Monthly Archives: November 2006

The power of crowds

[Keyword: , , , ]. My latest Stirrer column looks at crowdsourcing. Here’s the article in full:

The power of crowds

Some journalists are afraid of their readers. They refuse to publish an email address at the end of their article; the newspaper website does not list their phone number; and as for ‘citizen journalism’, well, we didn’t spend all that time learning shorthand only for Joe Bloggs to get in on the act with no more qualifications than a mobile phone.

Others, however, are starting to realise that their readers are the best weapon they have in tackling a story that would otherwise prove too tough a nut to crack.

Take Ben Goldacre, for instance. Ben writes a regular column in the Saturday Guardian entitled ‘Bad Science’, which looks at science-related stories in the week’s media – you know, the sort of stories that begin “A revolutionary drug-free dyslexia remedy has been hailed a wonder cure by experts”.

For a number of weeks Ben has been writing about Durham Council’s claims to have run a trial of a fish oil food supplement. Durham Council staff he wrote, were “appearing all over the papers and television in news stories to promote a pill called Eye Q made by Equazen, suggesting it is effective at improving concentration and learning in normal children, an assertion that is not supported by published trial data.”

Ben’s attempts to get hold of the trial information have proved unsuccessful – firstly his phonecalls and emails went unanswered, and then his request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was rejected on the grounds of cost.

So Ben decided to turn to his readers. Realising that a request for just two or three of the pieces of information he had requested should not be rejected on the grounds of cost, he asked his readers to make those, smaller, requests instead, with the intention of collecting the different pieces of information together afterwards.

The readers have responded in droves: at the time of writing there were 173 comments on Ben’s blog from people who have made the FOI request – and this in a world where most journalists wouldn’t know how to make an FOI request.

But this isn’t an isolated case. It’s called crowdsourcing, and in America newspaper publishers Gannett are already looking to integrate the process into their news operations after some particularly successful campaigns – including one investigation of a local authority’s excessive water connection fees where “retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.”

In a world where the only investigative journalism involves rooting through the rubbish of celebrities, and where people are increasingly cynical of power and those who hold it – both politicians and journalists – crowdsourcing provides a spark of hope that perhaps the people still do have some power, and more importantly: they’re keen to exercise it.

Useful links:

BadScience >> Fish Oil
Something fishy?
Gannett to Crowdsource News

Paul Bradshaw lectures on the Journalism degree at UCE Birmingham media department. He writes a number of blogs including the Online Journalism Blog, Interactive PR and Web and New Media

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BBC News is 43% in touch with what we’re reading (at time of writing)

[Keyword: , ]. Thanks to colleague Dave Harte for pointing this one out: it’s a webpage that tells you how in touch the BBC news agenda is by comparing what the BBC currently has as its running order on its site and what people are actually reading. Actually, 43% is probably a decent result compared to most publications…

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The future of newspapers

[Keyword: , , , ]. Article in the Independent, of all places (the least forward-thinking of the broadsheets) with quotes from various industry people. Most of it you’ve heard before – the usual waffle about ‘brands’ and ‘more people are reading newspapers than ever before’ and ‘it’s a two-way communication with readers’, but I like Piers Morgan’s to-the-point assessment: “It will be the newspapers who are the most dynamic online who win. “

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Column: whose content is it anyway?

[Keyword: , ]. Here’s my latest Stirrer column:

Andrew Neil is not happy. The BBC broadcaster and former editor of The Sunday Times is the latest news executive to attack Google News, the aggregation service that collects stories from news sources around the world.

Neil opened the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow with a complaint about the service: “We don’t charge them a penny for our hard-earned journalism,” he moaned. “It’s time for a conversation with Google. They can afford it.”

The Google News excuse is fast becoming a cliché in news circles, as newspaper revenues decline and executives cast around for someone to blame. In March journalists from The Times and the World Association of Newspapers used the Online Publishers Association to attack the service. Phillipe Janet, an online news executive with French newspaper Les Echos, said Google News should be banned form “stealing content and revenues from newspapers”.

One Belgian news organisation felt so strongly about the issue that when Google News launched its Belgian service they sued the company, saying “We are asking for Google to pay and seek our authorisation to use our content … Google sells advertising and makes money on our content”.

Now that’s not strictly true: Google News features no advertising. And when the Belgians won the case all they really won was the right not to be listed on Google. This is like suing WHSmiths for stocking your newspaper. I’ve never heard a better definition of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’, and the newspaper website ad sales department must have been ringing with the sound of heads hitting desks.

Just as Andrew Neil bemoans the fact that newspapers don’t charge Google News for their journalism, Google News could argue “We don’t charge them a penny for sending thousands of readers to their website”.

What newspapers should be doing, of course, is making a deal with Google which allows the search engine giant to start advertising alongside newspaper content, with newspapers taking a cut.

But while the dinosaurs lumber over the pennies, a limber Google is testing out fresh ideas every day that just keep fillings its coffers. And its latest plan? Acting as a broker for people to buy advertising space… in newspapers.

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Google to Try Selling Advertisements for Newspapers

[Keyword: , ]. Attention Andrew Neil: Google is one step ahead of you: “Google will run a three-month test — set to be announced today — that is designed to make it easy for newspaper advertisers to come to the popular search-engine site, find a newspaper they want to advertise in, browse ad rates and buy an ad.”

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