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January 20 2012

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

December 20 2011

16:00

Robert Hernandez: For journalism’s future, the killer app is credibility

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is multimedia journalist Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, currently an assistant professor at USC Annenberg.

Granted, this will make for a weak lede, but allow me to start this piece with a disclosure: I, like many of you, am not a fan of prediction posts.

Typically, they aren’t based on anything real and are often used to make grand statements we all roll our eyes at… and don’t get me started on how often they’re wrong.

That aside, here’s another piece to roll your eyes at.

But here’s a tweak, this is not really a prediction… this is, to be honest, more of a hopeful wish.

Okay, ready? Here goes.

We know that Content is King. There is no doubting this concept. If you don’t have ‘it,’ no one is going to engage with you.

We know that Distribution is Queen. In this modern age, what’s the point of having ‘it’ if no one will find it?

My prediction is that this ruling monarchy will be augmented by… a prince. Perhaps a duke? Whatever. And it’s called Credibility.

In the age that we live in, content is relatively cheap. Anyone can create it. If not through their computer, everyone’s phone can basically do live shots, record newsworthy sound clips and file stories. Some can do interactive 360 videos or augmented reality presentations. Really cool stuff.

And everyone can distribute their content in 140 characters, their own livestream network or their blog (how traditional).

With technology empowering everyone with the ability to create and to distribute, I predict — and wish — that in 2012 the new dominating factor will be Credibility. Actually, earned Credibility.

What will stand out from the sea of content will be the voices we turn to time and time again. Trusted sources of news and information will transcend their mastheads and company brands…and become their own brand. Brands that are solely based on being known for the quality and reliability of their work.

Just to make Gene Weingarten angry, brands brands brands brands brands. Look, that’s all marketing speak for the most important quality journalists have to offer: Credibility.

And, sure, some of us get a head start by being associated with the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, etc. But I predict — hope — that in the coming year, individual journalists will be valued more than their distribution companies. More than the media format of their story.

Judged by the content of their character. (Wait, that’s a different dream.)

Many news consumers are tired of the political left and the political right fighting, and making journalism — or I should actually say “journalism” — the fight’s platform. Hell, I’m tired of it, too.

We want people who will cut through the spin and tell us what’s going on, how it will affect us and what can we do about it. We want transparent news. We want news that, while it may not always achieve that goal, honestly strives to be objective.

We want to trust journalism. And to do so, we need to trust journalists.

And bypassing the blogger-vs-tweeter-vs-media company-vs-journalist debate, it is going to come down to one thing: Credibility.

Can I reliably trust you to tell me what is going on? If the answer is yes, then I don’t care if you work out of a newsroom or out of your garage.

Let’s see what the new year brings, but that is my predication…that is my wish.

Okay, roll your eyes. Or post a comment. Share your thoughts.

Correction: We initially listed Richard, rather than Robert, Hernandez as the author of this post. We deeply regret the error, and want to stress that it’s the R. Hernandez of USC, rather than the R. Hernandez of Berkeley, who wrote this prediction. Apologies to both.

Image by vagawi used under a Creative Commons license.

May 02 2011

17:30

Canadians Prefer to Get News from Friends (not Editors) on Social Media

Journalists today are expected to be active on social media, sharing observations, anecdotes and links with their audience. Facebook itself is reaching out to newsrooms, recently launching the Journalists on Facebook page as a resource for the media.

But a study from Canada suggests more people prefer to get their news via their friends and acquaintances on social media, than from a journalist or news organization. And there are mixed signals as to whether audiences think journalists should be using Twitter in their professional work.

I was the lead author of the study, "Social Networks Transforming How Canadians Get the News," from the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC). It gave further evidence of the impact social media is having on how people get the news and from whom. Social media services are turning into personalized news streams for Canadians of all ages, who rely on their digital circle of friends, family and acquaintances to alert them to interesting news and information.

The CMRC study is based on an online survey of a representative national sample of 1,682 adults conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion. The margin of error -- which measures sampling variability -- is +/- 2.5%, 19 times out of 20.

Keeping up with the news was one of the attractions of social networks for more than two-thirds of social media users. Every day, almost half of social media users in Canada get some of their news every day via links and recommendations from friends, family and colleagues who broadened their horizons, the study found.

A study by Pew Research last year found a similar trend taking place in the U.S., as news consumers increasingly shared links and recommendations in their social networks.

Your friend as your news editor

People have always shared the news, from discussing last night's news bulletin to sending a newspaper clipping. But social media is extending the ability of audiences to influence the distribution and reach of news.

The CMRC study points to the growing influence of users to decide what is seen and read, as newsrooms jump onto social media platforms as a new way to distribute content and reach a bigger audience.

The survey showed that Canadians were twice as likely to get news from friends on social networks than from journalists or official news accounts. Only one in five said they receive news from a media outlet on social networks. For Twitter, only one in ten get their news from tweeting journalists.

cbc news alerts.jpg

The figures signal that it is more important for a newsroom to get others to share and recommend content than to do it through an official account. The study suggests that the more than 18 million Canadians on Facebook and almost 5 million on Twitter are becoming the news editors for their social circles, deciding whether a story, video or other piece of content is interesting enough to recommend.

Should Journalists Tweet?

As journalists increasing use Twitter and tap into social media for reporting, networking and storytelling, the CMRC study strikes a note of caution. Canadians were evenly divided on whether news organizations should include information gleaned from social media into their reports.

There was a similar ambivalence when it came to whether journalists should even use Twitter to report the news. While 39 percent said yes, 34 percent said no and 26 percent were unsure. The ambiguous results suggest that Twitter may just be too new for audiences to decide whether it is a good or bad thing for the media.

Journalists_Twitter.jpg

Perhaps more significantly, younger Canadians were much more comfortable with a more social type of journalism, which is not surprising given how social media has become woven into the fabric of their lives.

The CMRC study found that a majority of under-34-year-olds in Canada use social media regularly, and that younger adults tended to be heavier users. Students, in particular, were much more comfortable with the idea of journalists integrating social media content into their reporting.

Similarly, just over half of students agreed that journalists should use Twitter to help report on trends and issues. The figures suggest a generational divide in attitudes toward social media and journalism.

For example, the study found that virtually no one over 55 follows journalists on Twitter. But kids who have grown up with the social web seem far more accepting of news organizations and journalists integrating these new services into their daily routines.

The conundrum for media organizations

Social media presents tremendous possibilities for journalists to reach audiences, expand their range of sources and engage with communities. The changing consumption patterns for news also raise questions for media organizations.

younger use of social nets.jpg

Sharing the news is becoming an important part of how people experience the news. The CMRC study found that 64 percent of news consumers value being able to easily share content, rising to 83 percent for those under the age of 34. But those "share" and "like" buttons tend to point users towards Facebook or Twitter, undermining existing mass media business models based on delivering large audiences to advertisers.

While social media creates new opportunities for the news industry to reach and engage audiences, particularly younger Canadians, it also represents competition for consumer attention and revenue. It further fragments the audience and potentially could signal a shift in reader loyalty from a news brand to their social circle.

Alfred Hermida is the lead author on the CMRC report on social media. He is an online news pioneer and digital media scholar. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.

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

March 04 2011

23:00

February 01 2011

15:30

Could BiblioBouts, an online sourcing game for academia, offer lessons for media literacy?

Karen Markey had a fairly straightforward idea: Teach students to steer clear of unreliable sources of information through the use of a game.

What the University of Michigan professor wants her students to focus on navigating is academic research. But instead of citing credible references on the rise of the Medici family, what if we could apply a similar game to distinguishing the credibility of news sources?

“The problem is today’s students still don’t know where to go for authoritative, good information that is trustworthy,” said Markey. “But they sure do know how to go to the web.”

If we swapped out “students” for “readers,” you’d have the basis of an argument for media literacy and the importance of finding a way for readers (and journalists themselves) to find good information.

The game Markey created, BiblioBouts, could potentially be an example to educators, j-schools or nonprofits on how to teach media literacy. It’s an idea that’s getting investment, like the Knight Foundation’s funding of the expansion of a civics and news literacy program in West Virginia called Globaloria.

In BiblioBouts, students gather citations from library databases or online sources and rank them against each other based on credibility, content, and relevance to assigned topics. The game is built off Zotero, an open-source online citation tool that lets users organize and share research. In a way, the game is a little like the academic equivalent of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft: You assemble the best team possible and hope to come out on top. Though maybe it’s a little like the Legend of Zelda in a “gather the tools you’ll need for the journey” way. (Then again, I may just be a big nerd.)

Through rating and tagging each other’s citations, students evaluate what makes a good source, with (hopefully) the more thorough and useful sources rising to the top. If competitiveness is any kind of factor students will look at the winning sources and want to emulate that process, Markey said. “It puts people in situations where the game-like features encourage them to continue playing,” she said. “And if they continue playing, hopefully they’ll learn more.”

It’s arguable that doing research has never been easier, thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Markey said professors aren’t surprised by studies saying students lend too much credence to search rankings in Google rather than relevance or authority. But Markey is clear that she’s not entrenched in an anti-Internet camp when it comes to research. She said there are plenty of good tools (Google Scholar, for instance), as well as sources for surfacing information — but students need to learn to be more discerning and know when to look deeper.

BiblioBouts may seem like a technology solution to a technology problem, in that you’re using one system to try and bring order to another (solving the “there’s too much information” problem, or perhaps the filter failure problem). But Markey thinks making more critical readers is the answer, and in that way BiblioBouts is just a tool.

“I think we need to teach people methodologies,” she said. “When you retrieve something on the web, you need to ask questions about what I am looking at and whether the information can be trusted.”

Markey can see a ready analog in journalism and the idea of media literacy. A similar game, call it truth-squading or BS-detecting, could be used either in training would-be journalists how to ferret out information, or creating more shrewd news consumers. “We need to be critical consumers of information to make decisions that impact our lives,” she said.

Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.

October 23 2010

10:53

Kabissa wins the Netsquared FACT Social Justice Challenge!

Thank you everyone who voted for Kabissa Connections on Netsquared to get us into the final 15 and thank you judges who selected us to be among the 5 winning organizations to receive a $5,000 cash prize. I also would like to congratulate the other 4 winners, in particular Agricultural Marketing Information Services in Cameroon and Integrated Electonic Peace Building Project in Kenya which are both very innovative and powerful projects deserving of recognition and support. 

In a nutshell, Kabissa Connections will address trust concerns by providing a platform revealing the connections that organizations have with networks, international organizations, supporters and service providers. We will do this for organizations working in Africa while collaborating with others on open source tools, standards and approaches that can be replicated in other regions.

I am very excited to receive this recognition for an idea that has been brewing for years and which it appears we will now have the opportunity to implement. We will have more news soon over at kabissa.org on next steps and opportunities to get involved, so please be sure to join Kabissa and subscribe to our monthly member newsletter.

In the meantime, please help make it happen by making a donation to Kabissa. Thanks!  

Crossposted from http://kabissa.org/news/kabissa-wins-netsquared-fact-social-justice-challenge

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October 14 2010

09:24

Update on Kabissa Connections - Honored By Outpouring of Support and Appeal for your Vote in FACT Social Justice Challenge

I have been following the FACT Social Justice Challenge and have been honored by the outpouring of support for the KABISSA CONNECTIONS project in the comments and fans. It appears the other African projects we support are also doing well which I find tremendously gratifying.

If you have not yet decided on all 5 projects you want to vote for and share our vision for empowering African organizations at the grassroots, please consider adding KABISSA CONNECTIONS to your ballot. Our project will help build their repuation online by revealing the many positive relationships they have with each other and with international organizations, foundations and online networks.  

Here is a selection of comments: 

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October 01 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: AOL snaps up TechCrunch, effecting social change online, and hyperlocal minds meet

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

AOL continues moving into media: The Internet giant of the ’90s, AOL, has been aggressively trying to remake itself as a media company for the 2010s, and it made one of its biggest moves this week when it bought the influential tech blog TechCrunch. The deal was first reported by GigaOM and announced on stage Tuesday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference. AOL also scooped up the web video company 5Min and Thing Labs, maker of the social media reader Brizzly on the same day, though it couldn’t snatch the popular All Things Digital blogging crew away from The Wall Street Journal.

Given how central TechCrunch’s founder, Michael Arrington, is to the blog’s success, the first questions were twofold: Will Arrington be able to continue exercising his iconoclastic editorial voice with AOL, and can the blog remain strong if he leaves? Salon’s Dan Gillmor was skeptical about the latter, and Fast Company and The Atlantic gave reason for similar doubts about the former, with a list of Arrington’s past criticism of AOL and statements by the founder of Engadget, another blog purchased by AOL, that too many layers of management made the company difficult to work at. (He said things have changed at AOL since then.) For his part, Arrington gave assurances to tech blogger Robert Scoble and TechCrunch’s readers that he’ll have complete editorial independence and has agreed to stay on for at least three years.

The bigger media issue, of course, is that this purchase signals AOL’s deepening transformation into a full-on web media company. As a marketing exec told the New York Post’s Keith Kelly, “Nobody gives AOL enough credit for the massive transformation that the brand has undertaken.” AOL CEO Tim Armstrong explained the rationale behind the deal to Advertising Age and Bloomberg: TechCrunch’s insider, consumer audience can garner premium ad rates, and the TechCrunch brand can give AOL some cred it couldn’t necessarily get on its own. He also told GigaOM’s Om Malik that he wants to begin developing platforms in communication, content and advertising for other companies to build on, though he wouldn’t go into details.

The Wall Street Journal threw a little bit of cold water on the AOL hype, noting that more than 40 percent of the company’s revenue still comes from dial-up Internet service and related subscriptions. Advertisers haven’t totally bought into the change yet either, the Journal said. AOL might have come a long way, but it still has a long way to go, too.

Can social media produce real social change?: In a piece in this week’s New Yorker, cultural critic Malcolm Gladwell challenged the idea that social media is an effective tool of social change and revolution, comparing it with the civil rights movement and other pre-social media large-scale social reform efforts. Gladwell argued that social media is built on weak social ties, which are good for encountering new information and amassing followers of a cause, but bad at inspiring collective action. “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960,” Gladwell wrote.

Gladwell expounded helpfully on his points in a chat on the New Yorker website, in which he said, among other things, that he holds up the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the “gold standard” for social media-fueled civic engagement. His piece generated some thoughtful disagreement: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said he liked the article overall but took issue with Gladwell’s assertion that online networks don’t have leadership or organization.

Others weren’t quite so complimentary: In a video conversation, politics professor Henry Farrell and the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez agreed that social media’s weak ties could make it easier to form the strong social ties that lead to significant action. A quasi-anonymous Economist correspondent made a similar arguments to both those points, saying that social media strengthens all social ties, and that networks’ bottom-up nature make them particularly subversive. Jeff Sonderman made similar points as well and pointed out that online and offline social networks tend to overlap, so they can’t be treated as discrete entities.

There were plenty of other avenues (thoughtful and somewhat less so) down which critics took this debate — see this New York Times feature for six of them — but the most cogent points may have come from Expert Labs director Anil Dash, who argued that Gladwell is limited by his outmoded idea that the only type of revolutions that produce change are those that come in the form of chanting, sign-wielding masses. “There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online,” Dash wrote. “They’re just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965.”

Helping hyperlocal news thrive: Many of the U.S.’ hyperlocal-news pioneers gathered in Chicago late last week for the Block By Block Community News Summit hosted by the Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen. A variety of ideas, tips, anecdotes flew back and forth at the event, which was ably summarized by the Lab’s Megan Garber as well as Lauren Kirchner of The Columbia Journalism Review and Polly Kreisman of the local-news blog Lost Remote. You can also check out videos of several of the sessions at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Garber listed several of the main themes of the gathering: Developing an intimate connection with a community (something of a throwback role for the news media, Garber said), building advertising and branding, and finding ways to share ideas with each other. Kirchner noted the common strain among the participants’ description of their own situations: “I’ve figured out how to do this, but I don’t know how to make it last.” She also noted the general tension in the room caused by the presence of representatives from AOL and Yahoo, two media companies with large-scale hyperlocal news aspirations. (Elsewhere this week, AOL’s hyperlocal Patch initiative was called the WalMart of news and a potential steamroller of hyperlocal startups, though The Batavian’s Howard Owens gave some tips on beating Patch in your own neighborhood.) Afterward, McLellan took stock of what hyperlocal journalists need next.

That wasn’t the only hyperlocal news resource to emerge this week. J-Lab released a report detailing what’s worked and what hasn’t in the the five years it’s been funding community-news startups. One major conclusion in the report is that hyperlocal news sites didn’t replace the journalism of traditional news sources; they added something that hadn’t been there before. (Some other key takeaways: Engagement, not just content; sweat equity is big; and the business model isn’t there yet.) At Lost Remote, Cory Bergman of Seattle’s Next Door Media offered an endorsement of the report, adding that for his startup, “the biggest critical success factor for a neighborhood news site is a passionate editor.” And at PBS Idea Lab, Martin Moore made the case for a bottom-up structure in local news sites.

Media trust hits a new low: Gallup released its annual poll on Americans’ trust in the news media, and in what’s become a fairly regular occurrence, that trust is at an all-time low. MinnPost’s David Brauer tried to square that finding with Pew’s finding two weeks ago that people are spending more time with the news. (My guess: Gallup’s survey measures feelings about the traditional news media, while Pew’s finding of increased news consumption is attributable largely to new media sources.)

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asked why trust is so low, and came up with an interesting hypothesis: The news media is telling us not to trust the news media. Citing Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart as examples, he concludes, “to consume opinion journalism … is to consume a product that exists to tell you that the product is inherently rotten.” As if on cue, the Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Malcolm rattled off a sarcastic litany of things the media has done to confirm people’s belief that it’s biased.

Reading roundup: Before we get the miscellany, there were a few smaller news developments that I want to highlight this week:

— The Boston Globe announced that it’s planning on splitting its websites into free and paid versions late next year. The Globe is owned by The New York Times Co., and The Times is also planning to charge for its website next year, and the Lab’s Megan Garber saw the plan as a logical extension of the Times’ paywall — a sort of steppingstone into the tablet-news world. Media analyst Ken Doctor wrote a smart analysis on the Globe’s strategy, calling it a plan to retain its print readers in the short run and convert them to (paid) tablet reading in the long run. The alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, meanwhile, didn’t waste time in writing Boston.com’s obituary.

— Mayhill Fowler, who gave The Huffington Post one of its biggest-ever scoops in 2008 as a reporter for the Off the Bus citizen-journalism project, wrote a kiss-off post on her personal blog announcing she was leaving the site, essentially, because she was tired of writing for nothing. The Post fired back, and Politico’s Ben Smith used the incident to wonder if the opinion-oriented blogosphere is moving toward news judgment as the mainstream media makes the opposite transition.

— After Forbes bought his freelance blogging network True/Slant, Lewis D’Vorkin is planning on selling blog space to advertisers alongside the company’s news blogs, Advertising Age reported. Reuters’ Felix Salmon predicted the plan would spur a uprising along the lines of ScienceBlogs’ PepsiGate this summer.

Now the three stray pieces you need to take a look at:

— The Awl’s Nick Douglas wrote a great post explaining why online forums are so underrated as online culture-drivers, and why Reddit is becoming more important within that subculture.

— Stanford scholar Geoff McGhee produced a fantastic set of videos on data journalism. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with data journalism, this is a must-see.

— And possibly the most essential piece of the week: Jonathan Stray’s case for designing journalism from the user’s perspective. “The news experience needs to become intensely personal,” Stray wrote. “It must be easy for users to find and follow exactly their interests, no matter how arcane. Journalists need to get proficient at finding and engaging the audience for each story.” A quote doesn’t do it justice; go read the whole thing.

September 30 2010

11:30

Distrust in US media at record high, according to Gallup poll

Distrust in mass media in the US has reached a record high, having risen for the fourth year running. In a recent Gallup poll, 57 per cent of respondents said they had little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.

The 43 per cent who answered that they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in mass media make up a joint record-low. An earlier poll, conducted by Gallup last month, suggested that trust in newspaper and television news is particularly low, with just 22 per cent saying they had quite a lot or a great deal of trust in newspapers and 25 per cent saying the same for television.

The suvey suggests a sharp decline in trust in the branches of government, with Gallup recording a record low for the legislative branch, worse than the media rating.  The executive and judicial branches of government fared better but also suffered declines.

Other findings suggest that nearly half of Americans (48 per cent) think the media is too liberal, compared with just 15 per cent who think it is too conservative. Sixty-three per cent of respondents perceived bias in one direction or the other.

A recent YouGov poll of the UK found that trust in media outlets is in steep decline. The survey suggests that ‘upmarket’ newspapers (Times, Telegraph Guardian) had an approval rating of 41 per cent, ‘mid-markets’ (Mail, Express) 21 per cent, and red-tops  just 10 per cent.

Full Gallup findings at this link…Similar Posts:



September 03 2010

14:00

June 29 2010

19:57

How people love but worry about social media

The report by Fleishman-Hillard into the Internet’s influence in seven countries reveals a paradox when it comes to social media.

While more users are embracing social media, they are also concerned about sharing too much information.

The 2010 Digital Influence Index Study found that more than half (53%) of the study’s respondents thought they were revealing too much online.

Canadians were the most likely to express concerns about TMI. Yet, Canadians are also the most engaged with social media, mostly through Facebook.

More than two-thirds of consumers in Canada are on Facebook, compared to around half for the other countries in the survey.

There was also another paradox when it came to microblogging services such as Twitter.

The study found that Canadians were the most knowledgeable of microblogs. They were the most likely of the Western countries to have an account, but also the most likely to have an inactive account:

  • 85% have heard of microblogging
  • 18% have a microblog account
  • 33% have yet to microblog
  • 26% microblog less than once a month on average

And Canadians showed the lowest level of trust in companies that microblog, together with Americans and the British.

There is much more in the full report, which is available as a PDF download. Gillian Shaw has a good write-up in The Vancouver Sun.

June 07 2010

14:00

Maximizing the values of the link: Credibility, readability, connectivity

The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.

The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.

I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.

Credibility

A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice.”

That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)

Readability

Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head.”

Chittum, for his part, noted that “reading on the web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”

When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.

I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.

Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”

Connectivity

Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”

Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.

When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.

Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

May 07 2010

14:00

An involuntary Facebook for reporters and their work: Martin Moore on the U.K.’s Journalisted

In the era of big media, our conceptions of trust were tied up in news organizations. If a story was on page 1 of The New York Times, that fact alone conjured up different associations of quality, truthfulness, and trustworthiness than if it were on page 1 of The National Enquirer. Those associations weren’t consistent — many Fox News viewers would have different views on the trustworthiness of the Times than I do — but they still largely lived at the level of the news organization.

But in an era of big-media regression and splintered news — when news can be delivered online by someone you hadn’t even heard of 10 seconds ago — how does trust evolve? Does it trickle down to the individual journalist: Do we decide who to trust not based on the news organization they work for but on the reporter? Are there ways to build metadata around those long-faceless bylines that can help us through the trust thicket?

It’s a question that’s getting poked at by Journalisted, the project of the U.K.’s Media Standards Trust. You can think of Journalisted as an involuntary Facebook for British reporters — at the moment, those who work for the national newspapers and the BBC, but with hopes to expand. It tracks their work across news organizations, cataloging it and drawing what data-based conclusions it can.

So if you run across an article by Richard Norton-Taylor and have pangs of doubt about his work, you can go see what else he’s written about the subject or anything else. There’s also a bit of metadata around his journalism: A tag cloud tells you he writes more about the MI5 than anything else, although lately he’s been more focused on NATO. You can see what U.K. bloggers wrote about each of his stories, and you can find other journalists who write about similar topics. And for journalists who choose to provide it, you can learn biographical information, like the fact that Simon Rothstein is an award-winning writer about professional wrestling, so maybe his WWE stories are more worth your time.

It is very much a first step — Journalisted is not yet the vaunted distributed trust network that will help us decide who to pay attention to and who we can safely ignore. The journalist-matching metadata is really interesting, but it still doesn’t go very far in determining merit: No one’s built those tools yet. But it’s a significant initiative toward placing journalists in the context of their work and their peers, and in the new splintered world, that context is going to be important.

Our friend Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust dropped by our spare-shelved office not long ago and I asked him to talk about Journalisted. Video above, transcript below.

Journalisted is essentially a directory of all the journalists who are published in the UK national press and on the BBC, and in the future other sites as well. Each journalist has their own profile page, a little bit like Facebook or LinkedIn, but the difference being that that page is automatically updated with links to their most recent articles. It has some basic analysis of the content of those articles, so what they write an awful lot about, and what they don’t. And, it has links to other information to give context to the journalist, so if they have a profile in the paper, or if they have a Wikipedia page, or if they have their own personal blog or website. And as of a couple of weeks ago, they can add further information themselves if they’d like to.

[...]

If you’re interested in a particular journalist and you want to know more about what they write about, again to give you context, then obviously that’s a very good way of doing it. It tells you if they come from a particular perspective, it tells you if they’ve written an awful lot about a subject. If you, for example, read a piece strongly recommending against multiple vaccinations, you might want to know if this person has a history of being anti-multiple vaccinations, or if they have particular qualifications in science that make them very good reporting on this issue, etc. So, it gives you that context.

It also, on a simpler level, can give you contact details. So, where a journalist has published their email address, we automatically serve it up. But equally they can themselves put in further contact information, if you want to follow up on a story. And we also have some interesting analytics which lead you on to journalists who write about similar topics, or if you read an article, similar articles on the same topic. So again, it’s to contextualize the news and to help you to navigate and have more reason to trust a piece.

[...]

Initially, there was a bit of shock, I think. An awful lot of journalists don’t expect the spotlight to be turned around and put on them, so we had some very interesting exchanges. Since then, it’s now been around long enough that a lot of journalists have actually started to almost use it as their online CV. They’re adding their own stuff, they’re asking us to add stuff on their behalf, and they’re seeing that it can be of benefit to them, either with sources, so that they can allow sources to contact them, and to engage with them, or, equally, with employers. Quite a number of journalists have told us that editors have looked at their Journalisted profile and made a decision as to whether to offer them some work.

[...]

There are a number of goals. The initial one that we’re working on now is to flesh out the profiles much more. So to give people much more depth around the person so that they can have a much better impression as to who this journalist is, what they write about, their qualifications, the awards that they’ve won, and the books that they’ve written, etc. So, really flesh out the individual profile.

Following on from that, we’d love to expand it. We’d love to bring in more journalists, more publications — if possible, even go international. Our hope is that in the future, it will start to become a central resource, if you like, a junction point, a linked data resource, so that it will be the place you’ll come to from either the news site, from a blog, from wherever, in order to find out more about a journalist.

May 04 2010

16:00

Why does the BBC want to send its readers away? The value of linking

The BBC aims to double the number outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That’s double the number of people sent away from the BBC site — intentionally. In a recent BBC blog post, BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann cites a BBC strategy review document which lays out the goal of

Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

One external link per page will seem laughably low to any seasoned blogger, but intentionally increasing outbound traffic is positively radical for a mainstream newsroom. It’s a goal that might baffle proponents of the walled garden approach to web sites, or raise howls of protest among those who feel that aggregators are parasites, but Herrmann wrote that the BBC sees it as a service to its readers:

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them.

This comes in the wake of £600 million in cuts to the BBC budget, about 15 percent of the huge organization’s spending. That includes a 25-percent cut to the BBC website’s budget, which will halve the number of top-level sections by 2013. The BBC has also delayed its iPad/iPhone news reading application in the U.K. after industry complaints that it is crowding private newsrooms out of the market. (American users can already use the iPad app.)

Is the BBC’s plan to increase external links an enlightened editorial policy, or is this just spin on a downsizing announcement? Are they aiming to provide a valuable curation service to their readers, have they been forced by regulators to reduce the scope of their work, or is this really a cash-strapped move towards a cheaper, aggregator-style news organization? I asked Herrmann to explain.

He told me by email that

The strategy envisages the BBC as a cultural and public space, one that isn’t trying to sell anything and can be trusted. It sets out the aim of building this broader public space by working with other public cultural organisations to share and promote a wider range of content.

So the principle for BBC Online, which covers news, weather, sport and programme content, is that it should be “a window on the web”, guiding audiences to the best of the internet as well as partnering with external providers — and that is why we want to increase the click-throughs.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that competitive concerns played some role in the decision. “We do need to leave space for others,” he wrote.

The move is also about transparency. In an age where many source documents are available in electronic form online, there’s often little reason that readers shouldn’t have access to the same material that reporters use to write their stories. Yet the practice of showing your sources is still less then common among many news organizations. I asked Herrmann if the BBC had a specific policy on source linking.

This is something else I have raised in the blog. There should be a principle that we do link to the most relevant and useful information, including the source documents, wherever we can. That’s not something new — we’ve always had huge interest from users in the source documents we make available for government budget announcements, for example — but it is a restatement of the principle, and a signal of our intent to try to do this as well as we possibly can. Also, as I have started to discuss in the blog post, there is some devil in the detail — for example sometimes the source document isn’t online at time of writing, or it is behind a paywall, or requires subscription — so we are thinking these things through. I’m interested in trying to formulate and develop the best policy with the help of the detailed feedback we are getting from our users.

There is a lively discussion around the details of an ideal source linking policy in the comments to Herrmann’s post, especially as regards academic journals and other non-free sources. It’s also worth mentioning the DocumentCloud project, a serious attempt to build a journalistic document repository which solves some of these problems, such as keeping documents private before publication.

But does the courtesy of linking extend to your competition? “Do what you do best and link to the rest” has become a new-media maxim, but mainstream news organizations are still loathe to send readers to someone else’s reporting. So does the BBC intend to link more often to stories produced by other news sources?

Yes, news organisations and other sources. That is the focus of my recent blog post. We are in the process of working out what this means for our day-to-day working practices on the newsdesk, how to link more but also better. We’ve had links on stories since we started, and we have long had an automated module that pulls in related stories from other news sites, but how can technology help us to do this even better, and what does the journalist working on a story need to change in the way they approach what they do?

Aggregators flourish because users find them useful. The weekly link roundup and the top-ten list remain perennial blogging forms. And while every statement in news writing is supposed be attributed, in practice Wikipedia articles link to their sources far more reliably than news stories. The BBC may be on to something here.

March 16 2010

06:51

December 07 2009

16:08

Saving us from noise that kills: NGOs as news coordinators in a networked public sphere

[Journalists concerned about the future of the news business tend to worry about important issues receiving a decreasing amount of coverage. But what if the problem is less the amount of coverage but the assembling, filtering, and sorting of that coverage? Is there a role for a new class of news coordinators? Our friend Lokman Tsui of the University of Pennsylvania looks at the role nongovernmental organizations are playing in directing people's attention — the scarcest good in the new media economy. This is the fourth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

The question of how news is produced is in essence a question that asks how we come to know the world. It is a crucial question to ask if we want to understand how and why people, events, countries, and whole continents are in the focus or left out of the news.1

News organizations have traditionally been the primary producer and distributor of news. However, as traditional news organizations lose the resources or the capacity to do this, particularly for international news, we start to see that NGOs are asked, or act deliberately, to take on even more responsibility in ensuring that the public does not tune out the rest of the world. Apart from the question of resources, Manuel Castells2 argues that in a globalized environment, NGOs are becoming indispensable in filling the gaps that appear when problems are increasingly transnational in nature and grow beyond the sovereign realm of nation-states.

It is important to understand how this process unfolds: It is not an exaggeration to say that the attention that NGOs can bring to a crisis situation can be a matter of life and death, as attention of the world is often strongly correlated with humanitarian aid and assistance.3 While it may not always be their primary mission, for many NGOs, allocating resources for strategic communication and becoming more integrated with the news landscape has therefore become an indispensable part of their work.4 Their role is to make sure that those without voice do not go silent, because as Medecins Sans Frontieres has said: “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”

For those concerned about how the world comes to know itself, the Internet offers a manifold of opportunities for NGOs that have yet to be explored and understood.

How do NGOs use the Internet to change the way we learn about the world?

Of course, the Internet does not unequivocally affect all NGOs in the same way. Some NGOs are much better equipped to deal with technological change than others. New technologies can have disruptive effects to organizations. Christensen5 has helped us understand why powerful organizations oftentimes fail to adapt to new technologies such as the Internet. He calls these disruptive innovations, because they do not only allow organizations to make their existing processes more efficient, but they also force organizations to drastically rethink their underlying processes. Price et al.6 have referred to this distinction as one between adaptation and transformation.

Technologies are disruptive in the sense that they ask organizations not just to adapt to the new technology, but force them to transform, or face eventual irrelevance or even extinction. For NGOs, just as for mainstream news organizations, the Internet is a disruptive technology that provides both new opportunities and challenges.

In an earlier essay in this series, Fenton suggests that it is the size of the NGO, and accordingly, the amount of resources available, that is a key factor in determining whether an NGO is able to take advantage of the Internet or not. She argues that in our haste to understand the impact of the Internet on NGOs, we too often focus on the large and well-known NGOs, and fail to understand that smaller, resource-poor NGOs are often unable to seize on the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation offers a counter argument: that in fact, large organizations fail to take advantage of new innovations precisely because of size and institutional legacies.

Leveraging the Internet: Legacy NGOs vs. networked NGOs

What determines how an NGO can take advantage of the potential that the Internet offers in a transformative way? Whether NGOs are able to seize on the opportunities that the Internet affords is not so much a matter of size or scale. Rather, it is the ability to leverage the network that shapes to what extent the NGO can capitalize on new technologies.

Understanding the Internet as a disruptive innovation allows us to make a distinction between NGOs that adapt to the Internet, which I refer to as legacy NGOs, and NGOs that are transformative, which I refer to as networked NGOs. Legacy NGOs have optimized their work processes to a technological environment from a previous era, and are now facing institutional legacies as they try to reform and take advantage of the Internet. NGOs that have formed in the wake of the Internet are better positioned to take advantage of the transformative capabilities of new technologies and optimize their processes for a networked public sphere. Yet, the networked NGOs often do not get the attention they deserve. We tend to focus on how legacy NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, make the jump to the digital world. Yet these legacy NGOs do not represent all NGOs. Otherwise we risk turning a blind eye and fail to understand the rise of a range of networked NGOs.

Perhaps at this point a disclaimer is justified. The distinction between legacy and networked NGOs is not a hard and fast rule. Legacy NGOs certainly have the potential to, and do, utilize new technologies to their advantage. They might even form initiatives entirely built around new technologies, such as Witness has done with The Hub. The point is also not that networked NGOs are “better” than the legacy NGOs or that they will replace them. But certainly when we consider how NGOs are becoming more integrated in a transforming news production process, we cannot be content with just paying attention to the prototypical, well-known and more established NGOs. We need to understand how the networked NGOs work alongside legacy NGOs and mainstream media, and together form a networked public sphere.

From silence to noise: the emergence of a networked public sphere

Legacy NGOs are built around practices of content creation that are embedded in an institutional culture and framework that is optimized to deal with a scarcity of voices in the traditional broadcast landscape. They ensure nobody goes silent and that people have a voice on their platform. Over time, they have established an elaborate infrastructure that allows for the verification and legitimatization of the reports they produce, including a well-trained and knowledgeable staff of experts who do their own investigative reporting.

The operative model that is based on silence — a scarcity of voices in the traditional news system — is now under challenge with the arrival of the Internet. “Everybody is a journalist” might be a hyperbole, but it is clear that a lot more people now have a voice, if we consider that even Buddhist monks in Burma, one of the least connected countries in the world, have been able to bring matters to international attention by capturing pictures of protests using camera phones. While the increasing accessibility of technology increases the opportunity for those previously without a voice to speak, NGOs still have an important role to play.

Today, however, the importance of NGOs is no longer exclusively located in speaking for others — in making sure they don’t go silent. Instead, we have gone from a situation where silence can kill to one where noise can kill. It is easier for people to speak, but that does not mean that they are actually being listened to. To the contrary, with information, voices, and testimonies becoming ever more abundant, the most powerful story is in danger of getting lost in information noise. Therefore, the role of NGOs is increasingly to prevent voices from being drowned out, and to bring back signal into the noise.

I draw on three case studies — The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices — to help understand the emerging networked public sphere, and the implications of this for how we learn about the world.

The Hub is an initiative of the human rights organization Witness. Founded by Peter Gabriel in the wake of the Rodney King incident, Witness strongly believes that participatory video can make a difference in bringing attention to issues of human rights. The Hub, launched in 2008, can perhaps be best described as a YouTube for human rights. What sets The Hub apart from YouTube are two services that are particularly relevant in the human rights context: Witness pays special attention to the safety and security of its users and provides a proper context for videos, a crucial element that ensures we are able to make sense of the brutalities on which it often reports.

Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimonial,” was started by Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh in response to the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008 (for Ushahidi’s coverage of this, see here. The project allows people to submit reports through mobile phone, email, or the web. These reports are then aggregated and curated using Google Maps. In short, it is a crowdsourcing tool that makes it easy for people to share what they are witnessing. Individually, they might not be able to make sense of what is going on, but collectively, they are able to give insight into a crisis situation that significantly extends beyond what the mainstream media or individual citizen media reports are able to cover. As Meier states, “nobody knows about every human rights violation taking place, but everyone may know of some incidents.”

The third case study, Global Voices, was founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman in 2004 as a direct response to the decline of foreign news, and in recognition of the untapped potential of blogs to help us understand the world. Theoretically, there is more information than ever before, from all over the world. However, this does not mean that all of this information is immediately accessible: language barriers and lack of context often mean that potential audiences either can’t access, or don’t understand, what is being said. The sheer amount of information available presents another challenge. This is where Global Voices comes in. Global Voices translates and contextualizes the important or interesting conversations for other parts of the world to read.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to?

The functions of these, and other, networked NGOs are best understood as news coordination rather than news gathering. Coordination is the process of establishing order and organization in the information chaos in a concerted way. Coordination is not a new function — legacy NGOs and news organizations have fulfilled this function in the past and continue to do so — but new technologies allow the networked NGOs to give a different twist to it, one whose implications have to be understood in the context of a larger and networked public sphere.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to? Indeed, Global Voices asks us, even challenges us: “The world is talking. Are you listening?” NGOs have always played a crucial role in making sure people had a voice, speaking on behalf of them. But they now increasingly have to make sure people are being heard. They are a crucial intervention in solving the problems that come to exist in situations of information overload and fragmentation of voices — that is, they bring signal back into the noise through news coordination.

The Hub — the name says as much — aims to become the central place for human rights multimedia content. Ushahidi fulfills the function of a hub in its own way by inviting users to share testimonials — testimonials that otherwise would be fragmented, but are now presented in a single, central, and orderly location. And Global Voices aggregates a range of perspectives from different bloggers around the world, offering us perspectives we otherwise would not get in one central place.

Networked NGOs whose production models are based on user participation might help us better understand the dynamics of how distant events are brought to our attention. They provide an alternative perspective, one that recognizes the possibility and the need for other cultures to bring matters to our attention in their own voice, rather than the ones we decide they should have.

In order to effectively coordinate, one must become a central player in the network. What The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices realize is that in a networked public sphere, one becomes a central player by allowing their content to be shared by being open, collaborative, and networked. Global Voices encourages citizen media and news organizations to make use of their content — through legal means (putting a Creative Commons license on their content) and technological means (providing RSS feeds that can easily be incorporated into other websites). More conventional news organizations such as The New York Times, Reuters, and Yahoo! News have adopted, included, and linked to Global Voices content on their news sites. Ushahidi and The Hub employ a similar strategy, making their content easily and widely available through legal and technological means. Redfield (2006) argues that advocacy has evolved from the individual to the collective level, as practiced by most NGOs. What I suggest here is that this too is evolving — from collective advocacy to a form of networked advocacy. The resulting media ecology consists of legacy and networked NGOs, citizen media, and news organizations working together.

Can we trust what we hear?

“How can we trust this?” is perhaps the most often asked question in the case of NGOs. This is understandable, since NGOs are organizations with their own agenda, operating increasingly in an environment where information is not vetted in the traditional way. Redfield7 has referred to this mix of expertise and advocacy, of finding facts in the name of values, as “motivated truth.” The issue of trust becomes even more worrisome in the case of citizen journalism and the Internet. Consider the potential of the unedited rawness of amateur photography that can instill an even greater sense of authenticity with the viewer, as noted by Susan Sontag.8 One can imagine that the personal nature of blogs and social media might also instill a similar sense of authenticity. By making available content that is potentially biased without being clearly marked as such, yet is viewed as more authentic, NGOs take on a significant responsibility. Indeed, when Witness initially asked for feedback about the idea of starting a website where any user could anonymously upload their human rights videos, many commented on the dangers and potential abuse of such an open system, the impossibility of screening every single video, the legal implications of it all. In short, many likened the plan to “jumping off the cliff.”9

A different perspective on the question of bias is provided by Hannah Arendt10, who once said that story telling reveals meaning without making the error of defining it. Her lesson suggests that perspective and meaning are perhaps more useful metaphors when considering the value of the work done by The Hub, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and other networked NGOs — that to view their work solely through the lens of accuracy is in many ways to miss the manifold new and different opportunities they offer. Herbert Gans would perhaps consider their work valuable comparable to what he has referred to as “multiperspectival” journalism.11

This is not to dismiss the importance of accurate factual information. Coordination only has value when there actually is something to coordinate. That is, the value of networked NGOs can best be understood as additional layers on top of the fundamental layer of news creation. This is not unlike the idea set forth by Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen12, who argue that news wires can be understood as being in the business of wholesale news, and national newspapers in retail news, because they customize the news they get from the wires for local audiences.

Networked NGOs do occasionally find themselves in the business of news creation — Ushahidi, for example, in covering the post-election violence in Kenya, was able to cast a wider net, receiving reports from areas that were covered neither by citizen journalism blogs or mainstream media. Ushahidi was not only getting information quicker than any other media outlet, it was also doing so in areas where news organizations were simply not present. But arguably news creation is not where the primary value of networked NGOs resides. Networked NGOs are but part of a larger ecology and still need the help of other organizations, particularly the legacy NGOs and mainstream media. Indeed, Zuckerman, in an essay that will appear later in this series, warns us against the dangers of relying on foreign news from a barren news ecology that only consists of the motivated truth of particular NGOs.

Thoughts for discussion

We are going from a situation where silence kills to one where increasingly also noise kills. The NGO landscape is adapting and transforming: the job of NGOs is no longer just to speak for others, but increasingly also to make them heard. In the face of new technologies, a range of networked NGOs have appeared, including The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices, whose function occasionally is news gathering, but whose value is best understood as news coordination.

Yet, more than ever, we depend on a multi-varied ecology consisting of mainstream news organizations, citizen media, legacy and networked NGOs, to keep us abreast of what is happening elsewhere in the world. In a networked public sphere, no one organization is necessarily “better” at performing the function of educating and informing; rather, they must all work together in order to bring back signal into the noise.

A better and stronger signal can only be generated through coordination if the operative models are based on openness and collaboration. A better and stronger signal also only makes sense on a collective and networked level. Moeller13 has coined the idea of compassion fatigue that is the result of the increased competition for attention. If we accept her premise, then the public only has a limited capacity to listen. Instead of every NGO each vying, even screaming, for attention from audiences, we should give consideration to the possibility of a networked public sphere where content is coordinated and contextualized, where amplification happens on the network level.

Lokman Tsui is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard in 2008-09. His dissertation tries to answer the question of how the world comes to know itself by examining the impact of citizen journalism on global news production. He is coeditor of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age (2008).

References

Arendt, H. Men in Dark Times. Harvest Books, 1970.

Boyd-Barrett, O., & Rantanen, T. The Globalization of News. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Castells, M. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 78-93.

Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Belle, D. “Media agenda-setting and donor aid.” In P. Norris, ed., The Roles of the News Media: Watch-dogs, Agenda-Setters and Gate-Keepers. Washington: The World Bank, 2009.

Fishman, M. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

Gans, H. Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Hall, S. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Meier, P. HURIDOCS09: From Wikipedia to Ushahidi, 2009.

Meier, P., & Brodock, K. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi, 2008.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fenton, N. “NGOs, New Media and the Mainstream News: News from Everywhere.” In N. Fenton, ed., New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009.

Price, M., E., Haas, S., & Margolin, D. “New Technologies and International Broadcasting: Reflections on Adaptations and Transformations.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 150-172.

Redfield, P. “A Less Modest Witness.” American Ethnologist 33, No. 1 (2006), p. 3.

Sontag, S. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

Tuchman, G. Making News. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Wu, H. “A Brave New World for International News? Exploring the Determinants of the Coverage of Foreign News on US Websites.” International Communication Gazette 69, No. 6 (2007), pp. 539-551.

Notes
  1. Hall 1978, Tuchman 1978, Gans 1979, Fishman 1980, Wu 2007
  2. Castells 2008
  3. Belle 2009
  4. Redfield 2006, Fenton 2009
  5. Christensen 2003
  6. Price et al. 2008
  7. Redfield 2006
  8. Sontag 2003
  9. Interview with The Hub.
  10. Arendt 1970
  11. Gans 1979
  12. Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen 1998
  13. Moeller 1998
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