20
Jan 14

This blog: a quick instruction manual

Since this blog is resuming after a break, here’s a fast guide on how not only to find stuff in it but also related things about journalism that I’ve written or clipped.

Fast wheel

All the posts on this blog get tweeted from @georgeprof and linked on a static Facebook page. For me, Twitter is about link-sharing and I pass on and retweet links about journalism, media and, occasionally, daft fragments which catch my fancy. The most active piece of this blog is “What George is reading” (right-hand column) because that’s linked to what I clip in Delicious. Delicious has a chequered history and upsets its users on a regular basis; but how anyone writes a book today without it or its near equivalent I don’t know. Very few days go by without something new popping up in that slot. On a normal day there will be several new links.

Slow wheel

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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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31
Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.

The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.

That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.

In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).

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03
May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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20
Feb 11

The fast-finger Twitter dilemma: a small confession

I did something yesterday that I probably shouldn’t have. I yielded to the temptation of what the people at lolcats.com call “ease of do”.

I retweeted a short tweet from the Libyan expatriate novelist Hisham Matar about what has been happening in Benghazi. On Saturday afternoon, fragments of fact were starting to seep from the city on the eastern Libyan coast suggesting that something very bad was happening there. I happened to be looking at Twitter. I saw and retweeted this short message from @hishamjmatar:

Doctor in Benghazi hospital puts the death toll at 120. A massacre is taking place in Benghazi. Please spread the news. #Feb17 #Libya

While I still feel uneasy about having relayed it, I don’t think I’ve done any harm. Everything we’ve heard or seen since tells us that the Libyan authorities have been killing protesters in Benghazi; the death toll may well be higher than 120. I gave Matar’s message a modest extra push because I admire his fine novel In The Country of Men, which is based on his own childhood and gives a chilling child’s-eye picture of what Ghaddafi’s regime feels like if you dare to oppose it.

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26
Jan 11

Facebook and Twitter targeted by Egyptian authorities

Evgeny Morozov, author of the recently-published The Net Delusion, tweeted the other day that he felt sick having to restart discussions for Egypt about whether the country was starting a Twitter or Facebook revolt.

I know how he feels and social networks aren’t the same as the courage required to get onto the streets in these countries. So I just mention quietly that Twitter stopped working in Egypt yesterday; both Twitter and Facebook seem to be blocked today. It’s worth noting what the authorities think is a threat: the enhanced ability to connect and mobilise. (Readers new to this theme start here or here).

While on the subject of Morozov, if you are looking for a single piece which sums up his contra-suggestive thinking, I’d recommend this. Coming from a quite different, and more constructive, direction on the same theme are two pieces which both examine how journalism needs to adapt to verify the information that flies at us on the web. The first is from the Online Journalism Blog of my City University colleague Paul Bradshaw and lays out basic methods of verification on the web. The second is by the BBC journalist Matthew Eltringham (via Charlie Beckett) and reflects on the practical problems of sifting the truth in new circumstances and something called the “line of validation”. These are both creative ways of extending the idea of “verification” which I listed when trying to pin down the definition of journalism in the digital age.


16
Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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14
Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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