How can you spot a digital native? Check their little finger.

Apropos of nothing really, I got into an interesting chat with some of the third-year journalism students about how our use of social media would evolve. I wondered aloud about how the physical way we access information might change us.

Writing blisters Vs Phone rub .


I pointed to my middle finger as an example. I have, albeit smaller than it used to be, writing blister. The result of  pressing too hard on my pen through years of school. At it’s peak it was an ink-stained blog on the end of my finger.  Checking with colleagues, they all had the same. Different fingers, but the same rough patch.  How likely, I wondered, was it to have a writing blister today?

According to my students, and I asked the same question of the prospective students I spoke to today, not very. But what they do have is a rough patch of skin on the inside edge of their little finger. It’s caused by resting your phone on your finger when using it. Others reported flatter finger ends or callouses on the ends of their fingers and thumbs. But the rough little finger was the most common.

It got me thinking about shibboleths.  The ways we can distinguish between natives and those new to a culture and it’s landscape.  It’s been interesting to watch people quietly check their little finger and check whether they carry the mark.

Journalism is not shorthand for defunct thinking.

I spent the last two days in a room with lots of arts and humanities academics at the Creative Exchange, talking about the digital public space(DSP). There was a great talk from BBC archive boss and DSP guru @tonyageh which set up a pretty passionate (if a little utopian) position for ‘releasing’ archive and how that can build a space where everyone can benefit from access to ‘stuff’

What I found interesting and frustrating in equal measure was the way some of the debate around the idea took on a negative frame because it came from a broadcaster.

It wasn’t that there was a problem with it being the BBC. Quit the opposite. The fact that it wasn’t a commercial thing was seen as good.  It seemed that, a large number in the room didn’t like broadcast as a term. It was mass media, mass consumption, untargeted and uncritical. Not what we do at all. Almost the antithesis of the creative and arts ethos in the room.

That mutually agreed dismissal of the term and the generally accepted anti-cultural interpretation seemed unnecessarily self-serving to me; relegated to the position of ‘mainstream’ simply to be something to kick against and give an idea momentum.

I think the level of frustration was not really because of the debate. Put a room full of academics in a room with the promise of funding and everyone is going to start pushing their own view. No, I think it built on a residual frustration that I have been feeling about the arbitrary way terms are taken up as shorthand for everything that is wrong or creatively moribund.

Journalism is one of those words. 

Journalism is not broken and it isn’t a word that sums up everything that is wrong with the way we make stuff relevant and meaningful to people. But people are using it as if to say, “well, that didn’t work did it. Let’s find another way to do this”

So when I hear people talking about needing to find new ways to engage people (as I have over the last few days in really positive and seductive ways) particularly those who see digital not only as part of the solution but as a diagnostic device, I grit my teeth and wait to see who gets it in the chops to show how fresh and new the thinking is.

Thankfully many (in fact most)people I heard today didn’t. But it happens.

As someone who is involved in journalism I’m happy to admit that there is a lot wrong but let’s not write it off as some outmoded practice to be replaced by robots or simply a failed experiment to be cited by new thinkers.

Much as I like to be iconoclastic, it’s actually quite tiring and, in a world made more pragmatic by a broader cultural and media landscape, a bit like tipping at windmills.

Maybe we should be investing in changing peoples understanding of the phrase. Perhaps linguists will disagree but it strikes me there is more to be had from changing peoples understanding of something than there is in trying to educate them in to new ways of thinking using new, made up terms.

So I think I’ll be hanging on to journalism. I’ll be trying to think of new ways to explain it and make it relevant and you don’t get to co-opt it or dismiss it without joining the debate.

Journalism doesn’t get off the hook that easily. I don’t think we’re quite done with it yet.


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Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

Does the lack of court reporting make shorthand a redundant skill?

shorthand sexism!

Interesting stuff coming out of the AJE conference today.  A summing up of the proceeding from the morning over on their website asks Is journalism deserting the courts? A good question and the research around it looks really good especially David Holme’s examination of the ‘marked decline’ in court reporting.

Which got me thinking…and this is me playing devils advocate…

I accept that there are some outlets that do court reporting very well; it hasn’t completly disappeared. But surely it’s now a specialist part of the reporting process.

Doesn’t that mean that one of the core reasons for banging on about the ‘essential’ and defining nature of shorthand is pretty redundant?

Image credit: Shorthand image from Sizemore on flickr

Updates and after mater:

Matt Wiggins posted about his experiences studying for his shorthand exam and got some useful comments on how the new format of the exam is going down with students.

David Higgerson mentioned this post in a post about the broader subject of the NCTJ VS. Universities debate. He picked up on a post by Roy Greenslade which challenged the NCTJ’s ‘right’ to dictate what was taught on Journalism degrees. Cue a meaty comments list with the usual mix of pompous and the positive. All of which, Dave thought, missed the important people in the debate – the students.

I commented that I thought students where at the heart of the debate after all, we all need them. We need students on courses (uni or otherwise). The NCTJ have a board of directors to pay so they need the fees. And the industry need the graduates with the right skills.  But I made no apologies for raising the debate. Without a contemporary discussion of this stuff how can students make an informed decision about whats right for them.?

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Updates and social media vampires

I’ve been updating the blog including a change of theme. It needed some spring cleaning which includes an update of my blog roll. It’s now down at the footer of the page.

The blog roll is generated automatically from my google reader subscriptions (it is now I set it up). These are by no means complete. So, if you have vanished from my blogroll, sorry! You’ll be back as long as you are still posting to your blog or have an active feed via twitter or posterous etc.

In the process of cleaning up I got rid of some draft posts that have been kicking around. I thought I would share this one with you. It’s from 2008 and I’m pondering what I still ponder a lot on these days: Integration and how journalists work with communities:

It’s been said that journalism holds a mirror up to the world. But what happens when the world holds that mirror up to journalism?

Increasingly they expect to see themselves reflected back. After all thats what good journalism claims to do:- reflect the audience. Perhaps they expect to see themselves improved or more informed. Perhaps they expect to see themeselves more liberal or hard-line based on the media they chose.

One thing is for certain though, the media right now seems to cast little or no reflection when it’s the other way round.

How can you tell if someone is a vampire? They show no reflection. What do vampires do? They suck the blood out of their victims.

Why did I raise that?

When we talk about integration we generally mean, integrating print and online activities. But the true integration comes online itself. The integration between journalists and citizens. Of course, there should be no distinction between them. But journalists still wish to see themselves as a class apart.

It’s all too easy for people from a traditional media background to see community as a place – something off to the side where the readers go, while the journalists sit over here in the real part of the site. They are content-focused, not people or community-focused.

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Are newsrooms the new starving garrets?

Antique Typewritter
Image by amos1766 via Flickr

I thought as a writer you could just get paid to write

I heard that phrase in the cafe to day as I was working on lectures for next week. It was a small group trying to get their heads round arts council funding and realising that despite all the agreements in place for minimum fees the money doesn’t match the reality.

It was obviously a frustrating reality for some of the group who realised that they can’t just get paid for what they do without getting involved in all the other aspects. You can’t just write the play. You have to involve actors and put the play on. A writer can’t exist in a vacuum

I felt really sorry for them.

It’s clear that the shrinking pot of money and the way the funding worked was forcing them to compromise at the expense of the professional standards (at least professional standard rates). Just because it’s the arts it doesn’t mean that you should do it for free.

It made me think about journalism.

It echoed a phrase I have heard repeatedly over the last few weeks: “people will pay for good writing” .It was always in the context of paywalls – the latest idea in funding journalism – and in my opinion its one the emptiest phrases I have heard in a while. The reality is that good writing, on its own, is not enough. There are other actors on the journalism stage now and  everyone needs to be writing to involve them.

The solution for the group in the cafe was to scale back on performances and start the painful process of finding match funding and sponsorship to offset the cost.  Key to that was the relevance to the community. The Police, council and other organisations are looking to fund writers and creatives who get in the heart of the community.  The idea that all the money would come from above is well and truly dead.  Much as the writers wanted the distance they couldn’t have it.

Sound familiar?

Are paywalls our arts council? Are the community our match funding? I don’t know.

One thing is certain. The reality of how we pay for this doesn’t match our professional expectations and definitions. Much as we would love it not to change it already has.

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Braindump -owning up to ownership

Marking has done a good job of getting in the way of things – shows up my inability to multi task doesn’t it – but i’ve been storing up one or two bits to go at thanks to Taboo. So here goes a brain dump on the theme of ownership- sorry

In a kind of last-in-last-out thing taboo served up a story I had tabbed about the process of recovering a stolen laptop. One Joey Carenza III has been remote accessing a friends laptop that was stolen and used it to harvest a large amount of data (including screenshots) before the guy worked out how to stop (most of) it. It’s a great story which reminds me of the infamous stolen sidekick story. My favourite part:

That being said, today I found out this guy is: 27, an ex-con, i know his DOB, his mom’s maiden name (thanks e-bay!! – he has been shopping ebay for a police scanner…i wonder why?), he belongs to local sex/date hook up site , his email address, and today i snapped a screen shot so clear, that you can read the lettering on his ink.

Scary, hey!

Whats yours is mine

Perhaps the techno-donkey thief could argue that possession is 9/10th’s of the law. If he was a journalism manager he could be right.  Over at Poynter Christopher ‘Chip’ Scanlan uses his Chip on the shoulder column (see what he did there) to ask who owns the stories that reporters write. Or rather, he asks who should own them: the journalists who produce it or the companies that publish it? So is it what you write or the means for people to access it?

Interesting question. For what it’s worth (insert magical prediction music here) I predict a state of play where journalists are employed on a profit share basis and editors become content agents. Think football without the salaries and a transfer window rather than silly season.

And on the subject of ownership, the idea of who owns local raises it’s ugly head again. The Newspaper Society has announced the imminent publication of its ‘six-figure’ called Local Matters, that will prove that newspapers are the only ones allowed to exploit local audiences, sorry,  help “isolate the real differences in needs, activities and attitudes across the UK, and how local media continues to play a vital role in people’s lives.”

How much of this is about users/audience/local people? Didn’t see any ‘community’ on the list of their recent, by strick invite only, Local matters conference. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of livings at stake here and I realise the Newspaper society is there to help the industry but here is a little hint. Serve the local community properly rather than trying to keep the compatiton out and you may get a bit more loyalty (and business).


Still, perhaps you can’t blame the trad-media (and that is pretty much newspapers these days isn’t it) for being a little defensive.  They’ve been playing by the rules – all be it ones they made up – for years and then others just ignore them, right? Take this from firedoglake founder Jane Hamsher:

“It’s hurting America that journalists consider their first loyalty to be to their subjects, and not to the people they’re reporting for,” she said. Told, for example, that the Times ethics policy states that “staff members should disclose their identity to people they cover (whether face to face or otherwise),” Ms. Hamsher was dismissive. In the context of political reporting, she said, such guidelines are intended to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.

Ouch! She was responding to the actions of Huffington post journalist Mayhill Fowler in a  NY Times story earlier in the week.

Eyebrows where at full raise over Fowler’s antics at the front of a press scrum which elicited some off colour comments by Bill Clinton. The big problem – she didn’t say she was a journalist – as she told the LATimes:

“Of course he had no idea I was a journalist,” Fowler said by phone from her Oakland home, recalling her close encounter with Clinton for “Off the Bus,” a citizen journalism project hosted by the Huffington Post website. “He just thought we were all average, ordinary Americans who had come out to see him. And, of course, in one sense, that is what I am.

The death of the gentleman

Phrases like deception and dishonesty have crept in to the debate around Fowler’s actions. I think that’s strong. We have a saying in the UK for someone not playing by the rules – it’s just no cricket. It belongs to a time past when only a gentleman had the time to learn and play cricket. So to not follow the rules, well you weren’t being a gentleman.

In so many ways the trad-media is a gentleman’s club playing cricket. But why are they so surprised when no-one else plays by the rules.

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Same as it ever was…

Quite a lot came through the feed reader today – the increasing amount is begging for a day trimming my feeds- and rather than letting them languish as open tabs I thought I would do a quick round up.

Adam Tinworth takes the hint from Laura at and ponders the idea of performance related pay for journalists and unofficial blogging.

Online, we have the ability to see directly what overall contribution journalists are playing to the success of a publication. It’s fairly logical that any company would seek to give greater rewards to its best performers, and encourage others to respond more closely to user needs. The “one shot” purchase of a magazine has long concealed the fact that some parts of it go all but unread. On the internet, with decent metrics, you have nowhere to hide.

It’s a very valid point. I’m still wondering if that’s the kind of thing that is happening at the Telegraph and their ‘ownership of stories. But, as Adam points out, we need a bus load of better metrics before we go too far down that route. He also makes the very important point that journalists could learn from bloggers in paying more attention to what it is the audience likes.

That idea of understanding how your audience behaves and, shock-of shocks, perhaps behaving a bit more like them is a growing area of interest for me. The way that journalism interacts with it’s audience has to be a lot less hierarchical and open.

So I was really taken by Sarah Hartley’s post riffing off Pat Thornton and resenting having to be a digital immigrant.

Don’t see us as immigrants, embrace us as enthusiastic adopters showing an openness to explore all the opportunity the wonderful web has to offer.

I like enthusiastic adopter. It has none of the suggestions that there was perhaps a collection of digital natives that inhabited this land before the mainstream media approached. I’ve always felt that being involved in this digital thing is a bit like a Talking Heads song. You may find yourself on the web and “you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?”

Sarah’s post was also a great opportunity for Mark Comerford to comment on just why he doesnt like the whole idea as it has an inherent ageism in it. Digital natives are all young and tech savvy. Believe that and there lies trouble.

it leads employers to believe that by just recruiting young people they will be gathering a base for change. This is leading to young, tech savy people being placed in leadership positions without them having the *journalistic* skills to make good strategic choices.

Of course all the young people who are tech savvy aren’t messing with this web thing. According to Nielsen Mobile (reported in the Guardian)

More than 10% of UK mobile phone users accessed social networking websites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace via their handsets at least once a month in the first quarter of 2008,

Which makes for an interesting read in terms of that idea of getting the audience. It also makes for an interesting companion piece for a piece that picks up on a RIAA report on the way people get their music. Alex Patriquin writes about the growth in ‘Social music streaming’ on the Compete blog. It makes for interesting reading and I guess any smart music exec is already looking at how mobile+social networking+music sharing could just be the thing that unlocks the phone as a delivery platform for content They are , right?

And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? …am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My god!…what have I done

Come and sit at my table – RSS and serendipity

One of things about wordpress that is interesting and annoying in equal measure is the dashboard. For those who don’t wordpress: it’s the front page of the admin area.It’s got some useful stuff on there. But it is, for the most part, a feed for WordPress news stories.
Now I often find myself clicking on them as they point to new plugins or bug fixes ( a fact of life with open source software) and one I link I will often click to is Matt Mullenweg who actually created worsdpress.

Why tell you this. Well on his blog he has a syndicate section with all the usual RSS stuff. But he also has the following:

How do I feel about syndication? A long time ago Jeffrey Zeldman said something to this effect:
Q: If you offered an RSS feed, I could read your stuff without visiting your site.
A: If you stored your groceries on the sidewalk, we could eat your food without sitting across the table from you.
I’m not going to force you to, but come sit at my table and we can have jolly good time. There is so much on this site that by its very nature will never be available in syndicated format. Come for the words, stay for the pictures, jazz quotes, and useless contemporia.

Does that make me want to cut my feeds or hack them back so that you need to visit the site to read the full story. No. I know it’s an important way to consume information. But when many MSM organisatiosn are re-positioning themselves as the community hub – the big dinner table- it does make me think. Especially if, as some have predicted, the homepage is dead.

We need to work a little harder at how our RSS feeds work.

Really simple serendipity

One of the joys of a newspaper is the serendipity of news. For every story we want to read we may find one we didn’t know about that is equally interesting.

Feeds aren’t like that. They are usually automated, organised and published with structure in mind. I get a news feed or a specific sports feed.

Perhaps what we need to do is start peppering our news feeds with other content. maybe we just need to syndicate everything ? I’m not sure.

I think our news feeds need to stay organised (that’s how people use them) but maybe they are too much about the contents of our fridge at the moment. Maybe we need to think of them more like menus with free samples (and before the word free is misinterpreted, no that doesn’t mean I support pay walls) to entice people in to sit at our tables.

That means we need to know even more about our audience. After all you don’t want just anyone eating at your table.

The quality debate: Journalism Vs Journalists

Mark Hamilton has been pondering the video quality debate.

Commenting on Howard Owens’ ‘1 hour video’ view he saw the value of a competitive approach but:

I’m still tryng to reconcile his argument about better journalism with his earlier insistence that there’s no ROI on video that takes longer than an hour to shoot and edit. In his argument for quality storytelling, something doesn’t connect.

A comment from Howard produced a longer response, quoting Howard, to clarify his point and question whether that approach would “leave us with video not as connective, attractive, entertaining storytelling, but as commodity.” And in turn that would impact on the quality of journalism.

Illustrating a solution

Earlier in the week Mark had commented on my post about illustrative video, wondering about the application.  And as an aside I’ve been reflecting on the idea that, perhaps, seeing video in that way, as part of a broader reporting process (and maybe by necessity following ,at least in the early implementation, the 1 hour rule) is the way to reconcile the story Vs. commodity idea.

If that ‘1 hour’ video is running along with a well researched ‘print’ story then the storytelling is not compromised. You get a better ROI on that because it isn’t your only investment in time and you still get usable text content (the core of journalism business)

But that’s an aside. (And a bit of Mea Culpa follows).

Don’t forget the journalist

I strayed perilously close to being a bit of a troll this week as I got in to a comment discussion with Zac Echola over a post he made defending/expanding Howard’s view. I though Zach was missing a point with his take on lazy journalists not getting it.

His view:

While intangibles like “reputation” and “preferred source” and “best” are nice for marketing yourself to clients or possible new readers, they’re not as valuable in the long tail market.

Now he may be right, but things like “reputation” and “preferred source” and “best” are concepts that journalists have been defining themselves with for a long time. And the point I made was that unless that kind of thinking was factored in to change and development the you would lose/devalue/demotivate the most valuable commodity of all in that thinking – the journalist.

With that in mind I find myself sharing some of Mark’s concern. Not because I think Howard’s (or Zach) view is anti-journalism. Far from it. It’s more because both sides of the debate touch heavily on the core defining elements of journalism but neither have satisfactory answers for those who question what will result.

Does someone still have to be a journalist

In the abstract the disruptive approach may seem to devalue the process of journalism – squash it, commodify it and reduce it the pounds and pence. On the other side the quality approach could be accused of hiding a way of doing journalism that, for all but the biggest, is not economically sustainable. Journalism for the sake of journalism in the face of an obvious commercial reality.

So let’s be blunt. The way this debate keeps raising a question for me. Can we really keep framing this debate in terms of journalism vs business. Or do we accept that the debate isn’t really about journalism It’s about journalists and what it will mean to be a journalist. What the job and meaning of that role will be and how that will set them apart from what they do.

If we substitute journalist for journalism, then are asking; Can there be two kinds of journalist out there? Can there be, as the debate would have, it ‘quality’ journalists and ‘disruptive’ journalists?

That would be stupid, wouldn’t it?