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August 03 2011

06:55

7 books that journalists working online should read?

Image by B_Zedan

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

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

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

1. The Master Switch – Tim Wu

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

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

2. The Information – James Gleick

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

3. The Pirate’s Dilemma – Matt Mason

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

4. The Wealth of Networks – Yochai Benkler

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

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

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

6. Search Engine Society – Alexander Halavais

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

7. Creative Disruption – Simon Waldman

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

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

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March 22 2010

14:00

February 25 2010

15:30

“Burbling blips” & “pyramiding”: What does the Google-China story tell us about how news spreads?

Posts like yesterday’s by my Nieman Lab colleague Jonathan Stray make my academic heart flutter. Stray’s analysis looked at coverage of the latest Google-China developments and found that only 11 percent of the 100-plus news sources did “original reporting” on the issue.

It should join the growing list of reports — from the six year old Harvard Business School study of Trent Lott and the bloggers, to my own research on the Francisville Four, to Yochai Benkler’s work in The Wealth of Networks, to “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle,” to the PEJ study on news diffusion in Baltimore — that help us understand how exactly reporting gets done and news moves in the new digital ecosystem. And Stray’s analysis is data-driven and involves something of a time commitment — but beyond that, it’s the kind of work that could and should be replicated by interested “citizen media scholars” everywhere.

The one sentence take-away from Stray’s analysis was supplied by Howard Weaver in the comments. “Although you seem reluctant to say so,” Weaver wrote, “almost all the genuine journalism here was done by traditional organizations.” This conclusion echoes findings in the recent Baltimore study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, findings which were roundly criticized by some members of the blogosphere, particularly Steve Buttry.

So what does this latest piece of research mean?

One the one hand, the increasingly-frequent findings that the vast majority of original news reporting is still done by large, (relatively) resource-rich news organizations seems almost unworthy of comment. But it’s still worth documenting how, exactly, this plays out in practice.

Even more importantly, there are a few throw-away lines in Stray’s post that I think are worthy of further discussion. The first one is this:

Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value.

This gets to the heart of something really important: Is aggregating the content of “obscure bloggers” not really original reporting? Traditionally, of course, it isn’t; reporting is digging up previously undiscovered “documents, sources, and direct observations,” as the j-school saying goes. But, as Stray notes, these outlets that did this were still doing something worthwhile, something that seemed even more important than the work of journalists calling up the Chinese schools to get the same standardized denial.

But what is this “something worthwhile”? Is linking to a smart-but-obscure website really all that different than calling up a trusted source? What’s the line between “aggregation,” “curation,” and “reporting”? Can we even draw the line anymore? And if more than a hundred reporters are hard at work rewriting New York Times copy without adding anything new, maybe they’d be better off doing something else — like curating, for instance. Or (god help us) even linking!

The second line in the Stray post I wanted to highlight is this:

The punchline is that no English-language outlet picked up the original reporting of Chinese-language Qilu Evening News, which was even helpfully translated by Hong Kong blogger Roland Soong [at ESWN].

To which a commenter added:

Google News tends to exclude non-traditional sources to begin with. Otherwise ESWN would show up all the time on these China-related stories, doing original research and reporting.

This concern — what sources does the Google News database include, and what does it exclude — is remarkably similar to the criticism of the PEJ-Baltimore study launched by Steve Buttry: that in drawing a line around “who actually counts” as a journalist to be included in the research, you are affecting the outcome of the research.

What would we find if we combined both these concerns I discuss above? What if we analyzed aggregation as well as reporting, and if we included sources that aren’t included in the Google News database?

My guess — and it’s still only a guess — is that we’d find something like the “burbling blips” that Zach Seward highlighted months ago when he was posting about the dynamics of the news cycle. We’d basically find a news ecosystem where a cluster of small (but often obscure) news outlets discussed a story to death — discussions that were picked up and amplified by the more traditional, reporting-focused media, which then fed its reporting back into the wider blogosphere for further commentary. In my own comment on this subject, I called this process “iterative news pyramiding,”

the leapfrogging of news from tightly linked clusters strung out along the end of the long tail to more all-purpose, more generally read websites that form the ‘core’ of the internet.

Taking everything we’ve learned so far — from Stray, Benkler, Buttry, the Harvard Business School, me, the PEJ, and others — what might we hypothesize about where news comes from and how it moves? Here are a few bullet points for your consideration:

  • Most “original reporting” (as traditionally defined) is still done by large news institutions.
  • Most traditional news institutions are regurgitating the work of other news institutions, rather than adding anything new.
  • An additional, smaller set of online web-sites are also doing original reporting, but this reporting often gets overlooked in studies of where news comes from, mostly due to boundary-drawing issues. And it also gets overlooked by news organizations themselves
  • Aggregation, curation (or whatever) is something unique and valuable, but it isn’t quite reporting and we don’t quite know what to call it yet. In fact — it might be better for democracy to link to a really smart blogger than it would be to call up a source and get the same meaningless quote that one-thousand other journalists have also gotten.
  • Online, news often originates and moves in a “blippy,” heartbeat-like fashion, but we can only see this if we take aggregation seriously as a journalistic form, and only if we include “obscure bloggers” in our data-set.

What do you all think?

December 17 2009

07:26

In defence of the “user”

Matt Kelly doesn’t like the term ‘users’. In a speech to the World Newspaper Congress keynote in Hyderabad he bemoaned the sterility of the word:

“What a word! “Users.” Not readers, or viewers. Certainly not customers – not unless we are being deeply ironic. For the fact is the word “user” is, for the vast majority of people consuming our products online, entirely accurate.

“We’d never choose such a sterile word to describe the people who buy our newspapers. But online, “users” is about right. They find our content in a search engine, they devour it, then they move back to Google, or wherever, and go looking for more. Often, they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. This was the audience we’ve been chasing all that time. A swarm of locusts.”

He’s not alone. Many others have expressed – if not in such forthright terms, and often on very different bases – similar objections to the term.

But I like it.

I like it because it makes very plain how people use the medium. They were readers in print, an audience for broadcasters, and customers and consumers for businesses, but online… they ‘use’. Not in the exploitative sense that Matt Kelly insinuates, but in an instrumental fashion.

People use the web as a tool – to communicate, to find, to play, and to do a hundred other things. So many of the success stories online are tools: Google, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube. And one of the changes in mindset required when you publish for an online audience, it seems to me, is to recognise that people will want to ‘do’ something with your content online. Share it. Comment on it. Remix it. Correct it. Rate it. Search it. Annotate it. Tag it. Store it. Compare it. Contextualise it. Analyse it. Mash it.

In his book The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler suggested that the ‘user’ was emerging as “a new category of relationship to information production and exchange.

“Users are individuals who are sometimes consumers and sometimes producers. They are substantially more engaged participants, both in defining the terms of their productive activity and in defining what they consume and how they consume it. In these two great domains of life—production and consumption, work and play—the networked information economy promises to enrich individual autonomy substantively by creating an environment built less around control and more around facilitating action.”

That quote should be at the heart of any online journalism training. Different medium, different rules.

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