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April 30 2012

15:51

February 03 2012

11:34

LIVE: Session 1B – Paid-for content models

How can we to make money from online content? That is the million dollar question in the news industry today and one which continues to be answered in many different ways. As we move into another year it’s time to return to the debate and look at how the main models being pursued in the industry today which can be adopted by both national news titles as well as more niche outlets and magazine publishers, be it through app subscriptions, a bold paywall or a more metered approach. This session will also look at how Apple’s Newsstand, which was released in October, has increased app downloads for magazine publishers.

With: François Nel, researcher, academic and consultant on newsroom and digital business innovation; Tom Standage, digital editor, the Economist; Chris Newell, founder, ImpulsePay; and Alex Watson, head of app development, Dennis Publishing.

11.43

Over the last year, the Mail has declined by 4.6% in it’s print edition. Online, however, it’s readership has grown by nearly 60%.  MailOnline’s rise has been “meteoric”.

11.42

There have always been differing price points and pricing strategies. We’re now going to look at the most successful news websites (traffic-wise) in the UK: MailOnline and the Guardian.

11.40

Nel says that we need to drop the binary arguments: to paywall or not to paywall is not a good question.

It’s too simplistic.

11.40

Social, local, and mobile are the key areas for the future in the eyes of media executives. But at what price?

11.35

Sorry, slight crossing of live blogs here. Sorting to fix things.

11.34

He wants to look at experimentation, and whether there are underlying principles that are essential for understanding online business models.

11.32

 

David Dunkley Gyimah is up next – a video journalist, academic and artist in residence at the Southbank, apparently!
Reportage in 1991/2 was “the YouTube of the BBC back then” – young and disruptive.
It all comes back to cinema. You need to get people to feel something, and to do that you need to experiment with image and movement and how best to capture that.

11.32

Overall, make it easy and people will pay! Streamlining the payment experience is essential is seems.

Francois Nel is now taking the stage. He is an academic at UCLan. He says he will be talking about the “alchemy of paid content innovations”. Yeah.

11.26

Previously, Premium SMS was the best way to do mobile payments – this is clunky and readers also don’t want to be waiting around for a text.

11.24

Impulse Pay’s alternative is a one-click approach, where the cost is added to your mobile phone bill.

11.24

People don’t like filling in forms, they are tedious and boring. The average credit card payment takes 120 character strokes – it’s too much effort for readers!

11.22

Now speaking: Chris Newell, founder of Impulse Pay.

11.19

Standage is talking about about their web presence now, and the strengths of a metered paywall.

11.18

The Economist call this “finishability” approach Lean Back 2.0.

11.17

Standage says there is a catharsis in finishability. And this is still available on their apps, whereas you can’t find that on the web, because there is always more information available.

11.16

Currently, readers prefer print over digital (80 – 20), but in two years the split will be 70 -30 in favour of digital.

11.13

When we ask people why they cancel their print subscriptions, they largely say it’s because they see them piling up and they don’t have the time to read.

They are addressing this with digital, by offering it in app form, and in audio. You can read it on your iPhone in a cramped train carriage with one hand, or listen when you’re on a run.

11.11

Tom Standage, digital editor of the Economist is now speaking. They have about 1.5 M print readers, of which a third use their apps as well. Largely digital users, are digital only.

11.08

Questions now: “What about Android apps?”

Answer: “We’ve not done so much with Android. In Newsstand, Apple have created a retail experience, which is something that we think Google are missing.”

11.06

It’s worth producing a high quality product, because users will rate you highly, and Apple will give you access to promo spots if you offer a good experience.

11.05

Moving forward, it’s important to note that Apple will sell more iPhones and iPads.

11.00

John Domokos, video producer at the Guardian, showing clips from the student protests where he got to know and followed a group of first time protestors. Videos showed an alternative side of the protests when the main ‘traditional’ media story was the attack on Charles and Camilla’s car.

Online video doesn’t have the resources of broadcast but is finding its own special place – raw, microcosm approach – not the top-down, broad view presented on TV.

10.59

One problem with apps though is that people want to be able to sample, but making an issue free can cause surges in downloads that have unpredictable effects – like melting servers.

Technical support queries are also overwhelming at times, and iOS users traditionally expect bulletproof reliability and high production values.

You’ll be judged against Flipboard, even if you’re Landrover Monthly.

10.57

“Newsstand completely redefined “doing well”"

3.5 M app downloads since the launch of Newsstand, across a range of titles. And revenue is up to – 0, 000 – even after VAT and the Apple cut.

Consumer attention is high.

10.54

Alex Watson, Dennis Publishing is talking first, about how the Apple Newsstand is changing magazine online publishing.

10.52

Katie King, senior product manager, Portal & Partners, MSN UK, is introducing the panel for this session, which you can take a look at here: http://www.newsrewired.com/agenda-6/.

October 06 2011

16:00

The Newsonomics of f8

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Is it declaration of war, or of peace, or is Mark Zuckerberg saying he just really Likes us all very, very much?

“No activity is too big or too small to share,” the 27-year-old proclaimed at the recent f8 announcement. “All your stories, all your life…. This is going to make it easy to share orders of magnitude more things than before.” (f8 sounds, oddly, like FATE, but I think my paranoia is kicking in.)

“Excuse me, have we met?” is one response.

Another response to Facebook’s Ticket, Timeline, and News Feed initiatives is to go dating. Some quite influential publishers are road-testing the new features, while others ponder a light commitment.

In 2011, U.S. dailies’ digital ad take will be about $3 billion and Facebook’s $2 billion.

They should be aware that Facebook is bent on world domination — having targeted businesses now run by Amazon, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Flipboard, Pulse, Pandora, Last.fm, and Flickr, as well as legacy news and information providers — in the latest move. (Forget debating Google’s “do no evil” mantra; Google’s sin may have been that it thought too small.) That’s audience, though not business, domination, as Facebook’s EMEA platform partnerships director, Christian Hernandez, told PaidContent. “[f8] is not a commercial decision.” Got it. And Google just wants to help us better organize our info.

Facebook’s f8 signals a next round of digital disruption. Remember Microsoft’s decade-old bid to become the hub of our entertainment lives, as evidenced by its futuristic Consumer Electronics Show displays? Facebook has taken that metaphor — and updated and socialized it.

This unabashed push to remake the digital world in its own image would seem like laughable megalomania coming from many other sources in the world. But it’s not megalomania if others act like you’re not crazy. In fact, our story takes strange turns as this megalomania, so far, seems quite magnanimous to publishers, as Facebook looks to some like the best available date, compared to the other ascendant audience resellers (Apple, Amazon, and Google).

As leading-edge publishers move away from destination-only strategies, they seek to colonize other habitable web environments; Facebook now looks like the friendliest clime, allowing publishers to keep all the revenue from ads they are selling within their Facebook apps. In addition, Facebook is providing aggregated data on user engagement — active users, likes, comments, post views, and post feedback.

Buy-in from such brands as the Washington Post, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Yahoo helps to place Facebook’s push into the “normal” scale of corporate behavior.

Why are news players playing along? What do they think is in it for them?

Let’s look at the newsonomics of f8 and of the new social whirl.

“Rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook.”

Let’s start with the stark, Willie Sutton reason: you work with Facebook because that’s where the audience is. In the U.S., Facebook claims more as much as seven hours of average monthly usage; globally, that number is four hours plus. It’s where would-be readers hang out.

Worldwide, it claims an audience of 800 million.

If Facebook is the hang-out mall, newspaper and magazine sites are grocery stores. People go there when they need something — to find out what’s new — and then leave. The comparative average monthly usage of news sites runs five to 20 minutes per month.

So exposure to audience is the no-brainer, here. The question is: to what end?

Step back from the flurry of news company announcements, or from the behind-the-scenes 2012 strategies-in-the-making, and publishers cite three top goals:

  • Lower-cost development of audience, especially audience that may become core customers.
  • Digital advertising revenue growth.
  • Establishing a robust, growing stream of digital reader revenue.

So how might f8 innovations help those?

Let’s start with brand awareness. It’s a digital din out there, a survival-of-the-feistiest time. Consumers will come to rely on a handful or two of news brands, goes the theory. So best to be high in their consciousness, and Facebook omnipresence in people’s lives offers that possibility.

Adam Freeman, executive director of Commercial for Guardian News and Media, explains Guardian’s digital-first strategy here this way:

Our digital audience has grown to a phenomenal 50m+, but, with the best will in the world, chances are we are never going to outpace and outstrip Facebook’s audience size. So we see an opportunity in that — rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook. There is an untapped audience within Facebook who may not be regularly encountering Guardian and Observer content, and we think our app increases the the visibility of our content in that space.

Of course that brand consciousness needs to be acted on, which leads us to…

Lower-cost traffic acquisition. Online, publishers have invested in search engine optimization and search engine marketing. SEO makes them more findable in organic search; SEM pays for high-level brand placement. In addition, they’ve done deals with portals over the years; the current Yahoo deals of swapping news stories for links is a major one for many.

Against, though, Facebook is simply social media optimization (“The newsonomics of social media optimization”).

It’s another route to pouring newer customers into the top end of news publishers’ audience funnel, hoping a few tumble out the bottom as paying, regular readers. And any readers can be monetized with advertising.

SMO’s relative economics are better than SEO or SEM. Not only is SMO cheaper than SEM, some publishers say it “performs” better. That performance is best measured by conversions (registrations, more pages read, digital sub buying), while for others the jury is still out. And, at best, audience development multiplies off these new relationships.

“These new Facebook users aren’t necessarily finding the brand in traditional ways, nor do they necessarily hold longstanding brand affinity,” says Jed Williams, analyst at BIA/Kelsey.

Their social graphs, curators/editors, recommendations, etc. are doing the pointing for them. So they do arrive at the very top of the proverbial funnel. And, as they interact with the publisher, with them in turn comes their social network. Potentially, the exponential network effects take off, and new audience continues to breed even more new audience. Original audience targets emerge, and the funnel continually expands. At least in the best case scenario, it does.

Sale of paid products: If you are now selling digital subscriptions, you’re doubly interested in customer acquisition. Now publishers can discover the percentage of new audience they can convert to paying customers, though that’s not an easy proposition to figure out. That percentage will be tiny, but it may be meaningful.

Out of the chute, digital circulation efforts have focused strongly on longstanding customers. Publishers have wanted to keep their print customers paying. They want to reduce print churn by taking away customers’ ability to get the news they get in the paper for free online. They want to change the psychology of long-term readers, giving them a new understanding: You pay for news, in print or digitally.

Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

That’s round one, 2011-2012, of the digital circulation wars. Round two necessitates bringing in new customers, especially younger ones who don’t have print habits and may not have much news brand loyalty.

That’s a key place Facebook fits in. It’s a potential hothouse of new, younger customers.

“It isn’t obvious that we can be successful with premium content on social,” notes Alisa Bowen, general manager of WSJ Digital Network. The Journal, while not participating in the f8 launch, already has a significant trial in place. The same holds true of the spate of other recent WSJ innovations, like WSJ Live and its iPad apps. “WSJ Everywhere,” Bowen says, “tests what we’re doing for people who never come to the website.”

As publishers create more one-off tablet and smartphone products (“The newsonomics of Kindle Singles”), Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

Advertising revenue: Facebook is still so bent on building audience that it is providing publishers their best ad deals. Publishers can sell ads for display within their Facebook apps — and keep all the revenue. No revenue share, thank you. (At least for now.)

Data: “In addition to serving adverts from our own partners in the app, we have highly detailed but anonymized data from Facebook covering demographics and usage,” says Freeman. “We also have our own analytics embedded in the pages on the app, which will help us understand how our content is used and shared within the Facebook Open Graph.”

Learning about social curation. Social filtering will be a standard feature of all news (unless we opt out) by 2015. It’s not hard to see why. It’s old village world-of-mouth, jet-propelled by technology. How social curation will work is a huge question; how can it best co-exist with editorial curation, for instance? That kind of learning is one other benefit f8 partners tell me they hope to gain.

The Facebook dance is a cautious one. News publishers’ experiences with web wunderkinds have not, in general, been great ones. Witness the ongoing battles over revenue share percentages, customer relationships, and customer data access that have characterized the soap-opera-like Apple/publisher public spats. Amazon’s new Kindle tablet re-lights the question of publisher/Amazon rev share and data sharing.

August 03 2011

04:56

Economist launches Android app, all-access subscriptions

Mashable :: The Economist rolled out both an Android tablet edition and all-access subscription options Tuesday. The newsweekly joins Sports Illustrated and Time in its multi-platform subscription offering, which enables readers to access all versions of The Economist, including its print, smartphone, tablet, audio and web editions, for a single rate. (Prices vary by region).

Continue to read Lauren Indvik, mashable.com

July 08 2011

09:34

The future of news: turning back to the coffee house

The Economist :: Three hundred years ago news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides. “The Coffee houses particularly are very commodious for a free Conversation, and for reading at an easie Rate all manner of printed News,” noted one observer. 

Now, as The Economist's special report "Bulletins from the future. A special report on the news industry" explains, the news industry is returning to something closer to the coffee house. The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.


Ah, yes, I'm currently sitting in a coffee house, in the center of Munich, at Robetti, Klenzestrasse and writing about the future of journalism, working with the first prototype of the Liquid Newroom. Coffee houses? I like them. They allow me to stay where stories happen ... among the people in my neighbo(u)rhood for now.

Continue to read www.economist.com

May 27 2011

18:56

#newsrw: ‘We know more now that we ever have’ about our audience

Gathering audience data has led to changes in content type and style for many news rooms.

Ditching newspaper-style headlines in the subject lines of emails in favour of shorter, more emotive sentences has increased the click-through rate from newsletters.

The boost in page impressions of the websites, was just one example from John Barnes, managing director of digital strategy and development at Incisive Media.

Ron Diorio vice president of product and community development at the Economist Online gave example of how they have been learning from social gaming.

Chris Duncan from News International, which owns the Times and the Sun, said: “In terms of audience data, we know more than we ever have, we are collecting it in more ways than we ever have.”

Diorio spoke of “lies, damn lies and product development”.

“Data from users on a product helps decide whether to keep the product the way it is or change it.

“But part of the challenge in getting audience feedback is that there are so many ways to get data.

“It’s getting harder and harder based on the sheer amount audience data available,” he said.

“We’re continuously inundated with this deluge of data,” citing Facebook and Twitter as relatively new sources.

But Facebook can also be a user audience research tool and surveys can provide immediate feedback

He gave the example of the ‘well-red quiz’, launched when the Economist started noticing a trend in social gaming.

“We launched it but people weren’t coming back as they were only getting two out of 10 answers right,” he quipped.

Barnes spoke of the rise in audience data in its ability to cater to niche market titles, such as B2Bs and said it’s “good play for B2B publishers as we can create close and intimate interactions with the audience”.

He said they continue to use demographic and behavioural data, reader surveys and more recent tools such as cloud scores and web trends.

One of many examples he gave of learning from the audience was when he consulted them on the length and frequency of videos and has found his formula to be to keep videos between three and five minutes in length and to broadcast them three or four times a week.

The result has been a 900 per cent increase with most watching to the end. And that success can lead to revenue as it is something that can be commercialised, he explained.

Chris Duncan director of consumer management at News International said his research used to be mainly about the product and now its about the people.

Demographics still are broadly insightful, he said, stating that “high income lowers churn risk; life stages, such as the birth of a first child, generates purchasing patterns; and gender can still be highly indicative of copy preference.”

He talked about the changes since the birth of tablet devices.

News International’s websites experience a peak during the morning commute as people use tablets, an 11 o’clock spike on the website when people are at their desks and another tablet spike when commuters are returning home.

How do we get a continuous content journey across different devices? is a question News International is seeking to address.

When questioned about recent changes at the Times – with the launch of the paywall last summer and the launch of the iPad app, which took place exactly a year ago.

“The launch of the iPad one of the more terrifying days of my life,” Duncan admitted

Asked about the Times paywall he spoke of the “challenges of managing muiltiplatform devices”.

“Operationally it was more difficult than I thought,” he said.

“It’s very clear that  all content is not the same. Some is very good at driving acquisition, some is very good at driving retention and there is some content that is not good at either” but said people complain if it is removed and that’s when “the customer service centre will blow up”.

Edward Barrow, chief technology officer at Idio, discussed the technology around understanding “customer journeys” and the customisation of news based on gathering data on what a person is interested in.

His team believe how long someone spends on reading an article can provide a measure of what they are most interested in and can then be given more targeted news and demonstated how the  Media Briefing is doing just that.

“Successful publishers are reorganising and restructuring around the customer,” Barrow said.

And learning what the customer is interested in is possible through data gathered by people logging in via Facebook or LinkedIn, he said.

“The more you know your customers, the more money you can make out of them,” Barrow said.

He advised transparency in engaging customers in the data gathering process and used Facebook, with your personalised news feed; Amazon, which knows what books you read; and Google as examples of personalisation technology.

13:37

LIVE: Session 3B – Knowing your audience #newsrw

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 3B ‘Knowing your audience’, below.

Session 3B features: John Barnes, managing director of digital strategy and development, Incisive Media; Chris Duncan, director of customer management, News International; Ron Diorio, vice-president product and community development, the Economist (via video/Skype); Edward Barrow, chief technology officer, idio. Moderated by Tim Faircliff, general manager, Reuters Media.

11:53

LIVE: Session 2B – Social media strategy

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 2B ‘Social media strategy’, below.

Session 2B features: With: Jack Riley, head of digital audience and content development, the Independent; Stefan Stern, director of strategy, Edelman; Mark Jones, global communities editor, Reuters News; Mark Johnson, community editor, the Economist. Moderated by Suw Charman-Anderson, social technologist.

May 12 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of old dipsy-doo

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Fifteen years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education put up its first paywall. Since then, the wall’s developed lots of cracks — most of them intentional ones, as the U.S.’ most trusted voice on university and college coverage evolves its digital offerings, who it charges, and how it charges. For all the change it’s seen in those 15 years, what’s been tried seems like prologue as the company moves into the iPad and mobile age — and as it tries to figure out how best to drive up revenue in the confusing push-pull of the digital world.

“It’s like the ESPN model,” says editor Jeff Selingo. “We connect the content to what people are actually willing to pay for.” Selingo came to the Chronicle 14 years ago, starting as a reporter, and now oversees an editorial staff of 75. He knows the daily newspaper world, having worked at two before moving into the world of education journalism.

The Chronicle’s approach, while distinctive, isn’t unique. Talk to execs at the Financial Times, Consumer Reports, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, or ESPN, and you hear the fruits of experience. They talk nuance and flexibility, not all-or-nothing paywalls.

How useful is the Chronicle’s experience to daily newspapers? Yes, the privately owned, 45-year-old Chronicle is something quite different, a high-end trade publication. (Though I do like newspaperman Pete Hamill’s description of the news business as “permanent grad school,” in his recent, highly recommended Fresh Air interview).

The trade, of course, is higher education. These are discerning readers, about half administrators and half faculty, who can be hard to please. As a must-read publication, with little direct competition (although seven-year-old online-only Inside Higher Ed is making a play for its audience and ads), the Chronicle has a market position many dailies would envy. Still a must-use for academic recruitment, from which it derives lots of ad revenue, it depends on circulation dollars for only about 20 percent of its overall income.

That said, it faces the same issues as everyone else in the print business. Three years ago, it had a circulation of more than 76,000, with 71,135 print and 5,157 digital subs. Its most recent count shows 66,000 total subscribers, but 16,020 of those are digital subs. (The Chronicle doesn’t do single-copy sales, but has expanded its site license program to colleges — so some of the “lost” subscribers now get delivery through their institution, but are uncounted.)

The Chronicle, too, is struggling with the increasingly familiar economics of transition, and with the irony is front of everyone in the business: It is reaching more readers than ever, courtesy of the web, but its business is struggling to grow.

So while trade publishing can differ from general news, the questions of how to make that digital transition, how to find workable hybrid models, and what kind of content to make free are fairly similar. The Chronicle has faced many of the same questions on pricing and access that newspapers are now knee-high into. Therein lie most of the lessons to be learned and applied in mid-2011.

It’s not a matter simply of to charge or not to charge, of allowing access to all proprietary (usually local) content or none of it. Or of setting the meter, and leaving it at a 20- or 25-article-per month level. Some of the early tests of paid digital access are stuck in a rut, as conservative experiments have retained large audiences but resulted in too little new revenue to be meaningful. The Chronicle’s nuances give publishers some new tools as some move on to Stage 2, and others are about to begin tests.

In talking with Selingo, who served on a recent ASNE panel I moderated on pay plans, I’ve picked out six key lessons from the Chronicle’s experience, collectively suggesting the newsonomics of the old dipsy-doo.

Why dipsy-doo? It’s a delightfully old-fashioned term, taking us back when people did what they could do to sell stuff. A dipsy-doo is a kind of twist, a zigzag take on getting something done. Starbucks doesn’t sell cooked coffee beans and Coke doesn’t sell brown, sugar water. They sell comfort, a piece of the good life, a good place to be.

News companies have always taken their selling too literally. They thought they were selling news, when in fact they’re selling currency, shopping deals, and packaged convenience. So, in this wannabe golden age of new digital content sales, we need to look for lots of examples of how and what newsy companies are selling. It’s not simply a matter of selling the stuff (staff-written local content) that cost you the most to produce; you sell the stuff for which people are most likely to pay you.

So, with that in mind, six learnings, down that road, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Do the print/online dipsy-doo

Check out the Chronicle’s subscription page and you see two choices. One’s a print subscription ($82.50/year) and one’s a “digital” subscription ($72.50/year). Ah, the web’s cheaper than print, you say. Well, no. The digital sub is actually a replica e-edition, complete with the same advertising as the weekly print edition. You get online access to the Chronicle’s impressive site, with either sub. You have to take either the e-edition or the paper one to get the access, though.

You can see the same kind of print/digital hybrid thinking/pricing in The New York Times’ recent digital access pay scheme. By telling readers to pay up for digital access, the Times is leading its most loyal online customers back — the old dipsy-doo — to print. Readers have quickly figured out it’s better to order some print edition and get “included” digital access than to just pay for digital access. Lead customers one way — and then do a quick turn on them.

The Chronicle, with less competition than the Times, doesn’t even feel the need to offer “online-only” subs, though it will begin offering iPad-only subs through Apple’s App Store in June, testing that new market; it has already seen 14,000 downloads of its free app.

Make your wall artful

Selingo says that deciding what will premium (paid) and what free is more art than science. “We’re deciding on a day-to-day basis what’s distinctive.” The distinctive — more than mundane work that readers are unlikely to find elsewhere — may include any kind of story, investigative piece, or data. There is a lot of free content — 40 percent of the site, estimates the editor.

In data lies power

The Chronicle’s front-and-center Facts and Figures section offers lots of in-depth databases (“What Professors Make,” “Who Are the Undergraduates”) and these spur lots of readership. “The power is in data,” says Selingo. “The story [often the lead-in, sum-up] is the promotional piece.” That’s a lesson we’ve heard often from Everyblock to the Sacramento Bee to Dallas’ Pegasus News to California Watch (“The newsonomics of a single, investigative story,“), but one too little implemented at dailies.

“The differentiating factor is how we visualize, how we present,” says Selingo, giving credit to Ron Coddington, a veteran of USA Today and Knight Ridder Tribune, who now serves as the Chronicle’s assistant managing editor for visuals.

Play the clock

It’s not just what you put where, but what you make free when. Selingo says the Chronicle will sometimes put up a big data-impressive project, making it free for a week or two, knowing that its utility will entice readers to come back over time and read it. If they come back, and it’s now premium (or paid), then they’re more likely to pay up. Conversely, some content may be paid at the outset and then become free. The bigger notion: Get readers to use — and come to rely — on the site. Usefulness precedes ability to pay. Sampling is key.

One size does not fit all

Even as it has tested, twisted, and turned its techniques, Selingo believes that a lot more nuance should be tried. He talks about pricing “pieces of content” — packages here and there, some data products, maybe niche internationally oriented modules. The challenges there: deciding what to package, how to package it and how to price it — and doing that without a major investment in time or staff. This is the mastery of the medium- and long-tail to come, probably abetted by dynamic technologies. Why not, I wonder, let readers make their own packages, and enable algorithms to price them?

Work the funnel

The Chronicle of Higher Education, courtesy of the Internet, has an impressive funnel to work, like every other good news company. With Google, Facebook, and the rest of the relationship web feeding news sites traffic at an incomprehensible (literally) pace, it’s a matter of learning how to work that funnel on traffic. At the top end: 1.7 million monthly unique and 14.3 million page views that the Chronicle gets, according to Selingo. At the bottom end: those 66,000 subscribers.

On the one hand, that seems like an awfully small number, not quite four percent. On the other, it represents the huge opportunity of free web access, providing a constant stream of would-be customers — all monetizable to some degree by advertising, and a tiny percentage of whom who will become core paying customers.

It’s no coincidence that The New York Times’ math is similar: Get three percent of its monthly uniques to pay for digital access, one way or another, and the Times would get as many as 900,000 new subscribers.

It’s the new new math — more students needed.

November 08 2010

17:00

Energy-efficient journalism, urban planning for news

I came across a great story in The Economist last night — a look at emerging systems of urbanism, part of the magazine’s “Special Report on Smart Systems.” In cities large and small, eastern and western, established and nascent, planners are attempting to bring some of the systematized logic of the world of digital design — strategic centralization coupled with strategic individualization — to bear on the urban landscape.

Take PlanIT Valley, an area just outside Porto, Portugal — which, borrowing the “service-oriented architecture” concept from the design world, is attempting to build itself into “the world’s smartest city.”

Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy.

It’s a neat idea, for informational infrastructure as much as architectural: an urban operating system. Energy-efficient, generally efficient. An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.

We often talk about news as a collective endeavor, as an “ecosystem.” (In fact, if you’re in NYC tomorrow evening, in fact, you can attend Columbia’s 2010 installment of its “Changing Media Landscape” panel, an event whose title is as apparently unironic as it is permanent.) Culturally, though, and viscerally, we tend to understand journalism as a fundamentally individualistic enterprise: A world of beats and brands, of information that is bought and sold — an epistemology built upon ownership. And we tend to see ourselves within that structure as a system only in the broadest sense: small pieces, loosely joined. Very loosely. Individual news organizations — among them, increasingly, actual individuals — decide for ourselves the scope of our coverage, the way of our coverage, the details of our coverage. Because it is our coverage. While, sure, the market rewards niche-finding and, with it, comprehension — and while, sure, we’re certainly in conversation with other outlets as we go along — still, with notable exceptions, most of the discourse we have with our peers in newsgathering plays out via the calculation of competition. In general, we’re all Darwinists. Which is to say, we’re all capitalists — even when we’re not.

Ironically, though, the net result of that core individuality, for all the obvious good that comes from it, is often some form of redundancy. “Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away,” The Economist notes of industrial-age planning strategies, going on to cite a Harvard Business School case study finding that the waste in question accounts for a whopping 30 percent of construction costs. The architectural impulse toward ownership — in this case, the idea that urban spaces’ constituent structures should be singular rather than systematized — is both a means to beauty and artistry…and an inefficiency that’s quite literally built into the system of production.

A similar thing happens in news: In attempting to apply the aesthetic of individualism to a pragmatic public good, to put our stamp on it in a craftsmens’ guild kind of way, we often produce work that is unintentionally, but necessarily, wasteful — because it is unintentionally, but necessarily, duplicative. (Forty reporters covering a single press conference; 2,000 covering the Chilean miners’ rescue, etc.) Just as there are only so many ways to design an office building, or a parking structure, or a green space, there are only so many ways to structure a single news story. But structure that story we do, each of us outlets, because our individual missions are just that: individual. So we repeat ourselves. Repeatedly. And we resign ourselves to the repetition. (Google “Obama + coconuts” today and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Make of that what you will.) And then, because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos. The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.

Which may be fine. The whole point of a system, after all, is to overcome fragmentation with collaboration — which is exactly what we’re seeing play out, organically, in our news ecosystem. But what if, at the same time, we were more intentionally systematic about the news we produce? What if we applied the operating-system logic to journalism? While there’s certainly a systemic role for redundancy — duplication in journalism provides a crucial check against error, exaggeration, and the like (and, of course, it’s in nobody’s interest to develop the first one to come over the over-centralized oversight of news) — there’s something to be said, I think, for being more broadly collaborative in our thinking when it comes to the news that we — we, the news system — serve up to consumers. (Who tend to care very little about the proprietary structures — the beats, the brands — that defines journalists’ work.) A do what you do best; link to the rest mentality writ large.

The model we saw on display in outlets’ recent collaborations with WikiLeaks could be instructive; a nice balance of competition and collaboration could be one way to bring an digital-design sensibility to the news. Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us. Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.

In a post earlier this year, Josh advocated for the development of a New Urbanism for news, a system of information delivery that offers “a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume.” As abundance edges out scarcity as the defining factor of our news economy, we’ll increasingly need to think about news production as a dialectic between creativity and containment. And as a system that, for the good of its consumers, balances the benefits of competition with the complementary benefits of collaboration.

Image via peterlfrench, used under a Creative Commons license.

August 30 2010

16:00

Playing it by ear: The Atlantic joins the magazine-Tumbling fray in embracing experimentation

Until recently, Tumblr was a fairly isolated phenomenon: a platform that (to overgeneralize only slightly) helped a slew of web-savvy young city-dwellers to stay connected with more characters than Twitter but less commitment than blogs. Now, though, the service — which passed its billion-post mark last Monday — is in the air in a more diffuse way, via the tons-of-Tumblrs popping up under the banners of national news outlets. There’s Newsweek’s praiseworthy specimen — the most buzzed-about of the bunch — but there’s also The New Yorker’s, The Economist’s, The American Prospect’s, Life magazine’s, the Huffington Post’s, the Paris Review’s, Utne Reader’s, ProPublica’s, and, a bit farther afield, Public Radio International’s, ABC News Radio’s…and on and on.

One of the most recent additions to the world of media-outlet-Tumbling comes courtesy of The Atlantic, which marked its entry into that world earlier this month. With this:

Since then, the outlet’s fledgling Tumblog (which, ironically or fittingly enough, doesn’t employ Peter Vidani’s free — and quite popular — Atlantic theme) has been populated with ephemera both serious and less so: a mix of images and blurbs and links to content from around the web, from TheAtlantic.com to far, far beyond. Today, for example, finds images of Macchu Picchu and New Orleans; last week found, among other posts, a link to AtlanticTech’s story about competitive lock-picking; an image of real-world renderings of keyboard shortcuts; a post pointing us to the photo site 2 4 Flinching and its compendium of photographs “detailing life on and in the New York City subway in the 1980’s”; a link to an Atlantic photo essay documenting the decay that remains in New Orleans five years after Katrina; a link to Karim Sadjadpour’s list of five key points about the wisdom of an Iranian military strike that, had he the chance, he’d convey to Benjamin Netanyahu; and a YouTube video, via Newsweek’s Tumblr, of “Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee for gov, who somehow manages to spend 30 seconds of film time in the shower without being sensual or pathetic.”

In other words, The Atlantic’s Tumblr, like its media-led peers, reads a bit like the world itself: messy and arbitrary and yet, somehow, sensical. There’s an internal logic to it — but one based on the core illogic of, simply, “what’s interesting.” There’s a good amount of madness…with very little method in it.

And that’s the point.

“If our approach is anything, it’s just experimental,” says J.J. Gould, TheAtlantic.com’s deputy online editor, who’s helping to think through the outlet’s Tumblr presence. The goal is to interact with the quirky new platform — to get to know its rules and rhythm and tones — and go from there. “We’re interested in the language, the distinct nature of the medium — and how to play the instrument,” Gould says. Sure, “we should be smart in the way we approach Tumblr as we aspire to be smart in the way we approach anything. But it’s not something that needs to be over-thought.”

So will The Atlantic’s Tumblr end up looking like The Economist’s (a slick affair filled with crisp images and content curated mostly from the magazine’s own website)? Or will it be more like Newsweek’s (which, even after the departure of former-proprietor Mark Coatney, remains witty and snarky and, in feeling if not in branding, separate from its parent outlet)? Or something in between?

Again: TBD.

And, again: that’s okay. In fact, that’s how it should be. The newness — and, as of now, the relative unknown-ness — of Tumblr offers a certain freedom for media outlets concerned, now more than ever, with the demands of their brands. “One of the things we’re interested in is just the question of what a media institution with a 153-year-old history might be able to do with Tumblr that it can’t do with other things,” Gould says. Tumblr, he notes, is “to some extent a different medium — it plays differently. That’s what’s awesome about it.” Newsweek’s Coatney-led account, the (yeah, I’m going to say it) trailblazing Tumblr, established the freewheeling-because-separate (and separate-because-freewheeling) relationship between the Tumblog and its parent outlet — and that assumption of separateness is one that other outlets are now benefiting from. Coatney recalled for me the leniency he received from his higher-ups at the then-still-WaPo-owned magazine: “Experiment. Do whatever you want. Don’t embarrass us too much. And see how it goes.”

That’s the attitude that has come to characterize the Tumblr accounts of even The Most Serious News Organizations. “I don’t think the Tumblr is something that one needs to or even should bring too much strategy to,” Gould says. “You should just sort of learn what it is, and learn what works well.” And that process, undertaken with a platform whose very infrastructure encourages caprice, requires a level of lightheartedness. Sure, The Atlantic can use its Tumblr to push Atlantic.com content — people who are following the magazine on Tumblr, Gould points out, are presumably also interested in the work it produces — but, ultimately, “we’re entirely interested in approaching Tumblr as its own thing.”

The broader interest is one you don’t often hear discussed in the rarefied air of our national magazines-of-ideas, but one that could stand to get a little more traction in that world: in a word, whimsy. “We certainly think it looks like a lot of fun,” Gould says of his magazine’s new platform. Tumblr’s family status — both of the brand, but independent of it — makes it an ideal platform for, among other things, finding out where that fun fits into the new world we’re forging. Tumblr’s rapid growth, Gould notes, “says something to us. It’s speaking to people in some way.”

August 16 2010

14:30

The Guardian launches governmental pledge-tracking tool

Since it came to office nearly 100 days ago, Britain’s coalition government — a team-up between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that had the potential to be awkward and ineffective, but has instead (if The Economist’s current cover story is to be believed) emerged as “a radical force” on the world stage — has made 435 pledges, big and small, to its constituents.

In the past, those pledges might have gone the way of so many campaign promises: broken. But no matter — because also largely forgotten.

The Guardian, though, in keeping with its status as a data journalism pioneer, has released a tool that tries to solve the former problem by way of the latter. Its pledge-tracker, a sortable database of the coalition’s various promises, monitors the myriad pledges made according to their individual status of fulfillment: “In Progress,” “In Trouble,” “Kept,” “Not Kept,” etc. The pledges tracked are sortable by topic (civil liberties, education, transport, security, etc.) as well as by the party that initially proposed them. They’re also sortable — intriguingly, from a future-of-context perspective — according to “difficulty level,” with pledges categorized as “difficult,” “straightforward,” or “vague.”

Status is the key metric, though, and assessments of completion are marked visually as well as in text. The “In Progress” note shows up in green, for example; the “Not Kept” shows up in red. Political accountability, meet traffic-light universality.

The tool “needs to be slightly playful,” notes Simon Jeffery, The Guardian’s story producer, who oversaw the tool’s design and implementation. “You need to let the person sitting at the computer actually explore it and look at what they’re interested in — because there are over 400 things in there.”

The idea was inspired, Jeffery wrote in a blog post explaining the tool, by PolitiFact’s Obameter, which uses a similar framework for keeping the American president accountable for individual promises made. Jeffery came up with the idea of a British-government version after May’s general election, which not only gave the U.S.’s election a run for its money in terms of political drama, but also occasioned several interactive projects from the paper’s editorial staff. They wanted to keep that multimedia trajectory going. And when the cobbled-together new government’s manifesto for action — a list of promises agreed to and offered by the coalition — was released as a single document, the journalists had, essentially, an instant data set.

“And the idea just came from there,” Jeffery told me. “It seemed almost like a purpose-made opportunity.”

Jeffery began collecting the data for the pledge-tracker at the beginning of June, cutting and pasting from the joint manifesto’s PDF documents. Yes, manually. (“That was…not much fun.”) In a tool like this — which, like PolitiFact’s work, merges subjective and objective approaches to accountability — context is crucial. Which is why the pledge-tracking tool includes with each pledge a “Context” section: “some room to explain what this all means,” Jeffery says. That allows for a bit of gray (or, since we’re talking about The Guardian, grey) to seep, productively, into the normally black-and-white constraints that define so much data journalism. One health care-related pledge, for example — “a 24/7 urgent care service with a single number for every kind of care” — offers this helpful context: “The Department of Health draft structural reform plan says preparations began in July 2010 and a new 111 number for 24/7 care will be operational in April 2012.” It also offers, for more background, a link to the reform plan.

To aggregate that contextual information, Jeffery consulted with colleagues who, by virtue of daily reporting, are experts on immigration, the economy, and the other topics covered by the manifesto’s pledges. “So I was able to work with them and just say, ‘Do you know about this?’ ‘Do you know about that?’ and follow things up.”

The tool isn’t perfect, Jeffery notes; it’s intended to be “an ongoing thing.” The idea is to provide accountability that is, in particular, dynamic: a mechanism that allows journalists and everyone else to “go back to it on a weekly or fortnightly basis and look at what has been done — and what hasn’t been done.” Metrics may change, he says, as the political situation does. In October, for example, the coalition government will conclude an external spending review that will help crystallize its upcoming budget, and thus political, priorities — a perfect occasion for tracker-based follow-up stories. But the goal for the moment is to gather feedback and work out bugs, “rather than having a perfectly finished product,” Jeffery says. “So it’s a living thing.”

August 13 2010

19:07

MORE GREAT MAGAZINE COVERS

TNYTM

Creativity that makes you want to read.

In traditional magazines.

Great job!

Via nascapas blog.

Screen shot 2010-08-02 at 10.53.03 AM

NYORKER0,,204428,00

Screen shot 2010-08-10 at 6.32.30 PM

Screen shot 2010-08-13 at 10.16.41 AM

Screen shot 2010-08-13 at 10.27.50 AM

August 11 2010

11:41

FACEBOOK AS A COUNTRY…

201030IRC860

Thir largest “country” of the word.

From the Daily Charts of The Economist.

Brilliant!

March 23 2010

10:08

Beet.TV: Daniel Franklin on the Economist’s ‘collective voice’

Economist executive editor Daniel Franklin talks about how the Economist has developed its writing style and why a lack of bylines in the newspaper doesn’t mean a lack of individuality.

On its website, writers’ initials are now included on blog posts – including its recently launched technology blog – to reflect “the personal nature of blogs”:

Full post at this link….

Similar Posts:



February 03 2010

08:53

THE APPLE iPAD EFFECT

2010-01-28_2130apple efect

The traffic of this blog has increased dramatically in the weeks before the Apple iPad’s launch.

We had more visitors and visits than ever.

With 523 links registered by Technorati (Buzzmachine has 657, and Reflections of a Newsosaur 617)

That was the iPad effect!

December 21 2009

17:30

Glenda Cooper: When lines between NGO and news organization blur

[Not too long ago, it was clear who was a producer of news — and who were the sources who fed them. Not so in a world where the production of media has been democratized, and the rules that governed that production are up in the air. In this essay, journalist Glenda Cooper examines several cases where those lines have been blurred. This is the sixth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

“Dear Sir. My name is Mohammed Sokor…from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. There is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”1 Was this a note — as The Economist asked — delivered to a handily passing rock star-turned-philanthropist? An emotional plea caught on a BBC camera?

No, Mr. Sokor from Kenya is a much more modern communicator than that. In 2007, he texted this appeal to the mobile phones of two United Nations officials in London and Nairobi. He had found the numbers by surfing the Internet in a café at the north Kenyan camp.

The humanitarian world is changing. New information and communication technology is altering how we report, where we report from, and most of all, who is doing the reporting. These developments coincide with mainstream media coming under increasing financial pressure and withdrawing from foreign bureaux. This is a trend that extends beyond the United States. In early 2009, the think tank POLIS together with Oxfam published a report warning that international coverage is likely to decrease under the new public service broadcasting regime being worked out in the U.K. And in 2008, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror said as part of the latest round of job cuts they were abolishing the post of foreign editor altogether. Meanwhile, citizen journalists and NGOs have been rushing to fill the gap. The mainstream media, getting free filmed reports and words, often sees this as a win-win situation. This raises three key issues:

— Do these new entrants to humanitarian reporting mean that we are seeing more diverse stories being told and more diverse voices being heard? Does the fundamental logic of reporting change?

— Are viewers/readers aware of the potential blurring of the lines between aid agencies and the media when NGOs act as reporters?

— How are aid agencies being affected by citizen journalists acting increasingly as watchdogs?

Media and aid agencies: a symbiotic relationship

The relationship between the media and aid agencies used to be well-defined and almost symbiotic in nature. This section will capture the essence of this relationship by taking a critical stance. The subsequent sections will then look at how this relationship is changing as well as the role citizen journalists play in this context.

The former UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has talked about the way the world’s disaster victims are caught up in a “kind of humanitarian sweepstakes…and every night 99 percent of them lose, and one percent win.” The one-percent winners usually owe their good fortune to media coverage.

To illustrate the argument, the table below shows the death toll in the December 2004 tsunami as judged by the UN Special Envoy, and the number of stories written in British newspapers (Dec. 19, 2004 to Jan. 16, 2005) as recorded by Lexis Nexis.2

Indonesia: 167,000 dead or missing; 343 stories
Sri Lanka: 35,000 dead or missing; 729 stories
Thailand: 8,200 dead or missing; 771 stories

The death toll in Indonesia dwarfs that of Sri Lanka and Thailand — it is roughly 20 times that of Thailand — yet Indonesia received barely half the media coverage as Thailand. Not only was it quicker, easier and cheaper for the media to get to Sri Lanka and Thailand than to Indonesia, but there were many more tourists blogging, sending in photographs, and filming from the first two areas, contributing those vital shots of the wave as it happened.

This media coverage translated into increased aid. So many aid workers poured into Sri Lanka that they were dubbed a “second tsunami.” In the year after the tsunami, a Disasters Emergency Committee evaluation noted that Indonesia had suffered 60 percent of the damage but received only 31 percent of the funding.3

But the tsunami was such an extraordinary event — perhaps it was a one-off? Not at all. Another example is provided by the difference in media coverage after the acute natural disasters in Burma and China in spring 2008. In Burma, the military junta tried to keep the international media out during Cyclone Nargis, while the Chinese authorities allowed the media in to follow the Sichuan earthquake. Figures reported in the Times on May 22, 2008 — 20 days after Nargis and 10 days after the quake — showed that despite Burma having almost twice as many people dead or missing, China was attracting far more aid.

These examples show that the more media-friendly the disaster, the more money it attracts. In the past, at its most extreme, disaster coverage has been a kind of moral bellwether for the nation.4 Aid agencies follow these waves of coverage and in turn provide access and footage to the media. Yet when covering famines, earthquakes, or tsunamis, the media have not always prioritized establishing objectivity, and aid agencies have not always sought to correct the lack of balance.

New ways of reporting disasters

In the past the relationship between aid agencies and journalism, as described above, prospered because only a few people had access to places where important events happened — or information about significant events occurring. Now, new technologies — including SMS, mobile video and the Internet — increasingly offer ordinary people the ability to reach audiences they could never have reached before. Dan Gillmor has described the December 2004 tsunami as a “turning point” that set in place this new dynamic. While not the first event to use user-generated content (UCG), it was perhaps the first disaster where the dominant images we remember come not from journalists but from ordinary people. As Tom Glocer, head of Reuters, noted, none of Reuters’ 2,300 journalists or 1,000 stringers were on the beaches when the waves struck.

Since then the speed, volume, and intensity of citizen journalism have all increased rapidly. In early 2005, the BBC received, on average, 300 emails a day. By mid-2008, this had risen to between 12,000 and 15,000, and the corporation employed 13 people around the clock solely to deal with UCG. With photographs and video the increase has been even more extreme. Two years ago, the BBC received approximately 100 photos or videos per week. Now they receive 1,000 on average and 11,000 in unusual circumstances. “It used to be exceptional events such as the tsunami or 7/7,” says Vicky Taylor, former head of interactivity, BBC, referring to the July 2005 London Tube bombings. “Now people are seeking out news stories and sharing information.”5

People are adapting different forms of media to make their words and pictures available to a wider audience. The microblogging site Twitter broke the news of the Chinese earthquakes, and Burmese bloggers used the social networking site Facebook to raise awareness of the 2007 protests. Also in Burma, many of those who sought to get out information about Cyclone Nargis opted to use email through Gmail and, in particular, its messaging service Google Talk, because the junta found Gmail more difficult to monitor.6

As new actors enter the formerly privileged information-sharing sphere dominated by the mainstream media and aid agencies, there are increased possibilities of more diverse stories being told, and more diverse voices being heard. In the past, those affected by humanitarian crises have traditionally been spoken for by aid agencies or mainstream reporters. For example, Michael Buerk’s seminal BBC report in 1984 which alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia featured only two voices — his own and that of a (white) MSF doctor.7

Yet this is changing. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the Sri Lankan NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote: “citizen journalists [in Sri Lanka] are increasingly playing a major role in reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict.”8

In January 2008, Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) was set up by four bloggers and technological experts. As Lokman Tsui explains in his essay in this series, the mashup used Google Earth technology to map incidents of crime and violence with ordinary people reporting incidents via SMS, phone or email. Ushahidi has been so successful that it was awarded a $200,000 grant from Humanity United to develop a platform that can be used around the world, and the website received an honourable mention in the 2008 Knight-Batten awards.

As Ory Okolloh, one of Ushahidi’s founders, says, “There were not many ’scoops’ per se but in some cases we had personal stories, e.g. about the victims, pictures that were not being shown in the media, and reports that were available to us before they hit the press. We were able to raise awareness (and for that matter learn of) a lot of the local peace initiatives that the mainstream media really wasn’t reporting.”9

Another Knight-Batten award winner is Global Voices, a nonprofit citizen media project set up at Harvard in 2004 which now has around 400,000 visits a month and utilizes 100 regular authors. It mainly links to blogs but is increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and Flickr as well.

However, it is important to critically assess the significance and the impact of this trend. Verification of citizen journalism is difficult, hoaxing is an ever-present possibility, and the outpouring of material does not always elucidate. As Sarah Boseley of the Guardian reflected on her paper’s three-year commitment to report on the Ugandan village of Katine, when the paper gave out disposable cameras to the villagers in the hope of getting a new perspective, “most of them,” she said, “just took pictures of their cows.”

And such voices are most commonly framed in accordance with traditional news standards rather than challenging them. Citizen journalism may also unwittingly skew the definition of what is important towards the unexpected or the spectacular and the dramatic, focusing, for example, on a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake rather the long-term famine. As Thomas Sutcliffe of the Independent commented: “The problem with citizen journalists — just like all of us — is that they are incorrigible sensationalists.”10

Different narrators — more diverse voices?

But if every citizen with a cellphone or Internet access can become a reporter, where does this leave the traditional gatekeepers (journalists) and the gatekeepers to disaster zones (aid workers)?

As pointed out above, in the past, journalists turned to aid agencies to get access to disasters and “real” people. The agencies received a name-check in return for facilitating access. The result was a symbiotic relationship in which it was to the advantage of both sides that the humanitarian “story” was as strong as possible. With the growth of UGC, this control of the story has disappeared. As John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University, agrees: “UGC is now blowing that [relationship] apart.”11

As a result, three trends have developed. First, aid agencies have turned themselves into reporters for the mainstream media, providing cash-strapped foreign desks with free footage and words. Second, they have also tried to take on citizen journalists by utilizing the blogosphere. Third, the agencies are simultaneously facing challenges from citizen journalists who are acting as watchdogs and critics and who can transmit their criticisms to a global audience.

The origins of the first trend stretch back as far as the 1990s and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle combined with, as Nik Gowing points out, aid agencies having to salvage their reputation after accusations of misinformation during the Rwandan genocide.12 The two agencies who led this charge in the U.K. were Oxfam and Christian Aid. They both hired former journalists to run their press operations as pseudo-newsrooms. Both agencies pushed the idea of press officers as “fireman” reporters — on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster occurred to gather and film information themselves. Oxfam protocol written for their UK press office in 2007, for example, demanded that a press officer sent to a disaster should use an international cellphone, a local cellphone, a satellite phone, a laptop (capable of transmitting stills and short video clips), and a digital camera.13

Perhaps the clearest example of this development occurred during Cyclone Nargis, when a package filmed by Jonathan Pearce, a press office at the aid agency Merlin, led the BBC Ten O’Clock News on May 18, 2008. (Pearce also wrote a three-part series on the subject for the Guardian.) In the two and a half minute report — which was revoiced by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding — all but 32 seconds had been filmed by Merlin. In many cases, such collaborations have worked out well; news organizations receive content at little or no cost, while aid agencies are able to further their mission and reach larger audiences. But there has also been a potentially dangerous blurring of lines.

Fiona Callister, of the Catholic charity CAFOD, said her press office sometimes provided features that went in UK national newspapers unchanged – just re-bylined with the name of a staff feature writer.14 And in a piece from the Observer entitled “In Starvation’s Grip,” with three bylines — Tim Judah, Dominic Nutt, and Peter Beaumont15 — it is not made clear that two of the authors were Observer journalists and one a Christian Aid press officer.

For some, this is a necessary evil; they would say that NGOs are the only entities seriously funding foreign reporting. The distinguished photographer Marcus Bleasdale said recently, “[o]ver the last ten years I would say 80-85 per cent [of my work] has been financed by humanitarian agencies. To give one example, in 2003 I made calls to 20 magazines and newspapers saying I wanted to go to Darfur. Yet I made one call to Human Rights Watch, sorted a day rate, expenses and five days later I was in the field.”16

Bleasdale has had a long and distinguished career, especially in Darfur. But there are concerns about what might happen in less experienced hands than his. Dan Gillmor has called humanitarians acting as reports “almost-journalism.” Some observers argue that as aid agencies become reporters and conform to dominant media logic, they lose opportunities for advocacy and also any credibility they formerly possessed. Yet the real problem appears to be as Gillmor warns: “They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness.”

Certainly broadcasters now appear to be less laissez faire about using NGOs as their unpaid reporters than in the past. The Merlin package used by the BBC was so keen to mention its debt that Merlin was given numerous name-checks. This — in the U.K. at least — may be linked to a heightened sense of responsibility after a succession of scandals in 2007 that revealed “faked” footage in documentaries, and which resulted in both the BBC and the major commercial channel ITV being censured. These scandals themselves did not have anything to do with NGOs but added to a climate of caution in news as well as documentaries. Certainly by acknowledging the provenance, it absolved the news organizations of responsibility if the footage should later prove controversial — especially given that recent crises have included Burma and Gaza.

Second, aid agencies are also adapting by seeking to become citizen journalists themselves. The Disasters Emergency Committee, in its 2007 Sudan appeal, persuaded the three UK party leaders to each record a message that could be put up on YouTube. Save the Children has launched its own “fly on the wall” documentary from Kroo Bay in Sierra Leone. Rachel Palmer of Save the Children said that while numbers remained relatively small, those who clicked onto the site spent on average 4.5 minutes there. But the main success was not explaining development but to “bear witness…to show people the similarity between their own children and an eight-year-old in Sierra Leone.”17.

And in 2008, the British Red Cross even ventured into the world of alternate reality games to build the game Traces of Hope written by the scriptwriter of Bebo’s KateModern. Aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds in the U.K., it attempted to engage players and introduce them to the consequences of the trauma of war, and how the Red Cross helps victims of conflict.

While NGOs are educating themselves in new media, however, they are facing a challenge: citizen journalists are increasingly becoming watchdogs for NGOs, thus consolidating a third trend.

In her 2006 report for the UN Special Envoy, Imogen Wall points out that in Aceh there were two to three mobile phones per refugee camp. When I visited Banda Aceh in 2007, aid agencies had found to their cost that instead of being grateful beneficiaries there was an articulate and determined population using new media (such as texting, and digital photographs) effectively when they felt the reconstruction process was not going quickly enough. They would use such methods often in collaboration with traditional media such as the local newspaper Serambi Indonesia or the local TV news programme Aceh Dalamberita.

“The community is smart in playing the media game,” says Christelle Chapoy of Oxfam in Banda Aceh. “We have had the geuchiks (village chiefs) saying quite openly to us — if you don’t respond to our demands we will call in the media.”18

This may mean unwelcome criticism, or, at its most severe, it can put people in danger. Those aid agencies who find themselves attacked online in one area may find more serious consequences in other parts of the world. As Vincent Lusser of ICRC said: “In a globalised media environment, people even in remote conflict areas are connected to the Internet. Therefore our colleagues in Kabul have to think that what happens in Afghanistan can affect our colleagues elsewhere in the world.”

Conclusion

Citizen journalism can mean that more diverse voices — for example, earthquake survivors in Pakistan, tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh or bloggers in Burma — are being heard. This new wealth of angles can act as a corrective to the previous patriarchal approach where reporters and aid agencies acted as mouthpieces. Neither aid agencies nor the traditional media can return to the control they had in the past. The old certainties about the gatekeeping role that aid agencies had — and journalists utilized — have gone, and both sides are grappling with this new world.

It is important not to be too idealistic about citizen journalism. Without checks and balances, UGC can spread misinformation and even be used as a dangerous weapon — witness the ethnic hatred spread by SMS messages in the aftermath of the December 2007 Kenyan elections.

New media has also seen a potential blurring of boundaries between journalists eager for material but strapped for cash, and aid agencies fighting in a competitive marketplace and using more creative means to get stories placed. If journalists use aid workers’ words and footage they must clearly label it as such. If they are accepting a trip from an aid agency — so-called “beneficent embedding”19 — then they should be honest about it.

If aid agencies act as reporters they must consider whether they are acting as journalists or as advocates. While journalists — if sometimes imperfectly — work on the principle of impartiality, the aid agency is usually there to get a message across: to raise money, to raise awareness, to change a situation. When they act as journalists this often becomes blurred. The danger, as Gillmor points out, is a growth in “almost journalism,” a confusion both for aid agencies as to what they are trying to do, and for the viewer/reader about what they are being presented with.

For those agencies who are turning from traditional media to using their own websites, the key point is that to be successful, such footage and websites need to be of as good quality as those produced by traditional media for sophisticated consumers. The associated cost privileges the efforts of larger and well-funded NGOs.

Meanwhile agencies must realize that they are not the only ones grappling with new media. Citizen journalists have the potential to act as NGOs’ watchdogs, as the mainstream media retreat from foreign reporting. As the experience in Aceh and elsewhere shows, local people are not just grateful beneficiaries; instead, they can be articulate and angry critics.

And finally new information and communication technologies that enable these developments cannot be ignored. The Economist reports that following Mr. Sokor’s appeal, the WFP did boost rations in the Dagahaley refugee camp. Is that blunt text message a harbinger of things to come?

Glenda Cooper is a journalist and academic. She is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford. She was a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2007-08 and the 2006-07 Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield. She is a consulting editor at the Daily Telegraph.

References

Bleasdale, M. Speaking at “The News Carers: Are Aid Groups Doing too much Real Newsgathering? A Debate at the Frontline Club.” New York, February 28, 2008.

Cooper, G. “Anyone Here Survived a Wave, Speak English and Got a Mobile? Aid Agencies, the Media and Reporting Disasters since the Tsunami.” The 14th Guardian Lecture. Nuffield College, Oxford, November 5, 2007.

Cottle, S. and Nolan, D. “Global Humanitarianism and The Changing Aid-Media Field.” Journalism Studies 8, No. 6 (2007), pp. 862-878.

Gowing, N. “New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and early 1997.” Conference paper given at Dispatches from Disaster Zones conference, May 1998.

Hattotuwa, S. “Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists?” In TVEP/UNDP, Communicating Disasters. An Asia-Pacific Resource Book, 2007.

Judah, T., Nutt, D. and Beaumont, P. “In Starvation’s Grip.” The Observer, June 9, 2002.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Famine, Disease, War and Death. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Oxfam. “Guide to Media Work in Emergencies.” Internal document, Oxfam GB, Oxford, 2007.

Sutcliffe, T. “Ethics Aside, Citizen Journalists Get Scoops.” The Independent, January 2, 2007.

Notes
  1. The Economist 2007
  2. Cooper 2007
  3. Vaux 2005
  4. Moeller 1999
  5. Interview with Vicky Taylor, May 7 2008
  6. Interview with Samanthi Dissanayake, BBC producer, 7 May 2008
  7. Buerk 1984
  8. Hattotuwa 2007
  9. Email from Ory Okolloh, September 5, 2008
  10. Sutcliffe 2007
  11. Interview with John Naughton, November 27, 2006
  12. Gowing 1998
  13. Oxfam 2007
  14. Telephone interview with Fiona Callister, August 29, 2007
  15. Judah, Nutt, and Beaumont, 2002
  16. Bleasdale 2008
  17. Phone interview Jan 20, 2009
  18. Interview, Banda Aceh, 30 Apr 2007
  19. Cottle and Nolan 2007
06:54

November 30 2009

09:45

#FollowJourn: @catherine_mayer / magazine journalist

#FollowJourn: Catherine Mayer

Who? London bureau chief for Time Magazine.

What? Started her career at the Economist in the 1980s; frequent speaker at events (eg. at the LSE).

Where? On Twitter / Time Magazine.

Contact? On Twitter or via Time Magazine.

Just as we like to supply you with fresh and innovative tips every day, we’re recommending journalists to follow online too. They might be from any sector of the industry: please send suggestions (you can nominate yourself) to judith or laura at journalism.co.uk; or to @journalismnews.

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November 23 2009

05:58
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