06
Feb 14

As online news and comment sites find their feet…editing turns out to be…useful

I wrote here recently about how “pure-play” online news and comment sites were starting to find their feet in greater numbers commercially, and, as they do so, more confidently rewriting the handbook on how journalism gets done most effectively with the tools newly available.

Nothing unusual about this: upstarts, dismissed at first as frivolous, grab large audiences and then work more serious stuff into the mix. It’s happened throughout the history of journalism so far – with the exception of the late 20th century when advertising income was secure. And it’s happening again now. (For a longer version of this argument, see Out of Print, details on the right).

But there’s one aspect of this that gets sidelined in a lot of discussion of new things. And that’s because the importance of editors is an old thing, being rediscovered yet again.

As the digital era began and its opportunities and possibilities emerged, one thing became clear. News media were going to “de-industrialise”. The dominant position held by a small number of print publishers and terrestrial broadcasters was not going to disappear but it was going to be eroded because the power to publish was being radically redistributed. Furthermore, this argument ran, individual journalists would be empowered to become independent of corporate monoliths. Journalism would not just de-industrialise but the newsrooms would no longer be the dominant unit of organisation. The important player would be the smallest atomic particle in the system: the individual journalist.

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27
Sep 13

Newspaper are like horses? Not quite

Jeff Bezos is showing early promise as the new owner of the Washington Post: he has a sound grasp of how to say something familiar in an arrestingly new way.

The other day, he compared printed newspapers to horses:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

On one level, this is plainly true. As a medium for news, ink marks on squashed trees are economically inefficient, environmentally damaging and slow. Print, even for news, will not be replaced by digital. New media almost never completely substitute for older media; the newcomers shrink and shove to one side their predecessors. Just as the combustion engine became the standard way for people to get around without making horses disappear.

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26
Sep 13

Buzzfeed is more likely to regenerate journalism than any number of anxious conferences

This post opens with a hat-tip to Martin Moore, who pointed out to me the other day what a remarkable document is the message recently sent to the staff of the viral video site Buzzfeed by its founder Jonah Peretti. I’d seen mention of it, but failed to see its importance.

It is fascinating and well worth a read. Peretti’s start-of-term pep talk is both new – digitally aware, thinking ahead and celebrating innovation both editorial and technical – and at the same time old. Improbable, even shocking, innovation to grab an audience and income which can later fund journalism has happened before. In fact it’s happened throughout most of journalism’s history with the exception of the late 20th century.

What Peretti’s memo describes is the compressed history of a site begun to make it easy for bored people at work to swop silly videos and lists is now hiring foreign correspondents and investigative reporters, often the two most important and expensive tribes of journalists found in any newsroom. Peretti did not reach this position by waking up one morning and deciding to help democracy be better informed; he put together a team of alpha geeks who built a site which was unbeatable for sharing video of skateboarding cats on smartphones and social media. With that foundation, he can now go out and compete for high-prestige journalism prizes.

Many experiments fail; Buzzfeed might. It uses its not inconsiderable creative skill to make fluent, clever semi-disguised ads for companies which pay for the service. Critics allege that this will blunt the site’s reportorial edge; we’ll see. (In my book Out of Print just published, I record a senior Buzzfeed person who seems to admit this: page 221). The giggling frivolity might simply overwhelm trying to explain what’s happening in Nairobi or Nablus.

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03
Jun 13

A new trick for old dogs and reporters using Twitter

Or at least it was new to me when I heard this yesterday. News reporters in “legacy” media who are besieged by predictions that technology is eating their livelihood can be forgiven for being sceptical about techno-hype which lauds new gizmos for being ingenious without actually asking if they do anything useful.

Here’s a smartphone app that might help solve a problem which has been faced by anyone who has ever been parachuted into an unfamiliar area on a breaking story. How do you find people with knowledgeable opinions on the event/issue/disaster, and find them quickly?

I heard about this at the World Editors Forum from Justin Arenstein, who instanced the use of layar.com to find quotable people with the example of reporters arriving in a small South African town to report the failure of the local authority to keep the public water supply flowing. Layar, a Dutch startup which is in the “augmented reality” (or AR) business, overlays extra information on what your smartphone sees and is often used by travellers to discover more information about, say, a building. The bit that caught my attention is called “Tweeps Around”.

With the app turned on, you can walk down the street or scan a room and your phone will find people who have been tweeting. It will, Justin said, locate the phone of the tweeter within a distance of three or four feet – easily accurate enough for a knock on the door and request for an opinion. The sending of a Twitter message in the first place, a public act, eliminates any concern that they’re going to object to at least being asked to expand on their tweet.

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27
Sep 11

Small Google News blogpost: big development

This post on the Google News blog has not had the attention I think it deserves. It’s a small item with large implications.

At first sight the note simply sets down an announcement that a Google team made at the recent Online News Association conference. News publishers can now “tag” (or flag) journalism which they think is particularly special or “standout”. There’s limit to the number of times they can do this with their own content (seven times in a week) but no limit to the frequency with they can bestow the accolade on someone else’s content.

Google News has been wrestling for years with a dilemma which gets worse as the mountain of unsorted online information grows higher and higher. How do you find the information which is of the highest value to you? Google’s most basic algorithm, the foundation of the firm’s fortune, ranks links by the number of connections any given item has. The more links, the higher the place in the list Google returns. But that is a crude sorting mechanism which has long been open to gaming and manipulation.

Google News is plainly very keen to avoid any suggestion that they are choosing between news outlets, despite the fact that its engineers have been tinkering for years with ideas about ranking and sorting journalism for “quality”. It’s a minefield, for obvious reasons. But news is increasingly swapped in social networks. Can Google get involved (especially to help their own new Google+) while staying out of the judgement business? This commentator from TechCrunch thinks not (but note the disagreements in the comments).

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30
Jun 11

Johann Hari: ridicule and revelation work just fine

George Orwell, who gave his name to a prize won the other day by the beleaguered columnist and interviewer Johann Hari, would have smiled at the row over Hari’s ethics and methods.

My guess is that Orwell would have taken, as he often did, a view against the herd. Hari has been revealed as playing fast and loose with quotations from his interviewees and misrepresenting what happened in the interview itself (new readers start here). Social networks carry many kinds of material, but they thrive on strong emotion, outrage and suspicion foremost among them. So there have been plenty of voices calling for Hari to be sacked and/or stripped of his Orwell prize. There is an entire Twitter-borne genre of parodies and jokes at Hari’s expense. I took part in an earnest radio discussion on this yesterday.

Orwell would have told the thundering herd of hyper-critical tweeters to stop and think. Hari did wrong; he and his editor have said so in plain terms after initial attempts to bluster it out collapsed in the face of the evidence. Everything Hari has written will now be toothcombed for flaws and, if found, they will be widely available for all to read. He has been attacked and criticised; far more effectively, he has been ridiculed. Many of very best 140-character stingers manage to say a surprising amount about taking quotations out of context. My favourite points out that when Winston Smith delivers the most famous line of 1984 – “I love Big Brother” – you need to know the context to be clear that he’s not talking about reality TV.

As I write, the judges of the Orwell Prize are apparently considering what to do. I hope that they do nothing. I think the great man – no, he would have hated that phrase. I think that the man himself would have said that ridicule and revelation are remedy enough.


23
Jun 11

The filter bubble and public reason

I went today to listen to Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble: what the internet is hiding from you”. I wasn’t convinced, in several ways.

Pariser’s argument is that the world wide web isn’t what he thought it was. The search engines and social networks manipulate what you see in ways they don’t tell you about and which make them money. Algorithms which sift for “relevance” create a personal information world for you: a filter “bubble” screens you off from wider, richer possibilities. The new giants which dominate the information networks, such as Google and Facebook, should be regulated so that they can do better for society.

Pariser is right to draw attention to the major, barely-announced shift in the way that Google adjusts search results to suit an individual (although there’s dispute about the extent to which it happens). But his worry is the latest chapter in a long debate over the “echo chamber” effects of the internet. Does the availability of so much information deliver the paradox of people less well-informed because they can choose only to consume material which supports their existing beliefs and opinions? There is at least one piece of recent research which casts doubt on this widely-held belief.

My own sense, unsupported by scientific inquiry, is that “echo chamber” tendencies are probably more than offset by the internet’s ability to allow instant, rich, serendipitous exploration of the world’s digital library. When was the last time you sat down at the screen to check closing time at Waitrose and, before you knew where you were and after several sideways jumps, found yourself browsing, via a signpost in Arts & Letters Daily, a piece in Lapham’s Quarterly on diets which include earth, chalk and hair?

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21
Jun 11

People-knitting, Anglo-Polish style

Many are the ways in which well-intentioned social engineers have tried to knit together the similar-but-yet-different peoples of Europe.

Some misbegotten schemes try to make different nations more like eachother. The best allow and encourage people to enjoy and appreciate their neighbours. The German poet and author Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said that cheap tickets which allow young people to travel across the continent’s rail network had done more for European integration than anything ever decided by the European Union.

If you want to see a working, evolving example of eyes and minds being opened, take a look at these blogs written from Poland by British students who are on summer assignment for Gazeta Wyborca, checking out whether Poland is ready for the next year’s football championship, Euro 2012. (Declaration of interest: these are some of my students).

The Misja21 scheme, the brainchild of the inspired Greg Piechota of Gazeta, wasn’t designed as a “cultural exchange” or anything as eat-your-greens boring as that. Greg wanted to generate raw material which his paper could use to tell Poles how their policemen, railway officials and ticket sellers look and sound to the rest of the world. And football is a language spoken by almost everyone.

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