The difference between pro and amatuer? 90 degrees

A tweet from the @themediabrief caught my eye today:

Made me smile.

‘Holding the camera the right way’ is a bit of an issue for me. In one of my modules I set shooting video as a little test and it was enough to get you a fail.  But as @davidwrightdop pointed out, in the days of Vine and Instagram, does it make one bit of difference? 

In my defence, the end result of the test was meant to be uploaded to YouTube; a shame not to use all the space available. So it’s not a ‘blanket ban’

I’m sure academics could have a field day with a ‘chicken and egg’ type discussion about the impact of one medium and another, remediation etc. etc.  Clearly the impact of social media has more of an impact than TV.  So perhaps this is a tipping point:

In some respects it’s already happening. With more consumption on mobile, especially of video, the shape of TV has already changed. Of course, TV was just as influenced by film aspect ratio when it was designed for mass use, so what goes around.

You’re holding it wrong for a journalist.

What interests me more is the definitional nature of the debate:  Of course anyone who knows anything about video would shoot the right way.  Wouldn’t they?  The difference in this case between amateur and pro is literally a 90 degree turn. (hasn’t that always been the way of it!)

Even more telling is that it’s a definition that lives and breathes in the way we hold kit.  Imagine that debate being levelled at the way you hold a pencil to take notes. That says more about the way we define ourselves than anything else.

After thought: An easy solution to this is to put the camera lens in the bottom corner of the phone rather than the top. That way if you were ‘holding it wrong’ you’d always have your hand over the lens!

A quick way to test web content on your mac

If you’re getting into this whole coding journalist and tinkering with HTML and javascript you’ll eventually get to the point where you need a webserver to play with.

Webservers, amongst other things contain the software that enables you to play with more complex scripting, handling ‘requests’ for content rather than simply displaying a file (which is what opening a page in your browser would do without a webserver).   It’s not essential, often your browser will do most of the heavy lifting.  But having a webserver on your own machine that you can use as your own private development environment can be really useful.

If you’re using a mac  then you can turn any folder into a webserver for basic javascript and html stuff,  by navigating to the folder in terminal app and typing the following line of code :

python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000

It uses webserver (the simpleHTTP bit) in the mac’s built-in version of the  Python programming language.   It’s nothing fancy but it does the job.

To stop the server, return to the terminal app  just press CTRL+C in the terminal. That will stop the service.

How that might work in practice

Here’s a quick example of how that might work:

  • Create a new folder called website in your documents folder
  • open TextEdit (in the applications folder)
  • Click New Document
  • Before you type anything else select Format > Make Plain Text
  • Cut and paste the following  code into the editor
<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
<title>A basic html Holding page</title>
<h1>Your webserver is working</h1>
  • Save this file into the webserver folder with the filename index.html (webservers are setup to look for that filename by default)
  • Open the Terminal application (applications/utilities)
  • In the terminal window  navigate to your folder:
cd documents/website

then type:

python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000

the 8000 is the port number. If you run into problems then you could try changing this as it usually means you’re already running something using that port.  If you’re trying this for the first time you’re unlikely to need to do this.

  • Open your browser and go to – http://localhost:8000. You should see a very dull page with the text ‘Your webserver is working’
  • When you’re done, go back to the terminal app window and press CTRL+C to stop the webserver

When you’re running code it’s worth checking back on the terminal app window. The webserver tracks output and will stream a log of what’s going on. Useful to track down mistakes like missing files and incorrect links (tip: look for code 404, message File not found)

No Mac?

If you want something a bit more complex/flexible or if you don’t have a mac, you can download ‘stand-alone’ webservers that will install and run on your machine. One of the more popular ones is MAMP although the move to a more pro model has lead some to look at alternative like ampps.  They are all pretty much the same and solid next step if you get fired up by this journo coder stuff.

I know many people will know this already but its one of those little things that can often slip off the radar. I hope it’s useful.


Who takes the risk in changing journalism?

I’m spending the next few days in a research symposium about journalism. Lots of great people with interesting things to say about the changing face and challenges for journalism.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about what’s being discussed -that’s partly because a lot of it is related to ongoing research and the usual form, and often contractual obligation, is stuff doesn’t make it out until its been in a journal (I know, don’t get me started on that one).  But regardless of the topic one of consistent questions has been how we and students respond to this.

One example of this was a conversation around entrepreneurial journalism.

The idea that we as j-schools, should be encouraging more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking is not new.  A number of schools now have modules and courses exploring just that.  But how we ‘sell’ that has been and remains a tricky proposition when the demands of the industry we serve are set against an education market ‘disrupted’ by the same things.

Like most universities in the UK we are coming to the end of our ‘open days’. They are a chance for prospective students to see the campus, meet the staff. Well, I say students; a big part of open days is for parents.

I find that it’s often quite hard to talk to the prospective students as you’re answering questions from parents. How many modules? What’s your contact time? What are your employment statistics? I’m not being critical of this at all – who wouldn’t want to be  sure that they are getting the best. The best experience and the best value.  But I does feel like the questions that editors and accrediting bodies ask me – how many hours do they go to court? Can they do shorthand? Can they do facebook?

Under the idea of a service economy (serving students and industry) J-Education is not just being asked make a lot of commitments. We are being asked for guarantees!

I was pondering that during the presentations when we talked about entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism and it struck me how much I feel we are at (or very, very close to) an inflection point when it comes to the value proposition for developing journalism education.

The truth is entrepreneurship is about risk.  I have enough crappy motivational tweets appearing in my timeline about ‘daring to fail’ to know that.  But I’m across two industries  – education and journalism –  that don’t do risk well.

It’s clear that most of the journalism industry isn’t prepared to take that risk (with notable but not consistent exceptions) The model for the industry is for buy-innovation not nurturing it. Yes, there are some exceptions but lets not kid ourselves that they are the norm  (yet). That’s a culture that reaches across all aspects of an organisations work including training.

That’s why, in the same way media has shifted the responsibility (and risk) for training and skills to education, we now see the demands for a more innovative and entrepreneurial journalist are placed at educations door.

At the same time education is coming to terms with a market driven model – compare-the-market parents looking at our stats.  That culture doesn’t really suit risk.  I couldn’t sell a journalism course on the kind of failure stats we see in startups these days.

Theres the decision driving me to feeling close to the inflection point. Which of those ‘markets’ is the ball and chain?  Which one of those is going to drag me down past viable? As a J-school educator, how do I balance the demands of industry to deliver what they tell me they want with the demands of consumers for guarantees of a return on investment?

My gut reaction is that the response to industry is pretty simple – we are not going to take risks on your behalf unless you invest.   But that’s the easy bit. It leave us with more to  do in educating students to the idea of risk and the broader landscape of opportunity that digital offers.  Risk and opportunity – not easy terms.

I happen to think there is no better place to take a risk than university – independent thinking and challenge are what we are supposed to do.  I also believe that there is no better industry in which risk can pay off – innovation is really valued, even if (or perhaps because) it doesn’t really know what to do with it – everyone wants a pet unicorn even if they don’t know how to look after it!

But it does feel like we are getting to a point where, to really enable us to make good on that opportunity,  J-schools are going to have to make a  choice.  Journalism education is  already at a point where we are thinking about how we unhitch ourselves from many of the structure that some believe  makes them the de-facto suppliers of skilled workers for industry.  A position that I’ve always thought of as moving from  giving them what they want to what they need.

But that feels like the easy part.  When it comes to selling the alternative it’s easy marketing speak to say opportunities but it’s risk – plain and simple.

That feels like unchartered territory for all of us and I wonder if it should and why.

Image from Ben Sutherland  on Flickr 

What do journalists use instagram for?

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand

I’m not one for sharing proverbs or pithy statements; ones  that would look great on a poster with some Kittens or shared in a cursive font on Facebook. But the lines above popped into my head as I was reading about Instagram’s  latest update. Instagram is getting new ‘creative’ editing tools.

These aren’t earth shattering; exposure, saturation etc.  But the general consensus (among my social media circle anyway) was that these tools were a great addition not least because it would limit the number of apps journos needed to use to get a good picture.

At a similar time to the chat around Instagram’s new tools, Sarah Marshall, Social media editor at the Wall street journal, posted about some in-house Instagram training. The post is a really valuable round-up of the use Instagram can get in a newsroom.

The conversation around those two stories, got me pondering the broader question of why journalists use these platforms and it boils down, in general, to these two broad areas:

1. It’s a nifty platform to gather and distribute images with the added advantage of having an audience there watching

Why spend money on a media sharing infrastructure when the likes of Instagram and youtube do that for you? In a mobile world, it’s a robust mobile tool that you don’t have to pay for!

This is a growing trend in newsrooms, echoed in the use of things like DropBox and Google Drive. Using free, easily accessible resources to plug the tech and process gaps in newsrooms.

2. It offers access to user generated content

That’s not a groundbreaking observation.  Of course, like any social media network, where the public are so there maybe useful content news orgs can lift create a wider audience for.

These different uses make demands of social media platforms we use. The tension that creates makes for a heady mix of issues.  Professional identity and standards are tested, questioned and sometimes reinforced. Just that idea of using a mobile phone as a tool does that!  At the same time the pressure of sifting through all this material to get that clip that beats the competition to the punch is one that newsrooms feel more each day…how can something so useful be so frustrating?

The conversation around Instagram brought those tensions to the fore in a specific way.   Not only would the new tools make the platform more usable as a tool, it may also help make the content more usable as UGC -As BBC editorial trainer Marc Blank-Settle pointed out (responding to me sharing Sarah’s post)

The general gist of Marc’s point was that the, often indiscriminate, use of the ubiquitous filters and other editing tools on Instagram rendered the content editorially unusable. Marc’s broader point is that a viewer might question the veracity of an image that’s been so obviously edited – if the colours have been changed then what else have they tinkered with? Marc sums it up in a later response to the issue

It’s a fair point. The idea of how much editing should you do on an image is one that has vexed news/doco photographers for ever and a day. Just try talking to a US press photographer about the ethics of posing a shot!

As a ‘trainer’ I have a deal of sympathy with Marc’s view. Training Journo’s to keep to their standards is hard when there are nice toys to play with – especially when the norm is to go ‘express yourself’

Frustration with this kind of thing is something the industry is great at voicing but it’s not so great at articulating the tensions behind the scenes.  We tend to fall back on one of the core uses as a reason – the square aspect ratio or resolution isn’t great or Instagram’s poor search or lack of desktop version means I can’t use it to find pictures easily at work.  But that’s a bit too filtered through a set of local demands. I think that if we want to get the best use of platforms like Instagram then I  think it  really demands that we think critically, and be more open within newsrooms,  about that question of why and how we use it.

That debate is one that’s increasingly important given a growing fixation with ‘native content’. We are being asked to consider ways in which we can bring the production process closer to the consumption process – like creating sites for mobile, on mobiles.  We see some great experiments with creating content specifically for new platforms – stuff that looks like the platform not our website squashed into the space.  But whilst our desire to understand the users and seed the platforms with our content grows is there a risk that we simply open up a wider gap between the two uses?  Are we going to end up contributing the the pool of unusable content? Or is there is an opportunity to take a different approach that unites the two demands?

Educate or emulate?

One observation from those analysisng tweets from the UK riots was how the pictures that were most shared, ones that made it to the top of the retweet  pile, were pictures that resembled news images. In other words, pictures that even though they weren’t created by news orgs, would have happily got the nod from an (picture) editor.

It’s one example, along with the amount of social media traffic that’s driven by news orgs content, that suggests a certain level of ‘news-media literacy’ makes it through into the collective subconscious when it comes to creating and distributing content on social media.  Could journalists do more to ‘educate’ people on Instagram and other platforms as to what constitutes a good picture?

That’s were the pithy proverb came to mind:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand

We know that asking social media for UGC is a frustrating task. Asking for something specific will, more often than not result in a huge amount of unrelated content.; “I asked for flooding pictures not pictures of your wet dog! “ That will never go away. But if one of our motivations for using these platforms, for encouraging journalists to get their content on there, is to help inform and develop new-media literacy, is that such a bad thing.



Voting: A free ticket to the show you never wanted to see

It’s election time. All over the EU people are voting for MEP’s and here in the UK some councils have elections for local councillors.  As per usual the issue of voting (and not voting) dominates the commentsphere.

It’s an issue that has got a bit of momentum in the UK thanks to some celebrity interventions into the debate around the whole idea of voting, particularly the vexed issue of getting young people to vote.

So, its seems like a good time to make a confession – I’m a ‘don’t voter’. There I have said it.   It’s not that I haven’t voted. Or that I will never vote.  When I have nothing to vote for I don’t vote.  From what I can make out, according to much of the commentary I’ve read this morning, this:

  • means I’m apathetic.
  • makes me an idiot
  • makes me selfish – apparently I’m stopping your party getting in
  • makes me selfish – apparently I’m allowing the party you don’t like to get in.
  • means I have never heard of the suffragettes or a number of wars – I’m an ignorant idiot.
  • no better than Russell Brand – and by extension, an idiot
  • makes me responsible for homophobia and wars in far off places, far-right parties in Europe etc.
  • means I have no right to comment on voting politics or anything else until I vote – at least I can be an idiot that gets irony
  • disrespectful of your grandmother, grandfather or whichever relative you found an ‘inspiration’ in your youth

But the truth is that this more than just the process of voting. It’s not just that I can walk up to the booth unmolested – great and powerful as that is. It’s the responsibility to then exercise a choice.  Exercising your right to vote is not enough and whilst it might be respectful of all those who came before, I’d have  thought it was important that we are using and allowed to use that choice ‘responsibly’.

Lets imagine for a minute that inspirational grandma saved up all her life and through her hard won efforts gave me 50 quid to spend (ardent capitalist as she clearly is).  Lets imagine I go to the market with my 50 quid. I get a number of stalls.  Look there’s the regulars selling a pile of shit. Then there are newcomers – smaller and less tricksy, and they have new shit. But, once you get it home and get past the wrapping, oh, it’s the same old shit.

So whichever way I spend my 50 quid I’m still going to have to go home and tell my Gran that I spent that hard earned 50 quid on shit. Or I could just say. ‘you’re all selling shit I’m going to hang on to my 50 quid and spend it when theres something other than shit to buy.

So I voted today – apparently I’m allowed to say all of this because I did vote.   None of the people on the ballot where people I wanted to vote for and there is no way I can express that and get that counted in the same way a vote would be counted – no ‘none of the above’ or minimum vote to validate the abuse of the term ‘mandate’.

So I spoiled my vote.  I scribbled on my ballot paper like 5 year old! You have no idea how angry and depressed that made me feel.

But at least I voted. That’s the important thing right?

Argentina’s Clarín gets to grip with convergence : exploring multilingual social media

The wonders of twitter, tweetdeck and google translate meant that I got an interesting insight into the way Clarín, the biggest newspaper in Argentina,  is approaching the challenge of a converged newsroom.

What caught my eye was a the visualization of the ‘new editorial cycle’ that journalism news site ELDSD posted to twitter. A translated version below.



The process of transition has clearly not been smooth with staff representation voicing concerns of the process In terms of convergence they are familiar debates.

Despite the cod google translate filtering,  it made for an interesting perspective on an ongoing debate. But it also shows that language isn’t always a barrier to using social media.

Translating social media

Twitter has already experimented with translating tweets based during the ousting of Mohammed Morsi last year but some of their tools have it built in.

Tweetdeck, for example, offers a useful translate option


So if you want to broaden your social media reach, don’t be afraid to follow beyond your language barrier.

Finding and mapping the center of your world(ish)

This is the center of Preston.

The center of Preston.
The center of Preston.

No really. The exact center of Preston.

I made that discovery as I pondered a post I saw a little while ago.

The article came from The Londonist, who ran an experiment to find the center or London.  It was a repeat of an experiment they did in 2010, things were a bit make do and mend…

We pasted a map of Greater London onto cardboard, cut out the map, and then tried to balance it on a pin-head. The balance point, also known as the centre of gravity, can be said to be the geometric centre of London. 

But for the update they went a bit more high tech.

Step forward Tom Hoban, who’s now refined the method and thinks he’s found the centre of London to much greater precision. Rather than using cardboard and scissors, Tom traced an electronic map in AutoCAD software. He was then able to find the shape’s centre of gravity digitally, removing the imprecision of our balancing-on-a-pin malarky.

I thought the ‘malarky’ of the pin and card was really nice.  Very hands on. But it got me thinking about how easy it would be to work that out for other places.  (that’s how my brain works)

Find the shape

The first challenge is finding the ‘shapes’ of a city to work with.  In these days of data journalism and digital mapping, I wondered if that kind of ‘data’ existed and it does; kind of. There are plenty of data sets that offer shape files; the data needed to ‘draw’ the shape of a city or (more commonly) electoral ward, county or country.  You see these a lot in visualizations of data like voting records etc. So it was just a case of finding one with about the right detail I needed.

The Office of National statistics maintains quite a nice list of  files with boundary information, which have that data included.  I chose  the Boundaries : County_and_unitary_authorities_(E+W)_2013_Boundaries_(Full_Extent).zip file.

Find the centroid!

As you expect these shapes are not uniform, they are polygons, so it took me a bit of Google work to find that the ‘center of gravity’ of  a polygon is called it’s centroid.

In mathematics and physics, the centroid or geometric center of a two-dimensional region is, informally, the point at which a cardboard cut-out of the region could be perfectly balanced on the tip of a pencil, assuming uniform density and a uniform gravitational field.

So it was a bit of piecing together.  I know you could easily map shape files using Google tools like Google Fusion tables etc. and I know that you can do some clever maths using scripting so the next step was to put it all together with more Google around ‘calculate the centroid of a polygon in Google maps‘.  Which, by a country mile,  is the most technical and intelligent sounding thing I’ve googled in the last 10 year.

Some time later…

Cutting a long Google very short, I ended up recognizing that doing it with Google maps was going to be hard – at least beyond my skills.  But my searching revealed that there was some good mapping software or GIS  available that might do the job. What’s that then

A geographic information system (GIS) lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends.

I ended up using QGIS, an open source mapping program that works on PC and Mac.  I won’t lie, it’s a bit of bind to set up.  But once it’s done you have a pretty powerful set of tools and one that would be worth a look  for people doing a lot of mapping .

What’s great about QGIS is that once the ‘polygons’ are loaded in, it has a very neat menu item that calculates the centroids. Instant centers of all the areas on the map in one click!

Here’s a quick how-to:

This is shape file
This is shape file
  • Download and unzip the mapping data. If you look in the unzipped folder you’ll see a file with a .shp extension. That’s the one we want.
  • Open QGIS


  • Click the Add Vector Layer button or pick Layer > Add Vector layer from the menu
  • Browser to the shape file (.shp) from the unzipped folder and open
  • A nice rendering of the shape file appears similar to the one below.
Don't worry if your colours are different. It's random
Don’t worry if your colours are different. It’s random Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013
  • Make sure the layer you have created is selected and the select Vector > Geometry Tools > Polygon Centroids



The system offers a dialouge box. It wants to save the data as a new file. I saved mine in a new folder called centroids but you can put it where you like.  Make sure you check the Add Results to Canvas option or you won’t see the centers.  The result is something like:

Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013

That’s all the centroids calculated and plotted.

Getting the data on to a google map. 

For a number of reasons I wanted to make sure I could share the results on a google map.  One of the easier ways to to get any complex location data into a google map is to use Google Fusion tables. They play nicely with location information saved as a KML (Keyhole markup language) file.

QGIS makes short work of this.

  • Select the new layer with your centroids in
  • Select Layer > Save As
  • Pick  Keyhole markup language KML from the Format option
  • Select a location and filename to save the content. Make sure you keep the .kml extension.
  • Repeat the process with the original layer (with the local authority areas on it)

The process to get the files in to Google Fusion tables is pretty easy. Here’s a slightly amended version of what Google suggests:

  1. Go to Google Docs. Sign in to your Google Account or create a Google Account if you don’t already have one. (Note that you while can use a Google Apps for your Domain account for Fusion Tables, you will not be able to create maps.)
  2. Click the “Create” button.
  3. Click the “Connect more apps” bar at the bottom of the resulting list.
  4. Type “fusion tables” in the “Search Apps” box and hit the “Enter” key.
  5. Click the blue “+ CONNECT” button, then click the “OK” button in the confirmation dialog box.
  6. Click “Create > Fusion Table (experimental)”.
  7. In the Import new table dialog box, click “Choose File”.
  8. Find the KML file you created from  QGIS
  9. Check that the data is formatted correctly and click “Next”.
  10. Give your table a name and click “Finish”.

Once it’s imported you can click the Map tab and you’ll see the elements mapped (either the outlines of the areas or the dots that represent the centroids.

You can embed the map straight from google fusion tables like this

Or you could use something like the Google Fusion Maps Wizard to mix together layers into one map. Like this:

Once you have it on a map you can also take advantage of the satellite view and the Street view tool on google maps to get a good look at the center of your world.


This may all feel like a sledgehammer to crack a pointless nut! I guess it is. It’s a bit of fun that spiralled. The best I could say is that it falls in to my find a tool that answers a question methodology.  But here’s some observations and what I learned  along the way:

  • The center really does depend on the boundaries you pick. The picture at the start of this post is based on the Urban Audit of Greater cities boundaries for Preston (data). That’s different from the center that the Unitary and Borough boundaries throws up. (that’s in a field just near the M55 junction on the M6)
  • Picking the The Full Extent version of the files does skew things a little as it describes the shape of an area even if some of it stretches into the sea! So the methodology isn’t rock solid on a number of counts
  • There are lots of data sets to play with. Qgis means you could load loads up and compare.
  • Using QGIS ties you to the desktop – not great if you’re in newsroom with locked-down IT.
  • Using QGIS opened my eyes to the power of GIS software in general and how it could be part of a data journalist’s toolkit. But if you’re doing a lot of data mapping (rather than mapping) I do think something like Tableau is the better place to focus your time.

Finally, and most importantly I’m bound to repeat that all of this post contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013


Restarting news: Will Journalism have much say in what journalism becomes?

Prof George Brock has an interesting post as a prelude to his talk at the international journalism festival in Perugia which is well worth a read.  He ponders an incomplete list of things that might shape what comes next in journalism.  There are a couple that stand out for me.

First off he cites ‘impact’. By impact he means the way that the digital landscape dilutes the impact of even the biggest stories. Much as it’s an interesting way of describing one of the negative effects of the networked environment. It’s concept that suggests news has a finite impact; With so many routes for news to travel it eventually, well, runs out of steam.

I think there is some merit in the idea – impact is neat phrase –  but I do think it stems from a slightly institutional (print) perspective.  What its really saying is the value to the producer is harder to conceptualise (and monetize). In that sense I don’t think that ‘news’ has any less impact. In some ways it can have more.  We can’t really think that news is a stone to throw and then measure its success by the size of the splash! In a digital world we are measured  against the ripples.

In that sense  I think ‘reach’ is a better word than impact. Impact is the same mentality that still demands we recognise the word breaking or exclusive. The challenge of reach suggests there less of a problem with the ‘news’ and more a problem with the industry’s capacity to inhabit the broader landscape and connect with the audience.

Restarting news

That’s not to criticise Brock. He clearly sees the impact of impact!

Even if a single outlet has something big and releases it first, a scoop is not quite the event that it was. Partly because a revelation will spread a long way very fast and won’t be “broken” by being published to many people simultaneously at a set time. What we used to call “news” was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time; if it was big news, its release was an event.

Brock says that means ” ‘news’ is an idea which is being bent into a different shape.” I like that phrase. But I’d go a little further. News is broken as a concept.  What news is has been changed (a factor Brock also identifies) But the news as an object (something we distribute) is also broken apart by the network. People chop it up and repurpose it for their own use.  

I think what we are seeing is people, just by expectation and consumption habits rather than any discrete motivation, pushing against attempts by media organisation to control (own, whatever you like) the structure, purpose and shape and importantly the life-cycle of news.  I see a lot of parallels with the Restart culture which wants to move beyond…

…the culture of constant upgrades and disposal, The Restart Project reconnects people with repair, preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair. We are supporting groups across the world which would like to replicate our community work.

People getting together to bring those dead electronic and electrical devices back to life.  It’s all about sustainability and usefulness. Digital means people are beginning to restart news in the same way.  

For me that presents interesting challenges the process of Brock’s suggestion that in making clear the ‘value of what journalist do’ journalists can:

insist that verification and investigation will not happen naturally in a ceaseless flow of data, conversation, gossip, rumour and manipulated misinformation; someone must make a choice to do these things and find the resources to support them. They can insist that big ideas depend on long passages of written words to spread and be debated. They can insist that a space to establish what is most likely to be accurate and true in the midst of what is now a marketplace for noise is something of value to democracies and worth fighting for.

I worry that we think we can/should insist anything.  I think that’s less about insisting and more about (a) proving it and (b) about being connected enough for the community who might value that to be able to tell them.

Funding Journalism or the journalism industry 

The last part that stood out was Brock’s assertion that:

While everyone thrashes around looking for a business model, philanthropy has a crucial role to play in bridging the gaps between a dying business model and a new one. 

I bristle slightly at that one. The idea that large, profitable organisations should benefit from “charity” rubs a little. I know that in the context of this conversation (and others) we are using it in the ‘fourth estate’ context rather than ‘where did our profits go’ sense.  But I don’t think you can split the two that easily.  And anyway plenty of rich individuals seem prepared to invest in journalism already. That seems to have worked well over the years!

As I say Brock’s piece is worth a read. Definitely (as the post proves) food for thought. It’s a good stager for his presentation (if you’re lucky enough to be in Perugia) and an indicator that his book “out of print” is worth checking out.

But, and this is no criticism of George,  but you have to wonder if  the biggest factor that is going to change the shape of journalism next is not going to be the journalism industry.

5 steps to turn you into a journalism coder (maybe)

I’ve been thinking alot about coding.  Staring at some code for an hour and then realising that it’s not working because you spelt slider wrong will do that!  So it was nice to see a piece on the Guardian website, Head of Cardiff J-school Richard Sambrook has been pondering the whole issue of journalism and coding.  It made me think about how I learnt to code and I wanted to share that with you.

But before that, a brief detour to Richard. He starts with a question:

Do journalists need to learn computer code? It’s a question which has raised passionate debate in the US – with typically polarised responses. As yet in the UK it elicits little more than bemused curiosity. But it’s an increasingly important question as media adapts to the volatile requirements of digital technology and changing consumer expectations

The comments on the piece are also worth a read. They have the usual range of view from “whatever they do it won’t be proper coding” through “it’s cheaper to get someone else to do it” and out the other side of “don’t journalists have enough to do”.

I’m not sure whether the bemused curiosity is aimed at the question or the US debate. I’m very much in the camp that raises an eyebrow at the debate.  There is no doubt the industry want it, as much as the industry want anything these days. As with data and social there are always going to be unicorns. But for me  talking about journalists and coding  is a moot point. It happens. Debating if it’s important seems to take time away from actually trying it.


It strikes me (and I know I’m not alone in this) that this is a problem of language rather than utility or necessity.  Think about the debate that the phrase Citizen Journalism creates. (It’s OK I’ll wait while some of you stop shouting at the screen). Now imagine you call yourself a coder and then some journalist comes along and starts saying what they do is coding! That’s the debate.

The industry has co-opted coding as a shorthand for many, differing practices and we use it inconsistently (there is no ‘correct’ here) . Everything from a bit of HTML, using R to do data journalism and even doing a bit of hardware programming with your Raspberry Pi.   Like many other things (data journalism etc.) its a reason to talk about other, more fundamental issues facing the industry. Coding isn’t a thing anymore. It’s a trope.

Sambrook’s article is a great example of that.  Dig below the surface and he’s really aiming stuff towards a balance of the technical skills that are needed to get a more  ‘scientific’ type of perspective. That’s a nod to the ‘precision journalism’ school of thought, one echoed in a comment by Liz Hannaford (whose blog is worth a look b.t.w).

My 5 steps to becoming a coder (for what it’s worth)

What about these 5 steps then?

In an earlier post I shared the process I went through to create some archive picture mashups.  The last part was a little bit of code that made it possible to mix between the two.

<script src="//"></script>
<script src="//"></script>

 <div id="timemachine"> 
<h1> Andy's time machine </h1>
<p>Mix the old and new with Andy's time machine </p>

<div id="holder">
     <div id="new">
       <!-- don't worry about the weird img src here-->
       <!-- I'm using google drive to host the images-->
       <!-- Replace these with the images you want to use-->
       <!-- The modern image here -->
       <img src="" />
      <!-- The old image here. -->
     <div id ="old" class="overlay">
      <img src="" />

 <p>Move the slider to go back in time</p>

 <div id="slider"></div>


See the Pen An image before and after slider by Andy (@digitaldickinson) on CodePen.

Here’s how I learnt to do that in five easy steps.

  1. Load up Google
  2. Load up (a place to experiment with html and scripting).
  3. Load up Stackoverflow ( a place where people ask questions about coding,  html and scripting)
  4. Search and  cut-and-paste the fork out of stuff until it works.
  5. Share and let others see, learn from and critique what you’ve done.

Yes, I’ve been doing this a while so some of it has stuck and that helped speed up what I was searching for.  But along the way I learned how to do loads of things that I’ve now forgotten. It did the job and I moved on.

Getting a job done.

Ok. It’s semi-serious advice and I’m definitely not saying that coding is easy.  And in saying that I hope I’ve tempered any criticism that coders might imply from this post or any apparent perception that ‘I don’t get’ how busy journalists are. But the point for me is not that coding is any more or less useful than co-opting any process into your journalism process

The key is that you need to know what your journalism practice is.  After that you can see what fits and what doesn’t.  If the coding is too much then it’s about co-opting people in to the process.

Don’t learn ‘coding’ and look for a problem to solve.  Find a problem and then ask if a bit of code might help. If the problem is too big find someone who can help. 

That last part – engaging with people who could help is another good reason to dive-in, have a go and pick up a bit of the language. It’s like trying to learn a little bit of a foreign language for a holiday.  People who speak it often appreciate the effort.  Those who’ve invested some time learning this stuff like it when you make an effort to understand what they do – you know, a bit of journalistic empathy!

Whatever the motivation, on a very basic level I’d recommend giving coding a go. If you find yourself doing ( or really enjoying) lots of this stuff than actually learning a structured approach (like learning the piano rather than busking) will only enhance the process. But for me there is a really basic reason, if the right opportunity comes along. to have a go.  When you press run or refresh or whatever you’re doing to make it go it’s actually quite a buzz when it works.  There aren’t many things we make and do these days as part of our jobs that get such instant feedback.

Archive mashup pics with extra interactivity

Mashups of archive and current images do well on sites and social media
Mashups of archive and current images do well on sites and social media

Update: Google maps streetview now has a history option which might offer some useful sources (not too historic though)

Update 2: And people are doing great stuff with video.

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a number of sites making use of mashups of archive and current images.   These world war II mashups , NY crime pictures and  Cardiff Ghost cinemas are just a few I’ve come across.

It’s not a new thing,  but it’s an easy way to add a bit of visual interest to archive by doing a ‘then and now’ kind of mashup where the past peeks through in the present image – like the example above. I think that, in general, they are a nice bit of content  and one that plays to the strengths of a lot of media orgs who are sitting on massive archive.

So I set myself a few challenges.  How easy is to recreate them using free tools and secondly could I add a bit more interactivity to them?

Mixing images – The ingredients

  • An archive “old” image and a current new image.
  • Access to Pixlr on the web

A word about the archive image

The archive image came from a local history site and used with permission of the site owner Andrew Simpson (Thanks Andrew!). It’s taken from the LLoyd collection. It’s a great site a worth a look to show what depth and passion for local history there is to tap into.

I found the image, amongst others via a google image search and it’s worth mentioning just how important it is to click the Visit page option and not just the View image.  Go to the site, find out more about how and who is using it.  It was a very short process for me to get permission from (a very helpful) Andrew.

The method

two images

Armed with an archive image, I took the current image myslef. I took the new image with my iphone which also had a copy of the old image on it. I used that to get an approximate position and then took the pic. The most common of these kinds of archive mashup are often building. They are great as they give you clear lines and points of reference but railings, road kerbs and stuff like that can also act as hooks to get a good match for position.

The Pixlr interface

The Pixlr interface

  • Open in your browser
  • Use File > Open Image  to open your old picture
  • Use File > Open Image to open your new picture
  • In the toolbar down the left-hand-side of the window, click the Move tool Icon (first one on the right) or press the V key as a shortcut
  • Click on the “old” image
  • Select Edit > Select All of CTRL+A to select the whole image
  • Make sure you have the Move tool still active, press V to make sure.
  • Click on the “new” image
  • Click Edit > Paste

The old image is pasted as a new layer in the new image. Pixlr, like many image editing apps, mirrors the Photoshop model of being able to break an image down into layers so you can edit elements individually. The old image is pasted in as a new layer, Layer 2.

Matching up the image.

History pic mashups   Google Docs1

This next part is the creative (or depending on your view, fiddly) bit. You will need to use a number of tools to move the image around and and match the positioning.  To make this easier we can change the transparency of the old image (the top layer) so we can see the new image below.

History pic mashups   Google Docs3

  • In the layers panel click the Layer 2 panel. I’d suggest clicking the image, clicking the text can put it in edit mode  – you can change the name of the layer.
  • In the layer panel click the Toggle Layer properties button (it’s in the bottom Left-hand-side of the layers panel)
  • The panel expands with a slider for opacity. Try dragging the slider back until you get a good mix between the two images. You may find that you change this from time to time as you work with the image.

General positioning

To move the image around to get it into generally the right position:

  • Make sure you have the Move tool still active, press V to make sure.
  • Click on the old image you pasted in and move it around to get an approximate position.


  • Make sure you have the Move tool still active, press V to make sure.
  • Make sure you have the Layer2 (old image layer) active
  • Click Edit > Free transform or press CTRL+T
  • Drag the blue boxes to change the width and height TIP: Holding down shift whilst you drag will maintain the aspect ratio
  • Hit Enter to commit the changes


  • Make sure you have the Move tool still active, press V to make sure.
  • Make sure you have the Layer2 (old image layer) active
  • Click Edit > Free transform or press CTRL+T
  • hold your mouse near one of the four corners, a small, circular arrow will appear. Click and drag and the image will rotate.
  • Hit Enter to commit the changes


Sometimes the perspective of an image isn’t quite right. You can apply some distortion to an image to try and fix this.

Note: This isn’t as fine tuned or flexible as in photoshop so it’s worth a little effort to get the original image framed well if you can.

  • Make sure you have the Move tool still active, press V to make sure.
  • Make sure you have the Layer2 (old image layer) active
  • Click Edit > Free distort
  • Drag the blue boxes to skew the image
  • Hit Enter to commit the changes

Getting a better look at the image

Archive mashups   Google Docs5

Whilst you are positioning or, as we will explore next, editing the image, it’s often useful to zoom in and move around an image to get a closer look at the detail you’re matching.

  • Click View > Actual Pixels to show the image full size
  • Use the red square in the Navigator panel to move the view around
  • If you need to get in closer use View > Zoom in
  • To push out use View > Zoom out
  • To return to seeing the whole image in the window use View > Show All

Deleting unwanted elements.

Once you have the image in about the right place you can begin removing the bits of the old image you don’t want.  There are a mix of tools you can use to remove parts of the image with varying degrees of accuracy .

Erasing content

  • Make sure you have the Layer2 (old image layer) active
  • Click the Eraser tool icon or press E for the short cut
  • Select a size and shape for the tool in the Brush options across the top of the screen
  • Click and drag across the part of the image you want to delete.
  • The soft-edge brushes are often the best as they make for a nicer mix between the two and you’ll get a better result mixing sizes and zooming in to pick out detail.

Selecting content

History pic mashups   Google Docs7

You can use the Lasso tool to draw round content you want to delete. This is often good for cutting round cars or people. One way of working is  setting the opacity of the old layer you can draw round objects in the new layer and ‘cut a shaped hole’ in the old layer. Like the image above.

  • Click the lasso tool or press L for the shortcut
  • If you want a soft-edge around the bit you cut out, set the Feather option. The value here will depend on the amount you’re removing. Try a large value (70 or so) for big chunks and smaller values for finer detail. Always set this first.
  • Click-and-hold and drag the tool around the part of the image you want to cut out.
  • Hit the Delete key

What if I make a mistake?

Pixlr has a history function which is really useful for a bit of trial and error.  If you can’t see it then select View > History a few times to toggle it. To go back just scroll through the history and click on the last ‘good’ point.

Saving my image

  • When you’re happy with the result.
  • Select File > Save
  • Save the image to a location of your choice.

Adding interactivity. 

The images alone can make for a really interesting and engaging slideshow. But with a small amount of code, you can add a slider that lets the user mix between the two images. You can see an example of the code below. It’s not a complicated bit of code (I’m no coder). All it does is layer the old image over the new image and then change the transparency of the old image with the slider.

See the Pen An image before and after slider by Andy (@digitaldickinson) on CodePen.

BTW You can get a little more detail on how my approach to coding works on this blog post about journalism coders.

This exercise was, as much as anything else,a reason to create a tutorial that I could add to a list that students can experiment with.  The actual process is pretty straightforward if fiddly. But its a good chance to stretch the creative muscles and get useful content that we know plays well with an audience.  It also helps reinforce the value of local knowledge and taking a step beyond a google image search. The chorlton history blog was not only a diverting and interesting find. If this was something I was going to do more of, contacting Andrew would be the first step in building a useful contact.

The code part is just me playing but, and I’m going to blog about this, don’t be put off trying.It’s not tricky code and tools like Codepen make pulling it together more structured. Feel free to fork and play and as always, comments and feedback always welcome.