Archive for February, 2011

bbc mobile newsJournalist Cory Doctorow misses an essential point in an otherwise excellent Guardian post on information overload*

He argues that we should stop worrying about trying to stay abreast of everything because “signal amplification” will ensure the most interesting things eventually get through. We should relax, “it’ll be around again shortly”.

I broadly agree, but it’s the ‘shortly’ part I take issue with since the timeliness and excitement of breaking news is often what compels people to read, listen and watch.

That doesn’t mean we all live our lives panting with anticipation for breaking news on any topic in a kind of News Channel hell.

But it does mean that for things we are passionate about, or likely to affect us in profound ways, we want to know about them sooner rather than later and not wait for the information to eventually come round.

Hearing about events in the moment, as they unfold, ticks all the boxes for our need to know for which, I’m sure, there are deep-rooted anthropological explanations.

There’s social capital in being first with a piece of information and the osmosis of news transmission has grown rapidly in recent years through posts and tweets, linking and sharing, and recommending.

Mobiles are the ultimate end-product in this chain. They’re with us all the time. But delivering updates on diverse stories is a tough nut to crack for news organisations when speed needs very from person to person.

What’s compelling and vital for one might be of scant interest to another depending on the relative importance of the topic to them and their view of the world.

Push notifications need to be refined and filtered and not used in the current fashion as blunt instruments for relentlessly battering people with breaking news.

Anyway, with finite resources it’s impossible to prioritise everything as “urgent”, but it doesn’t mean we can’t, and shouldn’t, be doing better.

Twitter has stolen a march on many news organisations in this area with a flow of raw information which sometimes includes rumour, repetition and half-truth as well as high value, genuine ground-breaking news.

It has many more people sharing bits of information than any news organisation can muster. But its scale is also its weakness; the signal to noise ratio can be high and adjusting who you follow doesn’t wholly solve the problem.

The chap who delivers great insight on mobile topics is equally prolific in other areas that are not of interest – do you cut him out or take the chaff with the wheat?

Hashtags go part of the way to solving this but they usually are only added around major events or set-piece topics, not the general tide, and they take time to become established.

There’s room for a better service from the BBC between what it does now and what Twitter provides, but it needs a change of approach.

Could the BBC ever open itself up to new ways of presenting news in flux – showing what we’re hearing and seeing and what we’re checking out as well as what we’ve verified and confirmed?

I wrote about this train of thought shortly after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

There are those who will only ever want authenticated, double-sourced, fully cross-checked material; for them the consequence is that they get information behind the curve but that they know it is accurate.

For those wanting a quicker service it means information may be contradictory or possibly even incorrect for a brief time – but they understand and accept that trade-off.

What we don’t currently offer are the variations of output or the tools to allow the audience to make that choice.

There is, of course, potential for reputational damage from exposing our newsgathering processes and that needs to be carefully explained.

But there’s also reputational damage from maintaining the status quo, of not adapting to a changing news landscape, and of not letting people decide which type of news flow suits them best.

News doesn’t always have to be a choice between only the slow lane and only the fast lane; there are times when we want to switch from one to the other and back again.  Ultimately, we have to let the people decide.

* Incidentally, I came upon Doctorow’s article not by scouring The Guardian or ploughing through my Twitter feed but via an app called Smartr which grabs Tweets with links, pulls in the stories and presents them in aggregated news reader style.

And for managing information overload, look no further than tech blogger Robert Scoble who tracks more than 30,000 people via his @scobleizer account and reaps the benefit both of scale and smart filtering to manage the tide.


mailsorryNot so long ago, wire copy was the bedrock of many a publication but papers never openly revealed their dependency on agency material. The intro was tweaked, the copy jigged and the reporter’s byline put at the top.

The web exposed the lie when people were easily able to read multiple but strikingly similar versions of a story across a range of titles.

Now the Media Standards Trust is shining a light on the cut-and-paste culture around stories and press releases with a churn engine that seeks “to distinguish journalism from churnalism”.

By dropping a press release into a text box on the site it’s possible to run a comparison with articles appearing in the UK media.

A fake chastity garter story by Chris Atkins found its way into the Mail Online’s science and tech section as a potential Valentine’s Day gift.

Churn stats show 40% of the Mail piece had common content with the fake story: – For the Footballer with a suspicious mind…the garter that texts if his WAG is unfaithful The churn engine even highlights the text that is common to both, ie has been ‘lifted’.

The Mail has pulled the story but offers no explanation or admission to its readers.

It’s easy to scoff, but the Beeb doesn’t come out of it unscathed, with 5Live giving airtime to a spoof story about Downing Street’s new cat.

The back-story about the technology that underpins the results is interesting in itself and has been written up here by Donovan Hide.

The dust has barely settled on Christchurch yet I’m sure an enterprising mobile developer is already putting together an Augmented Reality app to show how the city looked before the devastating earthquake hit the city.

Walk down the rubble-strewn streets and through your mobile camera viewer see them as they were before the tremor hit.

Fast forward five years and the pictures will be reversed. Walk down the rebuilt streets and see them as they were in the aftermath of nature’s destructive power.

In web form, Australia’s has already fashioned an interactive set of pictures showing before-and-after scenes. The interactive bit is the use of a slider to scroll across pair-matched images. Swipe left and you see the building as it was, swipe right and you see the impact of the quake.

The before-and-after idea is not new but the sideswipe implementation is novel and not simply a gimmick, though the BBC’s implementation is more elegant.

Google was quick off the mark as the scale of the disaster unfolded, launching a person finder service for people seeking information about friends and relatives and as a way for people to pass on information.

With phone services disrupted, power lines down and thousands of people trying to call home the templated pages make for an efficient way to spread news.

Typical of the entries was this one giving information about someone who was confirmed as being alive:

“Have just spoken to Ann via someone else’s cellphone, she is doing well and at home but her phone line is down so unable to call in or out.

“Thank you so much to Libby, the angel who went to her home and checked up on her for us! Nick, if you read this, mum wants us to let you know she’s ok :-)”

Google makes the point that it does not review or verify the accuracy of the data but, presumably, has decided the overall benefit outweighs the potential risk of malicious misinformation.

oscarsFor the past few days I’ve been watching the clock count down on ABC’s Oscars Backstage Pass app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod, with the promise that Sunday’s event will be “the most interactive Oscars ever.”

Billed as “the ultimate insider’s view of Hollywood’s biggest night“, it incorporates second screen viewing options by adding live camera streams controlled by the user and accessible while the broadcast plays out.

For UK audiences used to red button options or Sky’s tracker cam with alternate commentaries, it’s maybe not so new but it is evidence of a major broadcaster incorporating options for secondary activity and acknowledgement that giving more choice and control is a good thing.

Once the show is over you’re invited to go to the governor’s ball for “after party action”, though watching live as statues are engraved with winners’ names comes under Paint Drying Cam as far I’m concerned.

It’ll be interesting to see how social media is incorporated into the mix, if at all, since there’s no hint of that in the promo. Sharing the experience in a bigger conversation through everyone’s snarky comments, humour and opinion is often the best part.

Public service broadcasting is having a tough time on the other side of the pond.

Last Saturday the House of Representatives voted 235-189 to pass a continuing resolution that eliminates funding for public broadcasting. It still has to get Senate approval but the BBC’s situation looks pretty favourable when seen in this light.

A campaign to raise awareness and to save local television and radio called 170 million Americans argues that public broadcasting funding is too important to eliminate.

Chris Bishop, the creative director at PBS Kids put together this graphic to garner support for what it does and why it’s worth supporting.

No, it won’t turn you into Ansel Adams and, yes, you will be mocked if you bring this out when professional snappers and camera bores are around but…it’s small enough to pop in a pocket, light enough not to notice and good enough if you happen upon something newsworthy.

Well done the Washington Post – it’s putting upwards of $5m into a personalised news product that will scoop up content from thousands of sources.

The site’s still in private beta so I haven’t been able to get a first-hand view but I like what I’ve read and hope to be able to report back soon.

Called Trove, the site is a mix of what editors think you should know along with material you’ve indicated you’re interested in, and is due for launch in March.

From a starting point of “What do you care about?” readers are shown a topic and a story example and they can select one, or both, or neither. Selections are then used to build channels of content and to suggest related material.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the New York Times’ personalisation engine called Recommendations which surfaces additional content it thinks might be of interest based on which Times stories you’ve read.

The Post’s version differs because it skims content other than its own – a smart move if they can pull it off and deliver relevant, interesting material. The danger is that by making a broader trawl they simply net more material that doesn’t appeal.

The winners in this game will be the masters of metadata. Those who can intelligently filter based on nuanced choices from one individual to another while surprising and delighting with the occasional unexpected gem.

The news environment has never been so rich or varied. It used to be pagination or airtime that limited consumption, now it’s the time and interest level an individual can expend.  We have to use it wisely.

Commentator Tomi Ahonen’s mobile industry statistics guide is always compelling reading, in fact many of the numbers have found their way into Marc Settle’s excellent BBC College of Journalism course.

There’s one number in the blizzard of information that’s especially interesting – that, according to Nokia, the average person looks at their phone 150 times per day. That’s a glance every six and a half minutes.

I’m guessing much of that activity is associated with SMS or other forms of instant messaging, but part of it will be to monitor Facebook’s news feed or Twitter’s continuous stream of what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “newness”.

It’s why I’ve bored for England over the past couple of years about the need to present the flow of news from the BBC as a chronology as well as an editorially weighted, sifted and sorted set of headlines.

There’s drama in minute-by-minute information flux and no reason not to do both if suitable filters can be added.

We already offer agency-style running updates for set-piece live event pages, but all of life is a live event and this kind of treatment should be our normal operating procedure.

The dip in, dip out behaviour seen in mobile use patterns needs a different news mix and a different metric to measure engagement.

When web stats are talked about it’s rare for anyone to mention that up to half of unique users only visit a site once a week, that dwell times are scant and fewer than half a dozen pages are looked at.

With all the resources at our disposal and with the development of the BBC’s internal Quickfire breaking news tool we could lead the way in a different kind of news delivery.



ONA UK meet-up at the Telegraph

Has social media killed photojournalism? That was the question debated at an ONA UK event at the offices of the Telegraph Media Group earlier this week and it sparked some lively exchanges.

Panellists who led the discussion were Turi Munthe, founder and CEO of photo news site Demotix, Paul Lowe course director of the Masters programme in photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication and Edmond Terakopian,  an award winning photojournalist.

We ranged over many issues, among them: Is agency boss Neil Burgess correct, that the profession of photojournalist no longer exists? Who or what is a photojournalist? What’s a picture worth and who sets the rate? How can photojournalists survive? What’s the business model? Are amateurs being exploited?

When you strip away emotional reactions, it’s technological change that is at the heart of these issues. The barrier to entry has been lowered, the kit is in the hands of millions of people, it’s easier to use than it’s ever been and the ability to distribute images is open to all.

All the hand-wringing from professionals that amateurs are undermining their livelihoods isn’t going to alter the fact.  As attendee Frank Wales pointed out, portrait painters had the same beef with the early practitioners of photography, but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference.

We’re now in a world with a super-abundance of images and the laws of supply and demand apply. A picture may be worth a thousand words but what’s its market value?  The simple answer is its worth is what someone is prepared to pay.

In the news industry that’s likely to be determined by the elapsed time between the event and the image’s publication or broadcast, its exclusivity and its merit in the broader news agenda.

Quality matters, but not as much as pro-photographers seem to think, and only if there’s choice.

The first images of the Air France Concorde in flames taken by planespotters at Charles de Gaulle Airport were blurry and poor quality. The 7/7 Tube train image of people exiting a train down a tunnel was indistinct and grainy. The Hudson River plane crash-landing was an iPhone shot taken by Janis Krums and uploaded via Twitpic.

In this world, first is good enough no matter what the quality.

As to what they’re worth, Krums’ picture would have been a licence to print money had the plane sunk within a minute or so of coming to rest.  The longer it stayed afloat the more pictures were taken and it’s then that the quality issue arises.

In future, breaking news images are increasingly likely to come from social media.As the preamble to the gathering stated: “We live in a world where anyone with a mobile phone camera and social media account can break a story faster than you can say ‘photojournalist’.”

Was that ever really the beat of the great photojournalists of the past, anyway? I think not. Consider, too, that the world is a smaller place, much less “foreign”, we’ve all seen more and travelled more since photojournalism’s heyday through the 1930s-50s).

With shrinking budgets hitting commissions from news organisations, agencies covering diary events and set-piece stories, and outfits like Demotix brokering deals between user-generated contributors and media buyers the outlook for pro photojournalists does, indeed, look bleak.

The transition to a business model that works is still in flux, but there are pointers to a way forward from crowd-funding operations like – which I wrote about last year – and Kickstarter.

The questions I posed then remain unanswered but the opportunity to break free from pitching only to editors and commissioners remains.

Would you, as an individual, put money into a photography assignment?  Larry Towell surpassed his target of $12,000 to fund a trip to Afghanistan in this way, promising “a personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town” for those who stumped up $10, with a rising scale of rewards for the more generous.

Documentary photographer Daniel Cuthbert calls that kind of funding a virtual begging bowl, while photography consultant David Campbell sees it as a way of creating communities of interest.

Whichever view you take it requires more entrepreneurial effort from the photographer to get going, greater transparency about how the money will be spent and greater interaction with the backers/audience.

Paul Lowe also mentioned self-publishing through sites like Blurb which I’ve done myself, but only as a vanity act, not to make a living, and I’d be interested to hear if anyone’s making a success of this.

Chewing over all of this the following day with BBC Online’s picture editor Phil Coomes he raised the possibility of photojournalists selling their work bundled up as PDFs in a content marketplace like an app store.

We are, after all, ready to pay for music, so why not for atomised content at a threshold so low that it’s taken up by millions.

This is, essentially, what Rupert Murdoch is trying with The Daily – 99 cents a week or $39.99 a year.

The thing is we’re so used to advertising invisibly subsidising content that we expect to get content for free; the idea of paying is anathema.

Advertisers no longer want to spend millions of dollars just to reach mass audiences. They want smarter spend, to pay only for the people their product is aimed at, and as the metrics get better spending will be squeezed still further.

I fervently believe in the editorial merit and power of picture-based storytelling. The greatest stills capture a moment, give the viewer pause for thought and imprint themselves on the mind in a way that video does not.

Think of the man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Sq, Robert Capa’s D-Day landing shots, the Vietnamese girl running down a road after a napalm attack.

Far from being dead, I think a new golden age of photojournalism lies ahead with tablets opening the door on intelligent, picture-led storytelling the equal of anything served up by Picture Post, Life and Paris Match.

It’s not so much the photography that needs vision, but the business model to sustain it.

The eccentric one-man-band that is Joseph Tame is taking outside broadcasting to a new level with his bizarre rig for the upcoming Tokyo Marathon.

As he runs the 26-mile course he’ll be live broadcasting on two cameras – one facing forward, one facing him – while at the same time transmitting live location, pace and heart-rate data via Runkeeper, as well as sampling pollution, humidity and noise levels.

His kit features an iPad strapped to his chest on which Twitter messages will be displayed, four iPhones and an Android device, plus three mobile wifi routers. A volunteer team of 15 will broadcast live from points along the route and all the material will be fed back to a studio for mixing and rebroadcasting via Ustream.

Joseph has a good track record in technological firsts having previously live-streamed himself climbing Mt Fuji.

You can listen to a primer on his marathon plans at 0300 Tues on Radio 5live or catch-up via the less chronologically challenging Outriders Podcast where he’s in conversation with my colleague Jamillah Knowles.