Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hasty or hero? Al-Zaidi bears his sole

The "shoe-thrower of Baghdad", as Muntazer al-Zaidi has now been dubbed by the Independent, has caused ripples of controvery the world over. The blogosphere went into over-drive with people posting the undeniabily amazing (if unintentionally farcical) video footage and people the world over have rejoiced at the sight of al-Zaidi's brave action. In a world of global communication, he has become an over-night hero for all those opposed to the allied occupation in Iraq.

So I was interested to see in yesterday's paper a comment from another Iraqi. Hamza Mahdi, a Baghdad shop keeper, was quoted saying: "I don't like Bush, but I don't agree with this action, it's not civilised. Journalists should use pen and paper to make their point, not their shoes". Is he right? Did al-Zaidi's action demonstrate the dangers of a journalist being too close to a story?

Obviously this "closeness" was through no fault of his own. Considering he has watched his country fall down around his ears, not to mention the fact he was kidnapped and badly beaten in 2007, one can hardly even begin to imagine, let alone blame him for the strength of his anger against those he feels are responisble. But it raises an important question about when emotion stops you doing your job. Have his actions aided understanding? I would suggest not. Although blogs and editorials have been almost unanimously in support of him, discussion has largely been of his daring action, not the motivation and stories behind it. The only thing I know for certain is that to throw shoes in an Arab country is not a good idea, despite the fact I can now do it for myself.

It reminded me of another example where a journalist's actions took away from the gravity of the situation. John Sweeney's outburst during a BBC Panormama investigation into the Church of Scientology has achieved almost legendary status. But can you remember what you actually learned from the programme about scientology? Thought not.

I am not for one moment taking away from the resentment al-Zaidi feels towards Bush. In my opinion it is understandable and justified. But I think it raises the very real problem journalists face when reporting on any difficult, complex and emotive situation to balance their own emotions with getting a story across, as Hamza Mahdi says, using a pen and paper. Or whatever the digital version of that is now. al-Zaidi's actions have wider inferences that go way beyond his shoe size.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Here endeth the lesson- and a mission statement

After ten weeks of blogging about weekly guest lectures we have received as part of our training, I am now going solo into the world of online media and blogging. No more speeches by industry experts to provide subject matter and inspriation- it's just me, my laptop and whatever topic takes my fancy.

I have decided to stick with what I know and am most passionate about- journalism and media more generally- but will blog on things I find interesting, outrageous, or just things that catch my eye. I aim to keep a close watch on all things 'online', and hope this will still form the backbone of my posts, but hopefully in a more varied way before.

So there's my mission statement. The first thing which has caught my eye was something I saw in The Sunday Times' Spectrum magazine. I love the Sunday Times, and this recent addition to their magazine showcases photo journalism from around the world each week. So now I love it even more.

Their centre spread this Sunday was a picture (above) taken by Brazilian photographer Christian Cravo of a Haitian vodoo exorcism. The picture was striking, and on reading the blurb I found it was nominanted for a new photo prize called the Prix Pictet. The prize, launched this year, is the first photographic competition to focus on issues of global sustainability, and this year's entries focussed on the theme of water. I've come to this belatedly as the winner was announced back in October, but some of the pictures are wonderful.

I particulalry like Malcolm Hutcheson's series (left) looking at the horrendous waste water situation in Lahore where 90% of the country's sewerage pours untreated into the local water supply, but the other 18 shortlisted entries all tell fascinating stories. The BBC put together a great slide show (in the style of a digital storytelling narritive) of the best of the compeition with commentary by the head of the Prix Pictet jury, so check it out.

In relation to the global effort to save our environment, media communications must play a key role in getting the message across and challenging apathy. These untold stories do just that and I agree with sustainability blog Inhabitat when they say "one must appreciate the visible power of such well crafted, critical, visual communication".

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Crying lone wolf

The most talked-about aspect of the "digi revolution" has been the explosion in social networking sites. There are the big guns we're all familiar with- Facebook, MySpace, Bebo. And those which are starting to rise up to face off their well established rivals, such as Twitter, Plurk and Flickr. Jemima Kiss blogged this week about the continental alternatives to such sites, for example the Spanish Tuenti, or the German Wer Kennt Wen. Others which you may not be familar with include a site aimed at networking mums called CafeMom, the self explanatory Horseland and Wired Journalists.

So the possibilities for communication and connection across continents and interests are now huge. But some critics suggest this move to the online world is making us more isolated offline than ever. Instead of going out and making friends, we're "accepting" their requests. And social networking and multi-media has had just as big an influence on the way we work as journalists as it has on Joe Bloggs's friend count, so I was interested to hear a similar worry raised by the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. In his lecture at Cardiff University, he suggested a reporter in 2008 is much more likely to be working as a lone wolf than as part of a team.

When I thought about this, I started to look at it in two ways. Firstly, as trainee journalists we are working hard to become the multi-skilled, multi-talented reporters of the new age and becoming increasingly self-sufficient. As we know by now, we can write, film, record, edit and publish, all on a rather swanky looking laptop. We don't need colleagues. As far back as 2005, and three years is a long time in the world of online, the industry noticed this move away from the traditional ways of working. Jay Rosen writes in his blog the "stand alone journalist has arrived". He also highlights an issue which I have discussed before, about being in competition not just with other publications but with every blogger out there. Somewhat prophetically he raises the possibility of syndicating UGC, which Cellan-Jones pointed out has now become a reality with sites such as Demotix.

But the second thing was whether this isolation will contribute to the decline of 'out-of-the-office' journalism. In a 2007 article for the Committe of Concerned Journalists, Katherine Noyes's interviews with reporters reveal just such concerns. If we as individual journalists have sources at our finger tips, can interview people via live video stream, we need never brace the British weather or have any human contact ever again.

Of course this is not the case. Journalists will always need, and want, to get out there with real, live people. Even the most hyperbolic Tweet is not the same as witnessing events and emotions in front of your own eyes (India Knight joins critics of social networking, discussing how far is too far when replacing human interaction with its Twitter equivalent). But the isolation from colleagues is concerning. If we are turning ourselves into all-singing, all-dancing, journalistic dream machines, who's to tell us when we're getting it wrong? When to take a step back from a story? Or a fantastic idea or angle we hadn't picked up on? Obviously editors will always have an input, but what about colleagues further down the chain of command who are just as valuable? If their role belongs to UGC now, which is added post-publication, could there be a sense of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?

To get jobs in this climate we have to be technical chameleons, but I agree 100 per cent with Rory when he says a sense of balance must be kept in mind.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Bad Boys of Brand

One of the developments as a result of the digital sphere is that a handful of individual journalists have become brands or identifiable commodities in their own right, founder of and former regional journalist Rick Waghorn told us today. BBC business editor Robert Peston has become so recognisable in the last 12 months it prompted a slew of articles about the man behind the scoops. Who is this guy? Who were his sources? He really was "the face of the credit crunch"- a brand name.

What was remarkable about this was "Britain...turned toward a journalist to tell us what is going on". But aren't journalists the least trustworthy people on Earth? Apparently not. Despite all the traditional and well respected corporations out there, this individual forged an identity that had people turning to him.

One of my colleagues made the very good point that Peston would not be where he is today if it were not for the BBC providing him with the tools to get there, and I whole-heartedly agree. But in principle, I would hazard a guess that this idea of the branded journalist will become crucial.

In an increasingly fragmented market place, with huge competition not only from your own profession but anyone capable of setting up a Blogger or Wordpress account, carving out your brand identity is key, even if it is within an organisation like the BBC. It is arguable that considering the anti-BBC backlash of recent months and years, the corporation are relying on people like Peston to fly the flag just as much as people like Peston are relying on them for a flag pole. (Although some would say Sachs-gate is an example of what happens when this relationship gets out of hand.)

So I was somewhat confused when Mr Waghorn suggested that we "Go back to what we're good at: good writing". After weeks of being told to embrace multi-media, this felt like being told to get back to that type-writer, you are a newspaper journalist.

He advised us not to get involved in this mobile journalism fad, but instead to form a sort of journalistic swap shop and trade our precious copy for say, a broadcaster's professional video footage. He said this would cut costs because we wouldn't be wasting our time and money by trying to have it all.

I think this is way off the mark and part of the reason why many local newspapers are failing- because they haven't grasped that one skill doesn't cut the mustard anymore. And multi-skilled journalism is a good thing because it opens up the avenues of choice in media consumption. You want local news from a journalist, a "brand", you trust? Great. Want it in a video blog? A multi-media journalist can do that. You want video clips that correspond with my written report? Got that too. But if you don't like my version, our rival paper's got something different.

Basically, to rely on some sort of shared melting-pot to put multi-media content together, I think, seriously threatens to stifle the variety this new age of media offers. (Waghorn appears to be a supporter of choice, chastising regional newspaper groups for rejoicing over the BBC's climbdown on BBC Local, so its possible I've misunderstood him.)

The most successful brands haven't got there by doing one thing, getting good at it and then sticking with it. The multiple strands of Richard Branson's Virgin empire are extremely varied; cola, record stores, planes, mobile phones, wine, trains, even space travel for God's sake. And although Murdoch tends to stay within the communications industry, he hasn't become the world's most famous media mogul by refusing to try his hand at something new. The secret isn't to stick to what you know. It's to learn something well, add it to your skill set, and move on to something new.

Friday, 21 November 2008

"If there is a flaw, it's human. It always is."

Shane Richmond, communities editor at the Telegragh, told us this week the internet is causing newspaper readers to become increasingly fragmented. People no longer want to be pigeon-holed as a particular kind of 'reader', be it Guardian, Telegraph, the Sun, whichever. And this is essentially a good thing. On balance stereotypes are always unhelpful and it tackles the notion of straight forward poltical affiliations. People may hold a range of opinions and ideas; left is not simply left, right not only right.

So the fact reader loyalty is on the wane and people are selecting their material not just by topic but down to the individual article is giving them more choice. You might not buy multiple newspapers but you probably will click on a couple of websites to get your politics at the Times or your reviews at the Independent. And it has also made RSS central to many web users' daily routine.

Really simple syndication, or rich site summary depending on what you read, has taken off in a big way. Microsoft acknowledged its arrival in 2005. In the same year a white paper produced by Yahoo predicted the number of RSS users in the US and UK was 72.8 million. And that was three years ago.

Although I am a relative late-comer to RSS, I am a fan. But one thing concerns me. No matter how many different view points you source on a subject using feeds, you still have particular interests. Whether it's British politics, American sport, or Brazilian film, one advantage of RSS is:

"It allows you to easily stay informed by retrieving the latest content from the sites you are interested in".

But this could be limitng. Is there a danger that RSS is the virtual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "I can't hear you!" to the stuff you're not interested in? Science is not really my thing, but the advantage of reading a newspaper or using a news homepage is whilst heading for the stuff you would normally go for, you might come across an important story that catches your eye. A recent example for me would be CERNs large hadron collider. This would probably never come through on my RSS because its not covered by the sort of feeds I subsribe to, but it's a pretty significant scientific event. And while I understand RSS feeds are probably rarely used in isolation, Amy Gahran points out the effect they are having on websites as well as newspaper sales:
"Web sites are becoming less important for online content distribution as RSS feeds are enjoying increasingly mainsteam usage."

Although Gahran provides a great discussion about how online entities can market and forward traffic from RSS feeds, my point is that there are things people should know which could be missed using RSS. When Shane Richmond speculated about Web 3.0 as a mass of free floating information tailored especially for your needs I was reminded of everyones' favourite Scientologist, Tom Cruise (no offence to Shane). In sci-fi thriller Minority Report, advertisements are specifically tailored for you. Spyware on Amazon and iTunes already use this kind of technology with "others like you bought..." mechanisms. If this happens with the internet at large, where does this leave exploration and discovery?

RSS is an extremely useful tool and there are some really interesting discussions about its advantages regarding privacy and control. Rob Alderson flips my argument on its head looking at what My Telegraph bloggers are talking about- many of their posts centred on topics that weren't making the news. But I think Anthony Mayfield's point from last week can be used here too: utilise the technology, don't be lead by it. The technology is great, but it presents the very human temptation to be lazy. Keep thinking outside the RSS box.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

A local tool, for local people

Rupert Murdoch's warning that developing technologies "have the power to destroy not just companies but countries" must have sent shivers through the spines of many newspaper editors. But perhaps none more so than the local newspaper editor-he who tirelessly serves his region to bring his people their news. The shop closures which will mean they have to travel 10 miles for a pint of milk; the road works which will play havoc with a town's day-to-day life for weeks to come. These publications are facing real, immediate threats. Profit figures for Trinity Mirror are down 11.4 per cent. Similarly, Johnston Press profits dropped by 15.5 per cent. And these are the bigger players in local media.

Guardian Media Group CEO Carolyn McCall said recently the internet had "decimated" local media by taking the classifieds market and using it far more effectively. In his now famous speech to the Society of Editors, Paul Dacre declared regional media were in an "inexorable downward spiral". So when iCrossing's Anthony Mayfield said what makes successful online companies is the way they target interest communities, I was slightly confused. Under this remit- target your niche- local media has the potential to thrive. Readers of local paper want news tailored to their lives, their concerns. Local media should be making a killing here.

But it's not. And with circulations falling, the funding to set up online is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. But what about the abundance of free tools available on the internet? Twitter, Flicker, GoogleMaps. So I started thinking about how local media might use these tools to target their niche market.

I went to a town planning meeting at Penarth Town Council on Thursday night. Sounds thrilling doesn't it? But this is exactly the kind of area where local publications can use media tools to give their audience what they want. People care if there is going to be a Tescos built on the local park. They care even more if the next-door-neighbour is going to build a conservatory right next to their patio. Remember the story a few years ago when a man killed his neighbour of 20 years in an argument about a hedge? People want to know who's planning what, and GoogleMaps can show this in a visual manner to let your local audience know what might be affecting them. The map below shows the location of all the applications discussed at the Penarth meeting on Thursday. Click on them and you get details about the plans and what stage in the process the council are at.

View Larger Map

And it could be developed further. Links could be added to the full planning application or architect's drawings. Or an option for lodging objections or signing an online petition. Admittedly this isn't making any money but my counter argument for that is two-fold. Firstly it's free, so at least you're not spending anything. And secondly, despite Carolyn McCall's comments about advertising, a recent survey by OPA showed that readers trust local newspapers and their advertisers much more than national publications. This is something local papers can take advantage of. In many ways they can obey Anthony Mayfield's "rules of engagement" for successful online media ventures much more easily than the national papers. They're already deeply embedded in their "network" and are "live" within it. What is essential is that they use tools like the example here to remain useful to their audience as well. Where local newspapers will fail is if they do not realise that just putting your content online is no longer enough.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my local newspaper, The Hexham Courant (big picture at the top) has revamped its website and begun to embrace the internet as a multi-media platform. They now have a blog, video news bulletins and access to their supplements on "virtual print" pages. It's still quite basic, but a big step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

My Big Digital Adventure

No sooner had I sworn to make online and digital media "my thing", than I was handed the perfect opportunity dive in head first.

A fortunate few of the Cardiff postgrads went to cover the Society of Editors Conference 2008 in Bristol as reporters for the Society's webiste. That in itself was exciting- a fantastic experience to get bylined on an industry body's website (shameless self-promotion perhaps) not to mention getting to listen in on a huge range of opinions about the buzzword ringing in everyones ears: CONVERGENCE.

Going straight from a contaversial speech like Paul Dacre's or a thought-provoking rant from "video visionary" Michael Rosenblum and writing for immediate publication online was exhilirating. And of course there's nothing like white-knuckle pressure to give you complete clarity of mind when writing.

But what was more thrilling was the 'unofficial' coverage the group did via Twitter under the hash tag #soe08. I think I'm right in saying Cardiff students set this tag up last week, and although I have no doubt the system would have been set up by someone else if we hadn't, it gave me a real buzz to see the number, and calibre, of people who got involved using the same tag and providing practially minute by minute coverage. With over 10 pages of tweets, contributors included Press Gazette,, the Guardian's Jemima Kiss, lecturer Paul Bradshaw, MediaUKPress, online journalist and blogger Martin Stabe as well as pretty much every one of the student contigent.

Reporting this way gave a real sense of connection. That we were being published and read by people who already have the long and exciting careers we seek was empowering. And equally, we had instant access to their thoughts on what was going on. But one issue this threw up was: is Twitter a tool primarily being used by media types, for media types? Could we report like this on a non-media event or more local story? And who would read it? Its recent outing on Radio 4 might change this and I was delighted when my housemate (a music student) said she'd signed up to see what it was about. But I'd be interested to know if people think, other than major media events like the US election, it currently has value as a crowd sourcing tool.

Another limitation was pointed out to me by Rob Alderson, my partner in crime in this most digital of adventures. Dacre's speech was at 7pm, but its contents was embargoed until 10pm. No matter how instantaneous the internet is in itself, there are still real world restrictions that can limit this immediacy.

On an unrelated point, there is an important demographic observation to be made. The majority of people at the conference were white, old-ish men. Of the handful of women it was disheartening to be told that many of those were the wives or partners of the male professionals and I saw just one black journalist. It struck me as odd that we were talking about massive change when some of the basic demographics at the top end of journalism seem to have a way to go.

In her interview with Cardiff's Hannah Waldram, Jemima Kiss highlights that for this reason, the conference was probably most valuable for people like us because we will be the ones to change things.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

An "old fart" in a 21-year-old's body?

Reading back over my last few blog posts (probably something you should never do), I realised I'm covering the same ground each week, just in a different disguise. I start off proclaiming that I am wary, cynical and sceptical. Call it what you will, I'm basically reiterating that I'm not very well versed in the art of online. I then take up whatever subject has been the point of discussion that week- UGC, digital storytelling, networked journalism and so on- and I appear to talk myself round to believing that actually they're not so frightening, and I should embrace them. I vow to do so. (I warn you now, I suspect I'm about to do this one last time.)

Fast forward to the following Saturday morning, or whenever, as I sit down to "embrace" the internet and it starts again. I feel wary, cynical and sceptical. And most of all, out of my depth. Just what is going on here? I am a 21-year-old journalism student training in what I am told is one of the most exciting eras of modern journalism. So, as logically follows, this week I decided to blog on something I know about; something I'm comfortable with. The death of the newspaper. With Matthew Yeomans highlighting that after 100 years in print the Christian Science Monitor is becoming an online-only publication, and Twitter investor Marc Andressen suggesting the very same day the New York Times should follow suit, I wanted to look at how this has happened. And to confirm, to myself more than anything, that I had to move on.

But when I fished around a bit, I found a pretty confusing picture. While the latest ABC (circulation) figures for September show all the nationals with the exception of The Sun down on sales compared to this time last year, Gavin O'Reilly pointed out that newspapers are a $19 billion a year industry and global newspaper sales grew last year. While the House of Lords asserted that between 1992 and 2006 the amount of adults reading newspapers dropped by 24%, editor of the Daily Express Peter Hill said "I don't see an end to newspapers, ever." Although he acknowledged that he may be considered an "old fart" John Humphreys added "The idea of a society functioning without newspapers is simply preposterous." Screw the traditional media? Tell that to John Humphreys. Hurrah!

And then I came across this: "My gut feeling is that if I was an ambitous 21-year-old and had two job offers, one from traditional print and one from online content or distribution, my guess is that most people would take the online." Well thank you Head of Yahoo! media group John Gisby. I am an ambitious 21-year-old. And I'm a little ashamed to say that put in that situation I probably wouldn't feel drawn to the latter. Why? I suggest that in an industry that isn't sure whether its embarcing or rejecting online, it can be difficult to decide whether you're in or out.

I'm spending this blog pontificating over whether I can get involved in online journalism, rather than just being involved. Any synonims for "apprehensive" are banned from my posts from now on.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Digital Storytelling: Life Through the Lens

I have been a bit wary about online/interactive journalism over the last few weeks. But Daniel Meadows’ discussion of digital storytelling turned several of my assumptions on their head.

He began by talking about media literacy. Ofcom made this a priority in 2003, but my reservations expressed here have centred on the notion that citizen journalism enthusiasts are getting way ahead of themselves and I thought I was about to be vindicated when Daniel said one in five adults are illiterate/innumerate. But he pointed out that with digital story telling, this doesn’t matter. We might be running before we can walk, but this is a whole new way to get from A to B. Teaching communities how to create a digital story allows the most basic barriers to journalism (and many other professions) to be broken down so we can hear the stories behind the news.

Luciana Padilla’s digital story is a great example of this. Looking at her life as a Peruvian immigrant in the US, she provides a real, human window into issues we often understand through statistics. Big hitting subjects like sexuality, immigration and economics are all covered here, but in a way which conveys the real human cost.
So people make news, and digital stories humanise it, but are they news? They feel like a feature, an after-school special for the real substance of news. But this is another assumption which needs questioning; in a world where the public can make and break a story, Daniel asked what our vision for journalism is and I'm warming to this holistic approach to news. The stories behind the story. The public telling us when we’re getting it wrong. Journalists are privileged in the access they have to the people who make up news, and initiatives such as Capture Wales or its English equivalent, BBC’s Telling Lives can bridge the gap between a news ‘issue’ and its reality.
On Friday the BBC ran a day of interactive events asking “How is the economic downturn affecting you?” Despite the apocalyptic forecast given by news outlets over the last couple of months, people’s individual stories varied dramatically. An interactive map showed a large percentage of people had “improved finances” with comments like “Is there a downturn?” (Gert Berden) and “Its still looking rosy” (Adrian Riley). Although this particular topic may not lend itself particularly well to digital storytelling, it demonstrates the disjuncture that can occur between news and the individuals living it, and the void that methods like digital storytelling can fill.
But if people can tell their own stories, do journalists still have a job? This is coming up time and time again. Both Daniel and Barrie Stephenson say yes. Stephenson says that journalists have always been part of “community service”. The difference is now we can actually see and hear the community. In slightly starker terms, Daniel asks what would you rather be; predator or collaborator? Given the diabolical levels of public trust for journalists, the former clearly isn’t working for us.
It's not citizen or interactive or networked journalism that threatens this trade. It's a refusal to accept that change is good.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

From Gatekeeper to Facilitator

The possibilities for modern networked journalism seem baffling to me. But looking at the Alison Gow’s very logically constructed blog, I had to agree when she said “I had no idea how thin the ‘old’ opportunities for investigating stories would look compared to the tools at our disposal now.” With this in mind, I decided to ‘investigate’ this post using networked journalism resources. I deleted google from my tool bar, and got comfortable.

Using Delicious, I searched for anything tagged “networkedjournalism” and the first thing I came across (which I managed to “Mento”) was a Buzz Machine article by Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis is something of a pioneer for networked journalism and has been pushing hard to promote its virtues. The article was great for those struggling with networks, giving a really basic definition that I would recommend reading before looking at the likes of Alison Gow. Although I disagree the idea of networked journalism in itself is new (journalism has always been about people) certainly the possibilities the internet provides for its expansion are promising.

Journalists might feel that they’re traditional roles are threatened, but this interview with Jeff Jarvis suggests that while it would be foolish not to move forward with the networked journalism, we do still have a role.

This is perhaps explained more clearly by Charlie Becket (also found on Delicious, also “Mentod”) when he says “The networked journalist changes from being a gatekeeper who delivers to a facilitator who connects.” I like that sound of that.

One criticism of networked journalism is that journalists barely have time to do journalism in the traditional manner let alone use all the options listed by Alison Gow (check out the comments under her blog for a discussion of this). But the Florida example discussed by Becket actually shows networked journalism as time saving. And with tools such as which let you act across multiple forums, there are perhaps less hurdles for journalists to get over than people think. The most difficult part of realising the potential here is getting everyone, but most importantly the public, to look at news in a different way. This is exciting, not frightening. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Dipity is another time saving tool, particularly for research. Acting as a content aggregator it creates a timeline from multiple sources on any topic. Typing in “Jeff Jarvis” brought up a Roy Greenslade article presenting the various sticking points for getting networked journalism up and running in a newsroom when there is little support from owners or proprietors, perhaps something our generation of journalists can hope to change. A few of us created a Cardiff Journalism Dipity channel- I’ve put the Kate Adie lecture on there just to start it off, but people could perhaps link their own blogs or any material they want to share.

I’ve found researching using these tools to be a lot more focussed than simply using a search engine. The material I found was much more likely to be relevant and this demonstrates the advantages of having quick access to active communities with shared histories and causes. For my part I've created a networked journalism channel on Mento if people fancy adding resources to see what people are using.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Stifling the stigma: UGC and stereotyping

Geeks, numbskulls, amateurs, idiots and loonies. Not exactly high praise for people who create user generated news content. Anthony Lilley suggests the stigma attached to UGC is enshrined in the term itself: “When did the word ‘user’ last have a positive meaning?" And a recent New Scientist article suggesting YouTubers are driven by attention seeking rather than altruism hasn’t helped. But where is all this name-calling coming from, and what sort of damage is it doing to the potential of citizen journalism?

I looked at a few ways contributors to UGC (broadcast and bloggers) have been discussed recently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reactions of high profile personalities have tended to be disdainful. The Register reported this month that Culture and Media Secretary Andy Burnham patronised members of the Royal Television Society by telling them that “The internet is an excellent source of casual opinion.” And Paxman's reaction to Newnsnight’s “pathetic attempt” to embrace UGC in their ‘Oh My Newsnight’ section leaves us in little doubt about his opinion.

This Mitchell and Webb Look clip has a similar tone, and all reiterate that the audience’s “casual” opinion or experiences are often worth diddly-squat in the world of ‘real media’.

In a sense these reactions are understandable. Many professionals feel their trade is being threatened. As the Blog Herald's Scott Karp suggests, the boundary between publishers and consumers is being challenged. But what I found most interesting was the hierarchies within different factions of the ‘pro-sumer’ community; insults such as “geeks” and “numbskulls” all came from bloggers or UGC sites. Bloggers were keen to brand their fellow broadcast contributors ranting lunatics, while one Dr Vee was completely unaware of the irony in stating “any old fool can rant down a microphone”. If UGC contributors are slinging mud at one another, how are we to break down the stereotypes held by the 99% of people who don’t trust blogs or online forum content?

But whilst many think UGC is self-centred rubbish with nowhere near the rigour provided by professional journalists, Jemima Kiss suggests flipping this criticism of selfish ignorance on its head. Far from being stupid, these ‘numbskulls’ are more likely to “know their subject inside out”. The video diary of the mother of a disabled child who has been affected by NHS funding cuts will know her subject 10 times better “than a journalist who might pick up a story for a few hours”. Citizen journalism in the form of UGC should not (and realistically I don’t believe it ever will) take over, but it could provide a very useful source of ‘niche knowledge’.

To be taken seriously UGC needs to do be doing serious things- and it is. Recent examples include GroundReport breaking the story of bomb blasts in Bangalore, and ReadWriteWeb reports that Britain’s (mini) earthquake in February was broken by BreakingNewsOn, a Twitter based news site. The comments underneath these stories are indicative of the strong feelings that praise for UGC invokes on both sides of the divide. There is rubbish out there, but in continuing to attach a stigma to UGC fewer people will believe anyone is doing anything of worth.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Digital Divide and Me

When Glyn’s presentation proclaimed that blogs are reflecting the world through communication and that Web 2.0 is “us”, my first thought was “well it's not me”. I have had access to the internet at home since I was 13 and have rarely ventured further than checking my e-mails. My fault entirely, but it begged the question, who is using the internet to communicate, and more importantly, who isn’t? I’ve always thought that one of the main aims (and difficulties) of journalism is to give a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves. Obviously the net and Web 2.0 in particular has massive potential to enable this. I just wondered how it was doing so far.

I looked up a few stats to get a rough idea. In the UK, 99.6% of households could in theory have internet access. However, 40% of the population do not. Not surprisingly, that 40% is the poorest and already most marginalised members of society. Steps are being taken to bridge this digital divide. At the Labour conference last week, Gordon Brown announced a £300 million plan to give 1.4 million of the countries poorest children free broadband access, and that’s great. But as one article highlighted, people need more than just access; they need motivation and education. I’m a middle-class case in point. I guess I’m saying that I take issue with the idea that “anyone” can do it.

Looking globally, just 21.9% of the world’s entire population have internet access, and the breakdown of this figure produces predictable patterns. Estimates vary depending on the source, but according to Internet World Stats 73.6% of North Americans have internet access, compared to just 5.3% of Africans. To put it another way, the industrialised world makes up 88% of the world’s internet users, but only 15% of the global population.

Without churning out anymore numbers, the thing I wanted to explore is this: the rich end of the developed world already has multiple channels for communication, whereas some of the voices we need to hear are still waiting for just one. I’m not saying that existing online and interactive citizen journalism is obsolete, far from it, but maybe the revolution still has a long way to go.

I looked at some of the ways those countries with limited access are using blogs, and found some really interesting examples. Nasim Furkat’s blog, Afghan Lord, written by an Afghani living in Kabul, is worth having a look at . He won the Freedom of Expression Blog Award from Reporters without Borders in 2005, and still blogs regularly. I think the last post was dated September 20th 2008. But there were loads of other examples from Columbia to Cambodia. Also, whilst looking at the This is Zimbabwe blog I found a link to Blog Action Day 2008’s site. It’s on the 15th October, and is a great example of the global conversation the lecture talked about.

I’m well aware that I could be romanticising the aim or potential of blogs, but for something to be described as a global conversation, access also needs to be global. I have also not done any extensive travelling outside of Europe and these could be very ignorant observations, so I’d be really interested to hear about anyone else’s experiences in other countries.


Just a couple of examples of the work that is going on to improve global internet access.