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March 29 2013


July 20 2011


Yahoo News examines joblessness in Down But Not Out Tumblr

There’s a certain sad predictability that comes with trying to cover a long-running story — especially one that touches on areas of government and policy. It’s predictable in that there’s a set of knowledge, stats and “B copy” that has to be laid to bare and can get repetitive. It’s sad almost because of that predictability, which can drown out other parts of a story.

Consider the heft it takes to write about unemployment in the U.S., a story that usually gets reduced each month to a single number. Currently that number is 9.2 percent, and that makes it one of the biggest ongoing stories in the U.S. But covering it can be tricky without treading into predictability or reducing personal stories into soundbites.

The Lookout at Yahoo News decided to try and tack in a different direction: On June 27, they put out a call to readers to share stories on long-term unemployment. Call-outs are nothing new in journalism, but The Lookout was specifically looking for full personal stories, not just modular information that could be used to fill out copy. The result was unexpected: More than 6,000 responses through comments and email, so much that they went beyond a one-off story on long-term unemployment and created Down But Not Out a Tumblr devoted to the personal narratives of the long-term unemployed.

“I felt like people had become inured to seeing those numbers constantly,” said Zachary Roth, senior national affairs reporter for The Lookout. “Almost like the jobs crisis has gone on for so long that people have lost interest.”

Roth decided to try and look deeper, starting with the fact that out of the 14 million Americans out of work, more than 6 million have been jobless for half a year or longer. So Roth laid out his appeal, citing not only the latest unemployment stats but also surveys looking at the connection between the amount of time it takes to find a job and how long you’ve been without work. More importantly, Roth said, he asked readers for a full picture of their lives now, not just the salient bullet points on being jobless.

“I’ve been writing about the economy and specifically unemployment since I started at Yahoo last year and just felt the issues of long-term unemployment has emerged in recent months as the key issue of the jobs crisis,” Roth said.

Here’s where the benefits of size and working for a company that deals with significant online traffic come into play: The post got a huge boost from prominent placement on the Yahoo homepage for a day, which may have contributed to the nearly 5,000 comments on Roth’s piece, along with around 1,000 emails.

This is a reporter’s dream/nightmare scenario: that a call-out works well enough to provide responses, but perhaps so well that it’ll take extra time just to go through them. Phoebe Connelly, a Yahoo News editor who worked with Roth on the project, and intern Galen Bernard helped sift through the entries and planned out the Tumblr, Connelly told me. She said Tumblr made the most sense for the project because it offered the ideal layout for individual stories as well as an additional means of discovery for readers. On July 14, Roth’s piece was published, featuring around 20 people who submitted their stories to The Lookout. The same day the Tumblr was launched with 58 stories. “The appeal was doing it quickly and not with a ton of manpower or tech power, and just using the editors we had to get it up,” Connelly said.

The other benefit may also have been a more immersive experience, as the posts on Tumblr aren’t encumbered with ads, buttons or a lot of links, which makes for a quieter reading experience. (Of course, the lack of ads has a monetary downside, too.) And it appears to have clicked with readers: On the day they launched Down But Not Out, the average time-on-site was around 8 minutes, Connelly said.

While lots of media outlets have experimented with Tumblr, the typical use has been as a branded alternate channel for their work. The Lookout’s approach is more specialized, giving readers’ stories a chance for a little breathing room. Which is just as well, because the stories — some short, others running several paragraphs — are alternately wrenching and raw and surprisingly optimistic and funny. And it all takes up more space than they could have afforded on The Lookout, Roth admits. “From my perspective, it was great because we got so many thousands of responses we couldn’t begin to post any of them in absolute full,” he said. It’s also afforded them the ability to keep the story alive. Connelly told me they’ve just launched a Twitter account and plan to publish three reader-submitted stories to Tumblr each week, with a story cross-posting on The Lookout every Tuesday.

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July 01 2011


Solving data overload with design: News Challenge winner iWitness aggregates media by time and place

Jesse James Garrett

If consumers struggle to keep up with breaking news and current events, it’s certainly not for lack of data. Jesse James Garrett thinks the problem with news is one of design.

“As the data sources become more and more massive, the role of user experience in shaping technology that helps people make sense of those data sources is a vital part of delivering on the mission of journalism,” Garrett said.

Though he went to journalism school, Garrett is a professional web designer. He is president of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design firm he co-founded almost 10 years ago, and best known for coining the term AJAX to describe a new way of building websites.

Garrett’s first attempt to rescue journalism from bad design is iWitness, an aggregation tool that will mine Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for user-generated material unique to a particular time and place — the kind of tool that might prove particularly useful during political protests or natural disasters. iWitness is only an idea at this point, but now it’s funded by a two-year, $360,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge.

“Give us a time and a place and we’ll find everything, from the services that we’re able to support, that was posted by somebody who was there — in that place, at that time,” Garrett said. Centrality is one of iWitness’ key selling points. Nothing out there at the moment automatically pulls content from across social-service sites at the same time.

“The sites themselves don’t really provide easy mechanisms for sifting their data by location. They’re collecting all this data, but they don’t really present it to users in a way that makes it easy for them to work,” Garrett said. For all the petabytes of data out there, there’s even more metadata — data about the data — just waiting to be put in context.

So if you were able to follow the streams of photos and video and tweets coming out of Tahrir Square right now, for example, that would give you an immediate, and intimate, insight into the political upheaval in Egypt. It takes a lot of manual labor,” Garrett said. Even Andy Carvin sleeps.

Andy Carvin, of course, adds another layer — human-powered curation — to the mix, and that’s not what iWitness is for. It’s not Storify, Garrett said.

“I feel like Storify’s core strength is as a curation tool, to allow people to pull together and create a narrative from social media. What we’re doing is really raw aggregation,” he said. You could use iWitness to gather source material for a story, the way you might use Kayak as a starting point for planning a trip.

Garrett will distribute the code as open-source, not because the Knight Foundation requires it but because he thinks it’s the most effective way to win widespread adoption. He plans to build a working demo but leave it up to others to build public-facing websites. News organizations also could adopt and expand the software for internal use.

The project will borrow some of the programmers and designers at Adaptive Path and should get underway this fall. The involvement of a respected design firm, not a news organization, is interesting — and not a traditional choice for the News Challenge. iWitness will probably be beautiful. And that could be what gets people to use it.

February 17 2011


Blizzard Builds KOMU Community with Mobile Video, Facebook

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

I've always dreamed of a time when my community could come together with the help of our on-air and online collaboration. All it took was a blizzard to make it happen.

Mid-Missouri was hit with a blizzard-like storm that dumped 17.5 inches of snow into Columbia, Mo., and even more south of the city. The entire viewing audience of KOMU-TV was home and stuck inside. An ice storm had threatened to cut power across the region, but that didn't happen. Instead, the community was snowed in with power to their computers and high speed Internet connections. They were contained and ready to be engaged.

The KOMU newsroom was ready. The staff is a mix of professional reporters and journalists who are still students at the Missouri School of Journalism. The managers of the newsroom -- who, like me, are also faculty members -- encouraged the students to step up and help out in the coverage of what was looking to become an epic storm.

About 40 faculty, staff and students essentially lived in the newsroom to make sure all of the newscasts got on the air. I gathered up multiple teams of reporters, who were then placed into different communities. Each team had a really nice camera and at least one person had an iPhone, Android or Blackberry phone that could shoot video and/or Skype. I had the reporters download a set of tools that would help them tell multimedia stories about their locations and how those smaller towns were dealing with the heavy snow.

My recommendations were:

While we didn't use all of them, I wanted to make sure we were ready and able on all kinds of platforms.

Videos on the Scene

The reporters went out to their various locations, found a hotel, and got ready. As the day went on and the snow fell harder, the mobile reporters went out into the storm. They were looking at scenes no one else was willing to travel out to see -- like what a closed interstate highway looked like:

My favorite was taken the morning after the storm when one of our student reporters hopped onto a snow plow to survey the bad road conditions:

While the reporters were out sharing their stories of the snowstorm, our viewers were at home watching every link, video, and live broadcast. When the majority of the storm was over, the KOMU 8 viewers took over by sharing many of their own stories about the storm. Our newsroom has an email address that accepts moderated photos into a Ning network. Hundreds of photos were sent to KOMU -- and that was in addition to the more than 620 photos posted to the KOMU Facebook wall.

The fan page was the centerpiece of our online interaction during the storm. A year ago, KOMU had fewer than 500 "fans" on the page. Before the storm, it was up to 3100. After the storm, it was up to 5500. Our newsroom has yet to use contests to encourage fans to join our page so this jump was huge. Along with the increase in fans, more and more people join in on the conversations and share on the page.

Big Moment for Sharing

This is what I've always craved as a journalist working in a regional market. It's exactly the sort of interaction I've taught my students to foster for years. I have always wanted open the line of communication and sharing with my news audience. This blizzard was the first time I really had that opportunity.

During the storm, I lived on my computer. I commented and reacted to every discussion for at least 36 hours. I slept very little.

My experience was not unique for the staff. My husband, who also works in the newsroom, and stayed there for two days while I worked from home with our children. I had student employees who slept at the station and worked with me throughout the storm.

It was awesome and exhausting. But the relationships formed during that storm seem to be holding. In the two weeks since the storm, KOMU's Facebook page has only had about ten "fans" leave the page.

The downsides? The amount of user-generated content we gathered was overwhelming. I wanted to make sure we had opportunities to share all it. Our anchors did stories about the content viewers had shared, and we featured the images and video by showing off an iPad on the air. I also had my students create collections of the photos our viewers uploaded. Here's our Blizzard Kids collection:

The best moment? I'd say it was when our team found a woman and her son digging out the reporters' car. They were compelled to help by a Skype conversation during our newscast about how the reporters' car had been buried at a local hotel. The mother and son, who were staying there at the time, left their room just to help the reporters get their car out of the hotel parking lot:

What lessons did we learn? That when you have a chance to engage, grab it. We used mobile tools to report and encouraged our viewers to do the same. We shared, we compared, and we were a true community on-air and online. I would suffer through a hundred more blizzards if it meant we could continue to share and collaborate like we did during this one.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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

November 22 2010


With its new food blog, WordPress gets into the content-curation game

This month, the company associated with one of the world’s most popular blogging platforms took its first, quiet step into the realm of for-profit content aggregation. FoodPress, a human-curated recipe blog, is a collaboration between blogging giant WordPress.com and Federated Media, a company that provides advertising to blogs and also brokers more sophisticated sponsorship deals. Lindt chocolate is already advertising on the site.

“We have a huge pool of really motivated and awesome food bloggers,” explained Joy Victory, WordPress’ editorial czar. (Yes, that is, delightfully, her official title.) Food was a natural starting place for a content vertical.

If the FoodPress model takes off, it could be the beginning of a series of WordPress content verticals covering different topics. WordPress.com currently hosts more than 15.1 million blogs, and when the FoodPress launch was announced, excited WordPress commenters were already asking for additional themed pages on subjects like art, restaurants, and beer.

(To clarify the sometimes confusing nomenclature: WordPress the blogging software — sometimes called WordPress.org — is free, open source, and installed on your own web server; we use it under the hood here at the Lab. WordPress.com is a for-profit venture offering a hosted version of WordPress software, owned by Automattic, which was founded by WordPress developer Matt Mullenweg. FoodPress is a WordPress.com project.)

For now, though, FoodPress’ creators are keeping their focus on their first blog and seeing what kind of traffic and advertising interest it attracts — the start-small-then-scale approach. And one question that remains to be answered in this first experimental effort is how WordPress bloggers will respond to the monetization of their content, and whether featured bloggers will want compensation beyond the additional traffic they’re likely to receive.

So far, the response from users has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Victory said. While the familiar issue of blogger compensation has been raised in response to the new venture, “our users don’t seem concerned so far,” she said. Instead, they’re largely excited about the possibility of even more themed sites. Advertising is already a part of WordPress.com, Victory pointed out, popping up on individual WordPress blogs unless a user is signed into WordPress itself.

WordPress’ venture into the editorial realm is significant on its own merits, but it also provides a fascinating case study in how media jobs have proliferated even as the news industry suffers. Victory used to work for metro newspapers, as did Federated Media’s Neil Chase. Now the two are working on a project that brings atomized pieces of user-created content together as a singular web publication. (FoodPress’ tagline: “Serving up the hottest dishes on WordPress.com.”)

Victory is optimistic about this “new way of looking at journalism” — even though, she said, “I consider myself someone who has left traditional journalism behind.” But while some of the FoodPress content is aggregated automatically, Victory believes as well in the value of human curation in creating a good user experience — a sentiment shared among many in the burgeoning ranks of web curators. (Up to now, WordPress’ content curation has focused mainly on Freshly Pressed, a collection of featured blog posts on the site’s homepage, which Victory hand-selects daily.) And to bring more editorial oversight to FoodPress, Federated Media turned to one of its affiliated bloggers, Jane Maynard, to oversee the project — a paid, part-time position.

The blog won’t be just an experiment in curation, though; it will also be a case study in collaboration. “It’s the first step in what we think will be a critical partnership,” Chase noted — one that emerged organically from the collaboration-minded, conversational world of San Francisco-based startups. And just as Federated Media and Automattic have shared the duties of creating the site, he said, they will also share the revenue FoodPress generates.

As for the expectations for that revenue? Victory isn’t releasing traffic stats for FoodPress at this point — both she and Chase were hesitant to talk too much about a project still in beta testing — but noted that the site’s social media presence is growing, with, as of this posting, more than 1,400 Facebook “Likes” and 1,200 Twitter followers. The rest will, like a recipe itself, develop over time. “This is a little bit of an experiment for us,” Victory said. “And we’re hoping it’s wildly successful.”

October 25 2010


Crowdsourcing chocolate cake: How a New York Times foodie stumbled upon the new news production

[Ken Smith, a professor of English in Indiana, noticed a New York Times piece that he thought showed an evolution in how journalists think about their audience. I'm happy to share his post with you here. —Josh]

I’ve been meaning to look back at “Recipe Redux: The Community Cookbook,” Amanda Hesser’s Oct. 6 account of working with New York Times readers to find the best recipes from the history of the paper to gather into a new cookbook. When I first read the piece in the food issue of the Sunday magazine, I thought that some of the elements of reshaping news production had snuck up on her, uninvited, but that she had done a good job of noticing what was happening and making the most of it. So first I’ll summarize her story and then look more closely at some of the ingredients.

A quick summary, then: Hesser wanted to write this new cookbook (which goes on sale today) drawing on a vast archive of information, found this impossible to do because of the size of the archive, then called upon Times readers to assist in the screening. Upon sending out the call, Hesser discovered a far more interesting and vigorous cloud of people out there ready to participate, a discovery which challenged her notion of the newspaper’s authority, eased her work substantially, and changed both the content and the shape of the final product.

Now, some of the themes and stages, plucked in sequence as quotations from the essay.

The story began with business as usual — the authority and creativity of the individual expert:

Six years ago, I decided to write a cookbook that would gather the best New York Times recipes ever. I was sure it was a great idea…

…and the authority of the institution:

…because the paper — which began publishing recipes in the 1850s — has been one of the leading voices in the evolution of American food.

However, the true scope of such knowledge was beyond even experts:

But it turned out to be a terrible idea logistically, because The Times has published tens of thousands of recipes.

And somehow she turned to a group of strangers, the readers of the Times, for help. This was no doubt against all of her training as a journalist, and it certainly felt strange to her:

So I turned to the paper’s readers — you! — a group of people I barely knew, for help, placing a small author’s query in the Dining section, soliciting readers’ “most stained recipes” from The Times.

The honest invitation to participate was received with overwhelming pleasure among the readers:

The following morning, coffee in hand in my gray cubicle on 43rd Street, I was greeted by a tidal wave of e-mail.

In these replies, clues came in that hinted of a rich and varied life on the other side of the expert/audience divide, the journalist/reader divide, the paper/people divide. There is more going on out there than the journalist has guessed:

The letters also contained readers’ passionate accounts of relationships with dishes they had been cooking for decades. They wrote me about recipes that held together their marriages, reminded them of lost youth, gave them the cooking bug and symbolized their annual family gatherings.

These readers were individuals with character, desire, history. Hesser’s old notion of the readership…

…as an amorphous, anonymous mass…

…began to erode. Happily so, since it’s not proper to believe you work for an amorphous, anonymous mass when that’s not the case. You make mistakes about them if you think of them that way. These people, she sees now, have traits, and she sees them:

…as bands of rabid partisans. There were the seasonal-cooking fanatics, the chocoholics, the Claiborne devotees. And there were simply readers who, for decades, waited each weekend for the thwump of The Times on their doorsteps so they could tear out the recipes and dash to the store.

Listening in this way changed Hesser as a journalist. These people with their individuality and their group identity and their active contributions:

…first led to this series of columns, which looks back at some of the most notable recipes. And then they changed the shape of my career.

The cookbook, published after about six years of work, came out of the contributions from the readers after testing and shaping by the two cookbook authors.

My talented assistant (and now business partner), Merrill Stubbs, collated all these reader suggestions into a document 145 single-spaced pages long, comprising more than 6,000 recipes.

The working papers reflected community values:

That file sums up what, exactly, Times readers really love to eat…and which writers’ recipes seemed most inventive and easiest to make.

The contributions were not predictable, since they came from a diverse group of real people with whose lives were unfolding over time on their own terms:

Four of the top five most-recommended recipes were desserts; more surprisingly, four of the five were more than 20 years old.

But these contributions were a lesson (of several kinds)1 from the non-expert to the expert:

It was a survey course in the food of the last two generations in America.

Since people were involved, there were fads and fashions, discoveries and improvements, and the sad forgetting of worthy traditions:

We learned to cook pasta and to sauce it properly, as well as how to roast vegetables, but we left a lot of great Germanic foods like goulash and spaetzle by the curb.

When experts didn’t assert themselves overly in shaping the food columns of the older Times, odd and quirky beliefs had been asserted by the crowd:

None of this material seems to have been vetted by editors, so readers were free to propagate a conviction that noses should be wiped by alternating left and right sides to prevent “deformity,” or that anxious people should eat fatty foods because fat around the nerves “smoothes them out.”

The readers from an earlier era revealed themselves to be:

…a remarkably vigorous community…

…any one of whom might also be, for example:

…occasionally sexist and racist….

Hesser changed the kind of columns she was writing to incorporate the new-found energy of the readership:

Along the way, I created this column, Recipe Redux, to showcase both lost gems and reader favorites.

She invited other experts to tap into this vein of reader-provided, reader-shaped content:

…ask[ing] a chef to use the old recipe as a jumping-off point to create something new, as a way of capturing the evolution of recipes and recontextualizing the past.

She carried on with her project, but it changed, no longer reflecting the comprehensive scope beloved by the expert but something else:

It wasn’t going to be a dutifully comprehensive collection or a thoroughgoing history of American cooking. It was going to be an eclectic panorama of both highfalutin masterpieces and lowbrow grub, a fever chart of culinary passions. It was going to be by turns global and local, simple and baroque, ancient and prescient…


…its foundation would largely reflect the tastes of the thousands of readers who wrote in to guide me.

How, Hesser wondered, could this whole progression of surprising experiences possibly have come to pass? It went against all of her training and her understanding of the role of the journalist as expert. She decided to ask a new kind of expert what had just happened to her.

Andrew Rasiej, a futurist and the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, told me recently, “Newspapers think they’re just in the information business, but they’re really in the business of community building as well.”

She realized that the Times misunderstood its relationship to its readers. Her own section, for example:

The Times’s food section, which has been around in various forms since the 1940s, had always thought of itself as having had a planet-and-moons relationship with its readers.

Readers could write the occasional thumbs-up, thumbs-down letter, but journalists essentially worked in ignorance of their readership:

I essentially had two kinds of interactions with the Times “community”: the letters of praise, which perked you up, and the complaining, you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about ones you wanted to forget, usually because it was too late to fix your mistake. But mostly I wrote in a vacuum.

It appeared that readers had no ambitions beyond the narrow confines of their own lives and no power to speak and act more widely anyway:

And Times food readers mostly talked among themselves.

But in working deeply in the archive of the Times food section, with the help of the suggestions of the many readers who wrote in, she began to understand a very different relationship between her audience and her section of the Times:

I began to see that readers had always been integral to the Times food pages, whether they contributed recipes [in the old days]…or were featured by people like [resident expert] Craig Claiborne, many of whose most famous recipes…came from friends and readers.

Not only the paper and its community but a whole culture, it turned out, worked differently than Hesser had ever imagined. Authority and judgment in culture works far differently, or can work far differently, than an expert is likely to believe it does:

…the shape of our food culture, I saw for the first time, did not live in the hands of chefs or the media. It lived in the hands of regular people — home cooks, foodies, whatever label you want to give them — who decide what sticks.

An accurate understanding of the relationship of institutions like the Times to readers in the movement of the wider culture requires a different metaphor:

It’s not planet and moons but a large asteroid belt.

Eyes now opened, Hesser saw the evidence all around her of judgment and authority dispersed, liberated from dominating expertise, at least in the area of food culture:

During my testing, I realized that not only did the 19th-century archive consist almost entirely of recipes by home cooks, but so did many of the most-recommended recipes. Four of the five most-recommended recipes — the apple cake, pancake, chocolate cake and lasagna — originated with nonprofessionals.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Taste of Home, the largest cooking magazine in the country, with a circulation of 3.2 million, is entirely made up of reader recipes. So were the beloved and often wildly successful community cookbooks of yore.

For those who have learned how to look, the Internet reveals layers of inventive food culture liberated from traditional limitations — including the journalist’s earlier understanding of audience — by new speed of publishing, connectivity, innovation:

…over the past decade the food movement and technology have converged, fundamentally changing the way recipes and food information were distributed. Suddenly there were regular people everywhere who were knowledgeable about food, and there was a new medium through which they could express themselves: blogs. The number of food bloggers has proliferated into the thousands, and a few of them, like the Pioneer Woman, Smitten Kitchen and101Cookbooks, have become brands.

Hesser’s team saw need, opportunity, and tools in place to create a new genre of participatory cookbook writing, too, on the Internet:

…an online platform for gathering talented cooks and curating their recipes…a new community-building venture…It would be democratic and fun…

…and together they would produce cookbooks without giving all the authority back to experts. Once again, Hesser had the experience of asking people to join in and finding that they loved being invited:

We had no idea who would show up to our tiny atoll in the Internet sea…but soon enough…100,000 or so regulars…Week after week, there were exceptional entries…People visited from Slovenia and Australia. People fought, and we gave them timeouts. People said we changed their lives and cried when the 52 weeks were over.

The Times once worked this way:

…for more than 150 years…The paper provided a playing field with established parameters, to which readers like Aunt Addie and Claiborne’s followers conformed; they sent in their recipes and letters and expected little in return…

…but now the food writers, at least, discovered that they could work in an entirely different way:

Now it’s a different kind of conversation. The Internet’s elimination of geography means molecular-gastronomy enthusiasts can crawl out from behind their immersion circulators and find one another; so can the thousands of cupcake bakers. And its compression of time allows the community to make instant and intense connections. On food52, we just introduced the Foodpickle feature, inspired by StackOverflow.com, which allows anyone to ask a cooking question through Twitter and receive a prompt, informed answer from a fellow cook. Now you can take the community to the stove with you and get instant help with your pan sauce.

The old metaphors that describe the newspaper, and the wider culture, are dead, replaced by new ones. And readers are more inventive than the journalists can be on their own:

Today there is no defined playing field — you just give the viewers the ball, and they make up their own game. Our community members have organized potlucks in the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin, Tex., and Washington. They’ve debated authenticity and shared ideas for slow-cookers. And we like it this way. Merrill and I have gone from careers of broadcasting our work to collaborating with strangers. While we don’t believe the wiki model works for food — personal voice and style are invaluable — we are now total converts to the power of crowd-sourcing. We trust the crowd.

Hesser concludes, as any food writer might, with a 43-year-old recipe annotated both by the reader who sent it in and by the journalist herself. In college, the psychology professor said that you can tell learning has taken place when you see a change in behavior.

Bonus round: if one knowledge industry (journalism) must change as radically as this, what about another knowledge industry? I’m thinking of the one that employs me.

  1. If you change your working relationship to your audience, you will understand that audience in a new way. The tools that support those two steps also support collaborations that produce insights not likely to be found any other way, framed in genres altered by collaboration and by the social tools that made it possible. Tools, genres, partnerships, models of authority and active citizenship all change, and so does the community’s understanding of itself and its history at the same time.

August 19 2010


Internet use in the UK – implications from Ofcom’s research for publishers

Apart from photo sharing and social networking, most internet users have little interest in UGC

I’ve just been scanning through the internet section of Ofcom’s latest report on The Communications Market 2010. As always, it’s an essential read and this year the body have done a beautiful job in publishing it online with unique URLs for each passage of the document, and downloadable CSV and PDF files for each piece of data.

Here are what I think are the key points for those specifically interested in online journalism and publishing:

1: Mobile is genuinely significant: 23% of UK users now access the web on mobile phones (but 27% still have no access to the web on any device).

Implication: We should be thinking about mobile as another medium, with different generic qualities to print, broadcast or web, and different consumption and distribution patterns.

2: 23% of time spent online is on social networks – and there has been a 10% rise in the numbers with a social media profile across all demographics. Mobile emerges as an important platform for social media access, particularly among 16-24-year-olds. Twitter is has 1m more unique visitors than MySpace, but Facebook has 20m more than Twitter.

Implication: We should have social network strategies not only around distributing content but also commercial possibilities such as embedded advertising, diverting marketing budget, etc.

3: Display advertising grew slightly, but search advertising continues to gain market share.

Implication: Not good news for publishers – the question to ask might be: why? Is it because of the mass market search engines enjoy? Or the measurability of being able to advertise against search terms? Is that something news websites can offer too – or something similar?

4: 48% of 24-34 year olds use the internet to keep up with news – more than any other age group – older people are least interested in news online.

Implication: confirms not only that our online audiences are different demographically, but young people are interested in news. What’s missing is an elaboration of what they consider ‘keeping up with news’ – that doesn’t necessarily mean checking a news website, but might include letting news come to them via social networks, email, or finding ‘news’ about their friends.

5: Google literacy - only 20% think search results are unbiased & accurate; 54% are critical.

Implication: surprising, and challenges some assumptions.

6: Google Image Search becomes a significant search engine on its own, above all other general search engines (Bing, Yahoo, MSN) apart from Google’s main search portal. Curiously, YouTube is not listed, although it is widely known that it accounts for more searches than Yahoo! I am guessing it was not classified separately as a search engine (it is, however, the second most popular search term, after ‘Facebook’).

Implication: emphasises the importance of SEO for images, but also the growing popularity of vertical search engines. A news organisation that created an effective search facility either for its own site (most news website search facilities are not very good) or in its field could reap some benefits longer term.

7: UGC is changing – there is an overall decline in uploading and adding content. “The only age group in which this figure did not fall since 2009 was 45-64 year olds, while the number
of 15-24 year olds claiming to upload content fell by 10 percentage points.”

That said, in the detail there are increases in the numbers of users who have created UGC in certain categories – there was an 8% increase in those who have commented on blogs, for example, and a 6% increase in those who have uploaded images to a website. It may be that UGC activity is being concentrated in social networks (the numbers who have created a social network profile doubled from 22% to 44%)

Implication: There seems to be a limit to the people who will contribute content online (even where there were increases, this appears to be drawn from the proportion of people who previously wanted to contribute content online – see image at top of post). And these appear to be gravitating towards particular communities, i.e. Facebook. There may be a limited window of opportunity for attracting these users to contribute to your site – or it may be that publishers have to work harder to attract them with functionality, etc.

8: News and information is the 4th most popular content category – although ‘search and communities’ are lumped together in first place. Time spent on news and information is significantly lower than other categories, however. Likewise, the BBC and Associated Newspapers both feature in the top 20 sites (along with more general portals AOL, Sky and Yahoo!) but have lower time per person.

Implication: the news industry has an ongoing ‘stickiness’ problem. People are clearly interested in news, but don’t stick around. Traditional cross-publishing and shovelware approaches don’t appear to be working. We need to learn from the areas where people spend most time – such as social networks. Research is needed into media types that appear to have a strong record here, such as audio slideshows, wikis and databases.

August 10 2010


All Our Ideas facilitates crowdsourcing — of opinions

What do readers want from the news?

It’s a hard question to answer, and not only because we don’t often know what we like until we find ourselves liking it. To figure it out, news outlets have traffic patterns on the one hand, and, if they choose, user surveys on the other; each is effective and unsatisfying in its own way. But what about the middle ground — an analytic approach to creative user feedback?

Meet All Our Ideas, the “suggestion box for the digital age“: a crowdsourcing platform designed to crowdsource concepts and opinions rather than facts alone. The platform was designed by a team at Princeton under the leadership of sociology professor Matt Salganik — initially, to create a web-native platform for sociological research. (The platform is funded in part by Google’s Research Awards program.) But its potential uses extend far beyond sociology — and, for that matter, far beyond academia. “The idea is to provide a direct idea-sharing platform where people can be heard in their own voices,” Salganik told me; for news outlets trying to figure out the best ways to harness the wisdom and creativity and affection of their users, a platform that mingles commenting and crowdsourcing could be a welcome combination.

The platform’s user interface is deceptively simple: at each iteration, it asks you to choose between two choices, as you would at the optometrist’s office: “Is A better…or B?” (In fact, Salganik told me, All Our Ideas’ structure was inspired by the kitten-cuteness-comparison site Kittenwar, which aims to find images of the “winningest” kittens (and — oof — the “losingest”) through a similar A/B selection framework.) But the platform also gives you the option — and here’s the “crowdsourcing” part — of adding your own idea into the mix. Not as a narrative addition — the open-ended “Additional Comments” box of traditional surveys — but as a contribution that will be added into the survey’s marketplace and voted up or down by the other survey-takers. (The open-ended responses are limited in length — to, natch, 140 characters — thus preventing modern-day Montaignes from gumming up the works.) You can vote on as many pairings — or as few — as you wish, and contribute as many/few ideas as you wish.

That contribution aspect is a small, but significant, shift. (Think of All Our Ideas, in fact, like Google Moderator — with a cleaner interface and, more significantly, hidden results that prevent users from being influenced by others’ feedback.) Because, it should be said: in general, from the user perspective, traditional surveys suck. With their pre-populated, multiple-choice framework, with those “Additional Comments” boxes (whose contents one assumes, won’t be counted as “data” proper and so likely won’t be counted all), they tend to preclude creativity on the part of the people taking them. They fall victim to a paradox: the larger the population of survey-takers — and thus, ostensibly, the more rigorous the data they can provide — the less incentive individual users have to take them. Or to take them seriously.

But All Our Ideas, with its invitation to creativity implicit in its “Add your own idea” button, adjusts that dynamic. The point is to inspire participation — meaningful participation — by a simple interface with practically no barriers to entry. The whole thing was designed, Salganik says, “to be very light and easy.”

Here’s what it looks like (you can also test it out for yourself using All Our Ideas’ sample interface — a survey issued by Princeton’s student government asking undergrads what improvements it should make to campus life):

The ease-of-use translates to the survey-issuers, as well: All Our Ideas is available for sites to use via an API and, for the less tech-savvy or more time-pressed, an embeddable widget. (Which is also to say: it’s free.) Surveyors can tailor the platform to the particular survey they want to run, seeding it with initial ideas and deciding whether the survey run will be entirely algorithmic or human-moderated. For the latter option, each surveyor designates a moderator, charged with approving user-generated ideas before they become part of a survey’s idea marketplace; for both options, users themselves can flag ideas as inappropriate.

So far, it’s been used by organizations like Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, which used the platform to survey more than 4,000 employees — based out of 150 offices worldwide and speaking several different languages — about what makes an ideal relief worker; Columbia Law School’s student government used it to find the best idea for improving campus life (that survey got 15,000 votes, Salganik told me, with 200 new ideas uploaded in the first 48 hours). And the Princeton student government survey got more than 2,000 students to contribute 40,000 votes and 100 new ideas in the space of a few weeks.

A new way to survey

All Our Ideas, Salganik says, “deals with a fundamental problem that exists in the social sciences in terms of how we aggregate information.” Traditionally, academics can gather feedback either using pre-populated surveys, which are good at quantifying huge swaths of information, but also limited in the scope of the data they can gather…or, on the other hand, using focus groups and interviews, which are great for gathering open, unstructured information — information that’s “unfiltered by an pre-existing biases that you might have,” Salganik points out — but that are also difficult to analyze. Not to mention inefficient and, often, expensive.

And from the surveyers’ perspective, as well, surveys can be a blunt instrument: their general inability to quantify narrative feedback has forced survey-writers to rely on pre-determined questions. Which is to say, on pre-determined answers. “I’ve actually designed some surveys before, and had the suspicion that I’d left something out,” Salganik says. It’s a guessing game — educated guessing, yes, but guessing all the same. “You only get out what you put in,” he points out. And you don’t know what you don’t know.

But “one of the patterns we see consistently is that ideas that are uploaded by users sometimes score better than the best ideas that started it off,” Salganik says. “Because no matter how hard you try, there are just ideas out there that you don’t know.” But other people do.

Conceptual Crowdsourcing

That utility easily translates to news organizations, who might use All Our Ideas to crowdsource thoughts on anything from news articles to opinion pieces to particular areas of editorial focus. “Let’s say you’re a newspaper,” Salganik says. “You could have one of these [surveys] set up for each neighborhood in a city. You could have twenty of them.”

The platform could also be used to conduct internal surveys — particularly useful at larger organizations, where the lower-level reporters, editors, and producers who man the trenches of daily journalism might have the most meaningful ideas about organizational priorities…but where those workers’ voices might also have the least chance of being heard. News outlets both mammoth and slightly less so have been trying to rectify that asymmetry; an org-wide survey, where every contribution exists on equal footing with every other, could bring structure to the ideal of an idea marketplace that is — yes — truly democratic.

But perhaps the most significant use of the platform could be broad-scale and systemic: surveying users about, yes, what they want. (See, for example, ProPublica’s employment of an editorially focused reader survey a couple months ago.) Pose one basic question — broad (“What kinds of stories are you most interested in knowing?”) or narrow (“Whom should we bring on as our next columnist?”) — and see what results. That’s a way of giving more agency to users than traditional surveys have; it’s also a way of letting them know that you value their opinions in the first place.

August 03 2010


Demotix to distribute photos via Publish2’s news wire

Summer’s brought a growth spurt for Publish 2’s News Exchange. Last week, the cooperative distribution platform announced some big-gun content partners: ProPublica, GlobalPost, Texas Tribune, and Texas Watchdog. And today, it announced another content partner: Demotix, the citizen-and-freelance-journalism driven photography site.

We’re excited to announce that Demotix, the award-winning open photo agency for independent journalists, will begin offering content via Publish2 News Exchange when we launch photo support later this summer. Newspapers and other news organizations will not only benefit from the huge efficiency of sharing photos directly through Publish2 News Exchange, but they will now also benefit from the efficiency of Demotix’s open photo sourcing platform and their presence in the U.S. news market.

The upshot: “With the addition of Demotix to News Exchange, newspapers will also be able to buy photos a la carte for coverage of major news events around the U.S. and around the world.” And “for us at Demotix, CEO Turi Munthe put it, “this opens a potentially very large segment of the US local market, and the thrill of partnering with a new news organisation that truly shares our beliefs and vision of the future.”

It’s a telling collaboration. Demotix (tagline: “The Street Wire”) lives at the intersection of professional and citizen journalism, offering a wire of user-generated images to mainstream outlets. Revenues are split by Demotix and its journalists: every time an image gets picked up from the Demotix wire, its creator gets a 50-percent share of the revenue. (Hence, another tagline: “News by You.”) And, so far, images captured by the community’s 3,200-plus active reporters (hailing from 190 countries) have appeared on some big-time front pages — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Time magazine among them.

(For more background on Demotix, by the way, check out this fantastic overview of the platform and its impact on the freelance image marketplace from the spring issue of our sister publication, Nieman Reports.)

The team-up has been in the works for several months, Publish2’s director of news innovation, Ryan Sholin, told me. It’s not only that “we’re totally open to and interested in partnering with anybody and everybody who wants to distribute content across our pipes”; it’s also that Demotix, with its freelanced-content-distribution approach, makes particular sense as a P2 partner. (That’s one reason why, as Sholin pointed out, the Demotix logo was featured on a slide at the News Exchange’s beta launch at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference back in May.)

“I personally think it’s really cool because they focus so heavily on freelancers and almost, really, citizen journalists,” Sholin says of Demotix. “The premise is: ‘You are an independent journalist walking around town, and you see something cool, and take a picture of it — and we will help you sell it to news organizations.’ That flows so cleanly into the vision of what News Exchange can be for freelancers and independent journalists that it was a very natural fit.”

And what Demotix gets from the deal is essentially amplification of its current distribution mechanism: “the opportunity,” Sholin says, “to take the work that’s running through their system and have a much better distribution channel — to go straight into newspapers’ print publishing systems, straight into their FTP folders — without having to do a whole browse-and-download sort of interface.”

The partnership will roll out later this summer, as part of Publish2’s broader expansion into image distribution. The upcoming photo-support platform will make it easier, Sholin says, “for anybody to share photos — for newspapers to share photos, for other content providers to sell photos in the system.” And “Demotix will be one of the content providers in the system at launch.”

July 28 2010


News sites based on social media content in Latin America

I have to admit I didn’t see this one coming… traditional media corporations in Latin America are launching news sites based exclusively on content originated in social media.

First of all, we have 140 – news of Twitter, a new web site lunched by Perfil in Argentina, intended as a site for “people who don’t have a Twitter account but want to find out what’s happening” in the microblogging world.

Twitter has had a tremendous growth in the country in 2010, thanks mainly to TV shows that sudenly began using Twitter as a live interactive tool with the audience.

Then local celebrities and world-cup football players joined the conversation, finishing the job of popularizing the social network, and now even politicians replace their traditional press releases with fugaceos 140 character messages that sometimes end up in front pages.

140 was created by Darío Gallo, executive editor of Perfil.com and former Director of Noticias (the most popular political magazine of the country), one of the early adopters of Twitter in Argentina. He assured me the new project is receiving good reactions and traffic.

The website feeds itself with Twitpics from celebrities, political “debates” or any piece of news that transcends Twitter.

Meanwhile, one of Gallo’s former colleagues in Perfil, Pablo Mancini, has just created a website named ReporTube as a new project from El Comercio of Peru: “A gateway to the portion of the audience that is interested in producing content”.

They already have more than a thousand video reporters in dozens of countries; but it’s not a merely citizen journalism initiative since they see ReporTube more as an aggregation site of audiovisual testimonies.

The creators say that ReporTube is an online news site, under the umbrella of elcomercio.pe, 100% made with YouTube content with a productive model in permanent construction.

“The massive amount of content available led us to believe that remixing and aggregation are concepts that complement participation and quality content that is not necessarily synonymous of original content”, Mancini explains.

Especial thanks to Facundo for helping me with my lousy English.

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.


Wikio Overall Blog Rankings for June 2010

The Wikio rankings are a measure of how much blogs are being “talked about” on other independent sites, and are produced by Wikio for a number of categories of blogs in Europe and North America, including politics, techology, culture and even Wine and Beer.

The Wikio ranking is measured by incoming editorial links (i.e., not blogrolls) from blogs registered with Wikio which appear in RSS feeds. To be clear (again), this is no measure of traffic. Links are weighted by time, prominence of the linking blog, and prominence of the link in the linking article.

There is also a toolkit, Wikio Labs, which allows you to dig down into the detail to the level of individual links.

This month I have advanced notice of the “Overall” rankings, which are below.

1 Iain Dale’s Diary (=) 2 Liberal Conspiracy (+1) 3 Guy Fawkes’ blog (-1) 4 ConservativeHome’s ToryDiary (=) 5 Liberal Democrat Voice (+1) 6 Left Foot Forward (-1) 7 A Spoon Full of Sugar (+1) 8 Cute Card Thursday (+4) 9 And another thing… (=) 10 Labourlist (-3) 11 Allsorts challenge blog (=) 12 Jason Cartwright (+17) 13 Sketch saturday (+13) 14 Charisma Cardz (+2) 15 Just Magnolia (+3) 16 Cupcake Craft Challenges (+3) 17 Saturday Challenge (+10) 18 UKPolling Report (-8) 19 Next Left (+5) 20 Creative Card Crew (=) 21 Papertake Weekly Challenge (+87) 22 Standard.co.uk – Paul Waugh (-1) 23 Harry’s Place (-6) 24 Dizzy Thinks (-9) 25 Old Holborn (-12) 26 EU Referendum (+2) 27 Stamping Ground (+27) 28 Nick Robinson’s Newslog (-14) 29 Penny Black Saturday Challenge (+22) 30 Mark Reckons (-7)

Ranking by Wikio

(Disclosure: I am the “Host” of the UK Wikio Politics rankings. The position is unpaid.)

June 03 2010


Is 70 percent of what we read online really by our friends?

Last month, we tweeted a remarkable stat:

Of everything under 40 year olds read online, about 70% was created by someone they know http://j.mp/bb0jgN

Our source was this article citing a recent panel discussion at an SEO conference in New York. Here’s how the stat was presented, in a piece in the newsletter Publishing Trends, as a product of Forrester Research:

In one of several panels on social media and search, Patricia Neuray of Business.com cited the Forrester research finding that 70% of the content read online by under-40-year-olds was written by someone they know.

(Someone who livetweeted the panel seemed to also attribute it to Forrester, although with a cryptic hint of IBM.)

It’s obviously a remarkable statistic if true, but I wanted to get a little more detail — like how the study defined “someone they know” and “content read online.” Are they talking websites, or are they including things like email? Does “someone they know” mean someone they know in real life, or does an Internet friend count? I engaged in some vigorous Googling, but couldn’t find the original study. Then I emailed Forrester to see if they could produce it. A spokesperson got back to me:

That statistic does not come from a Forrester study. We heard about it and investigated it as well to find out that the original author of the article that used that statistic was in error. I just rechecked his article – he removed Forrester as the source but did not cite another source other than a speaker from IBM at this conference: http://www.publishingtrends.com/2010/04/making-search-convert-search-engine-strategies-2010/

And indeed, now the reference in the original article is thus:

In one of several panels on social media and search, Leslie Reiser of IBM cited the recent finding that “70% of the content read online by under-40-year-olds was written by someone they know.”

I contacted Reiser last week to see if she has a cite for it; my very quick Googling didn’t turn up an obvious IBM reference for the number, either, but that doesn’t mean much. I’ll let you know if I hear back from her. In any event, since by tweeting it we played a part in spreading the number, I thought we should note that the original source is still a bit up in the air.

May 24 2010


South African Paper's Mobile Site Focuses on 'Nowness'

There are no magic wands in the digital transition. Everything has to be built slowly and surely, as with legacy media. And failure is as likely, maybe even more likely, than in the analog world. But you have to keep trying because cell phones, the first true mass digital channel in Africa, are getting faster and smarter; if you don't exploit the power of the new channel, you're toast because others will and are.

Grocott's Mail has been serving the small community of Grahamstown, South Africa with local news and information for a long time (140 years precisely on May 11). Grocott's Online -- which got going properly a year ago -- caters to those who prefer pixels to paper, but until now, locals with mobile phones haven't had a comprehensive way of being informed about what's on the go in Grahamstown.

Launch of Grahamstown NOW

grahamstown now.jpg

Enter Grahamstown NOW, the first concerted attempt by Grocott's Mail to provide news and real-time information to Grahamstonians on a mobile platform. It's part of the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project and is led by Michael Salzwedel. Here's what Michael emailed me when I asked for some info about the technical side of the project:

It's not fancy or shiny - on the surface it appears to be just another mobisite. But there's a lot of depth below that surface. What it lacks in glitz and glam, it makes up for in its ability to serve up a snapshot at any given point in time of what's just happened, currently happening, or about to happen in Grahamstown.

Grahamstown NOW focuses on providing practical, immediately usable information directly related to the living out of the daily lives of people in Grahamstown. The idea is that Grahamstown NOW should become the central aggregator of as much as possible of Grahamstown's news and informational content, ultimately enabling citizens to make more considered decisions.

The launch version of Grahamstown NOW provides the following content:

  • Event listings: These are pulled in from the Grocott's online events calendar. Users can submit their own events directly from their phones.
  • Business specials: What's currently on special (at registered businesses) at any given time in Grahamstown, and how much longer those specials are on for (or time until they start).
  • News items: The latest and most popular stories from Grocott's Online.
  • Webcam snapshots: Users can see current views from a number of webcams across Grahamstown.
  • Movie screenings: What's coming up next at the local cinema.
  • Radio shows: What's on now and coming up next on local radio stations.
  • Weather conditions: Should you grab a jacket or an umbrella? Check on Grahamstown NOW.
  • Tweets: Latest tweets from @grocotts, and the latest tweets mentioning Grahamstown.
  • SMSes: Latest SMSes received by Grocott's Online (MMS support coming soon).
  • Ride offers/requests: A simple matching service.

The emphasis is on time and timing of events and specials and happenings around town. There is also an emphasis on freshness and "nowness." So while many sites allow you to see what's on in the next few days or weeks, or tomorrow's weather, Grahamstown NOW focuses only on today's happenings, weather, shows and commercial specials. If you want to know what's on tomorrow, check in with us again closer to that time.

All About Now

This approach might not work for congenitally forward-planning people, but it is, in testing at least, proving to be a great way to cut through the clutter of most sites, and curate information and news through the singular lens of currentness. Grahamstown NOW only gives you the very latest news story or two, not all of them. If you want to know what's coming up next on the local radio station, we'll tell you -- but not about the show after that.

Instead of comprehensiveness, Grahamstown NOW is much more like Twitter or a Facebook wall. It's about the latest, most current information. If you snooze, you lose that part of the stream.

Michael and his team are enthusiastic about how useful this could be.

"Most of the above can be displayed according to time (countdown until something begins or ends), so the home page and section pages are dynamic and never look the same," he said. "Users might see that a jazz concert is starting in an hour and 30 minutes, or that a 2-for-1 pizza special at a local restaurant started two hours ago, or that the next showing of a certain movie begins in 20 minutes, or that a public council meeting is scheduled for two days' time."

Grahamstown NOW is primarily meant to be accessed with a mobile phone, but there's also a desktop version. For now, that's simply the mobile version contained within a mobile phone graphic, with additional Javascript and AJAX functionality to enhance the user experience by allowing easier inputs and no page reloads.

Users can also interact with the site by leaving "chirps" (comments), submitting their own events and ride offers, and easily sharing content with friends via email or WAP pushes.

Integration With Nika

I asked Michael to outline why Grahamstown NOW will work in our small town, and how it fits in with what we're trying to do with the Nika system we developed. He replied:

The average Grahamstownian is not rich, does not have an expensive phone, and is very conscious of how much they're spending on data. Thus, the first version of Grahamstown NOW has been designed to be accessed on even the simplest of Internet-enabled phones, and the HTML has been 'minified' to reduce bandwidth consumption.

Later in the year, Grahamstown NOW will be integrated with Nika. The aim is for Nika to become the central CMS for all Grocott's Mail's offerings: The print edition, Grocott's Mail Online, Grahamstown NOW, our SMS headline service and our upcoming instant messaging offerings (which will include selected Grahamstown NOW content).

Nika 2.0, which is now available as a free download, is evolving into a more comprehensive and mobile-orientated CMS. At its heart Nika is an editing workflow suite and digital content manager; but Nika also has additional functionality for community newspapers in that it can take SMS and instant messages directly into editing streams, and send SMS and IMs back to cell phones. Overall, Nika is great for generating user generated content and for easily getting headlines (and soon whole stories) back out to users' cell phones.

Future versions of Grahamstown NOW will have more differentiation between what is served up to PCs and to mobile phones, will include geo-location functionality so users can see business or event locations on a map or tag their social networking interactions or content submissions with their location, and will have tighter integration with Facebook.

For now, we think Grahamstown NOW offers immediate benefits for citizens -- with a particular emphasis on "immediate."

May 20 2010


The Newsonomics of content at the margins

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content, for over $100 million, seemed to come out of the blue. Actually, though, it didn’t. Yahoo made a foray at buying Demand Media two years ago, but the parties couldn’t come to terms. At that point, Demand’s model seemed to make sense, but hadn’t matured to a point of conventional-wisdom validation.

We’re now at that point: The well-dissected, advertising-drives-content Demand model is at the center of Demand Media, AOL’s Seed, Examiner.com and Associated Content. The Newsonomics of content arbitrage that I wrote about for the Lab a month ago is a certified phenomenon; the conventional wisdom is that these algorithm-driven, user-gen-aggregated, SEO-augmented, metrics-monitored businesses are at the center of a new way to produce “content.” Not news, mind you, but newsy content, some of it wonderfully useful, some of it wince-worthy. News content is far too costly to produce, doesn’t produce enough of a long-tail and doesn’t link that easily to commerce — the buying of stuff that fuels advertising.

The newsy stuff, though, is an annuity. That’s an interesting term, used by Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane, when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. An annuity. That’s a business made from the long tail. Pay for something once — and not much; in the case of Associated Content, $5 to $30 per piece — and monetize it forever. That’s why the evergreen content encouraged by the Associateds and Demands runs to “How to Teach Your Dog Sign Language,” and “10 Surefire Tips on Selling Your House at a Competitive Price.

It’s content written for search engine optimization (good piece on SEO ascendancy Monday by the Times’ David Carr). It’s also, to put it simply and directly, ad bait. Ad bait of the kind that newspaper ad directors could only dream about over the decades, the kind they gained with advertorial sections (wedding guides, personal finance sections) as journalists — can you imagine! — wrote stories about what they thought was newsworthy. The hubris — and sometimes, good news judgment.

It’s those algorithms and deepening technology under content, under advertising and under the matching of the two, that drives this Yahoo/Associated Content deal. Over the last several years, Yahoo has built an advertising targeting platform on acquisitions (Right Media, BlueLithium) and its own development, leaving the paid search business to Google and Microsoft. That platform is all about matching up content, web users, and advertising messaging. Yahoo has fine-tuned it, though it’s always a work in progress. It’s brought in partners (including half of U.S. newspaper companies) to gain more inventory and identified its future along those user/content/advertising lines.

The next step: Gain lots more content to sell ads against. Yahoo can do that several ways: organic growth; more partnerships; bringing more content under its own brands, on its own site. The Associated Content buy meets that third goal. The $100 million purchase price buys the annuity, lots of ad-bait content to feed the ever-smarter ad engine.

Here’s the best part: margins. When I asked Patrick Keane, who will apparently be joining Yahoo as part of the deal, how much of Associated’s revenue derived from selling ads on its own site and how much from partner sites to which it licensed the cheap user-gen content it aggregated, he didn’t want to talk percentages. He did acknowledge that more than half, though, came from the Associated site. And Keane liked it that way. Why? “The margins are a lot better,” he told me.

That’s a simple statement, but one driving much of the new digital business. Revenue and profit growth are going to get tougher for such big companies as Yahoo and Google, and it’s a big challenge for the new independent AOL. One way to boost dollars is to boost margins. That means transacting more business on your own site — where you don’t have to share revenues with other sites, other content owners.

I’ve tracked Google’s progression along those lines. Go back to 2004. Then, Google reported that 49 percent of its revenues were coming from affiliate sites, as it offered its technologies to help affiliates make a few bucks. That was the high-water mark of affiliate earnings, by percentage. In 2009, the affiliate percentage was down to 30 percent; 66 percent of revenues come from Google’s own sites. Over time, it has smartly directed more and more traffic to stay at its owned websites — its time-on-site has increased consistently — and monetized that traffic, without having to share revenues. In part, that’s contributed to its amazing profit growth, a banner $6.5 billion in profit, up $2 billion year-over-year, in the terrible-for-everyone-else 2009.

Yahoo breaks down its revenue into “owned and operated” sites and “affiliate” sites, though its trend lines are less easy to see. Clearly, though, the push toward O&O revenue is a key one, and one that the Associated purchase reinforces.

What might that push mean for Yahoo’s affiliates, especially those in the Newspaper Consortium, which have gladly used Yahoo ad technology to better their ad rates in selected topical areas? It’s hard to see how it is good news. The Associated content aims at many of same topical categories that newspaper sites target; so the industry looks like it has gained new competition — competition owned by its partner.

Maybe more significantly, Associated is welcomed on the Yahoo site by Matt Ledma, Yahoo VP for local. “We feel that a contributor-driven model is absolutely part of the future of media,” Idema told Reuters. User-gen content can be topical — travel, health, pets, you name it — and it can be local. Local user-gen is the territory voraciously being chased by Examiner.com. Looks like Examiner may have a new competitor in the pro/am, user-gen local space: Yahoo.

These — Yahoo, Associated, Examiner, Demand — are the companies showing aggressiveness today, leaving one question for the moment: Where are the legacy news-producing companies, those who have long created the features-like content in this picture — and why haven’t they bought these startups or built similar models?

May 05 2010


Drawing out the audience: Inside BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub

The BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub is responsible for connecting with the huge organization’s audience for news-gathering purposes, and they’re good enough at it to have won a Royal Television Society award for their coverage of the 2007 UK floods. They’ve also been instrumental in the BBC’s coverage of the post-election protests in Iran, the July 7 bombings in London, and the recent earthquake in Chile, among other stories.

The hub sits in the “heart” of the BBC’s newsroom in London, and has been operating 24/7 since last fall with a staff of about twenty people. Journalism student Caroline Beavon posted a tantalizing video interview with unit head Matthew Eltringham earlier this year, but there was so much more I wanted to know. How does one find sources for stories happening overseas? Why centralize all social media interactions within one unit at the BBC? To what extent does audience reaction and suggestion drive the news agenda?

So when I bumped into one of the hub’s journalists at a talk in Hong Kong recently, I fairly pounced on her for an interview. Silvia Costeloe, a broadcast journalist at the UGC Hub, very kindly sat down with me to explain that the purpose of the hub is to find and connect with the people around news stories, wherever they are in the world and whatever tools or sites they use to communicate.

What our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own website too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

Hub journalists scour the Internet for pictures, videos, and other content that might contribute to a story, which they then verify and clear for use. But they also find people, sources who can be contacted by reporters in other departments within the BBC.

In many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so…what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well…For example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian Service at the time to verify the videos.

What sorts of specialized skills does this demand? “Well, you need to be a journalist, really,” said Costeloe. But the job is also about filtering the enormous amount of noise on the Internet for that one original tweet by an eyewitness. Costeloe said that finding those gems is mostly a matter of persistence and organization. Still, she offered a few practical hints, such as searching for people with a specific location listed in their Twitter profile, or putting “pix” or “vid” in your search to find multimedia content, or watching who local news organizations are watching.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the U.S. where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area.

But the hub does more than collect what’s already out there: it uses the BBC’s own website to solicit content, sources, and stories. Costeloe told me that much of their most interesting news gathering comes from comment forms at the bottom of stories, asking for feedback.

And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the U.K., but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account…but if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

The hub’s journalists answer emails generated by stories and read the comments. This makes them the primary back-channel from the BBC’s audience to its journalists. There was a fascinating and comprehensive 2008 study on the impact of “user-generated content” at the BBC, which found that “journalists and audiences display markedly different attitudes towards…audience material,” among many other things. So I asked Costeloe to what degree user feedback shapes the news agenda today.

Our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies…kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies…That was a big story in the U.S.. In the U.K. it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the U.S., loads of people wrote in in the U.K. with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big U.K. story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story.

Keeping track of what’s happening online. Finding sources close to the story. Paying attention to audience feedback. Aren’t those things every journalist should be doing in the Internet era? Yes, says Costeloe, but there is still a strong argument for a specialized unit.

If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think. But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because…often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is…So we contact them first-hand, and then…if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures.

But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting on a story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in.

We also discussed the BBC’s comment moderation approach, the working relationship between the hub and the developers of the BBC web site, how stories are updated based on user feedback, and other good stuff. Listen to the 20-minute interview in the player below, download the MP3 here, or read the full transcript which follows.

[See post to listen to audio]

JS: All right, so, can you tell me your name and what your job is?

SC: Yeah, sure. My name is Silvia Costeloe, and I am one of the journalists that works at the UGC Hub, which is a user-generated content hub at the heart of BBC news. And what our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so, obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own web site too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

JS: So, you were telling me earlier that there are specific reasons that the BBC has centralized the interaction with social media in one particular unit.

SC: Yeah, I think– I mean I’ve been on the team for a year or so, and the team’s quite a lot older than that. But it sort of started off when, you know, the Internet was getting bigger and getting more interactive. And there was a feeling that there should be a team, you know, it started off as a very small team [in mid 2005 --JS] I think sort of just to capture what was going on in social media, and see how that could feed into news, and sort of what difference that was– how that would evolve. And it’s grown quite steadily because it’s just been incredibly useful for news. Obviously the BBC’s a really big operation, so to have people that can be really focussed, especially on breaking stories, in finding eyewitnesses and case studies.

So whether it’s the Mumbai bombings, or whether it’s the Chilean earthquake, or whether it’s the Iran elections, to have people who can find those pictures, and find those eyewitness accounts, and then farm them out to output. So give them to TV, give them to radio, give them to online, and sort of make sure that, you know, the story’s being told across all our several platforms, and, you know, our output, is very important. I mean obviously journalists these days are increasingly, you know, it’s an absolute core part of their roles, sorting out, watching what’s going on in social media when they’re working on a story. But to have it centralized is really useful, especially when it comes to breaking stories, because, you know, our reporters will often be sent out on field location. They might not be living somewhere, so they’ll have to travel somewhere, and in the meantime we’re doing lots of news gathering, we’re giving them contacts of people on the ground.

So if there’s an earthquake we can put a form, even just putting a form on a story because we’ve got lots of users, obviously, using the BBC web site. Lots of really interesting people will write in, saying that, you know, if they’ve been affected. Something that’s obviously, a lot– you might have to trawl through a lot to find that special story. And it’s maybe something that a reporter hasn’t got the time to do when they’re sort of running out to be, to do field work. So we can kind of trawl through what’s happening on blogs, what’s happening on Facebook groups. I mean, recently there was a story, a big explosion in Connecticut, and within an hour of the explosion there was a Facebook group devoted to the explosion, and the families of the explosion, because no one really knew what was going on. So that proved to be a really good source of news gathering. But you can’t expect a journalist on that sort of breaking story who’s got to do a lot of output as well to be that focussed and find everything that’s going on on social media, whereas our team tries. And when we find those people then we share them, we share them with the rest of the BBC.

JS: So what exactly is it that you give to other reporters? It’s both sources and content?

SC: Yeah, or pictures. So often when there’s a breaking story, often it’s just pictures that are needed. So if we find the pictures on the web, we get permission. I mean depending on what kind of story it is, whether we feel that it’s covered by fair use or not. Obviously if it’s stills it isn’t. So we try and get– and talk to people, and first of all get their permission to run the pictures. So we might have, in many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so we then, what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well. So we’re giving out these contacts and we’ve verified them beforehand. So it really speeds things up, once we give our people out. And, sort of, you know, it– wires now are often sending round YouTube videos, and often they’re absolutely fine and we’ll run with them. But, for example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian service at the time to verify the videos. So, I think that’s how it works, quite well, in a sort of centralized way.

JS: Interesting. So what specialized skills does someone working in this type of news gathering need?

SC: Well, you need to be, you need to be– well, you need to be a journalist really. So have a sort of interest in the story, and have a bit of a, I don’t know, sort of a nose for a story. And you need to want to sort of dig around, and you need to be interested and have a passion for social media, really. I mean often, the other thing that we’ll do is we’ll find stories in social media that maybe aren’t being covered by the mainstream outlets, and make something of those stories. So, you need to, yeah, you need to know how to sort of dig around. I mean, there’s lots of websites out there, so it doesn’t really matter, I guess, what you use. I mean, different people use different things. There’s the main ones that everyone uses, like Twitter and Facebook, you sort of have be across those, but you know there’s lots of aggregators, and whichever ones people want to use, I think it’s sort of up to them.

But yeah, you need a real passion for it, and you need to want to dig, and you need to be able to kind of go back, you know, and you need to know who you’ve contacted and who you haven’t, so it’s quite a lot of organization. And, yeah, the usual journalist skills really. But on a breaking story as well, you need to know how to refresh a lot and know what sort of searches to do, because it’s not– I mean there’s so much noise on Twitter as well, with so many people re-tweeting. You know, when there’s a breaking news event, if it’s a big event, it can be absolute hell to find that one tweet which is actually a person saying, I’m living here and this happening down my street. That can be really tough. So, a real notion of how to search for– how to search for pictures, and how to search for people with experiences. I think that’s sort of, that’s a skill that comes over a lot of practical work, really. Looking for stories and people.

JS: Any hints you can give us, on how to make sense of a flood of Twitter messages and find that one good one?

SC: That’s the– it’s difficult, it’s difficult. I mean obviously if you search by location, so if you go to search engines like search Twitter, you can, if people have entered their location you can search for that. So the Chilean earthquake we’re looking for the epicenter, then kind of fan out fifteen, twenty miles around that and see who’s tweeting around there. But a lot of really good stuff, you know, a lot of people won’t put where they’re from, or the search engine’s not that reliable, so, I mean that’s one of the many things you can do. Again, there’s search engines that will let you look for, sort of search people’s profiles as well. So again there, you might be able to see if it’s someone who’s in a specific area, they might have mentioned that there.

Or you might, if you’re looking for pix and vids, often just putting in “pix” or “vid” in your search actually really helps, because often then you’ll get the link to that YouTube video that you want to see. So often it’s really simple things, but it’s just, sort of, thinking around them, and coming up with different searches, because if you’re just going to search for “earthquake in Chile” you’re going to have literally thousands of tweets every, you know, every handful of seconds. And it’s just too much, you can’t sort of physically go through everything.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area where, that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the US where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area. So sometimes it’s their local reporter so it might not be useful for you because they might, you know, they might be working for a different news outlet. But often local, if you’re working– I mean we work globally, so obviously our local knowledge isn’t always, you know, will never be the knowledge of a local news agent. So if you go to them and see who they’re talking to, maybe that can also help you find interesting conversations, as opposed to just looking for the hash tag.

JS: Right. Would you consider that there’s a community of users around your news, or a community of readers?

SC: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a community of users, and we’ve got our blog, and we’ve got our sort of community of people commenting on stories. So, we’ve got talking points, and we publish three or four talking points a day, and write blogs, and people talk about that. So there’s definitely a community of people who come back, and return. But we also link to our talking points or ask for comments on stories. So we’re always sort of expanding that community, who will come because they’re interested in a specific story and might want to have their say and contribute in that way.

And often the most interesting stuff that we get is, we’ll sometimes put up post forms where people, you know, just kind of, just a little form at the bottom of a story, saying, you know, contact us, send us your comments. Are you in the area? Send us your story. And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the UK, but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account, so to speak, but they are– if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

JS: Right. Do you have to manage that? I mean do you ever– do you have to moderate flame wars, do you have to delete offensive comments? What’s involved in terms of work load on your side in managing that group of people?

SC: Well we’ve got sort of community boards and we, you know, everything is pre-moderated so there is a lot of work involved in terms of moderation. We do actually, we do do reactive debates as well, but I’d say most of our debates are probably pre-moderated. So somebody does read the comments before they go up. So there’s, you know, by all means there’s a lot of work in moderation in comments. There’s only so much that we can get away with saying as there’s kind of a responsibility I suppose, with the BBC, to have certain standards, I guess, in your comments. And if people– we’d sort of be held liable for all sorts of things on our web site. [US sites are generally not legally liable for comments, but UK sites probably are --JS] So, yes, everything is moderated. Most things are moderated.

JS: How many people handle all of that moderation?

SC: We’ve just, to be honest, we’ve just gotten a wholly new moderation system, so I can’t really say, but we’ve just literally outsourced our moderation, so I’ve got no idea now how many people have been–

JS: Oh, interesting.

SC: Yeah, because we did it in-house until about a month ago. And now it’s gone. [At the end of 2008 the BBC said there were four in-house moderators for Have Your Say --JS] So I’m sure there’ll be– there’s an editor’s blog actually that we, we’ll be sort of posting up what’s going on with the new moderation, how that’s going. But you know it’s a lot of work. We get a lot of, a lot of people writing in wanting to talk about stories, and commenting on stories, but within that we also get really valuable, well obviously we get valuable comments, but we also get valuable stories for news gathering purposes, and case studies to illustrate and to add to stories, whether it’s UK based– if it’s a health story and people have had experiences of a particular story, or, as I said if it’s a bigger event then people who are sort of out in the field.

JS: And how many people are the UGC team?

SC: Oh it’s about, I don’t really– we work rotas so maybe 20 or so? I couldn’t be quoted on that. [There were 23 in September, according to this report --JS] But yeah, there’s a lot of people because some of us are assigned to specific areas, and contribute a lot of content to the BBC news web site, so some people are more web site production journalists, so they’re writing lots of stories for the BBC News web site, or stories that come from the experiences of specific people who’ve got in touch with us. Whereas others are specifically chasing people and comments and breaking news stories.

JS: So what are the areas? How do you divide that work up?

SC: There’s different areas in terms of– someone’s covering Europe, and the States, and so it’s geographical areas.

JS: And did you say you rotate people through? Did I understand that, or…?

SC: We rotate in the sense that we open 24 hours, so there’s always someone overnight.

JS: Oh, okay, okay.

SC: Yes, sorry, yeah, no, we rotate time-wise.

JS: Got it.

SC: So it’s a bigger team than it seems when you’re, when you’re out there in the day time, because there might only be eight people or something in the day time, but then there’ll be someone overnight as well.

JS: Right, okay. Yeah, right.

SC: So there’s always someone on the news desk.

JS: So how do you see this evolving? What do you see happening in the future?

SC: Well, you know, I’m part of a wider team, so I’m not really privy to a lot of the, sort of, wider conversations that go on at a higher level. I think there’ll always be– I think it’s a very important role. I mean lots of people say, the view of many people is that this team will eventually die as journalists get more and more advanced at using social media tools. Which I completely— I agree that journalists will get a lot more advanced, I think a lot of them are already, and I mean it’s just such an obvious, I mean I don’t think you can be a journalist anymore, definitely not in the future. If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think.

But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because when you’re getting in touch with people who are, you know, going through– you know often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is. And the problem is, if everyone at the BBC is trying to get in touch with someone, trying to get their pictures, trying to– you can’t possibly– that needs to be an organized approach. So if we contact them first-hand, and then we can give the details, if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures. But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting reporting on story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in, to find the comment, you know, written by the family of someone who’s just suffered an event. They just wouldn’t have the physical time, or the patience in a moment of stress to go through it, to go through that, because often it is a matter of sticking to the story and trying to find something, and finding that needle in a haystack.

JS: So you mentioned finding angles on a story. To what extent do discussions happening on social media direct your coverage, or direct the BBC’s choice of what stories to do?

SC: Well, I think in terms of completely new stories, I mean that happens all the time. I mean our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies, that was a big story in the UK and the US recently. Buggies got, dangerous buggies, it was a consumer story, you know, kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies. We ran US– that was a big story in the US. In the UK it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the US, loads of people wrote in in the UK with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big UK story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story, you know, new– if you’re covering a massive disaster like an earthquake, there’ll be people writing in with really interesting new stories, whether it’s about not being able to get certain aid through, or sometimes really unexpected angles as well. It’s just trying to cover a story in as many, trying to get as many stories out, valuable stories out, as possible. And often we’ll write something up, and people will write in and say, you know, “that picture is not of a Boeing 572, it’s of something else.” So sometimes people will just write in and just point out errors and mistakes, or suggestions, and so we take all that into account as well.

JS: You actually update the stories based on people’s comments?

SC: Yeah, well if someone writes in, often I won’t be the one who’s written the original story, but if I’m, you know, someone sends an email saying, “oh, that’s the wrong ship,” that happened a couple of weeks ago, and then someone else writes in saying something similar, you’ve got alarm bells going and you need to double– obviously you don’t just, you don’t take that that as certain, but you will do more digging. I mean obviously you go through it and you have a look, and then you update the story. I mean, yeah, absolutely.

JS: Right. Does your team have any say in the software design in all of the system? You know, what the actual interface for comments are? Do you work with the developers, or how is that…?

SC: Yeah. I mean, the future media technology team, they are, at the BBC they’re the people who actually do the build. But it’s sort of, they do that working along side us. So we’ll have like one or two people in the team who will constantly have meetings with them, and you know, check out their design, kind of product manage it to certain degree. So yes, absolutely they work closely with the journalists. They don’t work as closely as, you know, it’s not sort of a scrum, agile kind of session world, although it is in other areas of the BBC. It’s more, you know, it’s more the two teams working sort of in parallel, rather than sort of physically sitting together. But it, you know, it works.

JS: Right. Okay. Thank you very much.

SC: No problem.

JS: I realize you’re terribly jet-lagged, so I apologize for ambushing you, but–

SC: Well I apologize for any slurred words. It is due to the jet-lag.

JS: All right, thanks a lot.

January 17 2010


Leak-o-nomy: The Economy of Wikileaks

Stefan Mey from Berlin talks to Julian Assange, the spokesperson of the whistleblower platform Wikileaks.org. The interview took place during the 26th Chaos Communication Congress where Assange and his German colleague Daniel Schmitt gave a lecture on the current state and the future of Wikileaks.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange (photo: flickr.com by Esthr, cc-by-nc-2.0)

At the moment Wikileaks.org has an unusual appearance. The website is locked down in order to generate money. The locking-down of the website was first planned until Jan 6, then Jan 11 and now it has been announced that it will last “until at least Jan 18”. How did you decide in favor of this tough step?

In part, this is a desire for us to to enforce self-discipline. It is for us a way to ensure that everyone who is involved stops normal work and actually spends time raising revenue. That’s hard for us, because we promise our sources that we will do something about their situation.

So, you strike?

Yes, it’s similar to what unions do when they go on strike. They remind people that their labour has value by withdrawing supply entirely. We give free and important information to the world every day. But when the supply is infinite in the sense that everyone is able to download what we publish, the perceived value starts to reduce down to zero. So by withdrawing supply and making our supply to zero, people start to once again perceive the value of what we are doing.

Do you urgently need money?

We have lots of very significant upcoming releases, significant in terms of bandwidth, but even more significant in terms of amount of labour they will require to process and in terms of legal attacks we will get. So we need to be in a stronger position before we can publish the material.

In mainstream media as well as in non-commercial media there are two important questions. What does it cost? And how is it financed? Would you please first describe the cost side …

By far the biggest cost is people. That’s also a cost that scales with operations. The more material we go through, the more the management and labour costs are. People need to write summaries of the material and see whether it’s true or not. In the moment everyone is paying himself, but that can’t last forever.

How big is the core team of WikiLeaks?

There are probably five people that do it 24 hours a day. And then there are 800 people who do it occasionally throughout the year. And in between there is a spectrum.

How do you and the other four guys who work full time without salaries finance living costs?

I have made money in the Internet. So I have enough money to do that, but also not forever. And the other four guys, in the moment they are also able to self-finance.

Was Wikileaks your idea as many assumed?

I don’t call myself a founder.

Nobody really knows about the founders, says Wikipedia …

Yes. This is simply because some of the people in the initial founding group are refugees, refugees from China and other places. And they still have family back in their home countries.

So at the moment the labour costs are still hypothetical, but the big costs that you really have to pay bills for are servers, office, etc.?

On the bandwidth side, the backing is costly as well when we get big spikes. Then there are registrations, bureaucracy, dealing with bank accounts and this sort of stuff. Because we are not in one location, it doesn’t make sense for us to have headquarters. People have their own offices across the world.

What about cost for lawsuits?

We don’t have to pay for our lawyer’s time. Hundred of thousands or millions dollars’  worth of lawyer time are being donated. But we still have to pay things like photocopying and court filing. And so far we have never lost a case, there were no penalties or compensations to pay.

So all in all, can you give figures about how much money Wikileaks needs in one year?

Propably 200 000, that’s with everyone paying themselves. But there are people who can’t afford to continue being involved fulltime unless they are paid. For that I would say maybe it’s 600 000 a year.

Now let’s talk about your revenues, your only visible revenue stream is donations …

Private donations. We refuse government and corporate donations. In the moment most of the money comes from the journalists, the lawyers or the technologists who are personally involved. Only about ten percent are from online donations. But that might increase.

At the bottom of the site is a list of your “steadfast supporters”, media organisations and companies like AP, Los Angeles Times or The National Newspaper Association. What do they do for you?

They give their lawyers, not cash.

In other words: If Wikileaks.org goes down as a result of a legal action, the same precedence can be used to take down nytimes.com the next day or the German Spiegelonline.

Why do the they help you? Probably not out of selflessness.

Two things: They see us as an organisation that makes it easier for them to do what they do. But they also see us as the thin end of the wedge. We tackle the hardest publishing cases. And if we are defeated, maybe they will be next in line. In other words: If Wikileaks.org goes down as a result of a legal action, the same precedence can be used to take down nytimes.com the next day or the German Spiegelonline.

My explanation was that maybe they do it because they know that what you do is actually their job, but they don’t have the money to do it.

Maybe. The cost per word in investigative journalism is high. We make it a little bit cheaper for them. If you can bring these costs per word down you can get more words of investigative journalism and publish even in a company that wants to maximize profit, because we do some of the expensive sourcing. And there is another really big cost, namely the threat of legal action. We take the most legally difficult part, which is not the story, but usually the backing documents. As a result there is less chance of legal action against the publisher. So we help them to bring their costs per word in investigative journalism down.

You need to motivate two groups of people, in order to make the site run, the whistleblowers and the journalists. What are the motivations for whistleblowers?

Usually they are incenced morally by something. Very rarely actually they want revenge or just to embarrass some organisation. So that’s their incentive, to satisfy this feeling. Actually we would have no problem giving sources cash. We don’t do that, but for me there is no reason why only the lawyers and the journalists should be compensated for their effort. Somebody is taking the risk to do something and this will end up benefiting the public.

But then the legal problem would become much bigger.

Yes, but we’re not concerned about that. We could do these transfer payments to a jurisdiction like Belgium which says, that the authorities are not to use any means to determine the connection between the journalist and their source. And this would include the banking system.

On the other hand, you experiment with incentives for journalists. This sounds weird at first. Why do you have to give them additional incentives so they use material you offer them for free?

It’s not that easy. Information has value, generally in proportion to the supply of this information being restricted. Once everyone has the information, another copy of the information has no value.

That produces the counter-intuitive outcome that the more evidence there is of some scandal and the more important the scandal, the less likely it is that the press will write about it. If there is no exclusivity.

But nearly every journalist in the US has daily access to the material of a news agency like AP.

The material of AP is ready to go straight into the newspaper. Our material requires additional investment. So when we release an important leak, it requires an important, intelligent journalist who is politically well connected. Those journalists have significant opportunity costs. Okay, they want to spend their time on 200 pages. In order for that to be profitable they need to make sure that they will come out with an exclusive at the end. But if it is perceived to be something of interest, it is probable that also other people will be working on it at that moment. And when they publish is unpredictable. That produces the counter-intuitive outcome that the more evidence there is of some scandal and the more important the scandal, the less likely it is that the press will write about it. If there is no exclusivity.

In Germany you made an exclusivity deal with two media companies, with Stern and Heise. Are you satisfied with these kind of deals?

We have done this in other countries before. Generally we have been satisfied. The problem is that it takes too much time to manage. To make a contract, and to determine who should have the exclusivity. Someone can say, oh, we will do a good story. We are going to maximize the political impact. And then they won’t do it. How do we measure this?

You want to make sure that if you give them the exclusivity that they really do what they promise to do …

Yes. One thing that can’t be faked is how much money they pay. If you have an auction and a media organisation pays the most, then they are predicitng, that they will benefit the most from publishing the story. That is, they will have the maximum number of readers. So this is a very good way to measure who should have the exclusivity. We tried to do it as an experiment in Venezuela .

Why Venezuela?

Because of the character of the document. We had 7 000 e-mails from Freddy Balzan, he was Hugo Chavez’s former speech writer and also the former ambassador to Argentinia. We knew that this document would have this problem, that it was big and political important, therefore probably no one would write anything about it for the reason I just said.

What happened?

This auction proved to be a logistical nightmare. Media organisations wanted access to the material before they went to auction. Consequently we would get them to sign non-disclosure agreements, chop up the material and release just every second page or every second sentence.That proved to distracting to all the normal work we were doing, so that we said, forget it, we can’t do that. We just released the material as normal. And that’s precisely what happened: no one wrote anything at all about those 7 000 Emails. Even though 15 stories had appeared about the fact that we were holding the auction.

The experiment failed.

The experiment didn’t fail; the experiment taught us about what the burdens were. We would actually need a team of five or six people whose job was just to arrange these auctions.

You plan to continue the auction idea in the future …

We plan to continue it, but we know it will take more resources. But if we pursue that we will not do that for single documents. We will instead offer a subscription. This would be much simpler. We would only have the overhead of doing the auction stuff every three months or six months, and not for every document.

So the exclusivity of the story will run out after three months?

No, there will be exclusivity in terms of different time windows in access to the material. As an example: there will be an auction for North America. And you will be ranked in the auction. The media organisation which bids most in the auction would get access to it first, the one who bids second will get access to it second and so on. Media organisations would have a subscription to Wikileaks.

They would have timely privileged access to all Wikileaks documents that are relevant for North America …

Yes. Let’s imagine there are only two companies in the auction. And one pays double what the other one pays. And let’s say the source says they want the document to be published in one month’s time. So there is a one month window where the journalists have time to investigate and write about the material. The organisation that pays the most for it gets it immediately, so therefore they would be able to do a more comprehensive story. Then the organisation that pays half as much gets it half the time later, they get the documents two weeks later. And then after one month they both publish.

That sounds promising. Wouldn’t then the financial problem be solved?

It depends on how many resources the auction itself takes. And media themselves don’t have so much money at all. But all in all I think we only would have to have a few bid cases per year, that would be enough to finance it.

The interview is a cross-posting from the German Medien-Ökonomie-Blog.

Watch and listen to this interview as Xtranormal-Video.

January 15 2010


What is User Generated Content?

The following is a brief section from a book I’m writing on online journalism. I’m publishing it here to invite your thoughts on anything you think I might be missing…

There is a long history of audience involvement in news production, from letters to the editor and readers’ photos, to radio and television phone-ins, and texts from viewers being shown at the bottom of the screen.

For many producers and editors, user generated content is seen – and often treated – as a continuation of this tradition. However, there are two key features of user generated content online that make it a qualitatively different proposition.

Firstly, unlike print and broadcast, on the web users do not need to send something to the mainstream media for it to be distributed to an audience: a member of the public can upload a video to YouTube with the potential to reach millions. They can share photos with people all over the world. They can provide unedited commentary on any topic they choose, and publish it, regularly, on a forum or blog.

Quite often they are simply sharing with an online community of other people with similar interests. But sometimes they will find themselves with larger audiences than a traditional publisher because of the high quality of the material, its expertise, or its impact.

Indeed, one of the challenges for media organisations is to find a way to tap into blog platforms, forums, and video and photo sharing websites, rather than trying to persuade people to send material to their news websites as well. For some this has meant setting up groups on the likes of Flickr, LinkedIn and Facebook to communicate with users on their own territory.

The second key difference with user generated content online is that there are no limitations on the space that it can occupy. Indeed, whole sites can be given over to your audience and, indeed, are. The Telegraph, Sun and Express all host social networks where readers can publish photos and blog posts, and talk on forums. The Guardian’s CommentIsFree website provides a platform where dozens of non-journalist experts blog about the issues of the day. And an increasing number of regional newspapers provide similar spaces for people to blog their analysis of local issues under their news brand, while numerous specialist magazines host forums with hundreds of members exchanging opinions and experiences every day. On the multimedia side, Sky and the BBC provide online galleries where users can upload hundreds of photos and videos.

The term User Generated Content itself is perhaps too general a term to be particularly useful to journalists. It can refer to anything from a comment posted by a one-time anonymous website visitor, to a 37-minute documentary that one of your readers spent ten years researching. The most accurate definition might simply be that user generated content is “material your organisation has not commissioned and paid for”. In which case, most of the time when we’re talking about UGC,we need to talk in more specific terms.

January 10 2010


iPhone News Apps Compared

We’re all being told that mobile is the next big thing for news, but what does it mean to have a good mobile news application?

Just as an online news site is a lot more than a newspaper online, a mobile news application is a lot more than news stories on a small screen. The better iPhone news apps integrate multimedia, social features, personalization, and push notifications.

Not all apps get even the basics right. But a few are pushing the boundaries of what mobile news can be, with innovative new features such as info-graphic displays of hot stories, or integrated playlists for multimedia.

Here is my roundup of 14 iPhone news offerings. I’ve included many of the major publishers, some lesser known applications, and a few duds for comparison.

The New York Times Company

The New York Times iPhone application

The New York Times iPhone application

The Times doesn’t do anything new with this application, but they do everything fairly well.

The app is designed around a vertical list stories, with a headline, lede, and photo thumbnail for each. Stories are organized into standard news sections, plus the alway interesting “Most Popular.”   Banner ads sometimes appear at the bottom, plus occasional interstitial ads when appear when you select a story.

The focus of the news is of course American. There’s no personalization of news content based either on interest or location, which may well prove to be a standard feature for mobile news applications. Fortunately, the app includes a search function, though it only seems to go a few days back.

Downloaded articles are available when the device is offline, which is a useful feature. Favorites stories can be saved, or shared via email, text message, Twitter, and Facebook.

The UI has a few quirks. The “downloading news” progress bar is expected, but the sometimes equally long “processing news” phase makes me wonder what the app is doing. The photos in a story very sensibly download after the text, but the scroll position jumps when the photo appears,which is hugely annoying.

There’s little innovation or differentiation here, but the experience is smooth.

Daily Zeitgeist
Sharpest Cookie

The Daily Zeitgeist presents the headlines in a visually innovative way

The Daily Zeitgeist displays headlines visually

The Daily Zeitgeist tries something completely different, and it works well.

The app draws news from a number of different sources, such as Google News, Digg, Reddit, and Yahoo Buzz. Headlines from each source are displayed in text panels on an uncluttered screen. The size of each panel indicates the story popularity and the background color indicates the freshness, with stories gradually fading as they age. Tapping on a panel brings up an info window with a thumbnail photo and the first few lines of the story. Doubling tapping on the info window loads the story from the original source in the integrated browser.

From within the browser view, stories can be loaded into Safari, emailed, or posted to Facebook.

That’s it. The entire experience is clean, simple, and fast. It’s possible to get an immediate, at-a-glance sense of what is news from the clever infographic-like interface, and I really enjoy the addition of user-curated news sources such as Digg and Reddit.

The implementation is not without its flaws. Less popular stories are displayed very small, necessitating zooming with two fingers, or by double tapping. It’s annoying to need two hands to zoom, and sometimes the zoom limit isn’t high enough to allow reading of the smallest headlines. Because the stories recede into one corner, I find myself imagining a one handed, one-dimensional zoom gesture.

I’d also like to see better customization of sources, such as the ability to display specific sections of Google News, or read the news in different languages. Nonetheless, The Daily Zeitgeist may well evolve into my favorite news application. It’s definitely something different and innovative.

NPR News


NPR's iPhone app features an integrated playlist

The NPR news app, from the American public radio station of the same name,  has a lot of audio as one might hope. In fact it’s the only news app in this roundup to include an integrated playlist manager.

Stories appear in the usual vertical list, with those that include audio clearly marked. Within each story page there are buttons for “add to playlist” and “listen now.” Wisely, NPR includes comprehensive text summaries even for its audio stories.

The app includes a “programs” screen where listeners can queue up popular NPR programs such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Planet Money. The “stations” screen allows users to find programming produced by NPR affiliates all across the US.

Radio is different from print, and NPR has done a good job at imagining how mobile radio consumption should work. The integrated play list is a welcome innovation, and the programming selection features are thorough and well thought out .

A few obvious audio features are missing, such as the ability to seek to an arbitrary time in the program, and integration with the iPhone’s volume buttons. It should also be possible to play programs in the background while using other apps, though this is a limitation of the iPhone OS. Helpfully, the NPR app includes a “Go To iTunes” button for programming that is also available as a standard podcast.

NPR includes some non-audio stories from the Associated Press in its article list. Banner ads sometimes appear at the bottom of the screen. Stories can be shared via email, Twitter, and Facebook. There is no search feature.

The app is not quite perfect, but it’s useful and unique. NPR is definitely on the right track.

AP Mobile
The Associated Press

The Associated Press' iPhone app

The Associated Press' iPhone app pushes breaking news

AP’s global network produces a huge amount of news, and their content forms the core of more newspapers and television reports than most people realize. Their app is therefore a welcome addition to any serious news junkie’s iPhone, but seems to miss one of the AP’s key strengths: comprehensiveness. The content is really a very narrow selection of AP’s stories, and there’s no search feature.

The interface is list-based, with a “Front Page” category that shows a couple hot stories from each of a customizable list of sections, including “Headlines”, “Most Recent”, and “Most shared”. There is a Photos button for some sections which leads to an attractive grid of clickable thumbnails, and a video button which leads to a list of video reports that play in the iPhone YouTube app.

The AP app is one of only two in this roundup that does push notification. When enabled, AP sends big headlines to your phone even when it’s off, which arrive much like text messages. I appreciated this for some stories, but found other headlines a waste of my time (another Tiger Woods story? Really?) The ability to customize push content is badly needed.

Kudos also for localization, though it’s incomplete because it is based on zip code — useless to the majority of the world, which is strange for one of the most global news organizations.

Stories can be saved to a favorites list, or shared via email, text message, Twitter, Facebook , or Evernote. Banner ads sometimes appear at the top of lists and stories.

The AP application feels a little clunky, with a somewhat cluttered UI and several incomplete features. That I can live with. What I’d really like to see is a much broader selection of AP’s huge output, combined with strong filtering and search features.

Thompson-Reuters News Pro

Thompson-Reuters' iPhone app

Thompson-Reuters' iPhone news app also provides market data

News Pro knows what it’s about: business and financial readers. The app includes comprehensive market information, and a scrolling ticker at the top of every screen.

News is presented in a list of selections from the full wire feed, at the bottom of which are category choices. There is nothing like a “most popular” or “trending” category, but business news is broken down finely into sections such as “Corporate,” “Market Report,” and “New Issues.” The coverage is nicely international, and the app gives the user a choice the US, the UK, Canada, and India on first invocation.

News Pro includes attractive photo and video sections, but where the app really shines is its market information. All of the standard indices are updated in near real time, as are exchange rates. The stocks section allows quick checks on any ticker symbol, and a user-defined watchlist. Any index or stock can be graphed within a fairly sophisticated interface.

Text size is adjustable and stories can be shared by email only. There is no favoriting feature.

This application is not the greatest for general news, but then it’s clearly not designed for the general reader. Thompson-Reuters knows their market, and understands that stories are just part of what a mobile application can deliver.

TIME Mobile

Time Inc.

Time Mobile in the iPhone

Time Mobile in the iPhone

Where TIME Mobile shines is the interface. Of all the apps tested, it has simplest, slickest, cleanest interface. Or maybe the black background just makes it seem glossier.

The app is very much oriented around photography. Instead of a vertical list, the user is presented with a smoothly scrolling row of large thumbnails, much like iTunes’ “cover flow” interface.

Rather than the traditional news sections, Time’s categories are “News”, “Lists”, “Quotes,” “Popular,” and “Media”. In the era of 24 hour news, Time’s weekly format is ill suited to breaking stories, and they have wisely elected to focus on a different sort of content.

The app also supports favorites, sharing via email and twitter, text size adjustment,

TIME Mobile is pretty, and well suited to those looking for more of a magazine reading experience.

The Guardian
Guardian News and Media Limited

The Guardian UK's iPhone app

The Guardian UK's iPhone app

The UK’s famous newspaper has done well with its iPhone application. The app is based around the usual vertical story list, yes, but it is well implemented and supplemented with multimedia features such as photo galleries and integrated podcasts. The usual sections are available, but “Latest” and “Trending” are the home screen options.

The search function stands out. It finds topics, sections, and contributors, not stories, but the archive seems to go back a full year, unique among iPhone news apps. A topic search for “plane” brings up “Hudson river plane crash”, “Plane crashes (world)”, and “Lockerbie plane bombing (uk)”. Each of these categories expands into a long list of previous stories.

Stories can be favorited, or shared via email and Facebook. Text size is adjustable.

The Guardian’s app is cleanly implemented, the multimedia features are welcome, and the archive search function is innovative and useful. Well worth the low cost.

CNN Mobile

The CNN iPhone app

The CNN iPhone app has lots of video

The CNN app is slick and complete. Really complete. The app includes custom search, GPS location-based content, gobs of video, and the ability to upload photos to CNN’s iReport citizen journalism website.

The headlines pages is divided into categories, and features a story list below a large photo. Stories within a section can be browsed by sliding horizontally between pages, which has a lovely magazine-like feel. Every story has a large photo, and many of the stories have associated video, streamed as usual through the YouTube player.

The video page features even more multimedia, also broken into one list per category, including the venerable “Most Popular.”

The MyCNN page allows content customization. The app can choose local stories based on your GPS location or zip code, which means it only works inside the US. It also supports topic searches by keyword, which are saved into custom news sections.

The “iReport” page features selections from CNN’s iReport citizen journalism content, plus the ability to submit your own text and photographic reports. Most intriguing of all, the “Assignments” page provides detailed suggestions on submission topics, such as “Winter weather near you” and “Tsunami: Five years later.”

The app rotates into landscape mode when the phone is turned. Banner ads appear in story lists. Stories can be saved or shared via text message, email, Twitter, and Facebook.

The CNN app is a monster in terms of functionality, yet the whole feels uncluttered and functional. The content is good, the customization is good, and the iReport features are on the cutting edge of web-enabled journalism.

The Independent
Missing Ink Studios Ltd.

The Independent's iPhone app works much like an RSS reader

The Independent's iPhone app works much like an RSS reader

The Independent’s main screen is a graphical topic page showing unread stories in each category, with all content from the UK newspaper of the same name. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait for all stories to update before you can read those already downloaded. The total number of unread stories appears as a tag on the app’s icon in the iPhone’s home screen.

Within each category is a list view. Most story items have thumbnail photos. Banner ads appear at the top of both the story list and individual articles.

The font size is adjustable and items can be favorited, but shared only by email.

This is a bare-bones app that feels more like a sharp RSS reader than a news organization product. This simplicity is not entirely a bad thing, but the app misses many mobile possibilities.

Al Jazeera English Live

The Al Jazeera English Live app does exactly what it says

The Al Jazeera English Live app does exactly what it says

The Al Jazeera English Live app streams the AJE broadcast feed to your iPhone. It is produced by LiveStation, whose desktop player can be used to watch Al Jazeera and other stations on your computer.

Video quality is quite good over wifi, but much lower resolution over a 3G connection, as might be expected. In my tests around Hong Kong the video often stuttered or froze and was not really watchable without wifi.

And that’s it. This app is a viewer for the Al Jazeera English television channel, no more or less. It’s exciting to be able to watch it from my phone, and as 3G networks improve we can expect the experience to be more reliable. Al Jazeera is to be commended for leading the charge to mobile video broadcast. But the internet is not television, and I’d like to see the ability to select programming, as the CNN and NPR apps do so well.

Jakarta Globe
Equinox Inc

The Jakarta Globe iPhone app includes no Jakarta-specific features

The Jakarta Globe iPhone app includes no Jakarta-specific features

Disclosure: I have been  a contributor to The Jakarta Globe.

The young Jakarta daily comes to the iPhone in minimal form. The interface is the standard news list, divided into categories such as City, National, Business, Sports, and Life and Times.

Stories can be favorited but not shared  – a problem for users and publisher alike. Banner ads appear at the bottom of story pages.

In the era of aggregation and global reach, local news is under-served. This creates an opportunity for focused reporting. The Jakarta Globe application is a good example of a local news application, but it lacks compelling city-and country-specific features. For example, why can’t I look up Jakarta movie listings?

Ultimately, users will install this application only because there are few other mobile sources for English-language news about Indonesia and its capital city.

Fluent News Reader
Fluent Mobile
Free, plus subscription for some features

Fluent News Reader aggregates from many sources in a customizable fashion

Fluent News Reader aggregates from many sources in a customizable fashion

Fluent News Reader aggregates stories from a user-defined list of sources, by default including the RSS feeds of the Washington Post, the New York times, the BBC, NPR, USA Today, Al Jazeera, Reuters, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, the Economist, Fox News, and several dozen others. Duplicate stories are removed, much like Google News.

The app comes with a standard set of sections such as “Business”, “World,” and “Sport”, but Fluent differentiates itself through the ability to make custom sections. Sections are defined by keyword searches, which are extremely useful in their own right. The balance of results can be adjusted by promoting or demoting individual news sources.

But only up to a point. Fluent wants you to subscribe at $1.99 for one month or $2.99 for three months for “premium” features including the ability to create an unlimited number of sections, promote more than one source, and remove the banner ads in article lists.

Stories can be saved, or shared via email, Twitter, and Facebook.

Fluent news is perhaps the only truly comprehensive news aggregation app for the iPhone. Its search and custom sections features are very useful, as is the ability to adjust the importance of sources. But when the most expensive iPhone news app is selling for $4, dishing out $1 every month just to keep features unlocked seems a bit rich.

BBC News Mobile
Joseph Nardone

The BBC needs to make their own iPhone app

The BBC needs to make their own iPhone app

This application, which does not seem to be supported or authorized by the BBC, is one of a several in the BBC fan creation category. The interface is simple, with a list of stories in each of three sections: “World News,” “World Sport,” and “World Business.” Choosing a story simply brings up the appropriate bbc.co.uk page in the integrated browser. The “Share Story” button sends an email.

That’s it.

What we can learn most from the existence of this and similar applications is that the BBC has not satisfied pent up demand for an iPhone app.

The Huffington Post

The Huffington Post app allows commenting from your phone

The Huffington Post app includes comments and tweets

The Huffington Post looks like a mobile newspaper should. The design is clean, with their trademark headline photo up top. The interface is simple, with the usual sections including a “blogs” category. There is a well-stocked video section which makes use of the iPhone YouTube player.

Where the Huffington Post stands out is its social media integration. There is a “comments” button on every page, and new comments can be posted from within the app. The bottom of each article also includes a selection of recent tweets on the article topic, complete with a “reply” link for each tweet that integrates with a user-selectable iPhone twitter client (though not Tweetdeck, which is annoying.) All of these features are unique among the apps in this roundup.

Font size is adjustable and stories can be shared by Email, Facebook, and Twitter.

There is no search function. Otherwise, the app is full-featured, good-looking, multimedia, and actively social. The Huffington Post continues their embrace of the web with their thoughtfully designed iPhone application.

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.

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