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April 15 2013


February 11 2012


FAQ: The stream as an interface; starting out in data journalism

Here’s the latest answers to some questions - this time relating to these predictions for 2012:

Q: What are the advantages of “stream” as an interface for news website homepages? 

The main advantages are that it’s very sticky – users tend to leave streams on in the same way that they leave 24 hour news channels on, or keep checking back to Facebook and Twitter (which have helped popularise the ‘stream’ interface).

If you compare that to the traditional story layout format, where users scan across the page but then leave the site if there’s nothing obviously of interest, you can see the difference.

I think there’s room for both, but if you want to know what’s new since the last time you looked, the stream works very well. And it’s not difficult to combine that with subject or region pages that show the most important news of that day, for example.

I think it can work for every kind of news: the stream says ‘Here’s what’s new’ across all topics; the ‘layout’ says ‘Here’s what we think is important’ – in other words, it performs a more traditional ‘snapshot’ function akin to the daily newspaper layout.

2) What are the skills a reporter should have in order to be a top-notch, first-rate data journalist?

The basic skills are the same as any journalist: a nose for a story, and the ability to communicate that clearly. In data journalism terms that means being able to interrogate data quickly and then focus on the most important facts within it.

That will most likely involve being able to use spreadsheet formulae to work out, for example, the proportion of time or money being spent on something, or to combine different datasets to gain new insights or overcome obstacles put in your way by those publishing the data.

You also need to be able to avoid mistakes by cleaning data, for example (often the same person or organisation will be named differently, for example), and by understanding the context of the data (for example, population size, or methodology used to gather it).

Finally, as I say, you need to be able to communicate the results clearly, which often means pulling back from the data and not trying to use it all in your telling of the story (just as you wouldn’t use every quote you got from a source) but keeping it simple.

July 16 2011


FAQ: How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Here’s another set of questions I’m answering in public in case anyone wants to ask the same:

How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Online communities contain many individuals who will be able to contribute different kinds of value to news production. Most obviously, expertise, opinion, and eyewitness testimony. In addition, they will be able to more effectively distribute parts of a story to ensure that it reaches the right experts, opinion-formers and eyewitnesses. The difference from an audience is that a community tends to be specialised, and connected to each other.

If you rephrase the question as ‘How can broadcasters benefit from people?’ it may be clearer.

How does a broadcaster begin to develop an engaged online community, any tips?

Over time. Rather than asking about how you develop an online community ask yourself instead: how do you begin to develop relationships? Waiting until a major news event happens is a bad strategy: it’s like waiting until someone has won the lottery to decide that you’re suddenly their friend.

Journalists who do this well do a little bit every so often – following people in their field, replying to questions on social networks, contributing to forums and commenting on blogs, and publishing blog posts which are helpful to members of that community rather than simply being about ‘the story’ (for instance, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions behind the news).

In case you are aware of networks in the middle east, do you think they are tapping into online communities and social media adequately?

I don’t know the networks well enough to comment – but I do think it’s hard for corporations to tap into communities; it works much better at an individual reporter level.

Can you mention any models whether it is news channels or entertainment television which have developed successful online communities, why do they work?

The most successful examples tend to be newspapers: I think Paul Lewis at The Guardian has done this extremely successfully, and I think Simon Rogers’ Data Blog has also developed a healthy community around data and visualisation. Both of these are probably due in part to the work of Meg Pickard there around community in general.

The BBC’s UGC unit is a good example from broadcasting – although that is less about developing a community as about providing platforms for others to contribute, and a way for journalists to quickly find expertise in those communities. More specifically, Robert Peston and Rory Cellan-Jones use their blogs and Twitter accounts well to connect with people in their fields.

Then of course there’s Andy Carvin at NPR, who is an exemplar of how to do it in radio. There’s so much written about what he does that I won’t repeat it here.

What are the reasons that certain broadcasters cannot connect successfully with online communities?

I expect a significant factor is regulation which requires objectivity from broadcasters but not from newspapers. If you can’t express an opinion then it is difficult to build relationships, and if you are more firmly regulated (which broadcasting is) then you take fewer risks.

Also, there are more intermediaries in broadcasting and fewer reporters who are public-facing, which for some journalists in broadcasting makes the prospect of speaking directly to the former audience that much more intimidating.


December 04 2010


FAQ: Data journalism, laziness, information overload & localism

I seem to have lost the habit of publishing interview responses here under the FAQ category for the past year, but the following questions from a journalist, and my answers, were worth publishing in case anyone has the same questions:

Simon Rogers, Editor of the Datablog, said that he thinks in the future simply publishing the raw data will become acceptable journalism. Do you not think that an approach like this to raw data is lazy journalism? And equally, do you think that would be a type of journalism that the public will really be able to engage with?

It’s not lazy at all, and to think otherwise is pure journalistic egoism. We have a tendency to undervalue things because we haven’t invested our own effort into it, but the value lies in its usefulness, not in the effort. Increasingly I think being a journalist will be as much about making journalism possible for other people as it will be about creating that journalism yourself. You have to ask yourself: do I just want to write pretty stories, or allow people to hold power to account?

In a world where we can access information directly I think it’s a central function of journalists to make important information findable. The first level of that is to publish raw data.

It’s interesting to see that this seems to be a key principle for hyperlocal bloggers – making civic information findable.

The second level – if you have the time and resources – is then to analyse that raw data and pull stories out of it. But ultimately there will always be other ‘stories’ in the information that people want to find for themselves, which may be too specific to be of interest to the journalist or publisher.

The third level – which really requires a lot of investment – is to create tools that make it easier for the user to find what they want, to make it easier to understand (e.g. through visualisation), and to share it with others.

Do you think that alot of the information can be quite overwhelming and sometimes not go anywhere?

Of course, but that isn’t a reason for not publishing the information. It’s natural that when the information is released some of it will attract more attention than other parts – but also, if other questions come up in future there is a dataset that people can go back and interrogate even if they didn’t at the time.

At the moment we have a lot of data but very few tools to interrogate that. That’s going to change – just in the last 6 months we’ve seen some fantastic new tools for filtering data, and the momentum is building in this area. It’s notable how many of the bids for the Knight News Challenge were data-related.

Additionally, do you tihnk The Guardian continue to pursue stories from the masses of data as consistently as they have done in previous years?

Yes, I think the Guardian has now built a reputation in this field and will want to maintain that, not to mention the fact that its reputation means it will attract more and more data-related stories, and benefit from the work of people outside the organisation who are interrogating data. They’ll also get better and better as they learn from experience.

And why do you think that smaller news resources struggle to use this sort of information as a source for news?

Partly because data has historically been more national than local. Even now I get frustrated when I find a dataset but then discover it’s only broken down into England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But we are now finally getting more and more local data.

Also, at a local level journalists tend to be less specialised. On a national you might have a health or environment or financial reporter who is more used to dealing with figures and data. On a local newspaper that’s less likely – and there’s a high turnover of staff because of the low wages.

July 19 2010


December 20 2009


FAQ: 3 questions about paywalls

Questions from a student on paywalls, published here as part of my FAQ section:

1.A tabloid’s cover price barely covers the distribution costs, showing all profits are aquired through advertising: Given that The Sun & Daily Mail still sell 5million copies between them, how much do you think making companies advertise across two platforms (print and online) has damaged the business model of journalism to force solutions in paywalls?

Firstly, most tabloids actually make the majority of their profits through cover price. This makes them unusual compared to most other newspapers, which rely more on advertising, but the advertising-cover price split in profits varies widely between publications.

I think companies’ initial moves to sell advertising across print and online harmed their business model in a number of ways:

  • Firstly, they treated web ads as a cheap ‘add on’ to sell to print advertisers, which both devalued the ads and overlooked new advertisers (around a third of readers of local sites, for example, come from outside the local area)
  • Secondly, I’ve seen little investment in online advertising as a medium; little training of ad sales people; and little thought about how to work to the strenghts of the medium (I may have missed something, and would love to know of examples of investment on the ad side). This is why Google has been so successful – it sold advertising based on user behaviour and results, rather than simply ‘display’

Publishers are starting to address this by introducing paywalls, one of the advantages of which is that you get more information on users. But to truly compete in this marketplace we need to look at the successful sellers of ads online and work out where we’re not serving advertisers as well.

There’s a further issue here, which I think is fundamental to publishers’ difficulties: it is not really in publishers’ interests to sell advertising online. Why? Because the profits are so much smaller than selling advertising online. If you help a print advertiser move to online advertising, you’re cannibalising your print margins for something less profitable. Now of course your competitors don’t have that problem, and advertisers will move – and are moving – online sooner or later. And you should be prepared to sell it to them when they do. But fundamentally there is very little incentive for ad sales staff to sell print advertising, and equally little economic incentive for publishers, apart from fear of being left behind.

2. Going from paying nothing to monthly, quarterly and annual subscriptions is a big jump. Why do you think micropayments have been rejected by News Corporation and Johnston Press?

News Corp are on record – or at least the editor of the Times is – as saying that having micropayments risks affecting editorial so that you don’t spend money sending people to Sri Lanka but you focus instead on what readers are paying for. That’s a surprisingly principled statement. But with everything said in these matters, you need to be sceptical about how much of it is genuine and how much is PR.

One big problem with micropayments is the cost of the transaction. If you just buy one tune on iTunes in a week then iTunes actually loses money; they bank on you spending enough money to cover the cost of processing your credit card payment (and they process those weekly to reduce the costs).

There are other problems such as standardisation and how difficult it is for users.

3. Once the genie’s out of the bottle you can’t put it back in: Won’t people just be able to get news straight off the wire from AP, use the BBC (which will always be free) or follow selective feeds off Twitter?

Of course. But even when they paid for newspapers they could get ‘the news’ for free on TV or radio, and they still bought newspapers because they offered things the other platforms didn’t. Now the selection is even wider, and more niche, so I guess the question is: what can you offer online that print and broadcast doesn’t?

Will people pay for convenience, for service, and for other benefits such as events, discounts, membership etc?

Look at the Guardian iPhone app – it went straight to the top of the paid-for app charts despite the same content being available for free on the Guardian’s iPhone-friendly website. But it offered more convenience (personalisation), service (speed) and membership of a community (being able to say ‘I’ve got the Guardian app!’). We’re still learning.

Tags: faq paywalls

November 30 2009


FAQ: How can news organisations compete at a hyperlocal level? (and other questions from AOP)

These questions were submitted to me in advance of the next AOP meeting, on ‘Microlocal Media’, and have been published on the AOP site. As usual, I’m republishing here as part of my FAQ series.

Q. How can publishers compete with zero-cost base community developed and run sites?

They can’t – and they shouldn’t. When it comes to the web, the value lies in the network, not in the content. Look at the biggest web success story: Google. Google’s value – contrary to the opinion of AP or Rupert Murdoch or the PCC – is not in its content. It is in its connections; its links; its network. You don’t go to Google to read; you go there to find. The same is true of so many things on the internet. One of the problems for publishers is that people use the web as a communications channel first, as a tool second, and as a destination after that. The successful operations understand the other two uses and work on those by forging partnerships, and linking, linking, linking.

So publishers should be working with those community sites for long-term mutual benefit – and I emphasise ‘mutual’: publication in your print edition ‘Photos of the Week’ does not really constitute a long-term strategy here.

Q. Are publishers wise to be investing in microlocal at this time?

Yes. The regional approaches of print products were based on print distribution logistics. Take those away and you have no reason to replicate that ‘patch’ online. Readers are going to go to a website based on their postcode rather than plough through pages of content on the chance they’ll find something relevant.

Q. What kind of local sites are likely to succeed and who do you think will ultimately emerge as owners of this space?

The sites that have been most successful so far are those that focus on relationships as much as content, and who have an open and transparent approach to production. Sites that challenge power while inviting collaboration.

Q. How do you think the landscape is likely to develop going forward?

I’ve said this before at the C&binet event, so I’ll quote from that: I see 2 main paths of development, and both have one thing in common: the future is networked.

On the one side I see the national-grassroots-data path – I’ll call it the Networked Model for simplicity’s sake. As increasing numbers of local newspapers close or stunt their operations, hyperlocal blogs will spring up to address the gap. At the same time national news organisations enter the local market and partner with these and data-based operations. The most likely figures in this scenario are The Guardian, hyperlocal blogs and the likes of MySociety and OpenlyLocal. It’s a patchwork solution that is likely to leave gaps in coverage.

On the other side is the Local News Consortia proposed by Ofcom. Established operators like PA, ITN and regional newspaper publishers will partner up to gain access to a pot of public money and efficiencies that they cannot achieve without ending up in front of the Competition Commission. This will require some public service commitments such as covering councils and courts, and universal coverage – but fundamentally this will be Business As Usual.

Q. What do you see as the main threats to publisher success?

The biggest threat is in continuing to focus on maximising the efficiencies of existing assets rather than using the efficiencies that the internet offers. The internet makes it incredibly efficient to collaborate, to distribute, and to link, but publishers’ moves online so far have neglected all three of those opportunities, focusing instead on content, content, content.

Content, for most people, is a means to an end: typically conversation or action. Established publishers face enormous threats from other online operations make that connection easy through collaboration, distribution and linking.

Q. What tactics do you think publishers should be adopting to leverage their strengths?

Focus on adapting ad sales departments for the internet age and the measurability and interactivity that that offers. Don’t just sell internet ads – sell the internet to advertisers; because if you don’t, a competitor will.

Be as transparent as possible about everything that they do, linking to sources of information and publishing them in their unedited form if they’re not already online. This creates material for others to work with, leading to more stories, and more people clicking back to the material, not to mention the goodwill that can help drive more leads and more sales.

November 28 2009


FAQ: What do you see in the future for investigative journalism?

Here’s another collection of questions from a student that I’m answering here as part of my FAQ section:

Q: What do you see is the future for investigative journalism? Do you still see it as having a home at newspapers?

I think the future of investigative journalism is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed,as William Gibson would say. Nonprofit organisations (such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch) are an increasingly significant source of investigative journalism. Then there are the more general investigative journalism operations, funded by foundations and donations, such as ProPublica. Crowdfunding projects such as Spot.us are going to be increasingly important. And then there are crowdsourcing operations such as those done by Talking Points Memo and, of course, my own project Help Me Investigate.

Alongside that I expect a number of traditional publishers to make a decision whether to continue to process content to fill in the space between ads, or to rely on a networked approach for that sort of commodity content and invest in quality investigative journalism that makes them stand out (this appears to be the direction that the Huffington Post and Guardian are moving in).

Investigative journalism will very much still have a home in newspapers; how much of that originates in newspapers depends on how strong the journalistic culture is in the companies that fund them.

Q: Who are the main competition to newspaper investigative reporters now? What are your thoughts on groups such as ProPublica?

The accountants and shareholders are the main competition to investigative reporters! Investigative reporters themselves appears to be becoming less competitive and more collaborative – mainly because the subjects they are investigating are increasingly international in scope and require cross-border partnership (the Trafigura story is just one example).

Likewise, many are learning how to work with bloggers and other publishers to get to the bottom of the story, but I think this is the biggest journey that needs to be made: away from the idea of the perfect ‘exclusive’ and towards the idea of something that engages and involves readers as a force for positive change. Put another way, collaboration creates a market for your journalism, not competition.

As for ProPublica, I think it’s a great idea. I wouldn’t want it to be the only one, because there are weaknesses to a foundation-funded model just as there are to a commercially funded one.

Q: Do you think there is more pressure from editors with the advent of the 24-hour news culture? Are investigative journalists getting the time and resources necessary?

Yes there is more pressure on editors, not just from a 24-hour news culture but from reduced resources and commercial pressures. As a result, yes, investigative journalists are often under pressure too, but these are not new trends – investigative journalism has always been defined by its exceptional nature. If it wasn’t exceptional, we’d just call it ‘journalism’. In Phillip Knightley’s account of pursuing the Thalidomide story in the 1970s (one of the biggest stories of the past 50 years in the UK), he recounts how it took a few years before he was able to cover the story because he was busy with other stories. There wasn’t a queue of other investigative journalists ready to do that reporting instead.

So I don’t think we should pretend that investigative journalism wasn’t already suffering. And the economic effects of advertising migrating to the web are probably nowhere near as important as shareholder expectation of profit margins way in excess of anything outside publishing. Regional pubishing in the UK still makes a margin of around 11% compared to Tesco’s margins of 8%.

Meanwhile, the internet offers some very interesting opportunities to move away from commercial pressures; to establish independent editorial operations without the legacy costs of printing and distributing (often 60-90% of all costs); to organise investigations in a more efficient way; and to engage readers.

November 07 2009


FAQ: What is the difference between monetising content and monetising audience? (etc.)

Another set of questions from a student which I am answering in public:

1) What is the difference between monetising content and monetising audience?

What a great question. Monetising content means selling content or, more often, a container of content. So most news organisations sell a ‘newspaper’ as much as ‘news’. Although wire services like PA sell ‘news’ and, sometimes, ‘information’, their clients ultimately re-sell that as a print package.

Monetising audience generally means advertising: you sell an audience to an advertiser, or, put another way, you sell their attention. This is the dominant business model in most publishing – for example, it is the main revenue stream for broadcast news. Printed news combines selling audience with selling packages of content, and the split varies: tabloid newspapers take a lot from sales of the actual paper, for example, whereas broadsheets make more from advertising.

There are problems for both models online: the user has already paid for the platform (web connection) so they are less willing to pay for pure content, even before you get onto issues of commodified news, digital duplication etc.

And the supply of advertising is so high it drives the price down, while control over distribution (which might drive price up) is lost.

2) Will Hutton said the future is paying for news online, do you agree?

Unless news organisations move away from commodified, cheap news towards genuinely unique and valuable journalism that manages to be well distributed on search engines and social media but not visible in its entirety or duplicatable… No.

The only way I can realistically see it happening is if a platform is invented which is as useful in the online world as a newspaper was in the physical world – and then again, you won’t be paying for news as much as you will be paying for the service of news. So the answer is still: No.

I think there’s an enormous amount of vanity among journalists who forget that people buy and bought newspapers not just for journalism but crosswords, cartoons, TV listings and indeed advertising.

3) What kind of dangers could this transition imply?

What transition? Paying for news online? I think there are enormous implications for democratic engagement and that’s why the existence of organisations like the BBC and Guardian are so important. I’d like to see Ofcom’s Local News Consortia idea do the same at a local level, but I’m sceptical.

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