Archive for the ‘News’ Category

News produced by the people, for the people, without the involvement of traditional journalists – it’s a nightmare vision for survivors of the digital hurricane that has battered news organizations over the past decade.

Alternatively, it’s a vision of the future in which hyper-local events get covered that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radar of traditional media or would go unreported because of newsroom cuts.

The prospect of the audience doing it for themselves, providing “journalism as a service,” triggered researchers Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie to conduct a trial they called Eventful at Microsoft Labs in Seattle, Wa.

The pair presented their findings at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Conference in June, acknowledging that: “Professional journalism is a complex endeavor that we are not proposing to replace with Eventful.

“However, we are inspired by citizen journalism as a model that opens up new possibilities for non-experts to carry out journalistic tasks.”

They used their experimental platform to recruit crowd workers as writers, reporters and curators, to assign “missions” and to trial six events they felt were unlikely to be covered by mainstream media: two town hall events, an art show, a hackathon, a festival and a public talk.

These crowd workers were asked to perform tasks such as taking photos, recording audio or video, conducting interviews while getting real-time feedback from content curators, before the final piece was stitched together by writers.

Overall the tasks were accomplished and most within an hour of the event ending. Hernandez and Agapie believe they showed that Eventful could provide a sustainable end-to-end solution for local news production given time-commitment contributions from the community and what they called “interest aggregation”.

The barrier to the kinds of events it can be used on necessarily remains low before questions of legality, balance and accuracy make implementation far more trying.  “Pro-am” partnerships seem to offer far greater potential and have a good track record of excellent results.

It was a different kind of “interest aggregation” that led ProPublica to set up its Patient Harm Community group, a community which now has more than 2,300 members.  It did so not on its own site but on Facebook, an interesting departure for a news organization.

The group is “a place for those who have experienced harm while undergoing medical treatment and their loved ones to learn, share resources and connect with others”.

While the site is moderated by ProPublica staff, the information shared in the group is public and therefore open to competitors to mine for contacts, quotes and case studies. That’s fine by ProPublica too.

In an interview with the Neiman Lab, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen described it as a form of service journalism: “Not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.”

It’s an enlightened view. For many newsgathering operations the audience is a source to be plundered. There are few long-term relationships in the quest for news; it’s mostly a series of one-night stands.

ProPublica made good with another of its collaborative pieces of journalism, crowdsourcing the flow of ‘dark money’ political ad spending during the 2012 presidential election.

Almost 1,000 people rallied to the cause and after 10 weeks of effort and 16,000 files later a billion dollars of ad contracts had been logged. It also prompted the company to challenge the Federal Communications Commission to require TV stations to submit a series of key points as structured data to make ad spending more transparent.

In the UK, one of the early triumphs of The Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts came when it tackled the expenses claims scandal of British Members of Parliament.

Buried by a government data dump of 700,000 documents covering every claim from each of the 646 MPs over four years they turned to the audience for help in digging out the best stories.  Within the first 80 hours almost 70,000 files had been reviewed by readers.

Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the newly-published book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, believes important lessons emerged from that exercise and that they continue to resonate today.

“The reason it worked well was down to publication, timing and implementation. The Guardian could reach out to an audience who had a pre-existing interest in politics and this type of accountability journalism.

“Timing was critical as the project was launched when the topic of MPs’ expenses was in the news, so it tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist, but one key element was the implementation of the project,” said Prof Hermida.

“The Guardian made it easy for people to engage on different levels. They could look at a couple of receipts or at 10. It also added a social factor, where readers could see how they stacked up against other readers. So it also took advantage of game mechanics to make it fun to participate in the crowdsourced project.”

Prof Hermida spelled out four key components that he thought contributed to best practices in crowdsourcing initiatives:

1) Focus: Make a clear and specific ask so that your audience knows what is required of them.

2) Levels of commitment: Enable audiences to participate on their own terms. Some people may have an hour to spend on the project, others a few minutes. Providing a range of options will help to attract a broader range of contributors.

3) Recognize and reward: Make sure to acknowledge publicly the contributions from your audience and even reward them, not necessarily financially but socially, for example through a list of the most active contributors.

4) Cultivate community: Build on your existing audiences and engage with new ones before making the ask. If audiences have a connection to your organization, they are more likely to help out with a crowdsourcing initiative.

Above all, share the project with the audiences. Engage, listen and acknowledge contributors throughout the process.

Prof Hermida said: “They are as much part of the project as the media organization. This means moving away from a transmission mindset and viewing the audience as a source. It is about communication and the audience as partners.”

That chimes well with fellow Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, who revealed plans for a new social journalism degree at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The course was still awaiting state approval, he said at this year’s Online News Association conference in Chicago, but if it was given the go-ahead for January it would be turning journalism on its head.

“Rather than starting with the idea that we make content, it starts with the idea that we serve communities. How do we start? By listening to those communities, understanding them, understanding their needs and then serving them with all the tools we have at hand.

“Social journalism is more than just social media. I think that we in media look at social journalism as another way to publish, another way to get our stuff out there and that’s part of it but really, truly, social media is about connecting with real people and no longer treating people as a mass.

“You know gigantic Google understands me as an individual, it knows where I live and where I work. My newspaper doesn’t. That’s kind of ridiculous so how do we get a news organization to know people as individuals and communities first, understand what those needs are first, then figure out how to serve those needs….it’s really about relationships with the public, it’s not so much about being a content factory.”

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newspicHave you heard..? Did you see..? Being bang up-to-date with the latest news or gossip is a big part of social capital. It’s what makes us interesting to others and it’s one of the reasons we give up our most precious resource to get it – our time.

Constantly revising knowledge of what’s going on around us is a deeply-rooted instinct borne of fight-or-flight perils. Anticipating threats and opportunities might just give us an edge to avoid mortal danger – or alternatively help us make a killing (metaphorically speaking).

The value of any information exchange comes from the usefulness of what’s being imparted set against the time and energy expended to find out.

For news providers this creates a quandary. They want to be consistently first with the news and they also want to deliver high value information; doing both, while not incompatible, is often difficult.

For readers and viewers, the sheer volume of material that has to be ploughed through to make the exercise worthwhile can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when the signal is suppressed by noise.

It’s why coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH370, was described by media commentator Michael Wolff as “the new anti-journalism – all data, no real facts, endless theories”.

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, condemned her own organization for its use of anonymous sources and comments in its reporting:

“In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:

“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. “Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,” the pilot said.

“As a reader, Danny Burstein, wrote to me: “There’s absolutely no reason to quote an anonymous source who’s making a ridiculous claim of this sort, and triply so since your reporter could have called any of a hundred other pilots who’d have gone on the record saying this was garbage.”

The lack of sourcing is in clear contravention of the Times’ reporting guidelines. It’s also a symptom of the competitive pressure news providers are under; quality is compromised for the sake of speed.

Those prepared to put in the extra time to check facts, verify details, and find robust sources, come a poor second when the rumor mill is in full spate. There is no “slow news” movement.

We, the audience, are fickle. We know the trade-off, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. A news organization that’s consistently behind the curve when a major story is unfolding suffers reputational damage. Caution gets trampled underfoot in the audience rush to those who will fill the vacuum.

In my previous post …and now the news for you, and you, and you I talked about a much more personal form of news; narrowcast not broadcast, tailored more to the individual, less to a mass audience.

News organizations are firing blind with their salvoes of information and they’ll continue to do so until they offer readers and viewers the chance to fine tune their news supply.

Push notifications, alerts and updates were once a way of staying across major news developments. Now they’re an irritation.

Andy Hickl, cofounder and CEO of the lifelogging app, Saga, recently stated that he was turning off his alerts and opting out of what he called notification overload – at least until his apps got to know him better.

He’s not alone. From my time at the BBC, I quickly learned that some users wanted fewer breaking news alerts, too many were being sent and they were intrusive and annoying. For others there were too few: why hadn’t an alert been sent on such and such? (We all gauge the importance of news through our own prism of interests. My world’s big news may not correspond to your scale of what’s important).

There were complaints, too, from viewers who wanted only fact-checked, double-sourced, fully verified alerts, while others preferred the absolute latest information and were happy to make reach their own conclusions about its worth.

The gripes haven’t gone away. There’s still no rheostat for breaking news that lets me decide how much is too much; that lets me choose to swim through the farrago of twisted facts, half-truths, rumors and theories to distil my own version of plausibility and value, or to signpost that I’ll have none of it until the dust has settled and a clear picture has emerged.

Fine-tuning to that degree is easy to talk about, much more difficult to deliver. It also begs one very big question: Would you use it if it was offered?

Optimization choices in the recent past have been a minority pursuit because of the time required of individuals to set them up. We now spend so much time batting away the irrelevant and the inconsequential that the tide may have turned.

So, is sophisticated filtering time well spent, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Once we have the answer to that question we can either move towards a smarter, more precisely targeted supply of stories – or we can continue to scrabble for news nuggets in a growing mountain of information.

newsroom

I’m waiting. Still waiting, that is, for a new type of news product that meets my needs.

It’ll be one that makes the best use of my time, which signposts important material, riddles out the irrelevant and delivers the unexpected.

I’d like some contrarian content in the mix, something that challenges my world view, jolts me from my perch of certainty and make me re-evaluate my position.

By necessity I’m going to have to give up a lot of information about myself and my interests to get what I want. And I’m willing to do that if it delivers the relevance I crave.

I’m happy to enter into a relationship where what I share creates a better experience for me and a better business proposition for my news provider.

I want them to come to know me better, to change and develop their offering as our engagement deepens.

I’m unique, of course, just like you. And what you want and what I want isn’t going to be the same.

The successful news provider of the future is going to have to pander to each and every one of us, to manage millions of nuanced relationships and to cope with requirements in a continual state of flux. Pushing the same stuff at everyone simply isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve transitioned away from a world of time-specific TV news broadcasts and individuals’ favored newspapers and magazines. The virtual doorstep is piled high with content and no matter how much you wade through there’s always more to take its place.

It’s all very well for author Clay Shirky to dismiss the idea of information overload as “filter failure” – even though he’s correct in his observation. Without effective filters consuming news is a Sisyphean task.

So where are the tools that let me, the person who knows me best, define what I want or, perhaps more usefully, what I know I don’t want?

Up to now, Zite has come closest to resolving the filtering problem and its recent acquisition by Flipboard’s Mike McCue makes for a doubly exciting prospect.

As well as delivering stories from a wider range of sources than I would have reached by my own efforts, Zite does a pretty good job of aggregating content by topic headings.

I say pretty good, because the oh-so-clever algorithm regularly comes unstuck and delivers items about garden gates into my Bill Gates aggregation pot.

Marking stories with indications of approval or disapproval is a good step too, especially if the feedback assists in the selection or rejection of future pieces.

That said, the thumbs up, thumbs down, notifications can seem insensitive. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to give a thumbs-up to an article about Auschwitz or a disaster or an atrocity. And what does it signify anyway – that you enjoyed reading it, that it was insightful, or that you agreed with its conclusions?

At least Zite is soliciting feedback, even if it’s pretty basic. Offering consumers a chance to give reactions is laudable and much as I’d like to have something more sophisticated I concede that it’s likely to be a minority sport for the foreseeable future.

I like, too, that Zite allows me to indicate that my news preferences skew towards certain publications and individual journalists – more from these, less from others. It lets me hone the organizations and people I want my content to come from.

The danger with this kind of filtering is that it ends up reinforcing existing prejudices, you only hear what you want to hear and that’s when the serendipity engine needs to kick in. Whether it’s based on the zeitgeist of most read, most watched, most shared material or a counter-culture of contrarian opinion there needs to be some wild card content in the mix.

Another of my requirements has taken root in Cir.ca – the ability to track a story by flagging an interest in it.

Cir.ca stories come with a “follow” button and they have identified this as one of their key metrics. When a reader follows a storyline it tells them the person has more than a passing interest; if there’s something new to learn, they want to know.

Capturing “follows” lets Cir.ca target notifications to those who actively want to keep abreast of developments while avoiding those with only a passing interest.

As it states in its blog, push notifications are nearing saturation and these types of update have become both a blessing and a curse.

“Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.”

I’d like Cir.ca to take this process further, to allow me to fine tune my “follows” to take account of the waxing and waning of my interest.

There are times when news is breaking that I want every detail to be passed on as soon as it emerges. There are others when I want only the most significant developments to be pushed through – a development that would require the story’s intro to be recast. And there times when I want a longer term notification, an update on a story that was big news but has since gone off the boil: Haiti’s earthquake four years on, for instance.

No single news provider is going to be able to accommodate all these needs. Businesses are going to have to figure out how to work with rivals to synthesize content and share the proceeds.

It’s why the coming together of Flipboard and Zite is one of the best and most exciting developments of recent times.

More than two million magazines have been created since Flipboard’s inception in January 2010. It offers both abundance and niche, a pro-am aggregation mix, and packaging that attractively reformats itself as new content rolls in.

With Zite it gets expertise in personalization and recommendations, meaning better and easier content discovery.

Facebook hasn’t been standing still while this unfolds. It recently launched a mobile app called Paper in the US, which takes a leaf from Flipboard’s book and recrafts users’ news feeds into something more elegant and magazine-like.

The winner will be the one that can build the deepest relationship with its readers and viewers while meeting the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

ISOJ logoA couple of weeks ago I spoke about mobiles, metadata and the future at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas.

One of the other speakers I met was Seth Lewis, an assistant journalism professor at the the University of Minnesota, who gave a presentation on the ways in which organizations like The New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian have created and used their own application programming interfaces (APIs) to work with outside developers.

His talk struck a real chord; I’m still at a loss to fully understand why the BBC closed Backstage, the community it brought together back in 2005 for people to get creative with its content.

Seth has now posted a piece on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog which gives a good overview of the merits of tapping the wisdom of the developer crowd and the learnings to be had from taking such an approach.

Huffington PostIt’s great to see the Huffington Post pushing the boundaries of social media integration to better serve readers, especially since it endorses a point of view I’ve long held and promoted.

The site’s social media editor, Rob Fishman, has blogged about letting readers follow topics, reporters and bloggers both on the site and across other platforms with the aim of not missing stories that often slip through the cracks.

Back in the day, I suggested the BBC should automate the aggregation of correspondent reports in “shrines” to their output (and egos) across all platforms and all media types.

I’d always enjoyed Matt Frei’s perspective on life in the US, but trying to keep abreast of his video pieces, his audio packages, his features for the web and his musings for From Our Own Correspondent was a job of work.

The best correspondents are brands within the brand, something newspapers have long understood with their star columnists, and I always thought they deserved better packaging and promotion.  Before I left there was a project in the pipeline which was tackling this and I  hope it bears fruit this summer.

There’s more to this than just doing a better job of showcasing correspondent material though, tracking stories, people, companies and individuals’ interests is the next big step in filtering the news that’s relevant to you.

emphas.isFour of the nine projects at the Beta crowd-funded photojournalism site, emphas.is, have reached their funding goals, attracting pledges of more than $40,000 between them.

It’s an impressive start for a site that only launched back in March but it’s too early to say whether the model will successfully grow and lift the gloom that pervades the world of professional news photography.

The successful four are:
1 Matt Eich’s project in the American South on the inheritance of slavery and how it continues to impact generations of people growing up in the US.

2 Kadir van Lohuizen who wants to investigate the roots of migration in The Americas by traveling from the very south of Chile to the very north of Alaska, covering 15 countries along the Pan-American Highway.

3 Carolyn Drake on China’s policy to develop its western frontier which has sent millions of loyal Han Chinese into Xinjiang, home to about 10 million Uyghurs. She plans to return to Xinjiang to photograph the changes in the physical and cultural landscape of the Uyghurs.

4 Tomas van Houtryve’s return to Laos to continue his series on communism, asking how has the Communist Party survived in Laos against the tide of history and why are Hmong groups who collaborated with the US during the Vietnam War still being persecuted?

taptuOld media companies still haven’t grasped that they’re going to have to forge new alliances and collaborate with once bitter rivals if they’re to survive and thrive.

Newspapers and broadcasters have always operated as walled gardens and the model has served them so well that some have come to think they have a right to exist, or that brand loyalty will see them through, or that an iPhone or iPad app will pull the fat from the fire.

   Technology is taking us into the media equivalent of fantasy football where readers can pick and choose their favourite columnists and commentators, mix and match the organizations that serve them, and all while letting their social networks do the heavy lifting by filtering the tide of new information.

In this world aggregators like Taptu, Flipboard Pulse and Zite take different approaches but they all have one thing in common, they break the boundaries that organizations put up between their content and their competitors.

Taptu talks about DJ-ing the news and mixing streams to curate them exactly as you want, by organization, or topic, or special interest.

For those who don’t want to invest the time or effort in doing this then the social graph that connects them with what friends and peers are reading, or watching, or finding interesting, is less taxing.

Is it too fanciful to think that ‘old media’ moguls might join forces to aggregate their own content on a shared platform rather than relying on third parties to do the job?  Perhaps it is, but as things stand they’re losing out.

Frederic Filoux makes the point that they’re not getting audience data from those third parties and it’s the rich learning mined from understanding new patterns of consumption that will be the foundation of future advertising models.

Getting media rivals to collaborate would be problematic, for sure.  Getting agreement on a format and ways to share and monetize material would be a Herculean task, no question. But not to even try would be foolhardy.

Flipboard has just picked up another $50m in venture capital funding; it’s lean (32 employees) it’s nimble, it’s single-minded and it’s tech savvy.

Against that, media businesses may harbor deep rivalries, but they also have rich content at local, national and international level and the potential to package their material in new ways that would better serve the audience and themselves if they could find a way to collaborate.

It’s worth remembering that before SMS became a multi-billion pound earner for mobile operators the business was Balkanised to the extent that messages couldn’t be sent to people outside individual networks.

It only took off when the restriction was removed and a business model was instituted that allowed rival operators to charge each other a small fee for passing messages to other networks.

Honor the TreatyA crowdfunded project that caught my eye recently was Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Billboard initiative on emphas.is.

Huey has spent six years documenting life on native reservations in the US, places where he says unemployment runs at 80-90%, where most people live in poverty and where life expectancy for men is 47, on a par with Somalia and Afghanistan.

Huey likens the reservations to PoW camps and wants to confront Americans with that message on billboards, buses and in subway tunnels.

He’s raised nearly $12,000 towards his $17,250 goal with 20 days left for pledges.

Cisco FlipIt burned brightly in its short lifespan but the Flip Ultra camcorder is toast, gobbled up by ever-smarter smartphones, the disruptive power of which forewarns of bigger convulsions to come and which will change the news landscape forever.

Cisco learned their lesson the hard way, shelling out $590m to acquire Pure Digital Technologies in 2009 in pursuit of a device that had continuously topped Amazon’s best-seller list.

It must all have looked so promising to the execs who signed the cheque back then, blind as they were to the burgeoning growth of mobile and incapable of envisioning the blistering rate of development.

The only saving grace is that they’ve recognized the inevitable and won’t be putting in good money after bad, though that’s scant consolation for the 550 workers who will be laid off.

News organizations haven’t reached that point yet. They’re desperately trying to keep afloat, cutting margins, slicing services, laying people off, trying to stay relevant and all the while holding onto existing audiences and reaching new ones.

Cisco could still find a buyer for Flip if they let it go for a trivial amount, but the purchaser would have to invest considerable capital to extend its life and to improve the modest capabilities that only a couple of years ago were lauded for their simplicity.  Realistically, its time has been and gone.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Mobile has disrupted multiple areas of everyday life and it continues to change the way we interact with the world around us. It’s a timekeeper, an alarm clock, a games machine, a music player, a recording device, a camera, a navigation aid, a video player, a musical instrument, an information source, a news machine.

The time for news hasn’t yet come, but the clock is ticking and for many organizations mobile is still only the most junior of partners, something that is a way off in the future; they get it, but it’s a distraction in the daily battle to hold onto audience and revenue.

My former colleague Kevin Anderson in a post on Rethinking the jobs newspapers do, cites two findings from the NewspaperNext project that have a bearing on this:

  • Cramming old products into new forms is the wrong approach so new companies with new approaches win.

The writing was on the wall for Flip more than two years ago, it’s just that the Cisco people couldn’t see it. The writing is on the wall for the news business too, but the blinkers need to come off.

Audiences need new kinds of news products that let them filter by relevance, or location, or context. News organizations need a better understanding of who they are serving and with what – and that’s going to mean partnering with former competitors and taking a very different approach.

The most innovative news product of recent times – Zite – has been met with understandable hostility from major content producers and a flurry of cease-and-desist letters from their lawyers.

That’s a huge shame, because everyone I’ve spoken to who’s used Zite has loved it, but pillaging other people’s material and profiting from it isn’t a sensible or sustainable business model.

Had Zite sought prior approval from publishers I doubt it would be out of the starting blocks even now. Sometimes showing, rather than talking, can be a powerful persuader and the glimpse it has given of future consumption capabilities is a compelling proposition.

Rather than picking a fight, news organizations should applaud the inventiveness of their approach and try to figure out a way to put things on a fair and equitable footing, or risk losing a route to their future survival.

Adrian Holovaty

Image by niallkennedy via Flickr

Everyblock’s Adrian Holovaty has signalled a change in direction for the hyperlocal news site he founded in 2007 and which was subsequently bought up by MSNBC.com.

He wants to switch its focus from that of a data-driven aggregator to a “platform for discussion around neighbourhood news”.

He told Poynter: “…we’ve come to realize that human participation is essential, not only as a layer on top but as the bedrock of the site.”

On his blog, Holovaty writes that current social media tools are focused on people you already know and he poses the question: “How many people in American cities can even name more than a handful of their neighbors?

His answer is to use Everyblock to post to them – “instead of the social graph, it’s the geo graph”.

As a way of helping to knit a community together it’s an interesting approach but, as Holovaty himself points out, it’s not attempting to be yet another social network.

“If you want to follow your neighbor’s personal life, friend her on Facebook; if you want to talk about neighborhood issues, use EveryBlock.”

The site was spawned from his Chicagocrime site helped along by a Knight Foundation grant and it has now been extended to cover all major centres across the US.

A skim through the information available for West Seattle brings up local news, messages from neighbours, 911 dispatches, real estate info, restaurant reviews, meet-ups, local photos and much else besides.  Every item is mapped and it’s possible to search by zip code, by area, or even by street.

The granularity that comes from mining official data is impressive, everything from building permits to restaurant inspections are available – though the neighbourhood chatter wasn’t evident when I looked because the change in emphasis is still so new.

Less impressive is the chronological design which, without more sophisticated filters or editorialising, makes staying informed an ordeal by parish pump.

Planning applications can, of course, be a big as a story if they directly affect you, but weeding the relevant from the irrelevant needs better tools to let people decide what they want – and what they don’t.