 09 2010

13:15

September 30 2010

20:36
15:45

Ivory tower dispatch: Nothing is simple anymore

I’m going to try and share a little of what I do each week with the students and now that teaching has settled in a little bit after freshers it seemed a good time to start.

This week I wanted to get all the students thinking about some of the issues that contribute to the ‘changing media landscape’ that we have to function in as journalists.

Process in to content

For my second year, Digital Newsroom students I picked on process.

The lecture was really about how the process has changed because of digital. So I took a very basic view of the process – find, research and report – and looked at where in the process digital had made an impact. Here are the slides from my lecture (a bit cryptic without notes I know – come to the lectures!)

I started by saying that the reporting part was where the real medium specific stuff really made itself known (the mechanics of output for a particular platform). Given that we are platform agnostic, this was not where we wanted to be.  Maybe the first parts where more generic? More about broad journalism.

In truth, the process is no longer that discreet. In a multi-platform world we can’t simply focus on one ‘point of delivery’ when the point of delivery is changing all the time. By rights we are (and should be) generating content all the time; what Robin Hamman called turning process in to content. (I’ve written on that issue before.)

But in stumbling along to that conclusion we looked at how digital allows us to inject input from ‘communities’ in to the early parts of our process. We also started to explore the pros and cons of that involvement – legal, ethical and practical.

As a conclusion and starting point for more discussion later on, I picked out three ‘keywords’ that I wanted them to think about.

  • Community
  • Social media
  • Crowdsourcing

All of which, in some form, have contributed to the changing media landscape in which we practice, regardless of medium.

Where chips go, the nation follows.

I didn’t see the thirds year print students this week as they were putting together their first newspaper (1st. week back. No hanging around). But the time I spent with our post-graduate newspaper students looked at similar issues to the second years.

I started with a little debate. I split the group in to two. One side took the position “newspapers will die in five years”. With the other side getting “newspapers will survive the next five years”. As you can imagine interesting debates ensued. Including the position that newspapers weren’t even used to wrap chips in anymore(and the wonderful statement that headed this section), countered of course by ‘you can’t wrap your chips in an ipad’.

It was great to see that the range of debate broadly mirrored the industry concerns(or you may see it as a sad reflection of the echo chamber!) and that the students took a admirable middle ground. Passionate but realistic.

For them, the list of things to ponder was longer but similar:

  • Community
  • Multi-platform
  • Multimedia
  • Hyperlocal
  • Data Journalism

I also included Profile/engagement on the list but that became a broader discussion of brand and identity.  Something that began to touch on the deeper issues of professionalism and ethics.

Nothing is simple

If this week could be summed up in a nutshell it would be “nothing is simple anymore”. We don’t just simply write for newspapers ( or make TV/radio etc) – we have an eye on multiplatform.  It’s not as simple as just talking to the community anymore – we interact. Everything is made more complex by technology and the influx of digital. Some of it is in our control. Some of it isn’t.

What we can’t avoid is that some of that pressure lands on the journalist, right from the point they engage with a story,  regardless of where it ultimately ends up. It may not be your employer who brings that pressure to bear. It may be the audience…

PS. Just in case you thought that we do nothing practical they also started (or, in the case of the second years restarted) blogs (platform up to them) and google reader.  The postgrads got their beats and patches to play with and got to explore their hyperlocal/patch site.

Image from tim_ellis on Flickr

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September 28 2010

08:54

September 24 2010

14:19

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 4

This is part three of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part onePart Two and Part three are available here.

In part three of this short series we looked at adding a second loop to our edited index page to get round the problem of our Featured Post being repeated on the front page. In this final part I’ll look at adding a thumbnail and styling up the page.

Image thumbnails

Over the years, theme designers magazine themes have come up with many weird and wonderful ways of getting thumbnail images on front pages. But it’s only recently that WordPress developers added solid support.

One of the things I wanted to do with this series is to avoid too much tweaking of files. So I’m going to be relying on some of the core features for wordpress to get thumbnails on the page rather than fancy tricks. So beefore we get back in to editing the template code to display thumbnails there are few things we need to check.

Media settings

When you add an image to a blog post you are given the option to add it as a thumbnail, medium, large or original size. We are going to be using the standard function to to get a thumbnail (you may remember it from part 1) and it uses the same shorthand to get an image

[php]

[/php]

The sizes for each these are set in the Media section of the settings tab.

The image size options

So our edited front-page is going to be based on these sizes. If you want any other sizes for your page you should set them here first. The downside of working this way is that this will impact on the sizes of images placed in your blog posts -that’s the trade off of keeping things simple.

Adding a featured image.

Version 2.9 of WordPress included a new post thumbnail option which allowed you to define an image to display “as the representative image for a Post or Page. The display of this images is up to the theme. This is especially useful for “magazine-style” themes where each post has an image.” The feature was renamed “featured image” in wordpress 3.0 – I’m guessing to avoid confusion with thumbnails. Whatever it’s called it’s ideal for our front page.

Adding a featured image

When you write a post you should see a panel called Featured Image. Clicking the Add featured image link opens up a standard image browser. You simply find the image you want to use and click the Use as Featured Image link and you’re done.

So before we go on, add a featured image to the post in your Featured Story category.

Adding the thumbnail to the template

Now that we have set up the Featured image we can edit our template file and get an image on our frontpage.

Open up the Main Index Template file and add the following and edit the first loop so it looks like this:

[php]

Our medium thumbnail

Now do the same with the second loop.

[php]

Thumbnails added to each loop

And that’s it.

Adding some style.

Technically we are done. All the elements we want are on the page. But it’s not looking as good as it could be. We need to add some styling information and make some amendments to the stylesheet file.

I’m not going to go in to a big write up of CSS here (try the excellent W3Schools for a basic intro) but if you’re interested in tweaking wordpress templates it’s one of those areas you’ll be spending a lot of time with.

For now, its enough that when dealing with stylesheets, we need to keep our eye open for two things; divs and classes.

Divs

If you look at the Main Index template file, you’ll see the following lines
[html]

……


[/html]

The div tag is an html element that doesn’t actually display anything by default, it defines a section of the page. When it comes to look and feel, the key part is the id . This ‘connects’ the div to display instructions defined in the stylesheet. The style definition for container is:

[css]
#container {
float: left;
margin: 0 -240px 0 0;
width: 100%;
}
[/css]

Anything that sits between the div tags will be effected by this definition.

Classes

One restriction of ID’s is that you can only use them once on a page. So if you have a lot of elements on a page that you want to style you have to use a class. Remember the html we used for our post title:

[php]

[/html]

That means we take the standard H2 formatting and add some custom styling.
[css]
#content .entry-title {
color: #000;
font-size: 21px;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1.3em;
margin-bottom: 0;
}
[/css]

This says, any time the class entry-title (denoted by the full-stop) is referenced inside the content div (denoted by the # symbol) apply the following styling.

Image Alignment

The first thing to sort out is the alignment of the images. I’m going to cheat a little here and pick up the standard style call for images.

Change the post_thumbnail function call in the first loop to the following :

[php]
“alignleft”)); ?>
[/php]

The post thumbnail function allows you to stack extra information in parameters that can be ‘added’ to the code as it’s generated. We have stuffed a reference to a style called alignleft. If you call up the Stylesheet file in the theme editor you can find the definiton of that style (you may have to search for while)

[css]
#content .alignleft,
#content img.alignleft {
display: inline;
float: left;
margin-right: 24px;
margin-top: 4px;
}
[/css]

This is very similar to our post title example above but this time there is also a reference to the image tag (img).

To finish up we can add the same class to the thumbnail call in the second loop:
Change the post_thumbnail function call in the first loop to the following :

[php]
“alignleft”)); ?>
[/php]

Boxing in the featured story

To make my featured story stand out I’m going to wrap it in a grey box. To start with I’m going to use a DIV to define that extent of the box.

[php]

…the rest of the loop….



[/php]

I’ve added a new DIV tag with an id called FeaturedStory and closed the div after the end of the loop.

If you update the file and looked at the page you should see nothing new. Remember DIV tags don’t show up till you style them.

Open the Stylesheet file in the editor window and scroll all the way down to the bottom. Add the following:

[css]
#FeaturedStory {
background: #f7f7f7;
color: #222;
margin-bottom: 18px;
padding: 1.5em;
height: 350px;
}
[/css]

This does the following:

  • Changes the background colour to grey
  • Changes the text colour to a dark grey
  • Pads the bottom of the box with 18 pixels of space
  • Pads the all the way round with 1.5 em of space
  • Sets the height of the box to 350pixels

Save the file and look at the results. You’ll see a box around the featured content.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much it. We’ve pulled in a featured post and thumbnail to go with it. Then we added a second loop to pull in the rest of the posts without duplicating our featured post on the page and added a thumbnail to them. Then we styled the results to align the thumbnail and wrap the featured post in a box to make it stand out.

Along the way we’ve touched on PHP, functions, variables and stylesheets. All of which are play a big part in theme development. But we have done it all with the minimum of alteration to the core theme files.

Some issues

This method is not without its issues. Editing the raw files like this is risky if you forget to back things up. There is also the risk that if the theme is updates by wordpress (as it is from time to time) then your customization will be deleted. But the exercise has been more about some of the basic concepts than a robust solution.

So I hope you found it useful and it made sense. Here’s the finished Main index template file:

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
$do_not_duplicate = $post->ID;

/* We load the Page ID in to a variable to check for duplicates later on
* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

“alignleft”)); ?>

/* This is the second loop that replaces the standard loop
* It uses the standard loop function calls
*/

if (have_posts()) : while (have_posts()) : the_post();

if( $post->ID == $do_not_duplicate ) continue;
update_post_caches($posts);

/* This line gets the post ID and checks it agains our duplicate variable
* If it matches it does nothing. If it’s different we display the content
*/

?>

“alignleft”)); ?>

/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
//get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>


[/php]

Don’t forget, you need to update the Stylesheet file as well.

Questions, comments etc always welcome

September 23 2010

12:04

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 3

This is part three of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part one and Part Two are available here.

In the previous part of this tutorial I looked at how we could display some custom content on our front page by adding another loop to the file. This gave us chance to experiment with template tags to customize what we say. But I also pointed out that we had a problem.

Our ‘new’ loop pulls out the latest story in our featured story category and puts the title and excerpt at the top of the page. But the original wordpress loop is still there. It pumps out the last 10 posts published on the site and theres a good chance that our featured post is one of them. That means we get the same story twice on the homepage.

Turning off the original loop

If you remember, the orginal loop is called using a get_template_part function in the Main Index Template file.

[php]
/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>
[/php]

We can turn the loop off by commenting it out.
[php]
/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
// get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>
[/php]

Notice how the function call has turned green like the comments. By adding a // in front of the function we turn it in to a comment which the server will ignore. If you update your file and look at the front page, you’ll see you only have the featured post.

Commenting out is a common trick when developing code. It allows you to try a few different things without deleting anything. Just don’t do to much, things can get confusing.

You may also have noticed that other comments in the file are marked between /*…*/ rather than a //. They are both valid. The /*…*/ is usually reserved for multi-line or blocks of comments rather than single lines. It also makes for a handy way to differentiate between comments (description of the code) and commenting out.

Adding another loop

Getting rid of the loop altogether is a bit of severe way to solve the repeat post option. What we need to do now is add a loop that allows us to get the posts back in a more controlled way. Add the following code after the new loop we added and before the original loop.

[php]
….

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
$do_not_duplicate = $post->ID;

/* We load the Page ID in to a variable to check for duplicates later on
* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

wpmodder.com, a great site.

September 22 2010

10:00

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 2

This is part two of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part one is available here.

The copy to clipboard option


Note: If you want to copy code directly from this tutorial roll you mouse over the top, right-hand corner of the code and a little window will pop up with a copy code function.

In the previous part of this tutorial we set ourselves up to experiment with the Twenty Ten Template. So at this point you should have

  • A working installation of the wordpress.org (version 3 or above)
  • The Twenty Ten theme set as the active theme
  • A number of posts sorted in to three categories – News, Sport and Featured Article
  • The permissions for the Twenty Ten theme folder set to 666

The next step is to take a look at the files we are going to edit.

The Main Index template

If you switch to Appearance > Editor and click the Main Index Template link on the right.

You should see the following in the editor window.

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>


[/php]

We start with some comments. Notice that and see where the PHP starts and ends and you should be able to spot a few function calls. These essentially piece the page together bit by bit. For example…

[php]
get_header();
[/php]

…calls the first part of the webpage including all the HTML needed to set the page up and display the blog title and navigation. The only function that might not be immediately obvious is:

[php]
get_template_part( ‘loop’, ‘index’ );
[/php]

This function calls a template file called loop (loop.php) which contains all the information needed to get and display the list of posts on the front page. It also tells the function that this request has come from the index(homepage).

You can take a look at the loop.php template by opening it in the editor – pretty scary. But the loop is key to the way WordPress works.

What is the loop

Here’s what WordPress say about the loop:

The Loop is used by WordPress to display each of your posts. Using The Loop, WordPress processes each of the posts to be displayed on the current page and formats them according to how they match specified criteria within The Loop tags. Any HTML or PHP code placed in the Loop will be repeated on each post. When WordPress documentation states “This tag must be within The Loop”, such as for specific Template Tag or plugins, the tag will be repeated for each post.

Just to put that in to context, a standard front page would use the loop to :

  1. Get the last 10 posts in the wordpress database, sorted in date order
  2. For each of each post, get the headline, content and other related content and create the HTML to display it
  3. Repeats that process until all ten posts are done.

This might sound complicated but it’s actually got a lot simpler in WordPress 3.0. In earlier versions the loop would be part of the index page. Instead of the relatively simple file above, you would have all the loop content in there as well. This meant a lot more to pick through to sort out a page. You could argue that it’s just shifted the complex stuff to another file. But as we’ll see, it does make life easy for us.

The bottom line is that getting a grip on the loop is the key to tweaking a template. So let’s have a go.

Backing-up

Make sure you have the Main Index Template file loaded in to the editor

  • Copy all the content
  • Open your text editor and paste the content in to a new document.

This is your back up of the file. If anything goes wrong, you can just copy and paste the original file content back. I would advise that you do this at regular intervals. Just copy and paste in to the file and you’ll have a big file with each iteration of the file.

Adding another loop

Now that we are backed up we can edit a file. When working I tend to have two tabs open so I can switch between the backend, where I’m editing, and the front end to see the results.

So, in the backend make sure your in the editor and your looking at the Main Index Template file .

Just after:

[html]

[/html]

Add the following:

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>


[/php]

Click the Update file button to save the changes.

The new loop content

The result should be that the title for the most recent post in the Featured Story category appears at the top of the page with the original list of posts below. It won’t work like a link, that comes next.

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query(‘category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1′);
[/php]

The first line defines a variable or temporary store for information called $my_query (In PHP variables always start with the $ sign). The ‘value’ of that variable is the result of a new database query which uses the WP_Query function to ask for 1 post from the Featured Story category. By asking for one, you’ll get the latest one.

[php]
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
[/php]

The second line starts a loop. It says that while our variable has content (posts) spit out the content of the post so we can do something with it. In this case we display the title:

[php]

[/php]

Notice the mix of PHP and HTML here. The H2 tag formats the title but its the function the_title() that gets the content. The last bit…

[php]

[/php]

…ends the loop and lets wordpress get on with the rest of the page.

Because we stipulated one post in the query the loop only goes round once. You could try adding more posts to the Featured Story category and adjusting the showposts value to see how it handles more than one post.

Dealing with errors

oops, you've missed something

When you bash around with PHP you will eventually come across an message like this when you look at your page. Don’t panic! All it means is that you’ve missed a bracket or other element in the code. Juts go back and check through. The error message even gives you a clue to what and where you made the mistake.

Adding more content

We can pull in more content from the post using some simple template tags.

Add the following after the_title() code:

[php]

[/php]

So the the bit you’ve added should resemble

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>



[/php]

The added excerpt

Update the file and have a look at the results. You should get the title with a short excerpt and a continue reading link. Check out the wordpress codex entry for the_excerpt() function to see what’s going on.

It’s that simple!

Making the title in to a link

The last part for today is to get the title to work as a link. Here’s the basic code:

[php]

The formatted title

Conclusions

By adding another loop at the start of the index page we are able to control what which posts are displayed. Using template tags means we can pick which bits of the post we display. The simple nature of the new WordPress 3.0 main index template means we don’t have huge amounts of code to wade through and if we panic we can simply delete the stuff we have added and the original template is intact.

We still have some issues of styling and we also want to add some thumbnails to our posts. But if you look at the list of posts on the front page you will notice we have another problem – the featured post we called in our new loop is repeated in the original loop content. So quite a few things to sort out.

So tomorrow we will look at how we can replace the old loop all together and how to avoid that duplication. Then, in the final part we’ll look at how we can add the thumbnail and style the content to improve the look and feel. For now, heres the complete file we are left with (with comments added by me) :

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();

/* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

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