Online Journalism

Filter bubbles, the gerontocracy and why George Osborne makes me angry

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This blog has been a bit unloved over the last few weeks, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Below are the pieces I’ve been busy with – both journalism and politics related. Hope you enjoy.

A man creates a huge bubble and a small girl runs towards it
Bubbles by Mandoft, on Flickr. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0


Writing about filter bubbles and echo chambers

I’ve been writing a series of articles about how journalists, entrepreneurs and technologists are fighting extreme politics and echo chambers on the internet, over on the Online Journalism blog. There are several posts:

How journalists (and everyone else) can use Nuzzel with Twitter lists

I’ve also written a piece using Nuzzel – a Twitter tool that allows you to short cut to the most popular stories being shared by your friends on Twitter.

The rise and fall of the Gerontocracy

I’ve written two pieces about how our current focus on policies that hark back to an earlier age do not bode well for our future. One is a bit serious, the other really not.

Why George Osborne’s appointment as Evening Standard editor makes me angry

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer announced he would take over as editor of the Evening Standard. Here’s why it’s bad for journalism. (Since this was written, Osborne has said he won’t stand for re-election to his seat, Tatton.)



Online Journalism

Building civil spaces online: Howard Rheingold

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Last week I listened to a webinar interview with Howard Rheingold by the Pillar Summit’s Richard Millington .

If I was working for a newspaper I’d probably call Howard a web guru – or an elder statesman of the Internet, or hang my reverence on some other cliché. But, after listening to him speak for an hour about online communities and communication, it might be simpler and more revealing to say that he’s someone who understands life online, because he’s been living it for longer.

At a time when the world remained largely unaware of the Internet, Howard was already an avid user of the WELL – and in 1985 he wrote Virtual Communities, the book he’s perhaps best known for. He’s now promoting a new publication, Net Smart , that’s the continuation of a near-30-year exploration of how we live online.

Online living
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that the first portion of the interview dealt with the value of online relationships, which have been under attack recently, in part thanks to Sherry Turkle’s opinion piece in the New York Times. The MIT-based psychologist fears that we’re overlooking ‘messy’ offline relationships in preference for an always-connected virtual world where we can pick and choose our encounters. This, Turkle believes, is to our detriment…

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference,” she says.

Rheingold, in contrast, is more worried that the media dwell on the negative aspects of technology, obscuring the overwhelmingly positive impact it has had on our lives. He stresses that he’s not a web evangelist, so much as someone who accepts the good and bad in online behaviour; technology, he says, doesn’t change behaviour, it facilitates it.

Where he is bullish, however, is in asserting that online relationships needn’t be of less value than those established ‘offline’. “If you think that using digital media are making you shallow why not learn to swim in the deep end of the pool?” he asks, pointing out that what might be missing in our understanding of these relationships is a recognition of the learning we need to do to operate effectively within them.

One example, he says, is in online behaviour: “We need to teach the importance of being civil online,” he argues. Where face-to-face communication is as much about the nuance of gestures and expressions as it is about the words that are used, most online communication is reliant on what is written down. Without making a more concerted effort to understand online communication – and allow for this – we will fail to make best use of these spaces in the future.

So how can we build civil online spaces? He says this is about signposting the kinds of behaviour that will be acceptable within an online space in order to attract users who will subscribe to these values. “You should have a few simple rules,” which might include: “Respect intellectual property” and “attack ideas, do not attack people”.

“Build it and they won’t come”
But Howard thinks getting people to play by the rules is less of a challenge than attracting them in the first place. He says that while it’s now easy to find people who share your interests online – they don’t necessarily need your community. You need to be original and have a clear idea of the people who are going to join and participate. And you can’t sit back and expect a community to flourish: “If you want to build a critical mass of participation you have to pay a lot of attention,” he says. “You have to participate.”

For Howard, attracting users is a numbers game – in which you can expect only a fraction of those to whom you promote your community to join. And getting them there is only half the battle. “It’s simply a ratio of 80-20,” he says. Most people (80%) will not take part, while the 20% who do will (or should) talk a lot. “You need to have people who are willing to engage. No conversation, no community,” he says.

The pay-off
And, of course, community is what it is all about. Returning to the subject of the benefits of life online, Howard talks about the ‘norms of reciprocity ’, the expectation that people will respond in kind to offers of help or, indeed, harm.

He says: “If you put in effort – to put in something – you are going to get 10 things back [online]”. He says he has been astonished how this “pay it forward” philosophy has worked online – with people prepared to help people that they have never met.

Howard says…
These are some of the other points that Howard made during the interview…

  • Most online communities fail: You need to identify what it is that people can get from each other that they are not going to get from their own blogs – ther is no guarantee that that is going to exist, he says.
  • With two billion people online, remember that one in a million is 2,000 people. In other words, with such large numbers of people online, even small niche communities can thrive.
  • Spending time online does not lead to social isolation. People who spend more time talking online to each also tend to spend more time talking to people face to face, Howard said.
  • Dunbar’s number doesn’t mean that online relationships have to be shallow: Howard talked about how social networking gives people the opportunity to develop ‘weak ties’ – and therefore suggested Dunbar’s number is therefore not hard and fast. Furthermore, he challenged the notion that this 150 limit applies naturally online.
Online Journalism

Advertising on council websites – a few thoughts from the dark side

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There was a really interesting conversation this morning on Twitter about councils advertising on their websites – which was started by Adrian Short (see his blog post, here, about his complaint to Nottigham City Council). I’ve tried to put the pertinent tweets together into a Storify, so that people can follow the debate. There’s probably more out there, so if you’ve got anything to add, please just tell me.

Anyway, I don’t have much to add to what Dave Briggs said here, or the debate, other than a few thoughts that come from my experience of working as a local journalist, where advertising often causes ructions.

The most salient example of this came for me a few years ago when the BNP chose to try to advertise in the Ham&High, a venerable liberal north London institution which has many Jewish readers. At the time I was a sub editor for the newspaper. The editor, Geoff Martin, chose to allow the advertising – pointing out, I think fairly, that the newspaper group, Archant, had chosen to take advertising from other political parties. To distinguish between different parties (choosing to accept advertising from some, but not others) wasn’t a consistent position. It would, he felt, be better to either accept all or decline all. And, consequently, it was only sensible to accept the advertising.

There were those who disagreed with his position, quite vehemently. This is as one would expect, given the BNP’s politics and it led to a very heated debate. Geoff was interviewed on the Today programme, defending his position.

There are a number of conclusions (and questions) that follow from this example that I think should concern any council that chooses to allow advertising:-

1). Do you have a policy for your advertising? Because if you don’t you leave yourself open to criticisms of inconsistency, which may be spectacularly unhelpful to you.

2). Can you ensure that the people who broker your advertising can avoid adverts that will break your own rules – much harder online than might at first appear to be the case?

3). Is it worth the effort? After all, revenues are often small (from things like Adsense) and don’t necessarily stack up if you consider the potential cost – in man-hours, e.t.c., from defending your position when things don’t go well?

This third point I think is crucial. Councils don’t know much about advertising – and therefore they don’t really understand the risk (or costs) that putting advertising on a site may generate. As a consequence of that how many have really thought through what might happen? For newspapers – and for other businesses who generate much of their revenue through advertising – these risks are understood and managed (but actually not entirely). For councils they are not likely to be a chief concern, nor should they be.

Councils, by their definition, are there to serve the people who live and work in their area. And it is, I think, unclear how that is best served by advertising – even if it might generate some small amount of money. Imagine, for a moment, what happens if an online service does generate income. Should the council continue to offer it even if it doesn’t serve the best needs of the council’s citizens?

My point here is that councils shouldn’t really be in the business of generating income. Other people can do that – and pay taxes that will contribute towards these websites. All of which, I think, seems a great deal more sensible.

Online Journalism

Judith Townend: Media law for the little guy

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Judith was a journalist at Her interest in media law has taken her to city university where she is now engaged in a PhD about just that.

Judith has been carrying out research about how small news orgs and bloggers deal with legal issues – ‘Keeping It Legal Without the Night Lawyer’. She says traditional news organisations have an armoury to deal with the law defammation, copyright, contempt of court and other legal issues that come up in their work.
This includes:-

–Night lawyers
-in-house lawyers
-journalists with traiing#legal insurance
-willing ot take risks and make payouts
-they are high profile and well connected

But as we kknow the culture of media is beginning to change. We now have hyperlocal sites, community news, consumer blogs, student blogs, online chat/debate forums, social netowrking.

All this has completely changed the game. Judith says: ‘Not everyone thinks as themselves as journalists, people using Facebook don’t think of it as publishing, but does expose people to media law.

Judith carried out a survey online (which I took part in) about the legal experiences that bloggers and small media opublishers in the UK had.
Judith got 71 responses to the survey. And the results, shes said , wer not expected. ‘People were more relaxed about it than I thought they would be,’ she said.

27 of respondents had legal enounters and of the 19 hwo were contacted, only senven sought legal advice. Jut two reached court. Six had cases that were dropped at an earlier stage.

27 per cent of respondents had experienced legal encounters and of those 19 people, only seven sought legal advice. Just two cases reached court. Six had cases that were dropped at an earlier stage.

(thanks to Judith for correction!)

How people felt about legal resources?
71 respondents were completely divided –
46 per cent there werent’ enough
54 per cent there were.

Some people said they felt comfortable, but weren’t sure what they’d do if they did get into trouble. Judith said it was clear – and interesting – that there really hadn’t been much research into it at all. It was clear, too, that there was scope for more research.

There’s a Help Me Investigate investigation and a Linked In group – and there’s also the website.
@jtownend @mejalaw @medialawUK

Online Journalism

If anyone else talks about paywalls I’m going to punch them

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No industry can be as self important as the newspaper business. OK, maybe TV. And, I suppose, if politics is a business (which it all to frequently appears to be) then that deserves a mention, too. But journalism – a trade designed to make a mountain out of a molehill – has a habit of getting itself in the headlines, often to its detriment. Evidence for this claim is hardly difficult to find. From the well-paid columnists who tell us about their not-very-interesting lives, to the current debate about the New York Times’s decision to charge customers for using its website from January 2011.
This news has been greeted in some quarters as common sense, and in others with nothing short of derision. In particular, online gurus have lined up to have a pop at the venerable ‘Gray Lady’ of American news. In fact, it has been a little like watching the judges of American Idol, with the New York Times cast as the feckless wannabe and Jeff Jarvis as Simon Cowell.
Now, if the words of one New York Times exec is to be believed (thanks to Jay Rosen), it seems the paywall is a paywall only if you are actually going to sit down and read the online product properly (who does that?). Those who arrive through the millions of links that in turn benefit the Times’s standing on the web will arrive free – no doubt thanked for their valued Google juice. Since subscribers, who might by one estimation account for 70 per cent of the small number who will stay long enough to pay, would be handed access gratis, it suddenly seems like less of a paywall. This might be the greatest double bluff in online newspaper history (or is that the only double bluff in online newspaper history): the NY Times had been paid-for, then it was free and now it is going to be paid-for, but also free. Anyone who could get their head round this would no doubt be given a subscription forthwith and asked to join the board.
There is, of course, a little more method to the NY Times’s madness than might immediately meet the eye. Firstly, the vast majority of clicks on the site will be from people who won’t under any circumstances pay. They will visit – through Google or through links from other sites – but their time perusing the NYT’s content will be brief at best. These are the folk who Murdoch hates, because they pore sweaty-browed over his finely rendered, beautifully polished and expensive prose, but provide nothing (either by directly paying or as customers to whom he can advertise). Because they won’t stick around, particularly if they’re asked to cough up (imagine Rupert as red-faced shopkeeper chasing them out of the store after they’ve thumbed through his comics), there’s no point trying to make ’em. Frankly, this is the hardest lesson for newspapers: lots of people just won’t pay. All they offer is the promise of links, something Jarvis has pointed out offers a different form of value. But some, you see, will. It will be a tiny number, probably, and mostly made up of people who have an affection for the product, who stick with it and believe in it. But, for the NY Times, that number doesn’t have to be that big. And, what’s more, you can advertise to them. Maybe you can even advertise much more directly to them (if you know their tastes, their habits, their interests). So, with these, er, win-win benefits, it’s presumably considered to be worth a shot. Whether it works is another matter and, frankly, I don’t care.
That’s because all this talk of paywalls is something of a red herring. Newspapers feel they need to charge for online content because it appears to cost them so much. After all, the readers are deserting the paper product for their free online offering, just as the advertisers are. But what are a newspaper’s costs? Principally, as it happens, the production and distribution of newspapers. And is anyone talking about this at the moment? While we all blow hot and cold on paywalls, newspapers seem to have a far bigger problem to deal with: the newspaper itself. When I say the newspaper I don’t just mean the paper, the print and its distribution – although this is an expensive business in itself. I mean the advertising sales teams, the support staff, the big offices, the related human resources costs, the insurance, and everything else that has been sucked into the business of making and distributing news. What will happen to all this when, as will I think inevitably happen, it simply is too costly to bear?
It’s a much more important argument and goes to the heart of news production, its merits and its values. Paywalls don’t – and that’s why I’m so fed up with all this pointless hot air. Some will work and some won’t, it’ll depend on whether you’ve got something people can’t get elsewhere – i.e. it’s common sense – and that’s really all there is to it.

Online Journalism

How to make news playable

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As part of my online journalism studies I have to come up with an ‘experimental portfolio’. This, according to Paul Bradshaw, our course leader, is to explore around the fringes of online journalism knowledge. As a former sub editor, I’ve never been comfortable with uncertainty. I like things to have been written down many, many times before I try them. When my parents used to take me and their other children for walks, I was the sort of kid who’d ask to see a map before setting out. This has made the whole process rather more of a challenge for me than I was hoping it would be. And, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to find an idea for my experimental project that I like.
But, on the back of my last post – which finished with the line ‘Haven’t you got to be prepared to risk making a fool out of yourself to do something interesting?’, (the sort of logic trap one should never find oneself writing) – I’ve resolved to put my own reservations aside and try to be taken by inspiration.
Yesterday, my fellow classmates and I were lucky enough to meet Paul Daniel. It’s worth reiterating that that’s Daniel, not Daniels. He’s a magician of sorts, our Paul, but he wasn’t accompanied by Debbie McGee and the only rabbits he pulled from hats were entirely metaphorical. Paul is an expert in Yahoo! Pipes. Over the course of a couple of hours, he took us through the basics (and not so basic) of using this extremely powerful and very engaging tool. It was an eye opener for me, as I’ve tried to use Pipes before and ended up losing patience before I managed to work anything out worth sharing with the world.
What our little Pipes session taught me, I suppose, was that the future of the web and the future of news really are playable. By that I mean manipulation by the consumer is absolutely key to content use (apologies to people who’d already worked this out!). Pipes can allow ordinary Joes like me to engage with all sorts of different forms of data and choose how we use that data (if they pay proper attention to people like Paul and then go home and watch the videos). This got me thinking: what if news websites were playable – a little like Pipes, but perhaps without the code? At the moment, most content is viewable and you can respond to it (moan about it, rate it, send it to other people, etc.) But this is on the low side of interaction. If there was a high side of interaction it would be about peoples’ ability to make their own personal decisions about content and actually affect that content and represent it themselves.
If people can muck about with your content, use it as they wish and enjoy it in different ways, then they’re more likely to use it again (and even stay on your site). Better still, you can learn all sorts of things about that content and how it is being used that people might find useful commercially.
So, what does all that mean in terms of my experimental project? Well, it means I’m trying to find a good playable piece of journalism. I’m obviously looking for examples of what other people have done and trying to come up with a different idea that I can quickly work out (and present online) without too much of a struggle. Ideally, I’d like to create something that is able to produce its own data (to prove my own point about learning from interaction).
So far, the only achievable idea I’ve come up with is hardly that experimental. I wondered whether I could collect a load of pictures from flickr of landmarks in Birmingham, set them next to a map and find a way to allow people to build their own guided tours of the city that can be presented on the site. I haven’t even begun to work out how I’ll do this – and whether it even meets my playable test – but it’s a start…

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Online Journalism

Will disco dads save the local newspaper business?

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Roger Green is one of the most important men in local online journalism in Britain. As the boss of Newsquest‘s digital division, he’s the head honcho for more than 150 newspaper websites up and down the country. Remarkably, however, Roger isn’t too enamoured with all the fuss about clever-clever technologies and is more than a little fed up with new media partnerships. He also reckons Jeff Jarvis‘s collaborative vision of the future won’t work in the dog-eat-dog world of British local journalism.
In a frank and refreshing presentation, the senior manager for Gannett‘s UK subsidiary hacked away at a few sacred cows before delivering a stark and fairly simple message to the AOP’s micro local forum, yesterday: ‘either work with us or take us on’. Established businesses, like Newsquest, are operating in a very crowded market and have established brands with loyal readerships, Green told his audience. There isn’t much room for new firms to elbow in on the party and, if they do, they can expect Roger and his pals to make life more than a little uncomfortable. Also, if you do work with Roger, don’t expect to get anything for free. He said his audience ‘wouldn’t believe’ the things people have expected from Newsquest in return for little more than goodwill.
But Green didn’t just land a few blows on new entrants, as he took time to warn his fellow newspaper bosses against falling at the feet of every new technology, with increasing levels of desperation and inversely proportionate levels of understanding. He mocked efforts to force sub-editors to geo-tag business stories and told his peers that they risked looking like ‘disco dads’ as a result of their new-media dalliances.
Sadly, the only thing about Green’s speech that wasn’t a breath of fresh air was its core subject matter: Newsquest’s online strategy. After all his tough words, one might have expected Green to reveal that his company had found the answer his audience was looking for: how to make online local journalism pay. Green admitted that he, like many others, would be waiting to see how competitor Johnston Press did with its experiment in charging for local news content. Meanwhile, Newsquest would have to make do with kicking journalists out of the office and using twitter to improve its conversation with the readers. There are no easy answers, it seems. Even engaging with the newspaper’s audience wasn’t a straightforward task, with Green pointing out that it had proved more than a little tricky to appoint community reporters. Perhaps expecting a local newspaper group to start a revolution is asking too much, but one still might hope that an industry in the grips of a crisis, with its readers dying off – as one of Newsquests’ editors spoke of here – would have a more creative approach to its future. And what’s wrong with a few disco dads anyway? Haven’t you got to be prepared to risk making a fool out of yourself to do something interesting?

Online Journalism

Why blogs can beat traditional news for quality (sometimes)

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In preparation for his appearance in front of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow, Paul Bradshaw has attempted to define how new journalism (namely blogs) and traditional media guarantee their quality in quite distinct ways. In doing so, Paul is preparing the ground for a set of questions he expects to be asked by the select committee. His evidence, along with that given by a diverse group of witnesses, will help to shape the government’s response to the worsening state of regional media in this country.
Paul has identified that, while traditional media relies on commercial pressure, codes and regulation for its assurances of quality, new journalism does so through offering a right of reply and transparency.
As he puts it, these can be characterised as pre-publication (in the case of traditional media) and post-publication (in the case of new media).
It strikes me, however, that there is one more important distinction that can be made. In assessing the quality (or reliability) of a story, it is important to consider its proximity to the original source of that story.
This could be seen as similar to the distinctions made by historians, who identify sources as primary, secondary or tertiary. The traditional role of the news journalist was (and remains) a job of narrowing the distance between a primary source (whether that be a news event, eyewitness, or a news maker – such as a politician) and their report (which, in history parlance, would usually be a secondary source). This takes time and often requires the journalist to apply training and experience as well as shared knowledge. This job can also be a fairly unpleasant business. That’s why, when a trainee local reporter returns from her first death knock (approaching directly the family of a recently bereaved person), she’s congratulated for her work.
But a significant distinction between new and old media is that new media can often come directly from the primary source, without any need for an intermediary.
In fact, it might be possible to imagine a future where the public is consistently able to seek a first-hand account of a news event without the help of traditional media. That, in other words, the primary source will be open and available to us all. Local blogs, run by local people, are evidently fantastic primary sources – and the internet has given the means to all sorts of groups (charities, residents’ associations and, notably, well-educated former call girls) to directly publish their experiences. But the existence and availability of social media do not on their own mean all stories will be told directly, or be easily told by others. Clearly, court cases are an example – where the frankly odd, arcane structure and practices of our legal system, in particular the laws governing contempt, make it necessary for a trained intermediary to operate. Furthermore, it may be that our open-source utopia, where all information is available in primary source and easily navigable, will always remain just that. It is much more likely that some primary sources will be available and others won’t. While those sources aren’t available and remain difficult to access there may still be a role for traditional journalism, because, frankly, it’ll still be a full-time job to get at them.
Of course, there are two clear caveats to this. Firstly, a lot of journalism has shied away from doing this primary source, coalface work. Instead, it has become far closer to the definition of a tertiary source, relying on press releases, wire reports and other second-hand material. Secondly, there is no reason why some of the work at getting close to the primary source can’t be shared between large numbers of people all contributing small, but significant amounts of effort – as happens in the open-source software movement.
The first point, of course, is the result of the financial problems facing traditional media, about which much has already been written. The second point, however, I think is more interesting. Is it possible for an open-source concept of news to completely replace professional journalism? I don’t think it is, because open source hasn’t stopped many people from making lots of money out of computer programming. Instead, it changes what journalists do and allows them to develop specialisms and new skills – perhaps in mining information and in manipulating and analysing that information. However, for open-source news to be really effective, it needs free access to information. Many are already familiar with the struggle to open up data sets to the public – such as postcodes, public health, crime and environmental data. But free information doesn’t end with this struggle. In many ways it is only the beginning. Court cases, council proceedings, company reports, government communication and any number of other sources of information are also difficult to access. Making them more available and more consumable is a huge challenge, but it is essential to do so because it is within these sources of information that our news and – by extension – our public interest lies.
The debate that currently exists between the political parties is preoccupied with solving the problem of the death of regional and national media. But this bloody sideshow deflects attention from the real issue, which is in serving the public interest by making available accurate, trustworthy information to all citizens.
Worse still, preservation of these media firms may do more harm to that provision than good. After all, if your commercial survival depends on providing information you may wish to protect it – and prevent others from copying and using it. Such control would not only mean that this information falls into fewer hands, but that it is not treated to as much analysis as it would otherwise do. It would also do incalculable harm to the kinds of new journalism that we are just beginning to see, where basic news is turned into all sorts of ingenious forms of media – whether that be maps, games, or other ‘mash ups’.
If open-source news provides a better model for the dissemination of information in the public interest (by making it more available, more consumable and more engaging), then it should become the goal of legislation. It may seem better in the short term to preserve jobs at existing media groups, but if doing so stifles the provision of information then it would be at far too high a price.
As a journalist myself, it is also worth pointing out that journalists and their interests should remain distinct from the interests of their employers. To confuse these two, as has sometimes been done, would be a terrible trap for legislators to fall into. After all, I don’t imagine anyone cares whether they are working for Trinity Mirror or a new-media start up. They’re much more interested in the quality of their job and how much they are paid for it. Putting a failing industry on life support – either by spending government money on it, or by allowing it to effectively block the development of new competitors – won’t do journalists or journalism any good in the fullness of time.
Sadly, the policies of both the major political parties are muddled by their own short-term interests. In particular, attempts to court favourable coverage in the run-up to the general election already appear to be threatening the prospects of a decent policy emerging. That’s an indictment of our political system. And it would be a cruel irony if it means that this important issue itself remains under-reported.

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Online Journalism

Meeting Channel 4’s digital commissioners

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Today Channel 4’s digital commissioners were in Birmingham to explain their plans for 2010 and give the great and the good of the city’s creative community a run down of the dos and don’ts of pitching to the projects they’re running.

Jason Hall, head of innovation at Screen West Midlands had the job of introducing Louise Brown, head of cross platform commissioning, Matt Locke, commissioning editor, education and Tom Loosemore, head of 4ip.

Louise Brown started by making it clear that, in her role, she was looking to ‘increase the impact of Channel 4 online’. She explained that it wasn’t just breadth of impact that the channel was interested in, but ‘more interactive content’, and they would be looking to increase the depth of impact, too.
Louise used the examples of both Embarrassing Bodies and Hollyoaks to illustrate how interactivity is an increasingly important part of Channel 4’s mission and made some fascinating points about how interaction could be particularly effective with a youth audience. In particular, she said that interactivity on programmes aimed at older audiences were less likely to do well (down towards one per cent), while a series like Skins, aimed at a much younger audience, had something like 40 percent of its audience figures going online. She said that some of the online visitors may not have watched the programme on TV.

Next Matt Locke talked about commissioning ‘for attention’, keeping an audience and then, as he put it, giving that attention value. Because the channel is aware that young people spend 80 per cent of their time on sites that ‘manage the web for them’ it has looked to set up partnerships with social networks such as Bebo. He said young people are likely to come across the channel’s content in the various sites they visit. He also pointed out that visitors are more likely to return if they can leave an impression on a site, be that simple engagement through polls or feedback. He used the example of Battlefront, which featured ’20 campaigners to save the world’, and followed the lives of young activists featured. The website that accompanied the series, which operated for some time after the programmes had aired, became ‘a back office’ for their efforts, with several of the young people garnering considerable attention for their causes. Channel 4 has also experimented with gaming projects, notably Smokescreen, a sort of mock social network that attempts to teach young people about some of the effects using such sites can have in real life. In one challenge gamers are asked to help discover what one social network member is doing that evening. This gives game players an understanding of how, by using a social network, one can leave a trail of personally sensitive information

Finally, we heard from Tom Loosemore, unique among the digital commissioners in that he doesn’t have anything to do with TV! For those who didn’t know, Tom explained that 4ip is a pilot for Channel 4, and is about a year into its three year project of investment. This aims to deliver the channel’s founding values online: doing it first, inspiring change in peoples’ lives and making trouble in the public interest. Now on the lookout for ‘bigger, bolder’ projects and stimulating products, Tom said he was interested in helping hyperlocal journalism and mentioned Help Me Investigate, the Birmingham based website that has benefited from 4ip funding.
Much of Tom’s presentation was taken up with a guide to pitching successfully to 4ip. He made it absolutely clear that there are certain fundamentals that pitchers would have to meet. Firstly, any idea would need to have a clear understanding of how the project would become sustainable, either by commercial means or some other. He mentioned the example of Wikipedia as a non-commercial, but sustainable site. He also said that, so far, 4ip had never backed a project looking to find its revenue solely through advertising and pointed out that this is extremely difficult to do. It was also essential that the project is made possible by the new technologies 4ip is concerned with – that its centre of gravity is ‘participation or collaboration’. A failure to grasp these fundamentals had led to a fairly low success rate so far: out of some 1,700 approaches, only 40 or so had received funding.
Tom mentioned some themes that he’d be interested in exploring this year, including ‘holding power to account’, ‘MOT your life’ – encompassing health and well being – comedy (what Tom called ‘British fun’), art (in particular, collaboration and participation) and, finally, discoverability. By this he meant finding ways to make visible to individuals content that they might otherwise not come into contact with. One of Tom’s bugbears is ‘aggregation’ and portals. He said they hadn’t and wouldn’t be backing projects with these ideas at their centre.
He did present examples of a number of projects that have received backing, including Audioboo and Mapumental. He is also keen to extend 4ip’s interests in iPhone apps, and mentioned You Booze You Lose, a fun, but educational (he said) game that is in the process of being added to the Appstore. He also expressed serious interest in Android apps.

Online Journalism

A list: WordPress alternatives for news

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This morning we’ve been learning a lot about CMS. Paul Bradshaw, with the help of a few friends, came up with a list of alternatives to WordPress that might be of interest to people thinking of running a news-based site.

Quickly, then, here’s the list:-

Drupal, with Open Publish

Epression engine


Ellington CMS

Thanks to @jarchowk, @shuckle, @mohamed, @adrianshort and @mikeverbruggen, as well as, of course, @paulbradshaw for their help.

I’ve also found a list of general CMS options (which includes some of the above) that might be useful.

I’m going to have a look at these properly and see what I think of the different options and, hopefully, blog on them in the future. But I’d be interested to see what other people think.

Online Journalism

How readerships differ from print to online at the Daily Telegraph

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I was lucky enough to be among a small group of online journalism students who yesterday had the chance to the pick the brains of Kate Day, recently appointed the Community Editor at the Daily Telegraph. Kate gave us a fascinating insight into life in the famous broadsheet’s online arm.
I asked Kate about her role and she explained that much of her time is taken up looking after the MyTelegraph site, where readers are invited to blog on a range of subjects, from politics to gardening. She points out in this video of our conversation that this part of the site and the Telegraph’s other blogs are among its most successful online ventures, generating considerable traffic and proving more ‘sticky’ than traditional news.


While Kate and the online team have a clear picture about some of their visitors (or readers, if you like), what particularly sticks out is that they can make fewer generalisations about them than you would make with the print Telegraph’s traditional readership. That, as Kate admitted, presents a challenge to the Telegraph and other news organisations wishing to ‘monetise’ their websites. Traditionally, one of the great attractions for advertisers of a newspaper was the relatively fixed, assured profile of the readers they attracted. The Daily Telegraph, for example, is often derisorily referred to as the Torygraph, but its readership – relatively old, high income, Conservative-voting and usually conservative in their tastes – represents a large portion of the British population and one that advertisers want to communicate with.
While Kate points out that blog visitors often impart considerable information about themselves – and it might be possible to use this information commercially, (I should stress that this is not something that is happening) – these are younger, rather different visitors. And, by virtue of the way that blogs work, they are likely to be a less homogeneous group as a whole than the readership in print. That is to say, they don’t necessarily represent a single easily identifiable group. A reasonable proportion, it seems, hail from outside the UK, for example. So you might be able to channel very specific advertising to a small group, but you won’t necessarily be able to sell your products across a nice, neat range of people.
I’m fascinated by this added complexity to advertising for newspapers. As if it wasn’t hard enough already to persuade advertisers to spend big on online advertising, now it’s clear the whole game has changed. Is it possible to find a way to foster a similar identity/profile of readers online as it is in print? And would that be something that would be attractive anyway? Whatever the answer is, it presents a real challenge to the news industry. One, of course, that it is already engaged in, but that seems to grow more complicated by the day.

Online Journalism

Why ‘User Generated Content’ is stupid

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About three years ago I attended a very interesting conference. Nominally at least its purpose was to provide a group of journalists and editors from one of Britain’s largest local newspaper publishing groups with the tools and ideas required to grapple with the new digital age.

Each editor and journalist attending the conference was facing a common problem: their newspapers were losing revenue and readers to the internet. While they could see the opportunity to grow new readerships online, they could not see any corresponding opportunities to make money. All the while, they were fighting to keep their one revenue raising activity, the newspaper, going. Signing over resources to a growing but seemingly revenue-less platform wasn’t an option.

Furthermore, the newspaper group’s bosses made it absolutely clear they weren’t going to be investing much in online businesses (until they started making money), while also claiming (rather confusingly) that each newspapers’ future would lie as much online as it did in the traditional print world.
Not wishing to send its journalists away even more confused and disillusioned than they had arrived the company made a number of suggestions to make ends meet online and enrich its fledgling news websites. One of these was the concept of user generated content, otherwise known by its initials, UGC.

This, it seemed, was the glorious panacea for all our online ills: the readers would write the website for us! Over lunch on the first and second day of the conference, however, it was met with considerable opprobrium. It seemed journalists’ experience of user generated content was not universally positive. What examples as already existed – user comments, or letters in the world of print – not to mention the infernal community columns that you find in many local newspapers – were hard work for journalists and often, if not consistently, rubbish. ‘The trouble is,’ I heard one cynical old hack mutter, ‘most people are idiots. And they just write stupid things.’

Having spent a good amount of my time editing community columns, chopping down letters and trawling through emails to our website I can’t claim I felt any different. But I did understand that all our complaining about UGC seemed a little rich. Ever since I’d first set foot in a local newspaper newsroom I’d been aware that a paper is only as good as its readers and only as good as the contacts it makes with those readers. Nine times out of 10, our best stories were not – as journalists often like to think – down solely to our hard work and dedication, but to our network of contacts and, more often than not, those contacts were readers who‘d be happy to contribute a lot.

So where am I going with this? Well, I think we’ve been indulging in this UGC stuff for years, only we‘ve called it reporting. UGC is a silly term, because it gives the impression that readers will be writing – on their own – the newspaper or website. But UGC, in a sense, is what every local reporter has to rely on. S/he doesn’t often have time to handle the story from beginning to end, or the knowledge. It strikes me that if the very well-meaning bosses had realised this they may have got a rather better reception from the journalists than they did. The problem was that users’ involvement was sold as the answer to the content problem, not an answer to the newsgathering and story-honing problem, which is where I think it has much greater usefulness for journalists.

Online Journalism

A hyperlocal news service for Brum

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As part of my studies for an MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University I’m involved in a new project to run a hyperlocal news site for Birmingham.
Ahh. So here we go. I’m going to try to explain our idea in 150 words…

Imagine a website for central Birmingham. You go to the site and see a map of, wait for it, central Birmingham. It’s split into smaller areas and you’re be able to click on each one. You decide to click on Digbeth, cos that’s where you live. Great! Up comes a stream of information all about Digbeth. You can contribute to this, either from the website or from Twitter, using our handy hash tag #brumdigbeth. We (that’s the folk who run the site) will scan the feed for morsels to make into blog posts that we’ll encourage anyone to contribute to, thus creating a brand new hyperlocal news service for Birmingham.

Gulp. How’s that? It took me 130 words. What we’re hoping to do now is get people interested in helping us to get the site going, telling us what we should do and how we can improve it. What I’ve sketched out here is the rough idea, so any help at all is appreciated.