Posts Tagged ‘Media’

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.

President of the United States Richard M. Nixo...

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On a visit to Poynter earlier this week Bob Woodward of Watergate fame reflected on journalism and digital media and made the point that technology on its own is nothing without high quality, probing journalism.

Nowadays high quality, probing journalism involves harnessing digital tools and using them to mine vast amounts of data as well as the virtues and skills Woodward deployed in his day.

There’s no better recent example than the work of Seattle Times reporter Michael J Berens whose tenacious approach earned him the $20,000 Bingham Prize for investigative journalism.

Berens produced a six-part series that dealt with the treatment and exploitation of elderly and frail people in Washington State’s adult family homes.  Along the way he filed 50 state record requests, acquired and then analysed thousands of pages of health service documents and interviewed 250 people.

You can read a fuller account of the investigation here and if you’re interested in learning more about data journalism then Elena Egawhary at the BBC in west London  is a fount of wisdom on the subject.

On this topic, however, Woodward gets the last word with his acerbic world view: “I get up in the morning and I ask the question: ‘What are the bastards hiding?’…You get at the truth at night, the lies during the day.”



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.

ONA10Two days, 1,300 journalists, hatfuls of awards (though, sadly, not for the BBC) and a blizzard of panels, workshops, keynotes and show-and-tells made for an exhausting, if stimulating annual conference in DC.

There were lots of highlights, but I’m going to pick out two and provide a few links to the rest.

The first came from a meeting with Vericorder CEO Gary Symons, who’s been leading the charge on MoJo, or mobile journalism.

The former CBC journalist has helped develop what the company calls “the world’s most advanced iPhone mobile media applications for recording, editing and sending files”.

Gary was CBC’s go-to guy for rapid coverage from the field of fires, explosions, crashes and disasters, and the expertise he acquired along the way has been poured into the software – it’s designed by a journalist for journalists.

He’s now pushing ahead with a major hyperlocal project in Canada and also touting a freelance journalism marketplace called

While the stringer network idea is nothing new, the clever bit is its back-end integration with newsroom systems.

The second conference highlight came from a session about shooting video with a DSLR and it was the work of independent film-maker Danfung Dennis which struck me.

His hour-long documentary about US involvement in Afghanistan, Battle for Hearts and Minds, showcased better than anything the power of great storytelling using a digital camera.

Embedded with Marines in hostile territory, his combat footage was shot on a Canon 5D and with only one lens (24-70, f 2.8) to avoid problems with dust in the body and to avoid missing the action.

For audio he used a Sennheiser shotgun mic (ME-66) and a G2 wireless system, though at that stage the technicalities became a bit like listening to fly fishermen talking Gold head wets and Cat’s Whiskers – a bit overwhelming.

Danfung also spoke about combining the aesthetics of still photography with cinematic storytelling and how that shaped his approach to the subject.

Fellow panellists Rii Schroer and Travis Fox had different kit solutions and less lofty approaches but showed equally impressive skills.

Rii presented a quirky feature piece, shot in a day, about the World Snail Racing Championships in Norfolk which she did for The Sunday Times, and Travis Fox showcased a Frontline package on highly decorated Haiti buses known as Tap Taps.

Now think about how this kind of work might plug into YouTube Leanback or Google TV, where individuals can become channels in their own right or their content can be reaggregated into underserved niches. The iPTV revolution is gathering pace.

Some other conference highlights:
Amy Webb’s top 10 tech trends
The top 10 lessons for hyperlocal journalism
Is Patch evil?

Journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray asks why Americans spend only 12 minutes a month on the average news site versus seven hours a month on Facebook and concludes that journalism needs a root-and-branch rethink.

He argues that existing journalism formats are not very good at engaging curiosity and that news can no longer be about the mass update, it needs to become intensely personal so people get lost in it like they do in Facebook and Wikipedia.   I think we can all agree on that, though the “how” part is elusive.

Stray wants journalists to look beyond notions of how to make better stories and ask:  “Who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

And he suggests that emulation of previous media fetters thinking: “Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos.

“This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.”

Whether you share his conclusions or not, his observations do provide food for thought even if they only take us so far; identifying issues doesn’t necessarily lead to solutions.

He’s right when he talks about the “tremendous knowledge and capability scattered throughout society, untapped”. But unlocking the potential in crowd-sourced news or collaborative journalism is far from trivial.

Curation isn’t cheap, rules of engagement are a minefield and stoking active participation through community needs eternal optimism, the subtle art of diplomacy and a very thick skin.

I’m not convinced, either, that comparing time spent in a news site against time spent on Facebook is valid or useful. Personal relationships and the ties that bind people will always win out over wider, more general themes – it’s what makes us human.

AOL’s hyperlocal news experiment – Patch – has partnered with 13 journalism schools in the US in an arrangement which sees students work under the guidance of professional editors while at the same time earning academic credits.

The devil’s in the detail of course: it’s either a brilliantly inventive way of mentoring young journalists with on-the-job training, or cynically exploitative of a green but eager pool of workers.

As an indentured trainee with Berrows Newspapers in the days of em rules and hot metal my training was a mix of classroom work – shorthand, law, public administration – and out-and-about reporting with an experienced old-timer.

Being able to watch someone do a “death knock”, or strike up conversations with people from all walks of life, was as valuable as anything I learned in more formal settings.

Guiding lights on the Patch advisory board are Phil Meyer and Jeff Jarvis.

A  crowd-funded platform for photojournalism,, has been launched by photo editor Tina Ahrens and photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa.

The founders believe they can attract funds for assignments by building stronger bonds between photographers and the audience through greater access and involvement. They also think there is an untapped revenue stream in the army of amateur snappers who want to learn from the professionals.

The site is thin on detail but it appears to be following the model – if you want something covered then you put your money on the table.

This kind of funding underpins a whole range of potential projects at Kickstarter, a platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors and creative thinkers.

Is this a new way forward for freelance journalism? No longer pitching to editors and commissioners, but going direct to the audience and small-time angel investors who can back projects that interest them or the personalities they find appealing?

Is this a model that could be adapted  for journalism projects – involving the audience in coverage plans and, rather than asking them for money, making use of their skills and expertise to assist in a new kind of collaboration?  Discuss.

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Intersect explainedFor the past couple of weeks I’ve been on a busman’s holiday in Seattle – getting some R&R but also dipping into the local tech scene.

During that time I’ve been exploring a storytelling, social network start-up called Intersect which has just come out of Beta.

At first glance it’s just another blogging platform but a second look reveals a number of interesting features that really mark it out as something different.

And the more I’ve used it the more potential I’ve seen for it to be harnessed for pro-am newsgathering.

One of the most interesting aspects is the way it deals with levels of privacy, an area that has bedevilled Facebook and Google.

Intersect allows its users to create their own private circles, mirroring the kind of complex social relationships we all maintain.

This fine-tuning of people into circles of, say, family, or close friends, acquaintances, work colleagues or business contacts, gives a much greater degree of control over who gets to see what you choose to publish.

It also makes use of place and time to create intersections between users’ stories.

For instance, it’s possible to see not just the stories that have been filed about a particular area, but also to define a time period to filter what you might be interested in.

In my case I’d been to the Evergreen State Fair and was keen to see who else might have been at this year’s show and what their impressions had been.

Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is always interesting, especially if it extends an experience we’ve had.

Now imagine what it would have been like to extend the timeline backwards to the 1950s and to hear stories and see pictures from the State Fair then and to reflect on what had changed – and what had stayed the same.

Intersect founder Peter Rinearson says stories are a big way we share, connect and remember.

“On Intersect, like in memory, stories live at the times and places we experience them, where they can reach out to people who cross our path.”

These threads of the past overlapping with the present open up all manner of serendipitous possibilities for discovery.

Rinearson likes to relate an example of someone finding a shoebox full of pictures in the attic, not knowing who is in them, posting them on the site and not only getting answers but possibly providing a third party with a treasured piece of information related to an image, or place, or time.

He wants Intersect to be a place where people tell stories that foster community connections.

The site has editorial staff selecting what they consider to be the best material for highlighting as Intersect Story Picks and this goes towards enhancing a contributor’s reputation.

It also has a borrow function in which a story you’ve found interesting can be borrowed and brought into your own timeline. The more times your own stories are borrowed the more your reputation is enhanced.

This reputational element could prove especially helpful for journalists when curating crowd-sourced content around an event or theme.

There’s also potential for seeding event coverage in advance, by finding who will be attending and, if they’re willing, adding them to a circle of contributors who can supplement journalists’ material.

It doesn’t have all the answers to the thorny questions over trust and objectivity of contributors but it’s the best example I’ve seen of a set of tools that might, just might, foster a new form of collaborative journalism between professional newsrooms and the people formerly known as the audience.

The site has $1.6m seed funding and its initial launch will be in the US only.