Is the BBC really a useful benchmark for online journalism?

This semester my Monday mornings are spend in the company of our Foundation Degree students and this morning I was talking about Online writing.

I spent a bit of time talking about headlines and how important they are in the digital world. They’re not just the start to a good article. Headlines are your online envoys; little text-tugboats content sailing around the web, pulling people back to your site.

I mentioned Jakbob Nielson’s often cited post on the BBC and their headlines – World’s Best Headlines: BBC News.  At which one of the students seemed to crack: ‘It’s always the BBC. Whenever tutors give us a good example, it’s always the BBC!’

After a few moments of reflection, I kind of had to agree.  (although I also assured him that I was pretty convinced that it wasn’t because we were being paid by the BBC!)

But, I asked him and the class, was it a problem? In general they didn’t thinks so but it’s given me pause for thought.

Best practice, common practice or best principles

One of the best things about the BBC’s  online presence is that they are consistent. If I want to talk about writing tight headlines, I can reliably point to the BBC as a benchmark. Just as (often in the same lecture) I can point to the Daily Mail as a benchmark for engineering headlines for platforms, Buzzfeed for their social and video strategy; ft.com or ammp3d for their use of visualization etc.

In a world full of Buzzfeed and Upworthy headlines – fighting for social media eyeballs – I can see how the BBC might feel a little tame. In fact, compared to a lot of sites and the bright shiny toys of digital journalism , I suppose the BBC can seem pretty dull.  But, for me, that consistency is a really valuable. It’s about first principles.

Doing journalism in a digital world is tricky.  There is so much churn that I think finding some good, basic solid ground is quite a valuable thing. But what I would hate is that people learning it feel trapped by the a ‘learning the rules so you can break them’ approach.  But I would also hate that people felt trapped by constantly having to do the next big thing.

Saying forget the basics exemplified by the likes of the  BBC and load up on the cutting-edge responsive, mobile, data skills (or vice versa) is a mistake. Of course it’s also a false dichotomy. I’m pretty confident that across the board students get a chance to do both and getting students to reflect on and practice both is really valuable.

Reflecting on how I present that is just as valuable.

Am I holding them back? Is there a better way to sell the basics?

Data journalism: Making it real

The following is an edited version of a chapter I contributed to  a new book Data Journalism: Mapping the Future, published  by Abramis academic publishing. The fact that I’m in it aside, I can heartily recommend it as a great mix of practical and contextual information. Go and buy one. Go on!

During the 2008 summer Olympics, the Beijing Air Track project took a team of photographers from Associated Press and used them to smuggle hand-held pollution sensors in to Beijing. Using their press access to the Olympic venues, they gathered pollution readings to test the Chinese government’s data that a series of extreme emergency measures put in place in the run-up to the games had improved the cities notoriously poor air quality. They were not the only organisation to use sensors in this way. The BBC’s Beijing office also used a hand-held sensor to test air pollution gathering data that appeared in a number of reports during the games.

beijing-air-quality-days-compared
AP’s interactive report visualised the level of air pollution

Clean air. Clean data
The Air Track project and AP’s interactive report  are now cited as a:

 “prime example of how sensors, data journalism, and old-fashioned, on-the-ground reporting can be combined to shine a new level of accountability on official reports”.

In contrast to the Chinese data, the level of transparency displayed in the way the data was collected vividly illustrates how sensors can play a part in reinforcing data journalism role in the process of accountability.

Testing the context, provenance and ownership – where our data comes from and why – is a fundamental part of the data journalism process. If we are not critical of the data we use (and those that provide it), perhaps becoming over-reliant on data press releases , we can risk undermining our credibility with data-churnalism or, worse still, data-porn! . As data journalism practice evolves, whilst the basic critical skills will remain fundamental, it would seem logical to explore ways that we reduce our dependency on other sources all together. The Beijing project, with its use of sensors, offers a compelling solution. As Javaun Moradi, product manager for NPR digital, succinctly put it:

“If stage 1 of data journalism was ‘find and scrape data.’, then stage 2 was ‘ask government agencies to release data’ in easy to use formats. Stage 3 is going to be ‘make your own data’”

Crowdsensing data
The three stages that Moradi identifies are not mutually exclusive. Many data journalism projects already include an element of gathering new data often done using traditional forms of crowdsourcing; questionnaires or polls. As much as involving the audience has its benefits, it is notoriously unpredictable and time-consuming. But as individuals we already make a huge amount of data. That isn’t just data about us collected by others through a swipe of a loyalty card or by submitting a tax return online. It’s also data we collect about ourselves and the world around us.

An increasing number of us strap sensors to ourselves that track our health and exercise and the “internet of things”  is creating a growing source of data from the buildings and objects around us. The sensors used by the AP team were specialist air pollution sensors that cost in excess of $400 – an expensive way for cash-strapped newsrooms to counter dodgy data.  Since 2008 however, the price has dropped and the growing availability of cheap computing devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino and the collaborative and open source ethic of the hacker and maker communities, have lowered the barriers to entry. Now sensors, and the crowd they attract, are a serious option for developing data driven reporting.

Hunting for (real) bugs with data
In 2013, New York braced itself for an invasion. Every 17 years a giant swarm of cicadas descend on the East Coast. The problem is that exactly when in the year the insects will appear is less predictable. The best indicator of the emergence of the mega-swarm (as many as a billion cicadas in a square mile) seems to be when the temperature eight inches below the ground reaches 64 degrees (18C). So when John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor for data news and journalism technology, met with news teams to look at ways to cover the story, he thought of the tinkering he had done with Arduino’s and Raspberry Pi’s . He thought of sensors.

Keefe could not find a source for the data that offered any level of local detail across the whole of New York. He took the problem of how to collect the data to a local hackathon, organised by the stations popular science show Radiolab, who helped create a “recipe” for an affordable, easy to make temperature sensor which listeners could build and send results back to a website  where they would map the information

Developing collaboration.
Whilst sensors play an enabling role in both examples, underpinning both the Beijing AirTrack and Cicada projects is the idea of collaboration. The Beijing project was originally developed by a team from the Spatial Information Lab at Columbia University. Combining the access of the media with the academic process and expertise of the lab gave the project a much bigger reach and authority. It’s a form of institutional collaboration that echoes in a small way in more recent projects such as The Guardian’s 2012’s Reading the riots. The Cicada project, on the other hand, offers an insight into a kind of community-driven collaboration that reflects the broader trend of online networks and the dynamic way groups form.

Safecast and the Fukushima nuclear crisis
On 9 March 2011, Joichi Ito was in Cambridge Massachusetts. He had travelled from Japan for an interview to become head of MIT’s prestigious Media Lab. The same day a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a devastating tsunami and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, starting the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Ito, like many others, turned to the web and social media to find out if family and friends were safe and gather as much information as he could about the risk from radiation

At the same time as Ito was searching for news about his family, US web developer Marcelino Alvarez was in Portland scouring the web for information about the possible impact of the radiation on the US’s west coast. He decided to channel his “paranoia” and within 72 hours his company had created RDTN.org, a website aggregating and mapping information about the level of radiation .

For Alvarez and Ito the hunt for information soon developed into an effort to source geiger counters to send to Japan. Within a week of the disaster, the two had been introduced and RDTN.org became part of project that would become Safecast.org. As demand outstripped supply, their efforts to buy geiger counters quickly transformed into a community driven effort to design and build cheap, accurate sensors that could deployed quickly to gather up to date information.

SIDENOTE: It will be interesting to see how the experiences of Beijing and Safecast could come together in the coverage of the 2020 Olympics in Japan

Solving problems: Useful data and Purposed conversations
Examples such as WNYC’s cicada project show how a strong base of community engagement can help enable data-driven projects. But the Safecast network was not planned, it grew

“from purposed conversations among friends to full time organization gradually over a period of time”

There was no news conference to decide the when and the how it would respond or attempt to target contributors. It was a complex, self-selecting, mix of different motivations and passions that coalesced into a coherent response to solve a problem. It’s a level of responsiveness and scale of coverage that news organisations would struggle to match on their own. In that context, Moradi believes that journalism has a different role to play:

Whether they know it or not, they do need an objective third party to validate their work and give it authenticity. News organisations are uniquely positioned to serve as ethical overseers, moderators between antagonistic parties, or facilitators of open public dialogue

Building bridges
Taking a position as a “bridge” between those with data and resources and the public who desperately want to understand the data and access it but need help  is a new reading of what many would recognise as a traditional part of journalism’s process and identity. The alignment of data journalism with the core principles of accountability and the purpose of investigative journalism, in particular, makes for a near perfect meeting point for the dynamic mix of like-minded hacks, academics and hackers, motivated not just by transparency and accountability. It also taps into a desire not just to highlight issues but begin to put in place solutions to problems. This mix of ideologies, as the WikiLeaks story shows , can be explosive but the output has proved invaluable in helping (re)establish the role of journalism in the digital space. Whether it is a catalyst to bring groups together, engage and amplify the work of others or a way, as Moradi puts it, to “advance the cause of journalism by means other than reporting” , sensor journalism seems to be an effective gateway to exploring these new opportunities

The digital divide
The rapid growth of data journalism has played a part in directing attention, and large sums of money, to projects that take abstract concepts like open government and make them tangible, relevant and useful to real live humans in our communities. It’s no surprise, then, that many of them take advantage of sensors and their associated communities to help build their resources. Innovative uses of smart phones, co-opting the internet of things or using crowd funded sensor project like the Air quality egg.  But a majority of the successful data projects funded by organisations such as the Knight Foundation, have outputs that are almost exclusively digital; apps or data dashboards. As much as they rely on the physical to gather data, the results remain resolutely trapped in the digital space.

As far back as 2009, the UK government’s Digital Britain report warned:

“We are at a tipping point in relation to the on-line world. It is moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without”

The solution to this digital divide is to focus on getting those who are not online connected. As positive as this is, it’s a predictably technological deterministic solution to the problem that critics say conflates digital inclusion with social inclusion . For journalism, and data journalism in particular, it raises an interesting challenge to claims of “combating information asymmetry” and increasing the data literacy of their readers on a mass scale .

Insight journalism: Journalism as data
In the same year as Digital Britain report appeared, the Bespoke project dived into the digital divide by exploring ways to create real objects that could act as interfaces to the online world. The project took residents from the Callon and Fishwick areas in Preston, Lancashire, recognised as some of the most deprived areas in the UK, and trained them as community journalists who contributed to a “hyperlocal” newspaper that was distributed round the estate. The paper also served as a way of collecting “data” for designers who developed digitally connected objects aimed at solving problems identified by the journalists. A process the team dubbed insight journalism .

Wayfinder at St Matthew's church (Image copyright Garry Cook)
Wayfinder at St Matthew’s church (Image copyright Garry Cook)

One example, the Wayfinder, was a digital display and a moving arrow which users could text to point to events happening in the local area.

Bespoke's Viewpoint Contour Homes' office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook
Bespoke’s Viewpoint Contour Homes’ office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook

Another, Viewpoint was a kiosk, placed in local shops that allowed users to vote on questions from other residents, the council and other interested parties. The questioner had to agree that they would act on the responses they got, a promise that was scrutinised by the journalists.

The idea was developed during the 2012 Unbox festival in India, when a group of designers and journalists applied the model of insight journalism to the issue of sexual harassment on the streets of New Delhi. The solution, built on reports and information gathered by journalists, was to build a device that would sit on top of one of the many telegraph poles that clutter the streets attracting thousands of birds. The designers created a bird table fitted with a bell. When a woman felt threatened or was subjected to unwanted attention she could use Twitter to “tweet” the nearest bird table and a bell would ring. The ringing bell would scatter any roosting birds giving a visible sign of a problem in the area. The solution was as poetic as it was practical, highlighting not just the impact of the physical but the power of journalism as data to help solve a problem.

Stage four: Make data real
Despite its successes sensor journalism is still a developing area and it is not yet clear if it will see any growth beyond the environmental issues that drive many of the examples presented here. Like data journalism, much of the discussion around the field focuses on the new opportunities it presents. These often intersect with equally nascent but seductive ideas such as drone journalism. More often than not, though, they bring the discussion back to the more familiar ground of the challenges of social media, managing communities and engagement.

As journalism follows the mechanisms of the institutions it is meant to hold to account into the digital space, it is perhaps a chance to think about how data journalism can move beyond simply building capacity within the industry, providing useful case studies. Perhaps it is a way to help journalism re-connect to the minority of those in society who, by choice or by circumstance, are left disconnected.

Thinking about ways to make the data we find and the data journalism we create physical, closes a loop on a process that starts with real people in the real world. It begins to raise important questions about what journalism’s role should be in not just capturing the problems and raising awareness but also creating solutions. In an industry struggling to re-connect, it maybe also starts to address the issue of solving the problem placing journalism back in the community and making it sustainable. Researchers reflecting on the Bespoke project noted that:

“elements of the journalism process put in place to inform the design process have continued to operate in the community and have proven to be more sustainable as an intervention than the designs themselves”

If stage three is to make our own data, perhaps it is time to start thinking about stage four of data journalism and make data real.

 Refs:

Alba, Davey (2013) Sensors: John Keefe and Matt Waite on the current possibilities, Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, 5 June. Available online at http://towcenter.org/blog/sensors-john-keefe-and-matt-waite-on-the-current-possibilities/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Alvarez, Marcelino (2011) 72 Hours from concept to launch: RDTN.org, Uncorked Words, 21 March. Available online at http://uncorkedstudios.com/2011/03/21/72-hours-from-concept-to-launch-rdtn-org/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Ashton, Kevin (2009) That “Internet of Things” thing, RFiD Journal 22 pp 97-114. Available online at http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?4986, accessed on 25 September, 2013
Department of Business Innovation and Skills (2009) Digital Britain: Final Report, Stationery Office
BBC (2008) In pictures: Beijing pollution-watch, BBC News website, 24 August. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/front_page/6934955.stm, accessed on 12 August 2013
Blum-Ross, Alicia, Mills, John, Egglestone, Paul and Frohlich, David (2013) Community media and design: Insight journalism as a method for innovation, Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 14, No 3, 1 September pp 171-192
Bradshaw, Paul. and Brightwell, Andy. (2012) Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: Help me Investigate: A case study, Siapera, Eugenia and Veglis, Andreas (eds) The Handbook of Global Online Journalism, London: John Wiley & Sons pp 253-271
Ellison, Sarah (2011) The man who spilled the secrets, Vanity Fair, February. Available online at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/02/the-guardian-201102 , accessed on 13 September 2013
Gray, Jonathan, Chambers, Lucy and Bounegru, Liliana (2012) The Data Journalism Handbook. O’Reilly. Free version available online at http://datajournalismhandbook.org/
Howard, Alex (2013) Sensoring the news, O’Reilly Radar, 22 March. Available at http://radar.oreilly.com/2013/03/sensor-journalism-data-journalism.html, accessed on 12 August 2013
Kalin, Sari (2012) Connection central. MIT news magazine, 21 August. Available at http://www.technologyreview.com/article/428739/connection-central/, accessed on 22nd August 2013
Knight, Megan (2013) Data journalism: A preliminary analysis of form and content. A paper delivered to the International Association for Media and Communication Research, 25-29 June, Dublin
Livingstone, Sonia and Lunt, Peter (2013) Ofcom’s plans to promote “participation”, but whose and in what? LSE Media Policy Project, 27 February. Available online at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mediapolicyproject/2013/02/27/ofcoms-plans-to-promote-participation-but-whose-and-in-what/, accessed on 23 September 2013
Moradi, Javaun (2011) What do open sensor networks mean for journalism?, Javaun’s Ramblings, 16 December 16. Available online at http://javaunmoradi.com/blog/2011/12/16/what-do-open-sensor-networks-mean-for-journalism/#sthash.yXXlHoa2.dpuf, accessed on 9 August 2013
Oliver, Laura (2010) UK government’s open data plans will benefit local and national journalists, Journalism.co.uk, 1 June. Available online at http://www.journalism.co.uk/news/uk-government-039-s-open-data-plans-will-benefit-local-and-national-journalists/s2/a538929/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Rogers, Simon. (2011) Facts are Sacred: The Power of Data (Guardian shorts), Cambridge, UK: Guardian Books
Safecast History (no date) Safecast.com. Available online at http://blog.safecast.org/history/, accessed on 25 September 2013
Sopher, Christopher (2013) How can we harness data and information for the health of communities?, Knight Foundation, 16 August. Available online at https://www.newschallenge.org/challenge/healthdata/brief.html accessed on 10 September 2013.
Taylor, Nick, Marshall, Justin, Blum-Ross, Alicia., Mills, John, Rogers, Jon, Egglestone, Paul, Frohlich, David M., Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick (2012) Viewpoint: Empowering Communities with Situated Voting Devices, Proc. CHI 2012 pp 1361-1370, New York: ACM (don’t understand this reference)
Taylor, Nick, Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick and Cheverst, Kieth (2013) Leaving the wild: lessons from community technology handovers. in CHI ’13 (don’t understand this reference)
Waite, Matt. (2013) How sensor journalism can help us create data, improve our storytelling, Poynter.org. 17 April. Available online at http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/digital-strategies/210558/how-sensor-journalism-can-help-us-create-data-improve-our-storytelling/, accessed on 28 August 2013

Essential vitamins for your journalism

It’s that time of year again where I find myself doing a tour of various rooms and buildings introducing myself to new students. By a quirk of timetabling and course structures I don’t get to see many of them to teach until later in the year. So I spend a bit of time in my intros talking about the benefit of getting their digital presence in hand now. A healthy online presence takes time to grow and develop; it can’t be left until you graduate.

So how do you keep your digital journalism healthy? Why not try these vitamin supplements in your daily routine:

Vitamin A: Aggregation

Social media and the ‘river of news’ is where it’s at but how do you manage the flow of content and information around you. Do you have a reader like feedly or do you use something like IFTTT to collect all your tweets or tweets around a certain tag? Do you bookmark with things like Diigo?

Vitamin B: Brand

Everything is a brand these days and annoying as the word is I still think its one of the best ways to quantify the space between the professional of journalism and the more personal of social media (maybe persona works as well but there isn’t really a vitamin P!) All the negative aspects of the word are just as useful to consider when thinking about how you represent yourself online. So, what are you doing to make sure people see you online? More importantly, who are you online? Do you need a Facebook page? What about google+? Are you confusing your personal and professional audiences or are they the same?

Vitamin C: Community/Curation

Community is not just a buzzword it’s a job description for some journos. The best way to understand a community is to be part of it. Being a journalist that works with/represents a community can often mean simply collecting and presenting the best and most interesting content and conversations that community has to offer. In other words, curation. How do you gather the material you aggregate and present it to the audience? Do you use Storify? What about Tumblr? Twitter lists? Email newsletters?

Vitamin D: Data (also Development)

Data journalism is big news these days so it never hurts to get your head around new tools (import.io for example) In that respect D could also be about development, developing new practical skills. Collecting data and understanding the practice of data journalism are skills that’ll going to be in demand for a while yet.  But the industry focus on data is as much about metrics and response to data: Data driven journalism. How are you measuring your engagement with people? Is it followers on twitter or likes on Facebook? Do you need to invest more time in finding other metrics to help you target and develop your content?

Vitamin E: Engagement

The health benefits of the vitamins above are amplified by engagement. Getting out there and connecting with people is key to what you do. Finding new people in communities, or people who can help with a spreadsheet or bit of software. But it needs to be a real connection,; a conversation. So what are you doing to connect over and above a follow or a like? What’s the value of the connections you make to you and the people you connect with? What opportunities are there to meet people in the real world?

International students die in groups of five. Or do they?

Update: They knocked back my second request on the grounds of anonymity. The sample was so small that giving me details might risk identifying someone. That seems fair, but if nothing else the very low number means that in the context of my original thinking the numbers are not in context large enough to suggest a broader story. (taking as read that the individual circumstances are sad and may have warranted reporting at the time) 

I always like to test out the stuff that I ask my students to do; don’t make people to do something you wouldn’t try yourself (apart from maybe fitting a gas cooker or disarming a bomb ). So I’ve been collecting data from various places to use in data journalism exercises including FOI requests via Whatdotheyknow.com.

I asked for details of people who had died whilst on student and Tier 4 visas. It was playing out a hunch (just curiosity) I had about a few things, in particular the number of those that would be suicides. I thought it would make interesting data and would be something that might interest students without getting in to the dangerous territory of ‘student stories’

Where possible I would like to know the date, location of their death, gender, age, cause of death and sponsor institution.If you could provide this information in digital form, preferably in a spreadsheet format, that would be very helpful

Here’s the data I got.

Not really what I wanted.  The main reason cited was that apart from the information above, was that they were “only able to report on data that is captured in certain mandatory fields on the Home Office’s Case Information Database (CID).” Most of the information I wanted would be in the  ‘notes’ section of any records which would need to be located manually.

The Home Office is not obliged under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to comply with any information request where the estimated costs involved in supplying the information exceed the £600 cost limit. I regret that we cannot supply you with the information that you have asked for, as to comply with your request would exceed this cost limit.

Fair enough although I was a bit suspicious that some of the information that would seem to be pretty useful, like sponsoring institution,  would not have a field.  But I realised that I didn’t really know what fields were in there. In fact I didn’t really know that the Case Information database was where that stuff would be.

Thanks to an FOI by Helen Murphy, I find out that;

All data held on the Caseworker Information Database will fall within a
minimum data set. The Caseworker Information Database contains:
• Name
• Date of birth
• Nationality
• Arrival details
• Temporary admission address
• Detention details
• Refusal reasons• Diary actions
• Notes
• Removal details
• Photograph

More surprisingly it also reveals that “Currently there are over 75 screens on the Caseworker Information Database (CID)”. 75 screens No wonder they can’t find anything!

7 hour days

Helen’s FOI also helped illuminate  working conditions at the Home Office. In Helen’s FOI

The £600 limit is based on work being carried out at a rate of £25 per hour,  which equates to 24 hours of work per request.

In my response :

This [£600] limit  applies to all central Government Departments and is based on work being carried out by one member of staff at a rate of £25 per hour, which equates to 3½ days work per request.

Taking one as a different way of expressing the other ( a dangerous assumption) would suggest less than 7 hour days at the Home office. Still, that seams fair given the number of screens you’d need to wade through. I’d give up after 2 hours!

Groups of 5

The other thing that struck me about the data was the alarmingly uniform numbers that people die in – 5 at a time. It turns out that the figures are not entirely complete *.  A note on the data says:

Figures rounded to nearest 5 (- = 0, * = 1 or 2) and may not sum to totals shown because of independent rounding.

Why round them to 5? It’s not like half a person died! Update: In the comments Martin Stabe suggests “This could be an anonymisation requirement so that individual cases cannot be identified from aggregate data.”

Limits of being human

I’ve put another request in on the basis of the data I got, assuming that 10 cases would be manageable by someone in 3.5 days although 75 screens worth of content might yet fox my demand, so I may never get what I want this way.

The truth is that, as data, what I got is next to useless – no real context and the numbers aren’t even accurate, – but it reinforced a few things for me:

  • Good FOI’s rely on good planning and some prior knowledge. I’d done a bit or work understanding the whole Tier4/student thing but clearly I needed to do more on understanding who held the data, how and why. Data, in fact journalism, is all about context
  • Good FOI’s rarely stand alone. Often an FOI is an enabler. It opens doors, avenues for further questions. That makes it valuable even when the data might be useless.
  • Visibility helps. Helen’s FOI answered questions I had. Maybe mine won’t but It’s in the mix.
  • Open government doesn’t just rely on data. It relies on the capacity to retrieve and search that data. Government is really good at collecting it and shockingly bad at having it in a form that is usable even to themselves. (but we all knew that didn’t we)

Not new or startling revelations but it never hurts to be reminded of these things from time to time.

 

* for ‘not entirely complete’ read ‘bugger all use’ 

Does Data Journalism help democracy?

I’m writing a book chapter on data journalism (I know, who isn’t these days) which I’ll share more of when it makes sense! But one of the areas that is giving me real pause for thought at the moment is the question of how much data journalism contributes to the democratic process.

Data journalism is fast becoming a motif for a range of challenges and opportunities in journalism; Data journalism is about integration of new technology and skills; It’s about (re)discovering a role for journalism in a changing media landscape; it’s about industries capacity to save itself.

But more often than not, the general consensus is that it’s about the reinvigoration of journalism as part of the fourth estate. In fact really well known and kind of cool people tell us that’s what it needs to be.

The shot in the arm data has given to investigative and political reporting coupled with a willingness not only to participate in but campaign for a transparent and open data culture would seem to answer the question straight off the bat. Look at MP’s expenses, look at wikileaks.

The powerful claim to operate in a new and open way (open government and all that) and data is their proof and so we, armed with the new tools to understand that data continue in our duty to hold them to account. Good data journalism goes a stage further and makes data available, in context, to the ‘public’. Not only does that make for great engagement and better journalism but we give the audience the tools with which to fully understand and so participate in the democratic process. Job done!

Or is it? Whilst it’s holding the accountable to account, is the process of data journalism really producing ‘tools’ that people can use in the democratic process?

Does making a spreadsheet available to users really democratise information? Does making something searchable by postcode really make it more useful on the ground? Isn’t it just creating a small, equally uncountable, data elite? Is it really just a good way to reposition (consolidate) journalism as gatekeepers?

Part of this is wondering what tools people really need to be part of a democracy. Does the general disaffection with the political process (in the UK anyway) mean that the majority of data journalism, which focusses on the business of government and big institutions (often because that’s where you can get the data), already lacks relevance ? Is the dependence on online technologies for processing, distribution and presentation of this stuff really helpful in an environment where technical literacy in these areas a problem?

Accountability or utility. What’s data journalism really about?

 

 

Educating the competition out of journalism

Over the last month my department has had a number of accreditation visits. Two of the training councils that, in the UK at least, inspect, accredit and generally rubber stamp what we do, the BJTC and the NCTJ,  have both been in looking at our courses. Thanks to a lot of hard work by colleagues all of our courses get the seal of approval. Hurray!

Both visits included a lengthy session of questions for the course team around the why and how of what we do. For the most part, they are always useful and constructive; lots of things to reflect on and change to keep improving what we do. But sitting through the process raised a bit of a point to ponder for me.

Given the relative focus of each of the accrediting bodies (Broadcast for the BJTC and print for the NCTJ) it was interesting that both asked about the public facing provision and 24/7 nature of our output. The question really amounting to ‘do you have a 24/7 public facing news operation?’

Opportunity

Learning by doing is something that we pride ourselves (and something we are told to do more of) on but when we learn we make mistakes and mistakes in journalism, in public, can be a learning experience. It has real impact on people and, well let’s be frank, it can cost money – not one of the learning outcomes of our course the last time I looked! So we try to give as many public facing opportunities as we can but often keep what we do, though with no less of demand that the stories are real and newsworthy, internal.

Within the university world there are also opportunities for people to engage in other media – student newspapers and media have always been traditional stomping grounds for our students. But as a division, apart from the usual advice and support for those working on stories, we don’t have any involvement in the paper. It’s (rightly so in my view) a student union publication and independent from us.

More recently we have also come under pressure to make what we do more entrepreneurial. Making students aware of the opportunities of social media and how they can use things like blogs etc. to promote themselves and reach a niche is, I think part of that.  We’ve seen that work (and all credit to the students here) in things like blog preston, the preston messenger and more.  The burgeoning hyperlocal/local media market could and should be a rich vein for students to explore and develop their carrear chances.

Just because we can…

So when I hear the question about 24/7 news operations here is what I ponder – should we really be doing that?

  • Should we as a public funded body (unless the government really get the claws out) plonk ourselves in to that landscape and risk flattening or at the very least skewing the local media economy? Even a relatively small journalism school represents an effective staff far in excess of most local newsrooms.
  • If we make it self-sustaining and sell ads (and measure success in a business like way encouraging that business focus many say we lack) then don’t we simply add more weight to that flattening effect? If I added our marketing and business courses to the mix of numbers….

What I’m also pondering is why organisations that claim to represent the interests of media organisations are also advocating that education organisations do that. Yes, on the face of it students will gain experience (although I don’t see that it’s the only or best way to do it) but at what costs to the organisations or media landscape the students are looking to work in?

Having sat in many a room listening to regional and local news orgs bemoan the impact the BBC has on competition, it feels like a very strange day when I sit in a room and hear more than one regional news editor advocating the setting up of direct competition.

Diagnosing the noble disease – how we treat journalism in the 21st century.

peri

This is the original script to a short presentation I gave University of Northampton’s ‘Imagine Journalism in Ten Years’ Time‘ mini-conference chaired by Kevin Marsh,  and organised by John Mair. Other speakers included: Professor Jay RosenMatt Andrews who has his talk here ;Teodora Beleaga, who has her slides here, and Judith Townend who has put her slides and talk online. The talk is a development of one I gave last year at last years Nordic media festival and an ethics lecture I gave a few weeks ago. (which I may put up here soon)

Journalism education is at an inflection point. The mix of disruption in the journalism industry and in the education market has created a growing movement demanding a radical rethink of the what, how and who of journalism education. This paper takes the position that this also calls for a rethink of the way we frame journalism when considering how we might react to this changing environment. It rejects the idea of journalism as a profession in favour of the idea of journalism as a diagnosis.

In thinking about where journalism is going to be in ten years or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about big toes. I want to take the next 10 minutes or so to tell you why.

A few years ago now we actually got some people from industry in a room and asked them what the journalist of 2015 would look like. The first thing they said was quarter-past-eight was a more realistic goal. Twenty-five past eight is still not quick enough.

Here are some of the things the identified:

  • Technology and practice
  • Design principles.
  • Content management and online publishing
  • Storytelling and the impact of new mediums
  • Multimedia – video, audio, photography and image manipulation
  • Web technologies
  • Social networking and Web 2.0/3.0
  • Semantic web and what that means for journalists – Tagging, Geotagging
  • Search engines and their impact on content creation
  • Budgeting, business practice and legislation
  • Developing entrepreneurial skills
  • Building a personal brand
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Identifying, developing and pitching an idea for a multi platform project
  • Building Networks and Managing Relationships
  • The editorial, legal and ethical challenges of developing and managing UGC
  • Managing a complex multi-platform production

Thinking about what I teach, this is pretty much how things break down:

  • Social media
  • Curation (real time curation) -
  • Data Journalism – big data. Transparency vs accountability.
  • Community
  • Multi-platform – the impact of community and persistence
  • Innovation
  • Entrepreneurship

Much of that could be dissmissed as overly practical – lots of digital toys. But I just want to point out how much conversation they generate around law, ethics and personal and professionalism identity. This is not just playing on the web!

To try and some that up in to the kind of person we want to produce – the journalists of that future we are talking about today will be 

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

Given where I am and who is the room I think it’s valid to take a little detour from what we teach to How we teach.

Like the journalism industry, education has been disrupted by new technology (and no small amount of political and social disruption too).

Howard Finberg one of the directors at the  American Poynter institute told an audience at the European Journalism Centre that Journalism education is at its own inflection point. He sees one possible response to this as 

 the unbundling of a journalism education from a journalism degree. Think about the unbundling of news and information from the traditional mass media delivery methods, such as a newspaper or television broadcast.

He questions who we care about the most in journalism education claiming that making about the faculty the center of the decision making process is a recipe for what Eric Newton at the Knight Foundation refers to this as a “symphony of slowness.

There is an element of the Utopian in a lot of the rhetoric around this idea; the idea that the internet will solve the problem; it will make information accessible to everyone. But there is also more than a good deal of commercial concern, often unspoken; can we make money?

One of the unbundling projects at Poynter’s News U (one that Finberg cites) charges $65 for their introduction to journalism module but (as of yesterday) it’s only available to registered students at Florida state.

In one sense might not seem so revolutionary when it’s not quite as unbundled as the ideal would have it – it’s more an extra to the Florida degree bundle. But the level of student engagement tells a story about the way that people want to learn as much as the state of the industry in general tells us about the way people want to consume news.

So, like the journalism industry, the education industry looks to change the way we do things.

Clearly that’s as much about the way we teach as what we teach.

For the progressives, looking to the Internet enabled mass teaching movement, that’s as much about understanding that we need to engage with more than our students. We need to open up and engage with the community around us. Now I bet that does sound familiar to the industry people in the room…

A popular peg for this is the teaching hospital analogy. The idea of learning by doing is not new in journalism – education or industry. But the importance of community engagement comes idea comes from a heavy commitment to the Civic and participatory Journalism movements: It can’t just be an issue of practicing on the community it has to be practicing with them.

Digital as well as media literacy often go hand in hand in civic journalism.  Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation’s president and CEO commented on the importance of this (as he said thanks for a whopping great grant to help facilitate it):

“In the 21st century, successful communities will be those who can best connect with each other and the world using digital media. ”

The connection between what often gets called Media literacy and democracy is one that journalism has never been afraid to co-opt in to the formulation of its own identity the fourth estate. In that sense I suppose we could also say media literacy has never been too far removed from discussions of media ethics  – You need to understand what and how journalism works to be properly critical of it. A challenge for journalism at the best of times let alone, at least in the UK, in this post-Leveson world. 

So the idea is that we (journalism education) should educate people to the way we do things (essentially the practical stuff) in journalism as well as equip them to understand the way what we do affects their world is not just a key part of us surviving the disruption but a key part of sustaining democracy.

Enabling a plurality of voices is something that is meant to be part of what we do in journalism. But what is being suggested here is that we are also about aiming people to do it without us – to fill the gaps. It should be part of journalism educations job to enable the bottom-up corrective for the mostly top-down perspectives of the news media.’ Gans (2003:103).

This perspective inevitably gives rise to the idea of citizen journalism – trust me, it does!
And in that conversation about the way we teach this new cohort of semi-journalists to be media literate (how gloriously pompous is that!), draws our attention to the elephant in the room : Who we should be teaching?

So, as much as the journalist of the future may well be:

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

 they may also be someone:

…who doesn’t work for a media organisation.

Perhaps we could call it unbundling journalism from the media.

At the very least its about finding a different way to talk about it that isn’t bundled so heavily with the institutions of journalism and journalism education. That’s why I like to think about the idea that journalism is a diagnosis not a profession

To finish, let me make sense of the big toe reference. I want to talk about gout.

Gout is a disease that’s typified by an inflamed, red, very painful big toe. It’s been referred to as a noble disease. One respect a noble disease is one that comes with no stigma – like cancer but unlike mental illness say. But in the case of gout, noble means: distinguished by rank or title.

It’s been called the patrician malady – “Historically seen as a disease afflicting upper-class males of superior wit, genius, and creativity” The The Oxford Illustrated Companion To Medicine notes that the Roman poets suffered a lot from Gout and notes that there was an effort to frame it as a noble disease whose sufferers could trace their family line back to Ulysses (Odysseus) the legendary Greek king of Ithaca. You know, the big poem.

The truth is it’s called that because you often get it from a rich and privileged diet – over eating and too much rich wine.  It’s confusing noble with privileged and trying to spin the negatives.

In some ways I think we have come to think of Journalism as a noble disease. You’re special if you have it. Second only to “kings and poets”.

Of course anyone can catch gout just as, in my view, anyone can catch journalism. Maybe we are guilty of building up a structure that simply sustains a romantic view of  what has essentially become an industrial disease.

When we talk about the future of journalism it’s clear we need to think about journalism differently. The core concepts of democracy and social responsibility are coming to the fore and in a practical and collaborative way that goes beyond simply claiming them as defining parts of a professional ethic – they are symptoms.

Clearly many people think that it’s the job of education to break out of the sanatorium business and help those who have caught it to manage the condition in a way that is beneficial to them and society. In that sense  trying to understand the future of journalism is an exercise in epidemiology rather than forensic pathology.

Notes:

As seductive as the teaching hospital model may be I don’t think it quite holds up in respect to its community service remit beyond filling a media hole.

When questioned about an apparent contradiction in the idea of caring about the people you work with in a community – something I talked about in developing the broad themes I teach, I made the point about the difference between the care and commitment an individual journalist makes to a person or audience vs a media organisation, both different in their own way, For me the model of the individual, socially responsible journalist is the more robust in the future. The institutional social responsibility of the media organisations (you get what we think is best for you) is, for me, one of the key factors in msm’s engagement problems.

You have no idea how long I have been searching for diseases to use as an analogy. I think gout works well but maybe the fact that I looked so long says that the whole endevour may not be worth the effort.Sorry for those who have had to sit through me trying it out and  I’d love to know your thoughts on the whole thing.

Image from Wikicommons and officialpsds

It’s not SEO it’s human linkbait

Quinoa
Quinoa: When popular stories go against the grain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As optimisation (and seo) are on my mind at the moment, it was nice to see an article on the fears of populism in the age of search engine optimisation by Guardian readers editor Chris Elliott.

Serendipitous as it was, it was also a little frustrating. Essentially the article (in a stereotype busting style for the Guardian) is about an article about quinoa – Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

With a headline like that, you can imagine that it generated a good deal of controversy. But Elliott used it to highlight another point:

Notwithstanding the controversy, the article generated a massive amount of traffic through the Guardian’s website. On the whole, generating traffic, like selling newspapers, is crucial. But in the last six months three colleagues have written or spoken to me to express concern that the entirely reasonable desire to attract people to the site may be skewing news and features agendas.

He continues”

One conflicted colleague said: “There have been occasions recently where stories have been commissioned by editors who have talked about how they hope it will ‘play well’ online – this appears to have been at the very forefront of their mind when commissioning. Certainly this is the prime driver of many online picture galleries. Obviously … we want to be well-read and popular, but it is a slippery slope, and it now appears that in a few cases we are creating stories purely to attract clicks.”

My answer to that would be…“and your so called point would be?”. Doesn’t having a web site that’s built on the strategy of community rather than paywall or another model mean that you can, no, must reflect the audiences interest as well as serve the demand to inform? Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I’m not working at the Guardian.

Thinking about it reminded me of the evidence that Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) gave Leveson (Vol 1: P170) – I know, I’m just so street!

Mr Staines also stated, in a parallel that he himself has drawn with the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie, that he would run stories that are single sourced if the story was of little consequence, or in keeping with the overall tone of the Guido Fawkes site, namely, that it was gossipy or humorous in nature

I’m sure many at the Guardian would be happy being lumped in with Paul Staines and less with Mackenzie but, in the end, isn’t it great to be able to have parts of your output that make the distinction between news, gossip and comment so clear? Isn’t part of the deal that you are setting a tone for the Guardian?

Anyway, what got me frustrated was not the apparent dissonance that ‘open journalism’ seems to be creating at the Guardian. No, What bugged me was that the article isn’t talking about SEO. It’s talking about Social media optimisation (marketing if you insist).

There isn’t anything in the headline or otherwise that would suggest the classic SEO habits alluded to in the article (it’s more complex than that anyway). It’s link bait to be sure, but community link bait – there to catch humans not machines. Equating popularism with SEO is a little old school and over simplifies the complex dynamic that newspapers manage with their audience online.

Aftermatter and updates

Chris Moran, SEO editor at the Guardian has been tweeting about the guardian article:

@ Genuinely understanding our traffic doesn't suddenly remove editorial insight and also helps us promote good journalism
@chrismoranuk
Chris Moran

In a related post “Guardian Mol” Alley Fogg ponders the value of reader interaction and the ‘bottom half of the internet.

Ivory tower dispatch: Headlines, SEO and WordPress.com

Online Journalists can learn a lot about optimising content from the likes of the Daily Mail but can we put it in to practice on WordPress.com blogs?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to first year journalists about blogging and the starting point is why blogging is a a bad idea.

In the past I’ve tried to make the case for blogging – of course you need a blog – but the upshot of that is that some students dismiss it as ‘something they have to do’ and file it as ‘look at when the assessment is due’. At least by talking about the downsides – time, dealing with trolls etc. – you can discuss motivation in a constructive way. So they all start (or, for many, restart) a WordPress blog.

Outside of the usefulness of blogs to them as journalists,  one of the reasons for introducing blogs in the module (essentially basic online journalism practice) is that it gives them a platform to experiment with things. This week it was a way to look at headlines.

When you deconstruct how and why headlines work differently online you end up taking about two main themes:

  • Grabbing attention – not only how your headlines have to grab attention and get people to read on the page but also outside your site – different platformsaggregation etc.
  • Serving different audiences – how you need to tailor you headline for the reader, search engines and social media. 

It’s clear that there are a number of different strategies to do this and all require levels of optimisation and it was interesting to explore how accessible ways to do this in practice are when you’re using WordPress.com. 

Getting noticed in search

We know that search engine optimisation has become a more complex thing than simply loading your headline with key words. That’s great news for the reader as headlines are now slipping back in to the more descriptive eye-catching headlines we might associate with print; stuff that is as useful to the reader as it is to your ranking.

A simple, but not always obvious way this works is to take advantage of technology (and your CMS) to use different headlines in different places.

The Daily Mail are experts at this.Take this story on the Eastleigh by-election:

  • Front Page: ‘Beastly in Eastleigh': Conservatives in crisis as UKIP push Tories into THIRD place after Lib Dems hold onto must-win seat with dramatic by-election victory
  • Article Headline‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP in Eastleigh by-election as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat
  • HTML Title: Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online 

That last one is in the code (Right-click and look for something like view source and you’ll find it in between <title> </title>).

What’s immediately obvious about this, outside of the technical, is that writing a headline for the web is really writing headlines for the web. Who says technology simplifies things!

Each one of those headlines, in it’s own way, is designed for attracting attention. But, at risk of oversimplifying things here, although each one contributes to improving the searchability of the piece, it’s the title that does a lot of the heavy lifting (find out some more about the title and seo).

So can we do something similar with our wordpress.com? The short answer is no.

In a WordPress blog, unless we spend money on a fancy template, getting a ‘magazine’ style layout where we can trail content on a front page is nearly impossible. Even if we splashed out on a custom template it’s still almost impossible to specify a custom headline for the front page. So our attention grabbing front page headline is out!

At a post level, the title for the post and the title in the html are the same.  So whatever I put in the title box, WordPress will use that as the html title as well. The only difference is that it will add the blog title to the end.

  • Post title: SEO headlines are tricky to write
  • HTML title: SEO headlines are tricky to write | andydickinson,net

The only thing we could conceivably do at this point is to change our blog title to include some keywords that generally relate to everything we write about. A little generic though. So no search engine headline ‘hidden’ in the code.

We are left trying to write a headline that balances the needs of the reader who wants to know what’s in a story and if it’s for them, and the benefits we would get from a little tweaking to suit a search engine. Luckily all the evidence points towards a happy medium.

If you can get strong keywords – in journalistic terms the who, where and what of a story – in to the front part of your headline then you’re on to a winner – both readers and search engines like it when you put proper nouns up front. Taking the Daily Mail example above, the HTML title headline

Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online – would be our best choice.

There’s plenty of advice for picking good keywords including using tools like Google Trends and Google ad words tool to help identify good keyword contribution.

Social media optimisation

Making the effort to strike the balance between search engine and reader friendly optimized headlines is worth the effort but search engines are not the only place we find stuff these days. Social media plays a big part in the recommendation and discovery process so optimising our content for those platforms is going to be worth some effort.

Ensuring our headlines travel across and round social media whilst retaining that ‘attention grabbing’ quality is a challenge. Take twitter for example. We don’t just have the headline to worry about, we also need to leave room for a link and, maybe, space for anyone who wants to retweet to add ‘RT @ourname’. So we actually have a limited amount of space to work with.

The advice is to work with a headline of around 65 characters. That gives you a headline that will appear on Google searches without getting truncated and if you wanted to tweet it, used along with a URL shortner like Bitly or wordpress.com’s  built in shortlink generator, you leave enough space for people to add their own stuff. Using something like Bitly also give you the added bonus of some nice stats to help track your social media traffic.

Excerpts

It’s worth noting at this point that the excerpt function in WordPress.com can play a really important part in selling your content. Some WordPress  ‘magazine’ style themes use it as the article summary, but if you add an excerpt it is used as the meta description for your article.

That ‘code’ won’t necessarily peak the mechanical interest of a search engine like the title tag does but it’s what appears under your (carefully crafted) headline in search engine results. It’s your chance to reinforce what the article is about and draw the reader in.

It also gets a lot of use in the social side of things. Look at this code from the header of a wordpress post using the standard 2012 template.

<meta property="og:type" content="article" />
<meta property="og:title" content="SEO friendly headline here. It&#039;s the headline and html title as well." />
<meta property="og:url" content="http://andystestpress.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/seo-headline-in-the-html/" />
<meta property="og:description" content="This is the excerpt but it&#039;s used as the META description which google will use as the &#039;snippet&#039; under the title." />
<meta property="og:site_name" content="Andy&#039;s Testpress: its great" />
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@wordpressdotcom" />
<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary" />

The og in there means open graph and that means Facebook. This code essentially controls the information that Facebook uses to display details of your post when someone shares or likes the link on Facebook. The Twitter one does the same thing for the twitter card that’s displayed.  The title is the same as before.

On the face of it, using WordPress.com for blogging  may not give us the flexibility that the big players have to craft different versions of headlines. To get that you need to install your own version. But out of the box it does a lot of stuff for us. All we need to do is pay a little attention to the content.

If we want to get the best out of our headlines then they need to be attention grabbing, relevant, hooks for our articles that are no longer than 65 characters and front-loaded with appropriate keywords. And if we want to start optimising for social media we need to give the excerpt some attention as well.

Note: Clearly content optimisation (search or otherwise) is a complex and rich process – I’ve not even scratched the surface of some of the stuff specific to wordpress.com let alone SEO in general! Simply tweaking a headline or excerpts is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not suggesting that working your headline is in anyway SEO or that good content, carefully crafted for your content is not just as (if not more important). Just saying :-)

Note 2: Not all wordpress themes are the same. As much as we might argue that HTML is not something journos need to engage with (btw, yes they should) having a root around the header of your chosen theme to see what meta is kicking around is not a bad or techie thing to be able to do.

Note 3: Paul Bradshaw has a great blog post about using the wordpress editor which has some good stuff to say about URL’s and links – two factors in google ranking.