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February 09 2012


Games are just another storytelling device

Whenever people talk about games as a potential journalistic device, there is a reaction against the idea of ‘play’ as a method for communicating ‘serious’ news.

Malcolm Bradbrook’s post on the News:Rewired talk by Newsgames author Bobby Schweizer is an unusually thoughtful exploration of that reaction, where he asks whether the use of games might contribute to the wider tabloidisation of news, the key aspects of which he compares with games as follows:

  1. “Privileging the visual over analysis - I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
  2. “Using cultural knowledge over analysis - the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC’s One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
  3. “Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events - as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?”

These are all good points, and designers of journalism games should think about them carefully, but I think there’s a danger of seeing games in isolation.

Hooking the user – and creating a market

With the BBC’s One in 7bn interactive, for example, I’d want to know how many users would have read the analysis if there was no interactive at all. Yes, many people will not have gone further than typing in their date of birth – but that doesn’t mean all of them didn’t. 10% of a lot (and that interactive attracted a huge audience) can be more than 100% of few.

What’s more, the awareness driven by that interactive creates an environment for news discussion that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Even if 90% of users (pick your own proportion, it doesn’t matter) never read the analysis directly, they are still more likely to discuss the story with others, some of whom would then be able to talk about the analysis the others missed.

Without that social context, the ‘serious’ news consumer has less opportunity to discuss what they’ve read.

News is multi-purpose

Then there’s the idea that people read the news for “acquisition of understanding”. I’m not sure how much news consumption is motivated by that, and how much by the need to be able to operate socially (discussing current events) or professionally (reacting to them) or even emotionally (being stimulated by them).

As someone who has tried various techniques to help students “acquire understanding”, I’m aware that the best method is not always to present them with facts, or a story. Sometimes it’s about creating a social environment; sometimes it’s about simulating an experience or putting people in a situation where they are faced with particular problems (all of which are techniques used by games).

Bradbrook ends with a quote from Jeremy Paxman on journalism’s “first duty” as disclosure. But if you can’t get people to listen to that disclosure then it is purposeless (aside from making the journalist feel superior). That is why journalists write stories, and not research documents. It is why they use case studies and not just statistics.

Games are another way of communicating information. Like all the other methods, they have their limitations as well as strengths. We need to be aware of these, and think about them critically, but to throw out the method entirely would be a mistake, I think.

For more background on games in journalism, see my Delicious bookmarks at http://delicious.com/paulb/gamejournalism

July 08 2011


Facebook for news apps: How ProPublica harnessed the social network for ‘The Opportunity Gap’

ProPublica :: Last week ProPublica published The Opportunity Gap, a news application that lets readers find out how equally their state provides poor and wealthier schools access to advanced classes that researchers say will help students later in life.

ProPublica designed the app so it was oriented behaviorally, and not just hierarchically, to foster engagement of their readers. This emphasis on encouraging behavior spurred them to integrate Facebook in a deeper way than we’ve done before, including using Facebook as a relevance engine.

Here's how - continue to read Al Shaw, www.propublica.org

Sponsored post

May 27 2011


#newsrw: Keep the audience interested with interactivity

The developing the data story session gave predictions for the future – that it will be lots of screens and HTML5 – and how the Guardian would like to lengthen the life span of the data journalism news story.

Paul Bradshaw, visiting professor, City University and founder of helpmeinvestigate.com used the principal of toys to give ideas on developing the data story and explained the importance of  “future proofing the information we are gathering”, saying “that’s one of the big commercial imperatives”.

Conrad Quilty-Harper, data mapping reporter at the Telegraph, explained how creating maps adds to a story by using the example of a map on bike sharing schemes he created (though did not publish) using “Google Fusion Tables and a bit of javascript”.

He recommends Google Maps and says the trailblazer of a news site using Google Fusion tables is the Texas Tribune.

One of the Telegraph’s examples Quilty-Harper gave was a map of what the UK would look like if the 2010 election was decided by people voting under the AV.

He said the Telegraph is moving away from Flash graphics, which is not supported by the iPad.

“My proudest example” was a live interactive Royal Wedding map which “worked brilliantly for three hours”.

It showed some of the best tweets and were geolocated on the map. “We’ve got the data and we’re gong to analyse it and do something with it in the future,” he said. “It tells you what people in specific locations were thinking”.

The Telegraph would like to use the technology in a crisis news story, such as an earthquake or conflict.

“There’s a lot of underused resource” in the UK when it comes to creating maps, Quilty-Harper explained, saying the US are ahead of the game.

He gave a tip that the Met office has an amazing resource of data on weather.

Federica Cocco is editor of OWNI.eu and demonstrated the power of bloggers, data journalists, activists and graphic designers working together.

OWNI considers itself a think tank and as describes what they do as “augmented journalism”.

She showed examples a map demonstrating internet freedom in Europe and this impressive interactive piece of data journalism of shale gas extraction, which in cases has contaminated drinking water supplies.

Alastair Dant, lead interactive technologist at the Guardian, gave a run down of how news websites use interactive content.

He listed the use of photos, slideshows, the interactive timeline, maps, charts and graphics, open-ended systems or ‘games’, which are interactive and allow users to make choices about what should happen, for example.

In explaining how interactivity assists data visualisation, he used an example of captured Twitter traffic during the World Cup showing “data in motion”.

In the case of the Afghan war logs he said “we wanted to create film like experience” using the data.

His view of the future is one of “lots of screens” as people use phones and tablet devices and of HTML5, which provides cross browser compatibility, overcoming the current problem.

Dant’s three tips for making interactive content are:

1. Google Fusion Tables

2. Tableau

3. Dipity, which is for timelines.

A question on how interactivity affects the audience and visitor numbers resulted in Paul Bradshaw discussing how many interactive maps and graphics go viral.

“With interactivity you get engagement”, Bradshaw said, and people spend a lot more time on the page – five times longer in the case of the data store, Bradshaw said.

For the Telegraph the AV map was particularly popular with audiences.

Simon Rogers of the Guardian said the amount of work that goes in to many data stories warrants a greater lifespan and said that interactive posts may soon have a life beyond the news story, for example in Facebook, something being worked on at the paper.

February 18 2011


Bella Hurrell on data journalism and the BBC News Specials Team

BBC Special ReportsBella Hurrell is the Specials Editor with BBC News Online. I asked her how data journalism was affecting their work for a forthcoming article. Here is her response in full:

The BBC news specials team produces multimedia interactives, daily graphics as well as more complex data visualisations. The team consists of journalists, designers and developers all working closely together, sitting alongside each other.

We have found that proximity really important to the success of projects. Although we have done this for a while, increasingly other organisations are reorganising along these lines after coming to realise the benefits of breaking down silos and co-locating people with different skillsets can produce more innovative solutions at a faster pace.

As data visualisation has come into the zeitgeist, and we have started using it more regularly in our story-telling, journalists and designers on the specials team have become much more proficient at using basic spreadsheet applications like Excel or Google Docs. We’ve boosted these and other skills through in house training or external summer schools and conferences.

Data as a service, data as a story

There are two interrelated elements to data journalism: firstly data as a service, often involving publicly available data.  The school league tables which the BBC news website has produced every year for over a decade are an example here. We know they are hugely popular and they provide a valuable public service for users. More recently the government has started to get better at putting data / information  online, so we have adjusted our coverage. Instead of replicating what is done by government sites (such as providing individual school pages) we try to provide value by doing something extra, such as mini charts and the ability to select and compare schools - as well as news stories and analysis.

The second element is data as a story. The simple fact that loads of data has been published is not really very interesting to most people. Data is only useful if it is personal – I want to find out about schools in my area, restaurants near me and so on – or when it reveals something remarkable. The duck pond debacle from MPs expenses data or the Iraq civilian death records kept by the US revealed by Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq war documents are both examples of individual stories from big tranches of data that really resonated.

Dealing with large numbers of documents

With data stories that involve thousands of documents we face two challenges. Firstly deciding whether we can provide a platform or tool for people to look at the documents or data. This can be valuable but might involve significant technical resources and may not be worth doing if others are already providing this service.

Secondly we need to find the stories and then report them but clearly that can be tricky when there are thousands of documents to examine. Crowdsourcing is an obvious approach but we need to use what the crowd tells us. When readers told us about potential stories they spotted in the MPs expenses data we pulled in our whole politics team off normal duties to sift users’ questions and put them directly to the relevant MPs. Then we published their answers on our site. This is a very resource heavy approach and not sustainable over a long time.

Another model for reporting stories that involve large sets of data was Panorama’s public sector pay story, where the website partnered with the investigative unit to tell the story online. The Panorama team spent months collecting data and we provided simple visualisations and  a way for users to examine the data.

December 16 2010


LIVE: The digital production desk

We’ll have Matt Caines and Nick Petrie from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. Follow individual posts on the news:rewired blog for up to date information on all our sessions.

We’ll also have blogging over the course of the day from freelance journalist Rosie Niven.

August 16 2010


The Guardian launches governmental pledge-tracking tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 28 2010


A War Logs interactive – with a crowdsourcing bonus

Owni war logs interface

French data journalism outfit Owni have put together an impressive app (also in English) that attempts to put a user-friendly interface on the intimidating volume of War Logs documents.

The app allows you to filter the information by country and category, and also allows you to choose whether to limit results to incidents involving the deaths of wounding of civilians, allies or enemies.

Clicking on an individual incident bring up the raw text but also a mapping of the location and the details split into a more easy-to-read table.

War Logs results detail

But key to the whole project is the ability to comment on documents, making this genuinely interactive. Once commented, you can choose to receive updates on “this investigation”

This could be fleshed out more, however (UPDATE: it’s early days – see below). “So that we can investigate a war that does not tell its name” is about as much explanation as we get – indeed, Afghanistan is not mentioned on the site at all (which presents SEO problems). In this sense the project suffers from a data-centric perspective which overlooks that not everyone has the same love of data for data’s sake.

A second weakness is an assumption that users are familiar with the story. While the project is linked with Slate.fr and Monde Diplomatique there are no links to any specifically related journalism on those sites, leaving the data without any particular context. Users visiting the site as a result of social media sharing (which is built into the site) might therefore not know what they’re dealing with.

Technically, however, this is an excellent solution to the scale problem that War Logs presents. It just needs an editorial solution to support it.

UPDATE: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, the man behind the project (disclosure: a former OJB contributor) explains the background:

“We contacted several outlets on Monday to coproduce the app. (we’re still in talks with several others in Italy, Belgium, Germany). What we offered them was an all-inclusive solution that gives them visibility and image gains and a way for them to engage with their audience.

“You’re right to say that the app lacks an editorial perspective as such. We’re implementing a feature called ‘contextualization’ that will offer users links to backgrounder stories published on partner websites according to several criteria (year, civil/military report, region, nationality of the engaged forces).

“Moreover, we’ve crowdsourced a huge work that considerably expanded the glossary published by Wikileaks and the Guardian. We launched a call for help on Monday morning. In 36 hours, we had 30% more entries related to unexplained abbreviations or details about equipment, as well as a French translation. Something we want to provide is a way for everyone with a low level of English to decipher the documents.”

July 07 2010


Highlights and Pitfalls of Virtual Street Corners Project

We're just winding down my Knight News Challenge project, Virtual Street Corners, and haven't had time to sort through all the recorded materials and debrief the participants, but I wanted to share some initial thoughts and reactions.

The most encouraging takeaway from the project was the enthusiastic response it received. It seems to have struck a nerve and could be well worthy of further investigation. The piece is widely accessible without being overly simplistic, with the potential for opening up complex social interactions. On the other hand, there were also various aspects that fell short of my expectations.


The project aimed to connect the Boston neighborhoods of Brookline and Roxbury through citizen journalists' video newscasts that were projected on life-size screens to enable real-time interaction between citizens.

It seems funny in this era of technology, but people treated the idea of seeing another street corner across town appear in the window as something magical. They laughed and many people just found it very entertaining to connect in this way. I had many requests to set the installation up in other places -- including the MBTA, Boston's public transportation system -- and we attracted a wide range of willing participants. We also received excellent media attention, ranging from wide coverage in the blogosphere to substantial pieces in the Atlantic, the front page of the Boston Globe, CBC Radio, and WGBH (PBS) TV.


Local politicians -- from city councilors to former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis -- joined with artists, educators and activists to take part in street corner dialogues on a range of issues. Electricians, carpenters, web conferencing experts, community organizers and commercial designers all stepped up to donate services. However, one of my biggest lessons is that free is never completely free. As one person on our team was fond of saying, "Out of fast, cheap and good quality -- you can get two but never all three."


Tech Issues

In the end, I underestimated the amount of resources needed to carry out the project on the scale I had envisioned. My biggest pitfall occurred in the tech department. We went into the project with tremendous momentum -- an article on the front page of the Boston Globe on opening night, a great team of journalists, an exciting lineup of participants to carry out the street corner forums. I put the majority of my time and resources into community organizing, outreach and design, wanting to make sure that I moved the conversation from simple greetings into important and unique dialogues that this particular installation had the potential of achieving.

Having experimented with the installation before, I expected the tech piece to fall into place without too much difficulty. Getting a high-speed internet connection, videoconferencing and recording it all to a hard drive seemed like it should be pretty straightforward -- but that was not the case.

The combination of the various components, and getting them to operate for extended periods in environments other than what they were designed for, created endless problems. The issues were compounded by working in a community like Roxbury, which has a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure. Things as simple as acquiring high speed Internet became major hurdles. Comcast assured me that they could easily provide the connection but when they arrived for the installation told me it was impossible to do. So we actually had to spend three days rewiring a historic building to acquire Internet access.

I was donated a myriad of high-end equipment, which saved me a lot of money; but it also cost me dearly in time and functionality since I was not familiar enough to troubleshoot problems when they came up. We had many dropped calls and dropped audio, meaning the system was often not functioning.

Furthermore, as I was running the entire tech myself, I had to run back and forth to reset the audio and video each time it went down. This was obviously very frustrating, but the biggest problem was that it discouraged participation. Profound interactions, both planned and spontaneous, were interrupted repeatedly, or had to be rescheduled or cancelled.

Intense Committment Tough to Sustain

Tech problems also posed a major obstacle to the journalism piece of the installation. Our plan was that journalists from each neighborhood would file reports every day, and the reports would run simultaneously, allowing pedestrians to share the same experience and generate conversation between the communities. For a good part of the project, however, the videos would only show at one location or the other. So it was news to only half of the observers, and it interfered with my goal of a mutual experience. This was a huge disappointment and was very demoralizing for the journalists who worked so hard on their pieces.

The other significant problem we encountered was that our staff found it difficult to sustain such an intense commitment over a short period of time (one month). For example, the journalists were hired to file reports five days a week for three weeks. We had three people quit less than two weeks before we started because other longer term and higher paying jobs took priority. No matter how enthusiastic folks were when they were hired, we could not compete with full-time employment and family commitments.

Final Thoughts

We are excited by the potential of the project and how it was embraced by the communities where we installed it. We were also inspired by the relationships that were developed through the piece, and by the number of requests we had to install it permanently or set it up in other locations.

However, I would never again work with equipment I wasn't able to test extensively for months in advance, and would make sure I was able to pay enough money to retain skilled labor despite the length of the project.

Those are my inital impressions, and I'll share more thoughts soon.

July 04 2010




I just subscribed to The Times and Suday Times websites.

Cheap and easy: 1 GBP for one month, and after that 2 GBP a week.


Because you cannot read anywhere else smart columns like this one.

Andrew Sullivan on the real crisis of American newspapers.

A few “tapas”:

-Many US newspapers have simply become pale, quivering shadows of what they once were.

-Once, they aggressively scrutinised the powerful and exposed secrets, but they have — with some exceptions — become mouthpieces for the powerful, enablers of propaganda and prim schoolmarms when it comes to telling people what they want to know.

-A Harvard study recently examined the full record. This was its finding: “[From the 1930s to 2002] The New York Times characterised waterboarding as torture in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and the Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, in 2002-8 the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.

-The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterised the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture.”

-Over time this kind of editorial cowardice gets through to the average reader. She senses she is not reading a truly independent press, eager to offend, sceptical of the powerful and determined not to mince words. And so she looks elsewhere. The editors and producers of American journalism have long wondered why their industry has been in decline. Perhaps they should try looking in the mirror.

Oh, boy!

Talk about multimedia, citizens journalism, social media, new platforms, interactivity, tablets and other magic words…

That’s nothing.

That’s wrong.

That’s a distraction.

Newspapers will be saved not by gadgets, technology and buzzwords but by real journalism.


June 28 2010


Video: BBC at the 2012 Olympics: visualisations, maps and augmented reality

With 2 years to go to the 2012 Olympics, the BBC are already starting to plan their online coverage of the event. With a large, creative team at hand who have experimented with maps, visualisations and interactive content in the past, the pressure is on them to keep the standards high.

At the recent News:Rewired event, OJB caught up with Olympics Reporter Ollie Williams, himself a visualisation guru, to find out exactly what they were planning for 2012.

June 17 2010


Knight News Challenge: Winner wants to create tools that are “beautiful, interesting, accessible”

The biggest winner in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, City Tracking, wants to give cities an open framework to tell their stories and for users to easily share and discuss them.

Eric Rodenbeck, of the San Francisco design firm Stamen, wants to build data visualizations that are as compelling and user-friendly as photos or videos. “We want visualizations to be as easy to share and move around as a photo on Flickr,” Rodenbeck said. He hopes cities, journalists and locals will all use the end product.

Rodenbeck thinks there is both a great need for communities to better tell data-driven stories and a need for an open platform tool to tell them. He wants his tools to be “beautiful, interesting, and useful.” Google Maps is great, but it’s not in the public domain. “We’re finding that a lot of the tools that were out there are either really techy, or somebody else owns your data,” Rodenbeck told me. “We wanted to find that middle ground.”

To get an idea of the type of work that could come out of this new platform, take a look at Crimespotting. It’s a project Stamen started in Oakland that pulled public crime data into an interactive map. The city of San Francisco decided to create it’s own version. The tool lets users sign up for RSS feed updates and email alerts about their local communities. It also tells a bigger story about crime by plotting incidences on the map. It’s also nice looking and user friendly. “Tackling the kind of design aesthetic that a project like Crimespotting has, and extending it, is a huge part of it,” Rodenbeck told me in describing City Tracking.

Rodenbeck gave a more hypothetical example as well. An acquaintance of his wants to measure a local river’s temperature at various points, using input from other locals. Right now, there is no simple tool to power that project. It’s the kind of thing Rodenbeck would hope City Tracker would allow non-techies to do easily.

Like other Knight News Challenge winners this year, City Tracking is about presenting public information in a compelling, interactive format, rather than creating new news per se. At it’s core, the project is about engaging a community and getting residents thinking, talking and sharing. “I think we also want to encourage other kinds of conversations. Conversations about trees. Conversations about cabs. Conversations about pollution,” Rodenbeck said.

By that same token, Rodenbeck is eager for discussion while building the project. “What we don’t want to do is develop this in isolation. We want to announce it in small pieces. We’re really hoping to encourage the participation of other developers in the project. We don’t want to just be working away alone in our room, nerding away on our map projects.”

June 04 2010


Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 4: Interactivity

This post is cross-published from my new journalism/new media-blog. Previous posts in this series:

In the fourth part of this series I will take a closer look at the research on interactivity  in online journalism and to what degree this asset of new technology has been and is utilized.

Content analysis studies

As with hypertext, the research on interactivity in online journalism is dominated by content analysis, even though a greater body of this research also relies on surveys and interviews with journalists. Kenny et al. (2000) concluded that only 10 percent of the online newspapers in their study offered “many opportunities for interpersonal communication” and noted that little had changed since the introduction of Videotex 25 years earlier: “Videotex wanted to electronically push news into people’s homes, and so do today’s online papers”.

Similar findings and conclusions are found in Pitts’ (2003), Jankowski and van Selm’s (2000) and Dimitrova and Neznanski’s (2006) studies of news sites in the US; in van der Wurff and Lauf’s (Eds) (2005) investigations of European online newspapers; in Quandt’s (2008) analysis of news sites in the US, France, the UK, Germany and Russia; in Paulussen’s (2004) investigation of Flemish online newspapers; Oblak’s (2005) study of Slovenian online news sites; O’Sullivan’s (2005) research on Irish online newspapers; Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) study of online newspapers in Bulgaria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy; and Spyridou and Veglis’(2008) study of Greek online newspapers.

Comparisons between these studies are, however, difficult to make, due to differences in both methodological approaches and theoretical understandings of what interactivity is. However, it might seem that the European online newspapers tend to offer slightly less interactivity than the online newspapers in the US.

In a longitudinal study of 83 online news sites in the US, Greer and Mensing (2006) found a slight increase in interactive features from 1997 to 2003. The possibility to customize news, however, decreased during the same period. Li and Ye (2006) found that 39.2 percent of 120 online newspapers in the US provided discussion forums – twice as many as in Kenney et al.’s study six years earlier. Hermida and Thurman (2008) found “substantial growth” (p. 346) in user-generated content in 12 British online newspapers from 2005 to 2006 (concerning features like comments to stories and “have your say”).

In an analysis of the level of participatory journalism in 16 online newspapers in the US, the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Slovenia and Croatia, Domingo et al. (2008) concluded that interactive options promoting user participation “had not been widely adopted” (p. 334). However, their findings suggest a distinct increase in most such interactive options compared to earlier studies, especially regarding the possibility for users to comment on stories, which 11 of the 16 online newspapers allowed. The process of selecting and filtering news, however, remains the most closed area of journalistic practice, allowing the authors to conclude that: “[t]he core journalistic role of the ‘‘gatekeeper’’ who decides what makes news remained the monopoly of professionals even in the online newspapers that had taken openness to other stages beyond interpretation” (p. 335)”

Some content analysis studies offer insights into how interactive features such as discussion forums are used. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded that users “prefer to remain anonymous and silent” (p. 426). Li and Ye (2006) found similar results, and Thurman (2008) (pdf) found that the BBC News website’s comments system “Have Your Say” attracted contributions from not more than 0.05 percent of the site’s daily users.

J-blogs and interactivity

Some studies focus on interactivity in so called j-blogs, e.g. weblogs written by journalists and published on their online newspapers’ site. Singer (2005) found, in her research on 20 j-blogs in the US, that the journalists “are […] sticking to their traditional gatekeeper function even with a format that is explicitly about participatory communication” (p. 192). However, two other studies of j-blogs offer alternative findings. Wall (2005) investigated US j-blogs on the Iraq war in 2003 and found that these j-blogs emphasized audience participation to a much greater extent than the online newspapers in general. Robinson (2006) investigated 130 US j-blogs and found similar results.

Surveys and interviews

Studies relying on surveys and interviews with journalists contribute with similar findings as the content analysis studies. Riley’s qualitative interviews with journalists at a metropolitan US newspaper in the late 1990s offer some interesting insights into the attitude towards interactivity at the time. According to Riley (1998), most reporters were “horrified at the idea that readers would send them e-mail about a story they wrote and might even expect an answer”. In his 1999 PhD thesis (pdf), Heinonen found similar attitudes in his interviews with Finnish journalists during the same period.

However, this attitude seems to have changed. Schultz (2000) found a slightly more positive attitude towards interactivity among journalists at The New York Times, as did Quinn and Trench in their interviews with journalists in 24 online news organizations in Denmark, France, Ireland and the UK published in 2002 (MUDIA-report Online News Media and Their Audienc,e not available online). More recent studies suggest an even broader acceptance of interactivity among online journalists. In a survey of journalists in 11 European countries O’Sullivan and Heinonen (2008) found that 60 percent of the respondents agreed that linking with the audience is an important benefit of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005) study in Ireland, Paulussen’s (2004) in Flanders, and Quandt et al.’s (2006) study in Germany and the US all found similar results.

In a broad scale study relying on 89 in-depth interviews with editors and journalists in newspapers and broadcasting stations in 11 European countries, Metykova (2008) (pdf) found that the relationship between journalists and their audience had indeed become more interactive, especially regarding email and text message interaction. However, this increase in interactivity “tended to be seen as empowering journalists to do their jobs better rather than blurring the distinction between content producers and content consumers” (p. 56).

Chung (2007) in interviews with website producers nominated for the Online Journalism Award in the US, and O’Sullivan’s (2005) found that online journalists, web producers and editors find it difficult to implement interactive features, even though they express a willingness to do so. O’Sullivan’s (2005) offers an interesting perspective: The use of freelancers may obstruct interactive features because freelancers cannot be expected to interact with readers to the same degree as the in-house editorial staff. Freelancers are generally not paid to participate in discussions with readers or initiate other kinds of interactivity.

Surveys of online newspaper users in Europe found that users lacked interest in participating on discussion forums and similar features (In Sweden: Bergström, 2008 (pdf); In Flandern: Beyers, 2004; 2005 (pdf); In Finland: Hujanen and Pietikainen, 2004; In Germany: Rathmann, 2002). The most important facility of online newspapers according to these survey studies seems to be that online newspapers are continuously updated. Already in the mid 1990s Singer (1997) found, in interviews with 27 journalists in the US, that those journalists who were positive towards the Internet and new technology emphasized the importance of immediacy in online journalism. Quandt et al.’s (2006)found that the online journalists in Germany and the US valued immediacy as the most important feature of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005)found that immediacy was the “big thing” and that frequent updates was “the great strength of online media” (p. 62).

Interactivity summarized

To summarize the research on interactivity in online journalism, it seems clear that online news sites are becoming more and more interactive, first and foremost regarding human-to-human interactivity. Users are allowed to contribute to the content production by submitting photos and videos and by commenting on stories and participate in discussion forums. However, users are seldom allowed to participate in the selecting and filtering of news. The traditional norm of gatekeeping is thus still very much in place in the practice of online journalism. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded: “[…] the power relation between media organisations and readers is not in play” (p. 428).

Furthermore, the research reveals that online journalists and editors are becoming more eager to interact with readers, but organizational constraints like time pressure and the utilization of freelancers prevent them to a certain degree to do so. Last, but no least, user studies suggest an overwhelming indifference with interactivity – it seems that people prefer to be passive consumers, not active producers.

However, it seems that the picture might be slightly different when online newspapers report on major breaking news events, like natural disasters and other types of crises events. Several studies in recent years that focus on citizen journalism, like for instance Allan and Thorsen’s (Eds) compilation of case studies from around the world (2009), have demonstrated a boost in user participation and interactivity in the coverage of such events. In other words, it may seem that when crises strike, gatekeeping is to a certain degree abandoned.

In the next post in this series I’ll take a closer look at the third and final asset of new technology that was supposed to revolutionize journalism online: multimedia.

April 08 2010


Three ways Apple’s iAd might impact the news industry’s continued advertising woes

Apple’s Steve Jobs just unveiled iAd, the company’s new advertising platform for the iPhone and iPad. It’s an ad platform designed for apps, like the news apps that many news organizations make, and Jobs promises to use the app framework to provide a more interactive, engaging, and rich-media experience to users. Here’s his pitch. (Quotes are taken from Engadget’s live coverage of today’s Apple event and thus may be off by a few words here and there.)

We have a lot of free or reasonably priced apps…we like that, but our [developers] have to find ways to make money. So our devs are putting ads into apps, and for lack of a better way to say it, we think most of this kind of advertising sucks.

When you look at ads on a phone, it’s not like a desktop. On a desktop, search is where it’s at. But on mobile devices, that hasn’t happened. Search is not happening on phones; people are using apps. And this is where the opportunity is to deliver advertising is.

The average user spends over 30 minutes every day using apps on their phone. If we said we wanted to put an ad up every 3 minutes, that’s 10 ads per device per day. That would be 1 billion ad opportunities per day. This is a pretty serious opportunity, and it’s an incredible demographic. But we want to do more than that. We want to change the quality of the ads too.

You know the ads on the web — they’re eye catching and interactive, but they don’t deliver emotion. What we want to do with iAds is deliver interaction and emotion. So that’s what iAd is all about. It’s about emotion plus interactivity. The ads keep you in your app. Today when you click on a banner ad, it yanks you out of your app and throws you onto the advertiser’s web page. So people don’t click on the ads. Because iAd is in the iPhone OS itself, we have figured out how to do interactive and video content without ever taking you out of the app.

For devs to add this to their apps is really simple. They can do it in an afternoon. Apple is going to sell and host the ads, and we’re going to do a 60/40 split [Apple keeping 40 percent of revenue].

Jobs then went on to show a number of in-app ads that served as immersive experiences: launching mini-apps within the app, showing videos, games, and more. They did look impressive (although calling them “emotional” might be pushing it). This sort of rich-media advertising feels like the next wave, at least, now that devices are starting to have the horsepower necessary to stream these kinds of experiences.

And here’s how Apple’s pitching iAd on their site:

iAd is a breakthrough mobile advertising platform from Apple. With it, apps can feature rich media ads that combine the emotion of TV with the interactivity of the web. For developers, it means a new, easy-to-implement source of revenue. For advertisers, it creates a new media outlet that offers consumers highly targeted information.

So what might iAd mean for news companies? It’s waaaaay too early to tell, but here are three quick thoughts:

Smaller newspapers have an extra incentive to build iPhone apps. The nationals (NYT, WSJ, WP, etc.) all already have iPhone apps, and they would be hesitant to hand over a significant part of their advertising franchise to Apple anyway. (Hesitant to hand over 40 percent of revenue, too.) But for smaller news outlets that haven’t been able to see a return on an app-development investment — and without the sales-force resources that might be necessary to educate local advertisers about mobile advertising — iAds promises an easy reason to get on board. With the cost of basic content-app development dropping — you can get a decent app built with under $1,000 and a few days of a staff nerd’s time these days — the CBA equation gets simpler.

A shift away from search and toward content could really help news companies. iAd argues that while search advertising is justly dominant on desktops and laptops, the app experience is the right target for ads on mobile devices, because people spend less time searching and more time in their favorite apps. If that turns out to be true, that’s a huge boon for content companies like news orgs. Search is a field that news companies have no business competing in; local search efforts have flopped, and Google is an unscalable mountain.

But building apps that sustain people’s interest for extended periods of time? That’s at least a game that news orgs can compete in. As we’ve seen, news apps aren’t as engaging as they could be, and news content still isn’t a perfect match for mobile in a lot of ways. But I’d be a lot more optimistic about news companies figuring out ways to make their apps better and more engaging than I’d be about news companies stealing a slice of search advertising revenue from Google.

Could there be room for a Yahoo-style newspaper partnership? The Yahoo deal with newspapers comes down to a simple equation: Yahoo gets a ton of eyeballs, but doesn’t have the ad sales force to reach local companies. So newspapers provide the sales force and Yahoo provides the eyeballs.

I have no doubt that the Nikes, Disneys, and Targets of the world will be happy to deal with Apple directly. But will your local furniture store? Or your neighborhood Korean restaurant? We’ve already seen indications that Apple wants to keep location-based advertising to itself, but who’s going to sell those ads? Maybe a future some predicted years ago — newspaper sales teams serving as a one-stop shop for advertisers seeking placement in a variety of online and print locations, some newspaper-owned, some not — could finally come to be.

There’s lots we still don’t know about iAd — like whether apps that use the platform will still be able to use other ad platforms, say, to deliver developer-sold advertising alongside Apple-sold messages. iAd won’t arrive in apps for several months, and it’s unclear how many companies will want to invest in building the kind of immersive experiences Jobs showed off today. But at first glance, I’d guess that Apple’s entry into the Google-dominated online advertising world might not be a bad thing for news companies seeking a digital lifeline.

March 23 2010


The problem with comments isn’t them

I’m coming to think that the — or a — problem with the quality of conversation in comments online is a matter of timing:

Once we in media are finished with our work we allow the public to comment. We throw our product over the wall and let people react while we retreat into the castle and shut the gates so we cannot hear them. They know they are talking to bricks and so they shout and cover them with spray paint. Only we have the power to clean the mess but we’ve left the scene and so the castle walls are soon overrun with graffiti.

This timing — which is inherently insulting to the public — comes out of our old media worldview brought to the internet. We think the internet is a medium and that we make products for it that the public consumes.

When instead we open up to conversation earlier in our process then the conversation can become more collaborative and productive: We ask people what they know, which is a mark of respect and value. We listen to advice and requests. We end our separation from the public and join it. Waiting until we are done to listen is too late.

We must stop looking at the internet as a medium. I spent a long time this weekend talking with a reporter who’s writing about nasty comments — I’ll link to her piece when she publishes it — and I tried to convince her that the media-view we from media impose on the internet is much of the problem: When we see the internet as a medium, we expect it to be packaged and pretty, clean and controlled like newspapers and magazines and shows, and so when someone dumps a turd on that — a nasty comment — we think the whole thing is ruined, as if bad editing allowed “shit” to get into a letter printed in The New York Times.

But as Doc Searls taught me early on, the internet is not a medium — indeed, judging it as a medium brings all sorts of dangerous presumptions about control and ownership and regulation. No, Doc says, the internet is a place. It’s a park or a streetcorner where people pass and meet, talk and argue, where they are right and wrong, where they connect with each other and information and actions. It’s a public place. (And when I talk about publicness

Now judge the conversation in those terms: If you pass someone cursing on the streets of New York do you write off the place? Well, I don’t (especially because that person you pass might be me).

But all this is not to say that I accept, or we should accept the level of discourse on the internet as it is. No, I’m coming to believe that comments — which I defended when I ran sites — are an inferior form of conversation for the reasons I’ve just outlined. That’s easier to see because we’ve seen superior forms, like Twitter.

Twitter, like Facebook, is build mostly on real identities and control of relationships. I decide whom to follow and you decide whether to follow me. It’s an individual meritocracy in which each of us defines merit.

Back in the day — and still today — we hear that anonymity is the problem and that identity will solve that. That has never been the case. Identity alone isn’t enough. I may know the identity of that curser on the streets of New York but that doesn’t stop me from hearing him rant. Social controls are also needed so I can walk around him. That’s what Twitter and Facebook provide each of us. The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).

Somewhere in there is a secret to improving discourse online. Craig Newmark is talking about the need for distributed trust networks and in Twitter and Facebook I do, indeed, think we’re beginning to see the outlines of them. Clay Shirky wishes for algorithmic authority. Identity is a factor, of course. But we need to be careful about thinking that there is some system that will just clean up messy talk. That doesn’t work in life; it won’t work on the internet, which is life. What Craig and Clay are asking for is tools to help each of us have a more pleasant stroll in the streets of the internet.

But I also think we need to turn this question around and not look at the commenters but at ourselves as members of the conversation. What are we doing to improve the quality of discourse? So I return to that question of timing: When we open up and grant respect and talk with people eye-to-eye and collaborate, that creates value not just blather. In What Would Google Do? I told the story of MyStarbucksIdea.com as a platform for collaboration over conversation:

Some threads emerged from the suggestions and discussion. Many customers wanted express lines for brewed-coffee orders so they could avoid waiting behind alleged coffee aficionados with their half-this, half-that, skinny, three-pump, no-foam, Frappuwhatevers. Some customers asked to be allowed to send in their orders via iPhone. And some customers suggested—and thousands more agreed—that the chain should enable them to program their regular order into their Starbucks card so they could swipe it as they enter, placing the order and paying for it at the same time, letting them skip the cash-register line. One more proposed a pour-it-yourself corner and another asked for a delivery service. The theme—that is, the problem for Starbucks—was clear: long, slow, inefficient, irritating lines. But not one of these customers started with that complaint. Instead, they offered solutions to fix the problem. All Starbucks had to do was ask.

Should comments as a form of conversation be eliminated? No, of course not. The tool isn’t the problem (any more than blogging tools or printing presses are). If you eliminate comments that’s even more insulting than not listening to them and it risks giving up the incredible value the public can give if only they are enabled to (a value I saw so clearly in the comments under my posts here or here). The issue isn’t comments or identity or registration or tools. The issue is how you play host.

January 06 2010


What I expect at news:rewired — and what I hope will happen

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 11.23.20Next Thursday is the news:rewired event at City University London, which is being put on by the good people at journalism.co.uk. I’ll be on hand as a delegate.

All of the bases will be covered, it seems: Multimedia, social media, hyperlocal, crowdsourcing, datamashups, and news business models.

What I’m expecting

It’s always good to chat about different business models. However I don’t expect to come out of that with any greater insight into the silver bullet to fund journalism. Often people approach this topic like there even is one single revenue stream that hasn’t been discovered. The days of the two-channel revenue stream (ads and subs) are over.

Multimedia chat should be interesting. Personally I’m conflicted about the overall importance of multimedia. It’s an additional storytelling tool, however I’m of the opinion that multimedia isn’t the go-to tool that many like to make it out to be. If your readers won’t watch a 3 minute video, then you might want to be more selective in how you allocate those resources.

The topic of the social media session is “How to efficiently use Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools for productive journalism”. We know it’s not very successful as a one-way communication tool. However many publications are nervous about the idea of engaging so directly with readers. Since journalists are major users of social media, news organisations are needing to determine how to police the way their journalists interact with readers off the clock. It’s a tough question, so I look forward to that debate.

There’s a panel that I’m confused about. It’s called “Troubleshooting panel on online journalism”. Sounds like a Q&A session about problems faced by online journalists. However the panelists make me think it will be about a variety of things:

What happens when it all goes wrong? What tools are particularly troublesome? How to get yourself out of a digital ditch? With presentations, practical guidance and words of wisdom from a digitally seasoned panel: Robin Hamman, head of social media, Headshift; Jon Bernstein, deputy editor, New Statesman (former Channel 4 multimedia editor); Robin Goad, research director, Hitwise; and Malcolm Coles, internet consultant and media blogger.

It will be a valuable discussion, because of all the talent in the room. I just have no idea what they’ll be talking about.

The rest of the day is tied up in talks about hyperlocalism, datamashing and crowd-sourcing. Of those, the one I’m most interested in is the datamashing talk. Here’s an explanation:

How can data be used to tell a story and hold authorities accountable? What data should journalists be using? How can journalists learn new computer assisted reporting skills? What other sectors can journalists learn from? With presentations, examples and practical advice from Tony Hirst, data expert and lecturer, Open University. Francis Irving, senior developer, MySociety.org.

This is the stuff that drives innovation. Taking raw data and turning it into something that is easily understood, digested and redistributed. It takes a certain skill to be able to do it well. And when it is done well, the results are often exciting and explosive.

This will be an exciting and informative event. I do, however, have some concerns.

What I hope will happen

First, it’s somewhat disappointing that the role of community management in online journalism does not have a more prominent place in the discussions.

While it’s good to know how to use social media to further your journalistic endeavours, it’s equally important to know how to use it to engage with the community that you’re writing for. It’s a skill that many journalists simply don’t have. There’s still a mentality that once the content has been edited and posted, journalists don’t have any further responsibility towards it. Your article is your product. You’ve got to promote it.

I’d also like to see a discussion on how emerging technologies will impact journalism. Two emerging technologies in particular are eReaders/tablets and smart phones. They’re already changing the way people consume media, so it would make sense then that the way media is developed and presented would need to change, too. Yesterday Google announced the release of its new phone, Nexus One. Not to mention the newest arrival to the eReader game, called Skiff Reader. How will media need to change to fit that new technology?

I’m hoping that the topic of personal branding comes up. Journalists it seems have a love-hate for this term. Some journalists already have personal brands, while others shun the very idea of it. Regardless of your position, it’s something that needs to be talked about, especially in an open forum like this.

I’d also like to see a debate about journalism entrepreneurism. And some discussion about career paths that utilise journalism skills, but aren’t exactly journalism.

But since this is a *journalism* conference, I suspect that won’t happen.

I’ll write a post-event blog post to discuss all that did happen. I’m going to attempt to bring up some of the points I mentioned above, so I’ll also try to write about that. Throughout the day I’ll be tweeting about the from my personal account, @BenLaMothe, so feel free to follow along there, too.

December 21 2009


Visualisations for investigations: How a Swedish local used Tagul

Some good examples of using free online tools to bring illustration and interactivity to a data-heavy report from a small local newspaper in Sweden, thanks to an email to Journalism.co.uk from its web editor Carl Johan Engvall.

Engvall’s paper Ystads Allehanda recently published a large series of articles on poor working conditions at a local school. Two reporters working for about three weeks on the investigation spoke with around 40 teachers about how bad working practices at the school, which has around 250 teachers and 3,000 pupils had become.

“The problem for us was that almost no one dared to step forward. We ended up with 31 anonymous stories. A lot of text and no pictures. The text for the web (extended version) was about 25,000 characters, 11 pages,” explains Engvall. [You can see the full text of the teachers' statements here.]

After experimenting with Wordle to visualise the key words from the teachers’ stories, an image of the tag cloud was used on the print edition’s front page. But Engvall wanted something more interactive. He tried to build something himself using Flash, but then came across Tagul – “basically a Wordle-cloud to the web”.

The result is the cloud of words below with each keyword linked to the individual teacher’s story:

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