FAQ: questions from Maite Fernandez

A few months ago Uruguayan student Maite Fernandez interviewed me about online journalism. I always try to make these responses public for other students who may have the same questions, so here are the answers as transcribed by Maite:

1) How do you think the net affects the transmission of news?

One major way lies in distribution. Print news spent decades setting up a distribution infrastructure (typically delivery vans, vendors/newsagents and paper boys); broadcast news did the same with distribution over time (scheduling and running orders). But online, distribution is networked – and it is done by readers and, to a lesser extent, the journalists themselves. As I’ve written elsewhere, we are all paperboys now.

A second major effect is that readers can now create their own news experience. They choose what to read, when to read it, and how much depth to go into. If they know where to look, they choose which voices they read – whether that’s reporters, pundits, experts, organisational statements, other readers, or people experiencing what’s happening.

I could go on and on, but there’s plenty been written on this.

2) You’ve listed the main characteristics of the internet in the publication of news, as depth and speed. Do you see any shortcomings or possible negative aspects in the transmission of news via the net?

I don’t believe any technology – whether that’s paper, video, audio or the web – inherently has negative aspects in terms of news. But all of those influence the way you report. The inclination on the web – as with broadcast media before – is to be ‘the first’, and many have pointed out the risks to accuracy, etc. of that.

I don’t really think any technology inherently has negative aspects. But I think we should be aware that different technologies –paper, radio, video, television- have some influences in the way you report. I think that we should be aware of that with the web. We should be just as reflective as online journalists as we are as printed journalist, and television, and so on.

For example, as a web journalist I think there is a big pressure to be the first. To be the person who is first on to the search engines. Related to that I think there is a pressure to be –and this is felt more by bloggers, but I think it will increasingly be felt by professional journalists- getting links from the big sites: the Boing Boings, getting on the top of Digg, Del.icio.us, places like that, and I think that will become and interesting dilemma.

Likewise I think the way advertising is used online that might have a possible negative aspect. And the division of church and state is fuzzy. But it is different, it is not the same as you selling advertising yourself.

I mean, I think there are drawbacks in any journalism, and I think one needs to be careful of seeing it as being good. I think we need to recognise the strong elements of traditional journalism and make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. But I do think the Internet has a capacity to take the positive aspects of all the news: the visual impact of broadcast media, the lyricism if you like of text based media, audio obviously you can have but also interactivity. So it’s flexible enough to take all of those. May I say that people consume news differently and perhaps that has implications for me to explore. (…)

3) In your opinion, what’s the next step for online media? Are the contents going to be open to the users to modify, such as the contents in Wikipedia? Do you think that personalized news (as daily me) is going to be more used?

Yes to both suggestions. I think that wikis will play a more important role but it’s a long long long way we are talking, ten years at least before wikis have any significant role in the news production. I think Wikipedia itself already does a very good job… See the entries of the 7th of July bombings. All sorts of large events have been reported well on Wikipedia. Wiki news is less successful but I think as wikis become more widely used in society, journalists will think about them more as a possible tool in journalism.

Personalization I definitely think is increasingly becoming important… I think it already is in terms in the way we have social filters, friends recommending things, free mail, free delicious networks, free twitter, Facebook, and so on. So personalization I think is going to be more important and I think newspapers will increasingly use databases to create a personalization for themselves so they’ll learn what news people are reading and suggest things based on that.

I suppose that really leads me on to other big changes. I think this year in particular, geo tracking, mapping the location based news will take a novel step forward. I think that’s going to be very important this year. Mobile phone news obviously is going to be increasingly important. And database driven news.

I think the power of database is to create very personalized information to give you specific information about how this affects you. I think that will increasingly do the case and will see that activity in that sense become more and more important.

And I think will see news moving out of the four walls of the news establishment. It will be more distributed in the sense that it will be where you are rather than just on the news website. Will see more news from news organizations being on places like Facebook or Twitter. I think that’s quite a few ideas.

4) In another interview you said that “the distinction between conversation and publishing will become increasingly vague”. Can you explain more that idea? Do you think that will be common in all media, or particularly in the Internet? Can this affect the credibility of news?

(…) I think a typical mistake that people make with the Internet is to see it as publishing. Mainstream media organizations look at blogs and think it is like having a newspaper. What we don’t realize is that for the most part it is not set up as a form of publishing, is it set up as a form of conversation. And that is the case with Facebook, that’s the case with Twitter.

Publishing is very different. Publishing is creating content that people might have conversations around. So, the news organizations really need to realize that for something to be talked about on the Internet they need to be talking back. There’s nothing worse that someone who just doesn’t listen.

So I think that distinction will become increasingly vague. News organizations will publish less and start a conversation more. They will say: “this is happening, tell us what you know, tell us what you think, tell us other angles…” If it’s is going to be successful, I think. And because they’re doing this online I think it may sweep into other media but particularly in the Internet. I don’t see television and radio and print newspapers changing enormously because of that. Because they are still publishing media so they point people towards the web but I don’t think the conversation will take place too much on those platforms, I think that they would adapt slightly.

(About the credibility of news). I think trust is an important issue here, and trust is built up through a relationship. So if you’re engaged in a conversation with an individual journalist, or a collection of journalists, you can start to build the picture to how credible they are and how knowledgeable they are by what they’re reporting. So in that sense I think it can affect the credibility of news. I think you can make more informed judgments on how accurate and how believable this information this conversation is. (…) I would add something extra which is, I think, there is a third part to this. You have conversation, you have publishing, and there’s a combination of the two, what you might call ‘publisation’ or ‘convercasting’. And this is when you’re on, say Twitter, and you’re saying I’m going to retweet Bob – what Bob said I’m going to pass it on, that’s an interesting development, and that’s something quite specific to the Web and that’s something I’m going to explore a bit more.

5) In the same interview you said that you do not believe that “the press will be ‘killed off’ by the web”. What do you think will be the new role of the printed media? Will they maintain the function of analysis or that will be gained by the web, too? If anyone was to start a printed newspaper today, what will be your recommendations? What do you think a newspaper should be or should have today?

I do think that print media will maintain the function of analysis, and I think it will become a luxury product. It is interesting to note how newspapers have suffered so much but magazines for the most part haven’t and if they have suffered it’s been in specific areas where the web has eaten into what they do.

So I think the luxury of having a high resolution object that has in depth analysis, lovely images, for example, because you can’t have the same resolution in the web, I think that is an area that newspapers and printed media will find a role for themselves. And I think that generically actual newspapers will become a niche and I think that’s why magazines haven’t suffered so much because magazines are more niches. The kind of broad nature of newspapers, as opposed to the very specific personalized nature of the Web is why they’re suffering. (…)

The advice to anyone who is starting a newspaper. I would say be niche, be very targeted in what you’re reporting on. In general news and newspapers is getting increasingly difficult to maintain economically, really. Be very specific. And I think I would go for the free model, and don’t charge for it, or go for the luxury model; maybe every week, every fortnight, every month, with a glossy presentation, as a premium product. You can’t compete with the web if you’re charging money for news that people can get elsewhere, the kind of the basic information. You have to do something different. And basically that’s the portability in terms of free newspaper or quality in terms of glossiness.

6) In your blog you presented the model of the news diamond, a new structure in the transmission of news (Online journalism blog,

Have you think of any modification to that model? What are the repercussions that you had while presenting this idea?

The model really hasn’t been particularly modified. Although I haven’t really had an enormous chance to go back and revisit it. I probably should. Because the repercussions have been enormous. The post itself has had 65 comments when I checked today from a number of sources. I’ve had communication from the Spanish press association, from international journalism federations, from academics writing books, all kinds of people wanting to republish my ideas or translate my ideas. Also, a number of newsrooms wanting to implement those ideas, in Brazil, in Norway, in the Middle East, in America obviously, in the U.K. And people are teaching it to journalism students.

So, the one thing it has demonstrated is just how an idea can change things. And is changing things. And I suppose the implications are you need to be really sure and confident about your idea. And as that idea is being developed and taken on it’s been really quite interesting how people have interpreted it. In terms of modifications one thing that I’m trying to do is address how that idea can be misused. And there was a quote from the editor of the Telegraph saying about being the first and the last word on the story. You know, language can be interpreted in different ways, and is not necessarily for me to kind of clamp down on that. But we need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of digital media, of online media. And we need to be not just grasping everything because it is new, we need to be approaching everything critically including our own work. I’m interested in how does this will develop and I’m sure there will be bad things to come out of this which we need to be conscious of.

7) In the news diamond you say that we are changing from a product to “a process: the iterative journalism of new media; the story that is forever ‘unfinished”. What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of this characteristic?

The positive aspects first, I’m going to start with the good stuff, is that journalists – going back to the last point really – will hopefully less and less see typed the final word on things, the definitive judgment on what’s happening. And I think also it creates a space for readers to engage more on what’s happening. And to contribute (with) their own ideas, knowledge, experience, and so on. So in that sense the unfinished story, the ongoing story, I think has a lot of positive things to introduce into journalism. It also, hopefully, takes news organizations away from moving from story to story to story, and leaving things left open and unfinished.

In terms of the negative aspects, I think one thing is we could see a leaning towards news stories that are like that, that are ongoing. And I think we already see that really in the printed broadcast media anyway. Like the Madeleine McCann story. The stories that economically are attractive because… a newspaper knows that… it is like, and it is a great analogy, Lord of the Rings trilogy all being filmed at the same time. The studio knows that by filming the three different parts at the same time they are going to save a lot of money than having to stage each one separately. And likewise they’re building on an established audience. So in that sense a lot of news stories become franchises and newspapers know that buying into something that´s got a guaranteed return to some extent. Perhaps the iterative journalism of new media will see that happening, the viral effect: If it’s being… if it’s getting a lot of attraction on Google and so… That to me is one of the negative aspects.

8) In the news diamond model you give a great importance to the blogosphere. What do you think is its new role in the internet?

The blogosphere is a conversation of a lot of people. I was very encouraged to read for its ethnic breakdown its actually pretty representative of the population at large, which would be one of my bigger worries.

So, in essence it is more representative that the mainstream media. Now, what’s its role? One must not mistake the blogosphere for one homogenous mass. The blogosphere is a large part personal diaries. It is a large part people who don’t see themselves as journalists. Although, there is a lot of journalism by those people as well. So the actual journalism in the blogosphere is not the majority of it, but that still means that a large amount of journalism takes place in the blogosphere.

And the blogoshpere functions – I’ve heard someone call it – (as) a fifth state. It functions in to a large extent as a watchdog on mainstream journalism. So blogs will report on what’s been reported and because you get people starting blogs who are experts in their field or very passionate about that subject and they will highlight the errors of journalists who are not experts in those fields. They will generate a conversation around stories that the journalists are not necessary engaged in. And so they will create feedback and corrections and identify extra information that the journalist would otherwise have missed. It’s encouraging to see now that newspapers and news organizations are introducing common systems, about how providing a space … to the engagement with comments that enables a lot of information to feed through to the journalist and to the story. I think that’s one of the main roles of the blogoshpere. It’s a space for people to comment on the news and to distribute it online, too, to distribute the interesting stuff as well as the stuff that’s incorrect. And you know, links get passed around quite prolifically in the web. News organizations really are still struggling to get the grips of that. In addition to that is also providing a voice for people who feel that what they’re saying is not necessarily being reflected in mainstream media.

So, the blogosphere allows very very niche publishing there are stories or there are issues that not make the mainstream no use. Because either it’s not got a larger audience or because the story has moved on and is not considered news worthy, is not considered new. And in that sense another role of the blogosphere is to make news worthy. The Trent Lott story it’s a great example of it. It didn’t make the mainstream news but the fuzz about it did. And it’s worth making a distinction there. The news story was never about –in terms of the mainstream media- it was not about Trent Lott. It was about people being angry about Trent Lott. That’s the key thing. And the reason it never made the mainstream media in the first place was because there was no fuzz of the events in which Trent Lott made his famous segregationist remark allegedly. So that’s one of the important roles of the blogosphere. Although people (don’t) necessarily say that’s what they trying to do. They do so to make stories news worthy that weren’t news worthy to begin with.

9) According to your statements it seems that journalism will become a more collaborative task, especially between journalists and the audience. Will journalists have a new role? Will they have to incorporate any new skills?

Yes, yes and yes. Journalists will definitely have to transform the way that they manage content. And if you see your role as a journalist as managing content, – you gather information, you gather interviews, you gather raw material, and you combine it – now you have extra elements to manage: you have to manage contributors, you have to manage a whole variety of sources that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. In a passive sense traditional journalism has been proactive in terms of this story, look at my contacts book, let’s go out and find out what people are saying. And generally those contacts tend to be quite mainstream: you know, union representatives, organizational representatives, MP’s (members of parliament), advocacy groups, especially interests groups.

Now you can sit there and search and you can find someone who is an expert in this very specific niche area. You can find someone who has witness an event, and so on. You need to be able to manage that. You need to learn the sensitivity for example towards people who are blogging about emotional matters of their own. You can’t just assume for example that because it is public that they will be happy for you publishing it in a newspaper. There is a difference between having an audience of friends and family and having an audience of 50.000 people. And that’s really (a) key (aspect) and people need to develop that sensitivity.

And then I think what is a key to this is that the Internet enables organizational developments that were not possible before. If you read Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody, that’s really a good explanation of some of these changes. You don’t need to be in a huge organization to organize. You need a Facebook group, perhaps. You need a blog, perhaps. You need a twitter account even very easy to quickly mobilize and quickly do things. Is easy to organize around an issue. And journalists need to be able to do that too. They might need to quote some sort of things, they might need to mobilize a number of people to find facts, to analyze information, to put together a story in that way. And that is, as I said, incredibly important particularly as we see investigative journalism declining, and the funding for investigative journalism declining.

So if we can’t pay people, if we don’t have the money to pay people to investigate stories in depth, then we need to find a different economic model to maintain those investigations. That might be distributing man power. Saying, instead of having two people spending a month full time investigating something, we have 200 people spending an hour a night, or whatever. So, those kinds of economics come in to it. And if you feel passionate about investigative journalism in particular, I think that organization will become increasingly important. Journalists really need to do that.

The other thing is that the information isn’t monopolized by journalists anymore. So if anyone can read the press release from the organization or an eye witness account by someone who experienced a disaster, what can a journalist offer? Well, the journalist can offer coordination perhaps, a central gathering point, a trusted ground, dedication; these qualities that’s what journalists need to develop, and management abilities, to coordinate a diverse group of people that can be one of our unique sign points that journalists have when information is no longer your unique sign point. I think I have been passionate enough about that point.

2 thoughts on “FAQ: questions from Maite Fernandez

  1. Pingback: Links for today | Links para hoje « O Lago | The Lake

  2. Pingback: Where do you get your news? « Science, technology and society

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