26
Jun 12

Making better use of journalism technology, take two

The first phase of the adoption of new technologies is breathless and unreflective. Vast and weighty conclusions are drawn about the meaning of change and future trends based only on the first phase.

This makes as much sense as it would have done to project the future of domestic architecture from the mud hut. Invention and innovation are important, but so is adaptation and particularly adaptation to how people react to new opportunities and seeing what they need and want. Steve Jobs wasn’t just good with code and gadgets; he was an anthropologist as well, and a very shrewd one.

We can now say, twenty years or so after the internet entered the mainstream, that we’ve got our breath back and we’re starting to see intelligent adaptation of new media in journalism. Straws in the wind:

  • Science journalists on mainstream media are starting to see that linking to sources is going to change their field in the next few years. Hotlinks make “footnotes” easy and simple to put in text. Yes, they’re chore to insert. But I’m as certain as I am of anything that footnoting will be a standard feature in quality journalism in a few years. The user can see the source and if necessary open a new window to look at the detail which lies behind. This came up this week at the UK Conference of Science Journalists.
  • In a few years time, young journalists will be astonished to hear that well into the second decade of this century, major news websites with pretensions to be taken seriously – particularly those with print legacies – did not routinely require reporters to link to disclosable sources. “You mean you just asked them to take it on trust?” the shocked youngsters will ask. One effect of footnotes will be less bad science in news media. Not instantly, but gradually. And the improvement needn’t be confined to science either.
  • The resistance to thinking in terms of jigsaws and encyclopaedias is beginning to break down. News websites are, still, largely driven and dominated by people who think of news as disposable, like the newsprint it was distributed on. Once it’s gone to the consumer and been read, it’s gone. Websites aren’t like that. They have rolling news which comes and goes. But that layer of fast-moving information sits atop and supplies a slowly-accumulating mountain of data, a digital encyclopaedia. A big site will by now have built up an online archive of several million pages. The best sites carry links to related stories. But the linking is automated and crude.
  • So far. If a big story breaks in Syria or Burma, you want to read the correspondent on the spot first. But it would be great to have the backstory, the background, opinions and analysis from other sources, other versions of the same event all laid out and labelled. A richer menu of ways of seeing the story; a better jigsaw, in short.
  • TV companies and websites have noticed that young consumers of sport and entertainment often watch TV while using smartphone or tablets to discuss what they’re seeing. We’re not very far from editorial content which is designed for two-screen consumption. (I’m supervising the Masters dissertation of a student who is currently on an internship at a major news website in London studying just this). An independent report the other day criticised the BBC for failing to use its own depth of knowledge properly in reporting the Arab Spring. They had a huge website with lots of cool stuff on it and didn’t point enough people towards it. Here’s Alfred Hermida, who used to work in BBC Online, lamenting this.
  • Lastly, comments. I’ve long thought that simply making comment space available at the end of articles is an overblown advance. Navigating your way through the abuse, duplication, one-on-one squabbles is simply too time-consuming. The problem is partly technical – how do you sift for what’s worth reading? – and partly exaggerated deference to the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valuable. Comment software has destroyed that illusion. Here’s Clay Shirky noticing that Gawker have begun to do something about this.

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09
Jan 12

Paywalls, niche, mass and “general interest”

Here are two posts for anyone at all intrigued by what kind of income keeps journalism – and particularly journalism institutions – in business.

  • Clay Shirky on payment “threshold” schemes which are becoming more and more common in the US, particularly since the New York Times porous paywall looks as if it’s delivering on at least one aim of preserving the online audience while collecting some revenue from committed online users. Whether that’s enough revenue – Shirky thinks not – is another question.
  • Frederic Filloux on what we don’t yet know about the NYT scheme and on the striking price rises just announced by both the NYT and the Financial Times for their print editions. Filloux sees this, rightly I’m sure, as evidence of both titles trying to drive their readers online.

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23
Dec 11

Christmas catchup of stuff I missed

This post just carries links to one or two pieces worth reading that I’ve missed or put to one side in the past few weeks.

  • I’ve been waiting for some time for a systematic, measured study of new media’s role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This looks like the first such one (if you know of others I’ve missed, please tell me). It’s only about Twitter and really only about the networking aspects, when the real study needs to link and compare the use and consumption of every thing from satellite TV to Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a start and a fascinating one.
  • Second up is a piece by Clay Shirky about news institutions and the “crisis”. Above all this is a plea for experiments in news and a strongly made argument that, important as newspapers are as institutions, their adaptive capabilities really aren’t keeping up with what’s happening. Shirky’s piece also contains a link to an essay by Jonathan Stray on the digital public sphere which also looks excellent.
  • Last is the New York Times picture essay on 2011: a vivid way to recall what has been a truly unusual twelve months.

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28
Jan 11

Egypt: what the autocrats didn’t quite get

Yesterday saw a significant moment in the rolling changes brought about by digital communications. An entire country, which until that moment had cheerfully embraced satellite TV, mobile phones and the world wide web, was cut off from the internet by the authorities in Egypt. Today, they followed that by shutting mobile phone networks.

It isn’t possible to predict what will happen: the state may get the streets and opposition under control, it may lose its nerve or the army may tip the balance for or against change. As I write, hackers all over the planet are sending advice to Egypt about how to get round the shutdown.

But one forecast can be made. The autocrats in charge in Cairo may buy themselves some breathing space by shutting communications networks, but they cannot turn the clock back to the pre-digital age. They will eventually discover that they have to deal with a wired society as it is. That wiring offers them plenty of opportunities for manipulation and control, but no way back to the era of terrestrial television, typewriters and printed news.

It’s worth underlining again why this issue is so particularly important in the Arab world. What is cracking apart is the paternalist assumption that governments should shape what people know. This belief runs across both monarchies and republics and is put in practice in varied ways in different states. But what it has produced in almost every country in the Middle East and Maghreb (bar Israel) is a two-tier knowledge system.

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09
Nov 10

Shirky, paywalls and newsletters

Intriguing suggestion here by Clay Shirky, analysing the opaque numbers issued for the websites of The Times and Sunday Times: that a paywall for a general interest paper can only work on the “newsletter” model of privately circulated content to a small, fee-paying readership. In other words, charging can only succeed by altering the nature of the publication.

Shirky makes the powerful point (and he’s made it before) that the web decisively disrupts the continuity of well-known titles and brands in news.

One of the problems for the printed press is the fall in the value that people think newspapers have. Perhaps the most powerful driver of that decline is the simple ability now given to the reader to compare. Before the web, only working journalists sat down each day to compare the relative performance of a competitive set of news outlets; it was part of the job. Now anyone can do this on the web, using any basis of comparison they choose. The lack of relative orginality and the commodity nature of much news, particularly in an era when editorial resources have been thinned out, is far more obvious to all.

It’s beginning to dawn on newspapers that they can only respond to this by thinking the unthinkable. Even if a newspaper decides to make separate pieces of its output special “micro-brands” and to ask readers to pay, this involves restructuring to concentrate on these new outlets. And it may not be easy to locate or form a paying community which appreciates what a paper thinks is a key strength (“comment”, say). Specialist and niche websites will already be in those spaces and they may not be easy to dislodge.

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22
Jul 10

Serendipity, Shirky and Alan Jacobs

A commonly heard objection to the internet is that serendipitous browsing doesn’t happen as it did with print. People only read what they know to look for and their knowledge and outlook is therefore narrower than in earlier eras.

I can see the risk and I haven’t done any systematic research, but I can only say from anecdotal experience that the “narrowing perspective” theory hits two problems. When you are surfing the net, you can move forwards, backwards and sideways in knowledge at a speed that isn’t possible in print. While some people think that this increases the risk that long texts are not read enough, more knowledge is available more quickly to more people.

Second, I don’t proceed through web-borne information in a straight line and nor do most people I know. We zig-zag, get distracted, follow threads, loops and links down paths we never knew existed. In other words, the web has its own version of serendipity; it’s just a different one.

This is a verbose introduction to a fine review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus by Alan Jacobs which I found in just such a serendipitous wander. (New readers on Shirky’s book start here or here.) Note Jacobs’ use – don’t know if it’s his coinage or not – of the splendid term “hive-mind”.


19
Jul 10

Taking a (little) brick out of the paywall

The past few days brought not one but two collisions with the paywall at The Times (for the first of these see post immediately below). On Saturday, the paper printed a short review they’d commissioned of Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus in the Weekend Review section.

Shirky is the subject of occasional mentions and links in this blog and I’d have liked to link to my review. I can provide it here but of course you have to subscribe to The Times to read it. As an experiment, I’ve pasted the text I filed to The Times at the foot of this post. You can read it for free as long as The Times doesn’t object.

Let’s be clear why I doing this test. I’m not against charging for editorial content, just as I’m not against paying cash for a printed paper. Copyright belongs to the paper since the review was commissioned and submitted normally.

I’m trying to underline two connected points about paywalls. The Times (disclosure: I worked for the paper until last year) now operates what I call an “extreme paywall”: the charge applies to everything except the front page. Behind the barrier sit millions of fragments of information, ranging from the important to the specialist to the insignificant. A newspaper website is simultaneously a rolling news site  and a huge data mountain, an encyclopaedia of current affairs, frequently updated.

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04
Jul 10

Weekend miscellany: Eric Schmidt, exabytes, cognitive surplus and shallows, Ferguson vs Daily Mail

A handful of bits and pieces that I didn’t get round to posting last week. No point in pretending that they’re connected.

  • It’s 16 minutes long but this video of Google boss Eric Scmidt speaking to a London conference is well worth a look for a tour of the man’s thinking. His themes are mobiles, the cloud and networks. For my money, the stuff about the computing cloud is the best. Other highlights: Google has a highly advanced face recognition application which they did not launch in Europe because it would be illegal. Google translation software works without a dictionary but with a “statistical machine translation” programme.
  • One last Schmidt stat: from the beginning of history to 2003, humankind produced 5 exabytes of information. That quantity is now generated in two days. Yes, Google love this kind of fact because it describes a problem they will make money by solving. But even so.
  • NiemanLabs is running a series of pieces (why so long please?) on Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Interesting pairing. Evgeny Morozov has been writing about Carr’s book in Prospect (but I can’t see the web version).
  • In 2004, the playwright Joe Penhall wrote a brilliant, uncomfortable play called Dumb Show for the Royal Court which examined the love-hate relationship between minor celebs and red-top journalists. It is a black comedy but with biting moral: get too close to reporters with blowtorches and you will get burned.The play jumped into my mind when I read this sad, angry paragraph from an interview with the historian and prolific commentator Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has recently left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born campaigner on Islam and former Dutch MP. He is asked about the Daily Mail and this is his reply in full.
  • “I wrote for the Mail when I was a struggling undergraduate. For money. But having been on the receiving end of that combination of intrusion and defamation and misrepresentation, I have revised my opinion and want nothing more to do with those people. I despise them from the bottom of my heart, because they are just hypocrites. While they posture as opponents of radical Islam they have twice put her in danger by revealing her whereabouts. And that is the thing I will never forgive.”
  • That long quotation comes from The Times, whose online content is now of course no longer free so if I link to it and you click, it’ll ask you to pay. I think that makes linking not worth it, which is why I haven’t provided one here. If you’d like links to sites with registration, charging or paywalls, let me know.