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.