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April 01 2011


Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.

This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.

In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.

This year I set MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University an assignment which attempts to do this.

It’s called ‘Communities of Practice’ (the brief is here). The results are in, and they are very encouraging. Here’s what emerged:

‘Communities of Practice’

The ‘Communities of Practice’ assignment asks students to focus not just on developing technical skills around a particular medium of their choice, but on exploring the communities of practice that exist around it. In fact, at this stage the development of technical skills was one of the ways of making contact with those communities.

If, for example, you are developing skills in data journalism, it makes sense that you should be joining relevant mailing lists, following particular blogs, attending meetups, and having conversations (in person, or via email, Facebook or Twitter) around your area.

In addition, as a Masters level student, I’d say you should really be actively contributing to the development of the medium, by publishing your own experiences and reflections on those platforms, and on your own blog.

Two side benefits of this: you build your social capital within those communities (because you are contributing to them, not just taking away), and you build your professional status and reputation.

Hedy Korbee’s blogging on data journalism, for example, led to contacts with Microsoft Canada’s Open Source Strategy Lead, and raised awareness of her soon-to-be-launched hyperlocal website. Other students attended events and made other useful contacts in their fields.

A small aside here: the assignment constitutes a minor part of the Multimedia Journalism module on the course, accounting for 25% of the final marks, and it is assessed on 3 criteria: research, reflection, and creativity. The design of the assessment is geared to ensure that students focus more on learning than execution, and are therefore prepared to take more risks in their work (the second assignment, for which this builds the foundations, focuses more on execution).

The importance of a community’s culture

The culture of the communities of practice was important. Desi Velikova found a warm welcome on this Flash forum, and found that she was able to contribute without being an expert as one of the members needed to put himself in beginners’ shoes to write some tutorials.

Hedy Korbee, meanwhile, identified the divide between journalists and data experts and the problems for people joining those groups who, like her, don’t possess the expertise to actively contribute:

“I’ve learned that the culture of these groups requires asking practical, answerable questions based on specific problems that users face and I don’t think my skills are at a level yet where I can make a useful contribution.

“In light of this, I’ve also joined groups with meetups, such as Toronto OpenStreetMap, where I can interact with and hopefully get inspired by others who share an interest in data and mapping.  I am particularly looking forward to attending my first Hacks and Hackers Toronto meetup.”

Finding workarounds was key. In one instance, Hedy contacted a particularly approachable member of the community directly. Andy Watt, meanwhile, struggled to find communities around audio and video, so he created his own on LinkedIn, and two Twitter lists. Interestingly, he rejected the option of using his own website to host discussions “as it may have been perceived as a ploy to drive traffic to my own site.” Samuel Negredo identified communities around a blog, forums around particular software, and events.

Identifying best practice and reflecting on your own

Identifying best practice was a key process for students. Hedy Korbee’s ‘Five great audio slideshows‘ is a good example, and clearly influenced her own work. Desi Velikova compiled a list of resources for starting Flash 8.

Andy Watt’s blog focused more on documenting his own processes, posting various stages of particular experiments as he continued to edit them. Samuel blogged about the process of filming architecture. And Desi blogged about using one dataset as the basis for exploring 4 visualisation tools.

Being required to talk about process publicly in this way does two things: firstly, it engenders a reflexive approach to production, identifying what works and what doesn’t so that further work is of higher quality. Secondly, it provides material around which other members of the production community can talk: those who are not as proficient will learn from it, and be inclined to help in return in future; those who are more proficient may chip in with their own suggestions now. In short, it’s an investment.

Breadth versus depth

In terms of the structure of the MA, this assignment marks the point at which students move from breadth to depth. To my mind an online journalist needs an awareness of the wide range of storytelling possibilities in the medium, and the variety of newsgathering and distribution tools and techniques. But they also need to stand out in a particular field.

Communities of practice are key to both. One student commented that “Although I will never be a Flash expert, I will feel much more confident if I am in a situation to work on such a project”. Another said “Maybe I won’t be able to keep up with every development, every day, but the work I have done around communities of practice is helping me to identify and organize better the resources which are available”.

This is the nature of working in networks: our connections are key assets we need to work to build, and the ability to access expertise and advice a key skill. You do not achieve either by learning in isolation, producing in seclusion – the traditional mode of education. As these students go forward to specialise in online audio or video, slideshows, infographics and data, they do so within networks.


February 16 2011


Assessing community

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.

I’ve recently been asking students – at both City University London and Birmingham City University – to complete assignments that ask them to do just that.

The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)

The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.

Here’s what I’m learning so far.

I have to explain why community matters

The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.

We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest’; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.

Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.

I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.

Common misunderstandings about community

At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.

One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.

The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.

A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.

Likewise, tools needed to be chosen based on where the community is, and what the tools did. There’s no point starting a blog if all of your chosen community are using Facebook. And there’s no point choosing Facebook if you want the information to be available to search engines.

Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.

How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?

Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.

Communities of practice

The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.

There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.

One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).

Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.

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January 20 2011


A university without walls

This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.

In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.

In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.

You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.

Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.

Teaching community-driven journalism

My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.

To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.

And students are sent out to explore the community as part of learning about blogging, or encouraged to base themselves physically in the communities they serve. Andy Brightwell and Jon Hickman’s hyperlocal Grounds blog is a good example, run out of another city centre coffee shop in their patch.

In my online journalism classes at City University in London, meanwhile (which are sadly too big to fit in a coffee shop) I am currently asking students to put together a community strategy as one of their two assignments. The idea is to get them to think about how they can produce better journalism – that is also more widely read – by thinking explicitly about how to involve a community in its production.

Community isn’t a postcode

But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.

One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).

As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?

There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.

PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:

Slides can be found below:

January 18 2011


Comment call: do your students run hyperlocal blogs?

Thanks to the massive interest in hyperlocal blogs a lot of journalism courses are either asking their students to create hyperlocal websites, or finding their students are creating them anyway. This post is to ask what your own experiences are on these lines?

PS: I’ve also created a Google Group on the topic should you want to exchange tips with others.

November 25 2010


Comment call: Are you teaching data journalism?

On Monday The Guardian published an article about data journalism and the future of journalism. As part of that I was asked what university courses taught data journalism. I could only think of Glyn Mottershead at Cardiff and – probably – Steve Hill at Southampton Solent.

So let me ask: are you involved in – or study on – a course that covers any aspect of data journalism? That might be statistics, computer assisted reporting, or mashing, or something else. Please comment – I’d really like to know what’s out there.

November 12 2010


An exercise in interactive thinking

I’ve just run through an exercise with my class of students from the MA in Television and Interactive Content at Birmingham City University. The exercises are intended to get them to think about the web as more than just a repository of content, but a platform that people use in different ways depending on who they are and what they want to do.

I thought I would share them here – for my own record if nothing else.

What’s your topic – who is your userbase?

Most editorial productions begin with a topic, and an angle on that topic. They also have a particular audience in mind, which dictates the tone that is taken in its production: a documentary aimed at 5-year-olds is going to have a very different tone to one aimed at 25-year-olds, even if the topic is the same.

This gives you the People bit of the POST method I’ve written about previously – the starting point for everything that follows.

From there then you can identify

  • The objectives of those people*.
  • How you might help those people meet those objectives (the strategy and technology)
  • Which of those strategies match your own objectives – or those of the person you’re pitching to

*In the original POST method the objectives are yours, but I would suggest starting with users’ objectives because you need a mutually beneficial outcome.

Here’s how it works in practice:

Example 1: a documentary on Matthew Boulton.

The audience here includes engineering enthusiasts, history hobbyists and numismatists. We focused on numismatists (the documentary’s angle focused on coins), and identified the following objectives:

  • To find coins/auctions,
  • To discuss,
  • To research,
  • To display,
  • To swap/sell,
  • To catalogue

From those the following options were quickly brainstormed:

  • Online swapping service
  • Find out about coins
  • Talk about coins – forum
  • Gallery – photo sharing
  • Virtual catalogue
  • Auction listings & map

In terms of technology, the above might be achieved through an eBay shop or purpose-built ecommerce operation; an informational website; a blog, forum or Facebook group; a Flickr pool; an online cataloguing service similar to LibraryThing; a purpose-built listings site or listings on a third party service such as Upcoming.

Which route you decide to explore will depend on your own objectives, assets and capabilities.

Example 2: Tea culture in the UK

The premise of this documentary is the death of tea drinking in the UK as coffee houses become a larger part of life. The audience is 18-35 year olds.

Now typically people engage with or consume media for emotional, economic or social reasons.

In this instance we decided that social reasons might be strongest. We explored how people connected with each other, and identified the following ways:

  • Memories
  • Plans
  • Jokes
  • Banter
  • Argument
  • The need to exchange information

So what do our 18-35 year olds want to do? Well, let’s say they just want to have fun. We could create a ‘What caffeinated beverage are you?’ quiz. This is also social, and viral. We might organise a ‘Tea Day’ – this gives people something to plan towards, and collaborate around. Indeed, that process might also involve the other elements – joking, arguing, exchanging information, and so on.

The devil is in the detail

Both these examples took around 15-20 minutes to work through, but they provide a good starting point for establishing the frame and direction for the real work that follows: researching what already exists, and what has been done before, identifying gaps, and planning a strategy to get you from where you are now to where you – and your users – want to be.

It’s the strategy that dictates which – of all the ideas listed above – are most appropriate. And of course, after the strategy comes the execution.

The point is that if you haven’t identified the people and their objectives first, your strategy and execution will be built on thin air. ‘Build it and they will come’ is a pipe dream.

October 08 2010


Online journalism student RSS reader starter pack: 50 RSS feeds

Teaching has begun in the new academic year and once again I’m handing out a list of recommended RSS feeds. Last year this came in the form of an OPML file, but this year I’m using Google Reader bundles (instructions on how to create one of your own are here). There are 50 feeds in all – 5 feeds in each of 10 categories. Like any list, this is reliant on my own circles of knowledge and arbitrary in various respects. But it’s a start. I’d welcome other suggestions.

Here is the list with links to the bundles. Each list is in alphabetical order – there is no ranking:

5 of the best: Community

A link to the bundle allowing you to add it to your Google Reader is here.

  1. Blaise Grimes-Viort
  2. Community Building & Community Management
  3. FeverBee
  4. ManagingCommunities.com
  5. Online Community Strategist

5 of the best: Data

This was a particularly difficult list to draw up – I went for a mix of visualisation (FlowingData), statistics (The Numbers Guy), local and national data (CountCulture and Datablog) and practical help on mashups (OUseful). I cheated a little by moving computer assisted reporting blog Slewfootsnoop into the 5 UK feeds and 10,000 Words into Multimedia. Bundle link here.

  1. CountCulture
  2. FlowingData
  3. Guardian Datablog
  4. OUseful.info
  5. WSJ.com: The Numbers Guy

5 of the best: Enterprise

There’s a mix of UK and US blogs covering the economic side of publishing here (if you know of ones with a more international perspective I’d welcome suggestions), and a blog on advertising to round things up. Frequency of updates was another factor in drawing up the list. Bundle link here.

  1. Ad Sales Blog
  2. Media Money
  3. Newsonomics
  4. Newspaper Death Watch
  5. The Information Valet

5 of the best: Industry feeds

Something of a catch-all category. There are a number of BBC blogs I could have included but The Editors is probably the most important. The other 4 feeds cover the 2 most important external drivers of traffic to news sites: search engines and Facebook. Bundle link here.

  1. All Facebook
  2. BBC News – The Editors
  3. Facebook Blog
  4. Search Engine Journal
  5. Search Engine Land

5 of the best: Feeds on law, ethics and regulation

Trying to cover the full range here: Jack of Kent is a leading source of legal discussion and analysis, and Martin Moore covers regulation, ethics and law regularly. Techdirt is quite transparent about where it sits on legal issues, but its passion is also a strength in how well it covers those grey areas of law and the web. Tech and Law is another regular source, while Judith Townend’s new blog on Media Law & Ethics is establishing itself at the heart of UK bloggers’ attempts to understand where they stand legally. Bundle link here.

  1. Jack of Kent
  2. Martin Moore
  3. Media Law & Ethics
  4. Tech and Law
  5. Techdirt

5 of the best: Media feeds

There’s an obvious UK slant to this selection, with Editors Weblog and E-Media Tidbits providing a more global angle. Here’s the bundle link.

  1. Editors Weblog
  2. E-Media Tidbits
  3. Journalism.co.uk
  4. MediaGuardian
  5. paidContent

5 of the best: Feeds about multimedia journalism

Another catch-all category. Andy Dickinson tops my UK feeds, but he’s also a leading expert on online video and related areas. 10,000 Words is strong on data, among other things. And Adam Westbrook is good on enterprise as well as practising video journalism and audio slideshows. Bundle link here.

  1. 10,000 Words
  2. Adam Westbrook
  3. Advancing the Story
  4. Andy Dickinson
  5. News Videographer

5 of the best: Technology feeds

A mix of the mainstream, the new, and the specialist. As the Guardian’s technology coverage is incorporated into its Media feed, I was able to include ReadWriteWeb instead, which often provides a more thoughtful take on technology news. Bundle link here.

  1. Mashable
  2. ReadWriteWeb
  3. TechCrunch
  4. Telegraph Connected
  5. The Register

5 of the best: UK feeds

Alison Gow’s Headlines & Deadlines is the best blog by a regional journalist I can think of (you may differ – let me know). Adam Tinworth’s One Man and his Blog represents the magazines sector, and Martin Belam’s Currybetdotnet casts an eye across a range of areas, including the more technical side of things. Murray Dick (Slewfootsnoop) is an expert on computer assisted reporting and has a broadcasting background. The Online Journalism Blog is there because I expect them to read my blog, of course. Bundle link here.

  1. Currybetdotnet
  2. Headlines and Deadlines
  3. One Man & His Blog
  4. Online Journalism Blog
  5. Slewfootsnoop

5 of the best: US feeds

Jay, Jeff and Mindy are obvious choices for me, after which it is relatively arbitrary, based on the blogs that update the most – particularly open to suggestions here. Bundle link here.

  1. BuzzMachine
  2. Jay Rosen: Public Notebook
  3. OJR
  4. Teaching Online Journalism
  5. Yelvington.com

July 02 2010


Music journalism and data (MA Online Journalism multimedia projects pt1)

I’ve just finished looking at the work from the Diploma stage of my MA in Online Journalism, and – if you’ll forgive the effusiveness – boy is it good.

The work includes data visualisation, Flash, video, mapping and game journalism – in short, everything you’d want from a group of people who are not merely learning how to do journalism but exploring what journalism can become in a networked age.

But before I get to the detail, a bit of background…

We’re in the second of three parts of the MA – the Diploma stage (read about the Certificate stage here). Students are studying 2 modules: Multimedia Journalism, and Production Labs.

The Multimedia Journalism module sees students explore a range of media platforms – audio, video, interactivity, data and visualisation (I’ll write about Production Labs at another point).

In their first assignment students explore a few of these platforms (you can see Caroline Beavon’s blog post about hers here). They then specialise in one medium for their final assignment.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not, given my own current interests – a majority of students decided to specialise in exploring data in some format, with video also proving popular. Over a series of posts I’ll look at some of the most interesting work – beginning with an example of how data journalism skills can be applied to music journalism.

Visualising crime, VFM, rainfall and everything else about music festivals

Caroline Beavon’s portfolio of data journalism investigating and visualising every aspect of the UK’s music festivals is collected at Datamud.

If you wanted to know which festival was the safest in terms of numbers of arrests and numbers of crimes, you could now see at a glance (with the context of each festival’s footfall).

In addition, the investigation unearthed some curious anomalies, such as the crackdown on untaxed vehicles at one Festival, while data looking at capacity compared with estimated attendance highlighted the peak that preceded Glastonbury taking a break (presumably to resolve security and fencing issues).

For a consumer angle, Caroline used crowdsourcing to compile a ‘value for money’ chart showing how much it would cost to see each festival’s performers as separate concerts.

And for a viral-friendly piece of visualisation, it’s hard to beat this image of festival rainfall in the past 3 decades.

festival rainfall in the past 3 decades

The most impressive aspect of Caroline’s work was that underlying the data and graphics was some solid journalism: combining public data, Freedom of Information requests, personal connections and a critical eye that followed up and verified the devil in the detail. It shows that you can do in-depth investigations in the field of music journalism.

Next, I’ll look at how one student used game mechanics to explore civic history, and data and mapping to investigate cycling collisions.

May 25 2010


Do users really want to pay for separate Times and Sunday Times sites?

The Times and Sunday Times have launched their new paywalled sites at  http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/ and http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/. But while the sites have some good features, which I was shown at a preview last night, I still can’t work out why users would want to pay for two different websites covering the same subjects …

What’s on offer?

The plan is to replace the current site – timesonline.co.uk – with two new sites, one for The Times and one for The Sunday Times. £2 a week (or £1 for an individual day) buys you access to both sites. There isn’t an option to get just one site.

The Times proposition

The Times won’t try to be a news wire – it’ll be offering fewer stories on its home page than most online newspapers with the aim being to enhance those stories.

Without the need to chase search engine traffic or page views for advertisers, the idea of covering fewer stories but in a better way sounds appealing.

Some articles, for instance, will have information graphic and tabs to let you explore the history and different aspects of the story without leaving the page. This package of content is brilliant – it works much better as an experience than lists of related articles or auto-generated tag pages.

The Sunday Times proposition

The Sunday Times site will look very different to the Times’s. It will have the sections people know from the paper. So, news, sport and  business – but also culture, style, travel, In Gear and the magazine.

The site won’t be updated much during the week – though the aim is still for it to function as a 7-days-a-week site.

But instead of trying to compete with the Times sites for news, it will offer readers the ability to browse and explore Sunday’s content over the week, concentrating on galleries, videos and interactive graphics.

Why two websites?

The decision to replace the current timesonline.co.uk site with two brands and two websites – thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk – has obviously meant some thinking about how they work together.

They seem clear enough that they are two products – a daily news site and a site that you’re meant to browse all week. But it was interesting that the reasons they talked about for this were the different editorial teams, the “different but overlapping audiences”, the different values of the newspapers, and the different reasons why people buy the Sunday paper vs the weekday paper.

I get all that for print products that are published on different days.

I’m just not sure why this needs to translate into two different websites that aren’t physical products and can be accessed easily on the same day …

The Tuesday question

Take a Tuesday when I’m reading the online Times Arts section to decide what film or play to watch. If I want to use the Sunday Times interactive culture tool (which looked great and even lets you remote control your Sky+ box) to explore reviews and book tickets then I need to go to a physically different website and browse to this tool. There’s not even going to be a link to it. I don’t get why they don’t just make the tool available on the Times site as well …

Or if I’m reading news about the BP oil spill on Tuesday on the Times site. How will I know there is an amazing interactive infographic on the Sunday Times site explaining what has happened so far? Where there’s overlap in subject matters, the content and functionality are split  across two sites. And there’s no eaasy way for users to find out what’s on the other site without going there and looking – which surely people aren’t going to bother to do on a regular basis on the off chance there might be something there?

The Sunday question

The Times site isn’t going to get updated much on a Sunday, unless there’s breaking news. So it will be interesting to see how it covers Saturday’s news when they do get round to writing about it – particularly sport.

Take the Champion’s League final last Saturday. In print, the Times would have analysed it in its Monday paper edition, and the Sunday Times would have done a match report. Online I’m not sure what will happen. It doesn’t seem to make sense to split this content across two websites, though. Will the Times site publish a match report online, or will this just be on the Sunday Times site?

Having two match reports seems a bit odd. But reading the analysis on the Times without being able to easily get to the Sunday Times match report seems odd too.

Should they let people subscribe to just one site?

I like the different approach they are taking on the two sites. And having them as separate sites might make sense if they were comptitors or if you could subscribe to just one – but you can’t. Given you have to take both, when they have overlapping content, why physically separate it?

Why not just have one sport section or one culture section where you can see the differing Times / Sunday Times take on things?

It strikes me that there is either sufficient distinction in the audience for the two brands that you let users subscribe to just one site. Or the audiences cross over so much that you combine the two sites in one and think about what makes most sense from the user’s point of view. Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross linking, seems a bit odd.

How will people access the site?

There were, as you can imagine, several questions about how the paywall will work in practice. Only two pages will be accessible if you’re not logged in – the homepage of the The Times site and the homepage of the Sunday Times site.



If you click on a link to a story, a box appears telling you to sign up or log in (As I’ve said before about paywalls, I think they’re going to have to get this to work a LOT harder).

If you clicked on a deep link to a story, you are redirected to the homepage where the box appears (I think this sounds odder than it will be in practice although the page load speeds are a bit slow at the moment. To see it in action, click here (a deep link) and then wait for the overlay to appear ….).

If you log in / sign up you are then redirected to the URL you were after. The same is true of search engines, too – so Google won’t be able to access the pages, which won’t appear in Google’s news or web search – with one small caveat. Google will be able to see URLs that are shown on the homepage but as it sees a login box if it tries to crawl the URL, I’m not 100% clear what happens then.

What are you getting?

There will be a 4 week period after the launch of these two new sites (a launch which was said to be “very imminent” – ie today!) where the current site and the new sites will exist together. Last night I thought they said there wouldn’t be a paywall so the new sites will be fully accessible so people could see what the sites were all about. But you can’t get past the homepages at the moment.

All three sites will be updated, and you’ll be able to browse around the new Times and Sunday Times sites to see what they look like. After 4 weeks, the paywall goes up and you’ll need to pay to access the new sites. At that point, the old site will stop being updated. Confused? We were a bit!

As things stand, this means there will be the paid-for Times Archive, spanning 1785 to 1985. Then the current timesonline site will sit on the internet, not being updated from the end of June but with old stories still accessible. And the two new sites will run behind a paywall for any new content. Although this seems a bit weird, I don’t suppose it matters too much …

Marketing the sites

What will be interesting to see is how they encourage people to sign up once the paywall is there – how will they show people what they’ll be getting if they sign up? There was no discussion this evening of tours or free trials or anything. I’m sure they’ve got something planned.

To sum up …

Overall, they seemed to have some interesting views on what each product is and how it will work. And I do understand the distinction they were trying to draw between a daily news site on the one hand and a weekly site on the other.

But when the daily news site is actually only 6 days a week, and covers much of the same subject matter as the weekly site … and when they’re offered as part of the same subscription with no option to just get one … that’s when I start to get a bit confused.

Have they projected their internal structure onto the websites they offer customers at the expense of the user experience? Or do they have a much better grasp of what their audiences want on different days and in different modes? Only time – and The Timeses – will tell (< sorry).

February 25 2010


Experiments in online journalism

Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:

There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other.

Secondly, by traditional standards a couple of students did indeed ‘fail’ to produce a concrete product. But that was what the brief allowed – in fact, encouraged. They were not assessed on success, but research, reflection and creativity. The most interesting projects were those that did not produce anything other than an incredible amount of learning on the part of the student. In other words, it was about process rather than product, which seems appropriate given the nature of much online journalism.

Process, not product

One of the problems I sought to address with this brief was that students are often result-focused and – like journalists and news organisations themselves – minimise risk in order to maximise efficiency. So the brief took away those incentives and introduced new ones that rewarded risk-taking because, ultimately, MA-level study is as much about testing new ideas as it is about mastering a set of skills and area of knowledge. In addition, the whole portfolio was only worth 20% of their final mark, so the stakes were low.

Some things can be improved. There were 3 areas of assessment – the third, creativity, was sometimes difficult to assess in the absence of any product. There is the creativity of the idea, and how the student tackles setbacks and challenges, but that could be stated more explicitly perhaps.

Secondly, the ‘evaluation’ format would be better replaced by an iterative, blog-as-you-go format which would allow students to tap into existing communities of knowledge, and act as a platform for ongoing feedback. The loop of research-experiment-reflect-research could be integrated into the blog format – perhaps a Tumblelog might be particularly useful here? Or a vlog? Or both?

As always, I’m talking about this in public to invite your own ideas and feedback on whether these ideas are useful, and where they might go next. I’ll be inviting the students to contribute their own thoughts too.

February 01 2010


What does John Terry’s case mean for superinjuntions?

The superinjunction obtained by England Captain John Terry was overturned on Friday – and the case raises some interesting issues (cross posted from John Terry: another nail in the superinjunction coffin):

  • Ecen when the superinjunction was in force, you could find out about the story on Twitter and Google – both even promoted the fact of Terry’s affair – via the Twitter trends list and the real-time Google search box.
  • No one got the difference between an injunction and a superinjunction - the former banned reporting of Terry’s alleged affair, the latter banned revealing there was an injunction. They weren’t necessarily both overturned, but there was a widespread assumption you could say what you liked about Terry once the superinjunction was overturned. This wasn’t necessarily the case …
  • The Mail and Telegraph seemed to flout the superinjunction – as did the Press Gazette which decided if wasn’t bound as it hadn’t seen a copy. This seemed risky behaviour legally – which makes me wonder if the papers were looking for a weak case to try to discredit superinjunctions.
  • This superinjunction should never have been granted. What was the original judge thinking?

Google and Twitter ignored the superinjunction

Tweets from while the superinjunction was in force

Tweets from while the superinjunction was in force

The superinjunction was overturned at about 1pm or 2pm on Friday. Needless to say, the papers had a field day over the weekend.

But if you wanted to find out the story on Friday, it was relatively simple to do so. I typed John Terry’s name into Google on Friday at about 11.15am – long before the injunction was lifted – and saw the screenshot, above.

Google’s real-time  search box revealed tweets about John Terry and Wayne Bridge (and there were some giving full details of the affair – including the stuff that didn’t come out until Sunday). Later on Friday, Google pulled the real-time search box – whether this was algorithmic or for legal reasons, I don’t know. But if, spurred on by the clues Google was offering, you typed both Terry and Bridge into Google or Twitter search, and it was simple to find the full story.

And by Friday lunchtime, both John Terry and Wayne Bridge were trending topics on Twitter, raising the profile of the issue. If you clicked on either to see what was being tweeted, you’d have found out about the affair instantly.

Shortly after, a judge ruled there were no grounds for the injunction, super or otherwise.

Guardian links to Twitter search for John Terry

As an aside, I noticed that the Guardian, in its coverage of the superinjunction, even included a link in one of its pieces to a Twitter search on John Terry.

They’ve removed it now (well, I can’t find it anyway and probably for the best. You should either have the balls to run the full story or not. I don’t think publishing a link to a twitter search is a reasonable half way house.)

Confusion still reigned

Once news that the super injunction had been lifted, no one knew (or perhaps cared) where they legally stood on Friday afternoon (as I’ve pointed out before about blogs and reporting restrictions).

It was reported that the superinjunction was lifted – but not whether there was a separate injunction relating to the facts of the case (ie could you report that JT had obtained an injunction, but not say why?).

Despite this, everyone went ahead and shouted about it all over the internet. If there was a separate injunction, it was finished.

You can see the confusion in the comments on this Guardian story from Friday afternoon

Seastorm: I’ve no interest in gossiping about EBJT, but I am a little confused….is the paper concerned now allowed to go ahead and publish the allegations?

Busfield (replying to seastorm): The judgement means that we can now report that there was an injunction. The judge then says that the newspaper concerned will have to make its own assessment of the risks involved in publishing whatever the allegations may be, which will involve considerations of the laws relating to privacy and defamation.

Gooner UK (replying to seastorm): Nope, the removal of the superinjunction means that newspapers are allowed to publish the fact that an injunction is in place, and name the parties involved, but they are still not allowed to publish the subject matter itself.

The injunction still stands, it’s just that we now know an injunction is in place. A superinjunction is so damaging because it means we (the public) are deliberately kept in the dark as to the very existence of an injunction.

And bear in mind that an injunction is in theory an act of last resort anyway. A superinjunction adds another level to that, which can be very dangerous in terms of press freedom.

Busfield (replying to Gooner UK): my understanding, and I am not a lawyer but I have spent much of the day talking to one, is that both the super and the injunction have gone. It is up to the paper concerned to decide whether it can publish its story without breaking the laws of defamation and relating to privacy.

The background: two papers ignore the injunction

It’s also interesting that two newspapers decide to ignore, or sail very close to the wind with regards to, the superinjunction – ie they ran stories that appeared to be in breach of it.

Mail reports injunction’s existence

As the Press Gazette reported on Friday morning (ie before the superinjunction was lifted):

A new “super-injunction” has been used by a Premier League footballer to stop national newspapers reporting his alleged marital infidelity.

The Daily Mail identifies the man only as a married England international.

The Daily Mail today reports, in apparent defiance of the order: “So draconian is Mr Justice Tugendhat’s order that even its existence is supposed to be a secret.”

(It’s interesting that the Press Gazette felt able to run the story about the existence of the superinjnction stating “Press Gazette has not been served with the injunction.” – I would have thought that this was also sailing close to the wind. It knew there was a super injunction, and I’m surprised its lawyers didn’t make an attempt to find out the full details.)

The Mail’s piece had a couple of nods and winks to Terry’s role:

A married England international footballer was granted a sweeping injunction to prevent publication of his affair with the girlfriend of a team-mate … It could be anyone from the captain of the top team in the land …”

What, like the captain of England and Chelsea, you mean?

As does the Telegraph

On top of this, the Telegraph had run a piece, too, according to the Guardian:

Yesterday [Thursday] The Daily Telegraph technically breached the “super” part of the superinjunction by reporting that the courts were hiding the identity of a footballer and allegations about his private life. (This piece appeared in print but is no longer online).

Maybe since the Trafigura injunction, newspapers have been looking for a way to kill off superinjunctions. If they wanted a weak super injunction to pick on as a way to discredit them, this seemed a prime example.

Whatever their reasons, nothing seems likely to happen to the Mail and the Telegraph for breaching or nearly breaching this one – unlike in the Trafigura case, it seems unlikely John Terry is going to successfully sue anyone over this issue.


The Mail sums it up well:

In a scathing ruling, the judge made it clear he suspected Terry was more afraid of losing the commercial deals than anything else.

He said the footballer appeared to have brought his High Court action in a desperate move to protect his earnings – rather than the woman with whom he had been conducting his affair.

(And given this, it’s hard to see how the superinjunction was ever granted.)

There are legitimate reasons for injunctions and even superinjunctions.

But judges need to think very carefully before granting them. And the British courts and the right to privacy should not be used to protect the commercial interests of the “father of the year”.

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