Ivory tower dispatch: Fast and slow journalism and innovation must die

Al Jazeera English newsroom
The Al Jazeera English newsroom – Not available as a google app  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A diverse range of things in the ivory tower this week.

Balancing personal and professional social media identities was still on the agenda – the mantra was you might not use it but your boss might want you to. Thinking ‘how would I do this if I was doing it for someone else’ when you use social media as a journalist is, in my view, a good discipline.

But it also got me thinking about the perverse way that social media allows a newsroom, even with limited resources, to spread themselves far and wide and then begins to squeeze those resources all the harder in managing that reach.

From a personnel perspective sites like IFTTT and other social media aggregation tools and apis help. But often they strike me a bit like consolidating a debt. You get so many social media outputs that you have to pull them in to one place. The you start to ‘spend’ until you need to consolidate again.  Put that in a newsroom setting and the problem can get worse. Imagine the social media debt you could get in to if one person holds all the details of your social media account then leaves!

So I spent some time looking at using things like Google apps to help create shared resources to manage this kind of thing. Simple things like having a spreadsheet that has all of the social media accounts of reporters and journalists in one place and delegation of gmails to share accounts. But on the whole managing a newsroom might not be as easy as it sounds with Google apps as the sharing of resources and the capacity for accessing multiple accounts is not as straightforward as you’d think.

If you’re thinking about using Google apps (like Drive not the enterprise stuff) to manage the newsroom, my advice is to look hard at your newsroom structure first.

Quick, slow ,quick, quick slow

Paul Bradshaw’s 21st Century newsroom redux was a timely and useful addition to my lectures around the idea of digital narratives. That was the rather broad title I set myself as I thought about the two (opposing) views of digital storytelling;  The fast and furious, stream driven, exploded pyramid of news Vs more considered long-form journalism.

In principle its easy to contrast the pressures of diving in to the stream with all it’s risks with the apparently more considered and (to some) more journalistic long form. I took a little step back in to the idea of slow journalism. It’s a thoroughly pompous concept in my view, but it’s interesting (and frustrating) to see some of the same discourse applied to support long-form.  It was an interesting coincidence that one of ‘slow’ journalism’s early suporters was none other than David “£2 pound tax” Leigh.

Ultimately though it’s a contrived contrast. In practice you can (and often have to) approach the process of journalism wary of both sides of the coin. Paul’s update to the model helps reinforce that – amazing what more arrows can do! – and was required reading this week.

The whole exercise reinforced for me the idea that in a broad context, thinking multimedia is the way to go when approaching digital narratives. Note the word digital there, not online. Yes, online is a unique medium. For journalists, who are mostly dealing with the stock website page, it comes with some very specific requirements for writing and story construction. But if we are looking to embrace the full opportunity of rebuilding our content across platforms then we still need to address the issue of how we create and curate our multimedia not just our interactions with the audience and their interactions with our content.

All of that echoed several lectures/conversations I had around more general concepts that I thought where touchstones in digital thinking at the moment:

  • Social media
  • Curation and real-time curation
  • Community
  • Data journalism
  • Multiplatform
  • Innovation
  • Entrepreneurship

Nothing ground breaking there, but I think there is an increasingly clear narrative to connect them. Think about how long-form relies on curation and an understanding of community to create content that takes advantage of tablets (where much of the time-shifted reading people engage in happens). It’s a narrative I’ve been trying to get straight for a little while. You can ask the students if they think I’m getting there. But if you want to see a first go, this is me at this years Nordic media festival giving it a go (it’s also the first time the Journalism is a diagnosis not a profession idea get’s an airing)

And finally, in discussing this, and perhaps trawling through endless kickstarters brandishing their slow journalism credentials like a battered copy of fear and loathing, made me realise just how much I hate the word innovation and how hollow it is.

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A Process and content checklist

I’ve been chatting with my undergraduate students about their experience with digital whilst on work placement. They went to a mix of magazines, regional newspapers(weekly and daily) and some to websites. As you can imagine their experience was a mixed bag from no digital at all to shooting video for the website.

When I asked those who had little or nothing to do with the web why, I got a range of answers. Some publications simply did not have a website and those that did saw it as secondary to the main task of putting out the paper. One of the students summed up the motivation for this when they quoted an editor who had told him (and I’m paraphrasing here)

“You can’t put the paper out with any gaps in it but you can put the website out with stuff missing”

It may surprise you to hear that I have a lot of sympathy with that view  – if nothing else I’m pragmatic. After all the editor is right. The paper is a pre-set framework with stuff to put in. Of course the web would come second. But we all know that it can and has to change.

Integrating the web in to the journalism process

Key to that change is the idea that the process of generating content has to consider the web platform from the start of the reporting process not just as an afterthought. As Paul Bradshaw recently blogged “Newsgathering IS production IS distribution”

It’s a concept that is reflected in the development of what I do at the university.

In the ten years that I’ve been teaching this stuff I’ve found myself stepping further and further away from the point of publication (teaching html, dreamweaver etc) and closer to the start of the journalistic process.  Now I’m telling people about how to integrate twitter and facebook in to their journalistic process. By thinking digital from the start  you can begin to create content for the newspaper AND for the web. Not one after the other.  It’s a convergence of effort rather than a duplication. What Robin Hamman called turning process in to content.

I had that in my mind when I was talking to another group of students about their assignments and encouraging them to consider a kind of check list, based on the tried and tested 5 W’s,  when they where starting off on a story.

  • Who – who are the key players in the story and do I have (or need to get)
     – a picture
     – a link to a bio or other information about them
  • What – what’s the issue? Do I have a link to a backgrounder or other articles that fill out the context of the story
  • When – make a note of times and dates of key events in your story. More than 5 or 6 of these may mean that your story would suit a timeline online.
  • Where – note locations, postcodes if you can, mentioned in the story. These may be useful for a map
  • Why – why is this important to your audience. Do you need to look across forums and communities to see what the reaction is like.

I also noted that you could, perhaps, throw a How in there as in “how did this happen”. This could be a mixture of the what and when and may help define and create a timeline or infographic.

Process and content checklist

I want to explore the best way to ingrain that way of thinking in the students and one way I’m going to try is with a checklist I created (pdf)

The idea is that this check list is filled out as the story develops and handed to the digital editor as the story nears completion

Here is an idea of how it might work – A local builder has asked for planning permission to build a slaughterhouse and rendering plant in an area that, local residents say, is too close to a school.

An example of a completed form
An example of a completed form

The list, generated as the story develops, to include images of the main players (the minimum you would want for a webpage). It also points to websites that could be included as related links. These will have been gathered as the journalist researched the story. Postcodes and a chronology of events where appropriate fill out the detail and indicate whether maps or timeline would work.

This may seem a little too systematic for some but I’d be interested in what you think of the idea as an aide memoir to kick start more online thinking earlier in the reporting process.

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Interesting things for the day

Much as I hate my first post for the new year to be a link list I’m elbow deep in marking at the moment. So here is what I’ve found interesting today.

Business Models for news online – Paul Bradshaw shares a recent presentation and jolly good it is to.

Amani Channel has decided to focus his Urban Report podcast on media production. I like the cut of his jib. And if tech is something on your list to engage with this year then you could do worse then look at Chris Amico’s wiki-like Tools for news

Ten questions for journalists in the era of overload – Matt Thompson poses some interesting questions to ask as we move in to a tough year. Think of them as self-diagnosis

George Hopkin pointed me a the announcement from Nintendo that they are starting a TV channel for the Wii. Considering the broad appeal of the platform this could be the trendsetter moment.

From games platforms to blogging platforms. Over at ZDNet Zack Whittaker seems a little behind the curve with Journalism vs. blogging: the present and the future but there are some interesting asides in Zack’s interview.

If WordPress is your blogging platform of choice, then how about a facelift? Try this list of  wordpress themes. But if you’ve moved to the new version of WordPress over Christmas then Mindy McAdams has a nice post on dealing with the new dashboard. The post also touches on students blogging which gives me chance to point out a nice post from Alf Hermida, guesting at media shift, about the value of blogging in Journalism education

Talking of Journalism education, Mark Hamilton has a great post offering “A few thoughts for my students before heading back to the classroom”. All my students will be seeing this when they get back along with the widely circulated ( Resolutions for journalism students from Suzanne Yada.

Mark Luckie over at 10,000words kept me busy this afternoon following a raft of new people as he updated his 10 Journalists you should follow on Twitter which I feature in at No 5, which is wrong for so many reasons, not least because of those who aren’t. But I’ll bask in the kudos and say hello to all those new followers who have made it this far. The post is worth a look for the comments where the decidedly male bias has started an interesting discussion. My wife would say it’s the slightly obsessive/compulsive nature of the male of the species that means there are more of us online.

Still, male or female,  there are more and more of us online as we enter the new year and in the Andy Burnham, our Minister for Culture, has stirred a little mumbling with his idea of ratings for the web. Steve Bowbrick has a great take on this as he focuses on the idea of filters  “What we should do in response to Burnham’s reflex rejection of the net’s openness and permissiveness is get on and provide the filters people need”. He is right and, as many have already said,  it should be one of the things journos look to add to their tool belt.

Of course journos have a lot to think about in the coming year. Over in the US the amount of good news seems in short supply as Jeff Jarvis (and the inneviatable comment discussion afterwards) proves. In the UK, blogger Fleet Street blues has some comparably dire predictions for 2009 including the prediction of a Mea culpa moment.

You can’t keep cutting journalists and demand ever more from them without something cracking. Yes, reporters make mistakes all the time. But expect something spectacular to emerge next year, a mistake, accidental or otherwise, so unavoidable that news editors the length and breadth of the country will have to sit up and take notice. Britain’s Jayson Blair, if you like.

Scary but it has a ring of inevitability about it. But finally, and more positively, Shawn Smith has a great post (and a kind of companion for Suzanne Yada’s post) Forget Survival: The Journalist’s Guide to Owning 2009 and Beyond. I love his starting point

Journalism is NOT dependent on the fate of your employer, newspapers or mass media. Rather, YOU can help decide journalism’s future.

Seesmic and the newspaper debate

UPDATE: Paul has a great blog post summing up the issues.

Paul Bradshaw has been doing a little ‘pre-blogging’ over at Seesmic with a question about what we should be teaching journalism students.

Some of the responses go as far as to suggest that three year degrees (in the UK students normally do a degree between 18-21) in journalism are a waste of time; Just too long a time to wait in this fast moving world. I can see the issue – When you are drowning it seems like a problem to have to wait for the lifeguard to learn how to swim.

But the responses show that the debate is, thankfully, a little more nuanced than that pithy summing up. Many of the issues have been debated before but never resolved. There’s a lot of issues to work out.

Also worth looking at is a little side conversation around the issue between Paul and Kevin Anderson

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Paul Bradshaw: making journalism pay

More essential posting on the Digital Newsroom from Paul Bradshaw.  If you haven’t caught up with this series of posts about the changes in the newsroom then you’re missing out.

In his latest post he talks about how to make money from the web. I suppose (and it saddens me a little) that this would be the first and only post many will read. After all thats the big question isn’t it. But there is much more to be had from soaking up all that Paul has to say.

As well as a useful round-up of the key areas to focus on, the post has a number of great sound bites that define the debate.

When talking about creating content people will pay for he says.

Most publishers are not creating commercial value, but social value. This is easy to dismiss, but online, social capital is a very powerful currency. One option (if not too injurious to publishers’ pride) would be reader donations. Readers may be more inclined to support journalism they believe in, such as a particular investigation or issue, rather than the website as a whole.

This is so true but Paul is quick to challenge an idea that this social value is intrinsically linked to local.

Newspapers and broadcasters have been limited by geography, and relevance to readers, so that the ‘why are we spending money on a website that isn’t read by local people?’ culture remains. We need to challenge our ideas of who our readers could be.

Changing markets 

One commenter has already suggested that, whilst the post is excellent, it’s perhaps a bit of a glum summation.  I disagree.

I think it’s makes a simple point very well – there are no simple answers.

Terms like local, community and content all mean different things now. But still a lot of firms are going for a quick fix. Paul makes the point that print has approached the web in the obvious way  “colonise the new territory, and export the business model online”.

The recognition that this doesn’t work has meant that many look for the quick fix. Buy in the solution. But that’s like only reading this last post in Paul’s excellent series. Not a good idea