22
Nov 10

Online hyperlocal: power shifts coming

At the conference of Dutch-speaking investigative journalists a few days ago I listened to a presentation by Vadim Lavrusik of the social media advice portal mashable.com and I began to see what a profound change the new hyperlocal news sites might, in time, effect.

Lavrusik namechecked a series of sites in the US doing effective accountability journalism by mobilising communities. He mentioned the Talking Points Memo Muckraker section (slogan: “they have the muck; we have the rakes”), a survey of condom outlets in Colorado, tbd.com and the “stink map” for Columbia, South Carolina. Tbd.com, which covers parts of Washington DC and northern Virginia had appealed for information on escalators that weren’t working in the metro system and they accelerated repairs by generating public pressure.

Local online journalism isn’t quite as developed in Britain as in the US, but there’s no doubt that it’s growing (example here). In all the places where local printed news is losing money or prominence, we’re at the start of what will come to be a big shift in the way local politics works.

As you can see if you look a few of Vadim Lavrusik’s examples, the first thing that happens is that power starts to flow towards people who are adept at using the new sources of power. In this case that means groups or individuals who are smart with new media and social media, who can mobilise campaigns which use information in new and agile ways. Local authorities, not usually famed for their nimbleness, are sitting targets for this new style of Twitter and Facebook activism.

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15
Oct 10

The Chinese twittersphere

There’s endless back-and-forth over whether or not Twitter really played a significant part in the failed Iranian  “revolution” of June 2009. Did Twitter grosssly exaggerate the opposition strength and help to identify people subsequently arrested? Or did it link previously disconnected people and help to bring the regime to the brink of   collapse?

This theme is picked up and applied to the very different Chinese experience by Professor Hu Yong, who is reflecting   on the flood of tweets unleashed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. In China, he says, social media like Twitter are not likely to be suddenly transformative but they do push a “more subtle social progress”.

I predict that the next topic in Twitter Studies will be the role of covert tweet manipulation in totalitarian societies. Twitter and social media massively increase the range of networks at the price of removing face-to-face contact. Looking someone in the eye is often the best (if not the infallible) way to check whether someone is who they say they are or whether they are telling the truth.


08
Oct 10

Is this the best tweet ever?

This blog has very occasionally been a shade grumpy about over-inflated claims being made for Twitter as the platform that will change journalism, society, the world, the universe and everything.

But sometimes short is beautiful, not to mention punchy and eloquent. Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. His old enemy and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez simply tweets “cuentas iguales” – or, “we’re even”.

Very cool. If you want to know why this is the perfect commentary on the news of the prize, this wonderful piece from the Guardian books blog by Stuart Jeffries will fill in the story (hat-tip: Ollie Brock).


08
Sep 10

Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times and “wantedness”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times, popped up in London today at a WAN-IFRA seminar and told us what we mostly already know about how the paper plans to charge its digital readers in the New Year. But he was more interesting about how the Grey Lady wants to be hugged by its readers.

Having been burned on one earlier paywall experiment, Sulzberger is now an evangelist for “test and learn”. If one scheme doesn’t work he told his audience more than once, we’ll drop it and try another one. The plan which has so far been eight months in development and will launch in January or February will allow users of nyt.com a set number of items for free, after which they will be charged.

They’re still working on what content exactly counts for moving a user towards triggering a charge. Thye haven’t decided the pricing. They’re still working on how the search engines will reach them. A user arriving at an NYT story from a third party will be allowed the “first click” free. The paper wants, Sulzberger said, to be part of the “free eco-system.”

Sulzberger painted these decisions as part of a larger reconsideration of what kind of relationship the paper wanted with its digital readers. We are rethinking, he said, “the very nature of engagement.” The language of marriage is not inappropriate here, for Sulzberger wants the NYT to bond, truly, madly, deeply with its readers. The relationship is glued by emotion. With the possible exception of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the New York Times is one of the most formal papers on earth. Yet respect isn’t enough. It officially wants to be loved.

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15
Jun 10

Love letter to a web platform (Twitter, of course)

There’s been the odd dampening remark here and there about Twitter in this blog along the lines that tweeting (this blog does not follow New York Times style rules) may not be the answer to every single one of the world’s problems. And 140 characters is a bit tight for some communications.

But for sheer bubblingly eloquent enthusiasm, try this essay by one of America’s top movie critics, Roger Ebert, which is a love letter to a web platform. He kindly helps us with his favourites, introducing some compellingly vivid Indian bloggers competing to develop a literary form last tried in Japan with the haiku. He illustrates very well what a powerful tool Twitter is for simply swopping information with links which make the 140-character limitation less important.


12
Jun 10

Weekend miscellany: Assange, Kenyan corruption, why is sport so huge, the missed banking story and Iran

I’m increasingly finding, as this blog finds its feet, that I reach the end of the working week with a bunch of links which I’d like to pass on but which don’t require much comment or elaboration. I’m going to try bundling them into a single post. From time to time these pieces will have already appeared in “What I’m Reading” (just to the right of here) but that feed often osbcures the real subject of something I’ve clipped into Delicious. What follows is an eclectic selection, so there’s no point in trying to pretend that there’s any common thread.

  • Fascinating drama now going on around Wikileaks as the US government goes after its founder Julian Assange. Some background here. A more recent summary from The Economist, containing an intriguing little hint from Pentagon Papers man Daniel Ellsberg.
  • I’ve been reading properly for the first time It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong, the story of John Githongo, the man who exposed deep-seated, systemic corruption in the Kenyan political elite. The book is a superbly-written tragi-comedy: Githongo “exposed” a lot of appalling evidence but failed to dent the practice by which Kenyan ministers plunder the country’s treasury. But thanks to the depth of Wrong’s knowledge of her subject, the book is also a history of modern Kenya – and a very dispiriting chronicle at that. When Kenya’s tribal rivalries explode again, as Wrong predicts they surely will, reading this book will explain what is happening and why. Among her many qualities as a writer, Wrong is unafraid to take aim at conventional pieties. As they say in Texas, sacred cows make the best burgers.
  • Especially at World Cup you may occasionally wonder how sport, all sport, got so big. Because once upon a time, sport just wasn’t that huge a thing. When you don’t read much a subject – and I don’t read much about sport – you like an issue fully dealt with in a single place. This piece by Tim de Lisle from Intelligent Life is it.
  • Sometimes it takes a non-journalist to spot that journalists are asleep at the wheel. Not every document that emerges from the Bank of England is newsworthy or even comprehensible but the one spotted in this post was. As the perenially interesting MP Frank Field remarks here, this was not a story which either the Financial Times sor The Times ought to have missed.
  • A cluster of excellent stories from The Guardian on Iran at the first anniversary of last year’s stalled “green” revolution-that-wasn’t.

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24
May 10

Unplugged offcuts

I posted two days ago from the Al-Jazeera Forum Unplugged new media day but confined that one to the new initiative AJ is launching in this area. Here are a few bits and pieces from the other speakers which caught my ear.

Josh Benton of NiemanLabs. Demand Media (which matches freelance writers with commissions and/or payment) is now handling 5000 pieces of news a day; lifestyle journalism is very cheap to produce. Anyone thinking about paywalls has to reckon that there will always be free quality alternatives. The BBC, NPR, PBS & Co aren’t going away.

News is moving from being a manufacturing activity to becoming a service industry. The average US newspaper spends 15% of its budget on journalists. Young people in America spend an average of seven or eight minutes a month on the websites of newspapers; in the same period they spend seven hours on Facebook.

Benton, incidentally, turns out to be the reason why the NiemanLab blogs are so useful and well-written. He edits the material. Shocking, I know.

Joi Ito of Creative Commons. The key element of internet architecture, the heart and soul of the matter, is that the system allows people to connect without permission. Charging model that seems to work best is part-free, part-paid but with larger sums coming from fewer people. But he admitted that his best examples were not journalism: the rock group Nine-Inch Nails and Japanese anime companies.

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06
May 10

Sense and nonsense about newspapers and elections

I’m getting asked a lot of questions about newspapers and their effects on elections. Any kind of close or surprising result usually unleashes a wave of claims that newspapers have manipulated, influenced or dumbed down coverage. If the past is any guide, most of these theories will be wrong.

I took part in a discussion on Radio 4′s Media Show on this subject yesterday. My City University colleague Roy Greenslade wrote a fine debunking Evening Standard column. Hold on to the following facts as you listen to claims that it was newspapers wot won it or lost it.

  • Evidence that formal endorsements of political parties by papers change votes is hard to come by. People mostly don’t choose their paper because of its political allegiance. Twenty per cent of Daily Mail readers regularly vote Labour. If newspapers ever influence how people think politically, they only do so very gradually. Stop Press: the complexity of this is well caught by a neat new experiment from The Times.
  • A majority of newspaper titles advocate a Tory vote and that’s been the case in the 17 elections since 1945. Labour won nine of those outright.
  • In 1945, when newspapers commanded a vastly greater “mindshare” than now and television broadcasting hadn’t begun, most editors and proprietors campaigned for a Conservative victory. Labour won a landslide.
  • Newspapers now compete in a media market filled with hundreds of broadcast channels and proliferating new media platforms. When The Sun switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories last autumn, one major pollster pointed out that they were following, not leading, their readers who had moved in the same direction earlier in the year.
  • The media event of this election wasn’t the much-hyped new media or print but TV. The leaders debates moved Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems 9-11 points up in the polls and they stayed there. Print does not do this and never has.

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