Monthly Archives: June 2009

St Petersburg Times: cautiously embracing the web, assiduously reporting Scientology

Scientology has long been a tricky subject for journalists to cover; the corporate-structured religious movement has a reputation for litigation, against government agencies, news organisations and individuals.

Given this it is all the more interesting to consider the recent series of articles about Scientology in Florida’s St Petersburg Times, which focus on the behaviour of its leader David Miscavige and offer a counterpoint to the Church’s own line that “since the founding of the first Church of Scientology in 1954, Scientology has become the fastest-growing religion in the world.”

The Times presented the series as three large articles (totalling nearly 15,000 words, with the first article alone stacking up 6,618) published across print and web over three consecutive days, starting on Sunday 21st June. In addition the paper ran ancillary features which fleshed out elements of the main story, provided historical context, and also laid out some of the raw material which helped to underpin the series. Continue reading

Daily express website relaunching is about to undergo a redesign (and there’s a good review of the new look, still currently in beta, at econsultancy).

To me, the new site isn’t that impressive (screenshot below, or you can compare the old front page or new front page) – it looks like a poor mashup of the BBC and Yahoo in the existing colour scheme.

Even worse, it’s not very accessible as there is literally no content on the new home page with javascript turned off.

The agency behind it is Netro42 who say here about the old version that “Netro42 working in partnership with Northern and Shell quickly established that the key to success was in wholly utilising the digital space.”

Personally, I like to partially use the analogue space when working on websites, but I may be old fashioned.

New Express homepage

New Express homepage

I wonder if the new design means they’ll update their site on a sunday? Or get some better suggested search terms?

Even “heavy newspaper readers” spend a quarter of their media time online

Some research from The Media Audit makes a pretty strong point about how quickly media consumers’ behaviour is changing:

“The Internet now represents 32.5% of the typical “media day” for all U.S. adults when compared to daily exposure to newspaper, radio, TV and outdoor advertising.

“Even those who are considered heavy newspaper readers spend about as much time online today as the typical U.S. adult. According to the report, heavy newspaper readers, those who spend more than an hour per day reading, currently spend 3.7 hours per day online. In 2006 the Internet represented only 18.4% of a heavy newspaper reader’s “media day,” but today it represents 28.4%.”

But there’s good news for some US newspapers who have made the most of their online presence to achieve an impressive reach “of 80% or more when the past 30-day website visitor figure is combined with the past month print readership figure.”

It will be interesting to see how paywall experiments might result in quite different reach stats for other newspapers in the coming months.

More at MediaPost.

ABCe: please sort out your terrible website (again)

In March, I appealed to the Audit Bureau of Circulations to sort out its terrible ABCe website. It’s had a redesign. Here’s a list of its latest problems (originally published here).

If at any point the ABC wants to pay me a consultancy fee, for all this free advice, just leave me a comment to tell me how to receive my money …

All the URLs have changed but there are no redirects

New ABCe homepage in Google

New ABCe homepage in Google

They’ve had a redesign, but they haven’t redirected the old URLs to new ones. So, for instance, if you click the second link shown in Google for a search on ABCe, you get page not found.

Lesson When relaunching a website, always 301 redirect your old pages to new ones (even if they’re all just to your new home page). That way, external links still work and you keep the SEO benefit of any links.

They haven’t sorted www vs non www

The more observant will have noticed that the title of the first result in that screenshot says ‘To access IIS Help’. The ABC hasn’t realised that is not the same URL as And if you go to the ABC URLs without www, you get page not found or server errors.

Compare these pages:

and these ones:

Lesson When you set up your website, redirect to And log in to your google webmaster account to set your preferred domain (www or non-www).

They’re running two absolutely identical websites

ABCs new homepage. No, it's ABCe's. No, it's aaaaggghhh

ABCs new homepage. No, it's ABCe's. No, it's aaaaggghhh

You can access the entire website at – or you can see an identical website at Continue reading

J-Tweeters: Are they journalists or tweeters? Does it matter?

I follow the BBC World, the Guardian and the New York Times through my Twitter account, among other news services, but I get more news and information from the friends I follow on the microblogging service. My friends just happen to read stories from a wide variety of sources and pass along the kind of information they are interested in, and that by extension, I am interested in. In other words, they act as my personal filters for news. And I can safely say that I return the favor for several of my friends as well.

This concept is not exclusive to the new media world. Since the 1940s, media scholars such as Paul Lazarsfeld have spoken about the two-step flow of communication where “opinion leaders” play a huge part in transmitting information from the media to its audience. These mediators help the process by disseminating news in a more concise,  intelligible way, but also often infuse their personal agendas and perspectives. Opinion leaders have always existed; who they might be and how you obtain your information from them has changed over time. Continue reading

Telegraph plans to expand MPs database site in build up to election (Q&A)

I asked Tim Rowell, Digital Publisher at 3 questions about how they dealt with the MPs expenses story online. The main headline is that the new domain hosting the expenses database – -will expand in the run-up to the next election along with the MP expenses database itself.

There are also curious “legal reasons” given for disabling the embed/email option on the PDFs. I’m pushing on that because I don’t see how publication on your site is different from allowing someone to embed it on their own, or email it. If you have any insight on that, let me know. [See response below]

Here are the responses in full:

When the team was going through the expenses and reporting, how was this longer term online strategy incorporated?

From day one, it was agreed that we would work towards the publication of an online database that contained not only the files themselves but also an aggregation of publicly available data (Parliament Parser, They Work for You, Register of Members Interests etc.) with our own unique data analysis.

The publication by Parliament last week of the redacted files has provided a glimpse into the scale of operation required to analyse such a volume of documentation but one has to realise that the full files contain many, many more pages.

The launch yesterday of the database is the first phase. We will, in due course, publish the full uncensored files for all 646 MPs. Crucially, the expenses investigative team of reporters spent a week aggregating and processing the data (the unique 2007/8 analysis of the Additional Costs Allowance) themselves. Integration in action again! The end result of that work is the first accurate breakdown of those ACA figures. We soon realised that this data provided a great basis upon which to build the Complete Expenses Files supplement in last Saturday’s newspaper.

Why Issuu? And why is the ’email/embed’ option disabled for “secret documents”?

“Secret documents’ is not our term, it is Issuu’s. We think Issuu is a great product and that it provides a fantastic user experience and have plans to use it more extensively. But for legal reasons we need to be sure that the document cannot be downloaded. By disabling the download function, Issuu automatically restricts email/embed.

[further to that:]  How is publication on your site different from allowing someone to embed it on their own, or emailing it?

It is a precautionary measure. In the unlikely event that one of the source documents puts at risk the identity of a supplier or the full postcode of an MP we need to be confident that a) we can amend that file immediately and b) that the file has not been distributed more widely. For that reason, we do not want the files to be downloadable. We’d be very happy for other to embed the files in their pages but if you restrict the download option in Issuu you restrict the ability to embed.

Am I right in thinking the pages on each MP are static and so indexable by search engines, even though they’re generated from a database?

Yes. You may also notice that it is on a new domain We will be enhancing our political resources over the coming months as we build up to the General Election. This application is not just for the Expenses files, we have plans to develop this area into a full service that enables our users to engage more closely with the democratic process.

MPs expenses data: now it’s The Telegraph’s turn

The Telegraph have finally published their MPs’ expenses data online – and it’s worth the wait. Here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

  • Firstly, they’ve made user behaviour an editorial feature. In plain English: they’re showing the most searched-for MPs and constituencies, which is not only potentially interesting in itself, but also makes it easier for the majority of users who are making those searches (i.e. they can access it with a click rather than by typing)
  • There’s also a table for most expensive MPs. As this is going to remain static, it would be good to see a dedicated page with more information – in the same way the paper did in its weekend supplement.
  • The results page for a particular MP has a search engine-friendly URL. Very often, database-generated pages have poor search engine optimisation, partly because the URLs are full of digits and symbols, and partly because they are dynamically generated. This appears to avoid both problems – the URL for the second home allowance of Khalid Mahmood MP, for example, is
  • The uncensored expenses files themselves are embedded using Issuu. This seems a strange choice as it doesn’t allow users to tag or comment – and the email/embed option is disabled for “secret documents”
  • There’s some nice subtle animation on the second home part of expenses, and clear visualisation on other parts.
  • The MP Details page is intelligently related both to the Telegraph site (related articles) and the wider web, with the facility to easily email that MP, go to their Wikipedia entry, and ‘bookmark’.
  • Joy of joys, you can also download the MPs expenses spreadsheet from here (on Google Docs) – although this is for all MPs rather than the one being viewed. Curiously, while viewing you can see who else is viewing and even (as I did) attempt to chat (no, they didn’t chat back).

I’ll most likely update this post later as I get some details from behind the curtain.

And there are more general thoughts around the online treatment of expenses generally which I’ll try to blog at another point.

UK investigative journalism foundation established – asks for pledges of support

There have been rumblings for a while about the establishment of a UK investigation foundation, and now it’s here. They’re not accepting cash at the moment, just pledges of support and help. So go help them.

Here’s their open letter: Continue reading

Meanwhile, A.nnotate puts all MPs expense PDFs online for free annotation

On the day that Parliament released MPs’ expenses in their ‘official’ form, I was hawking around on Twitter trying to find a good way to crowdsource analysis of the documents (this was before The Guardian’s crowdsourcing tool went live).

Central to the problem was that the expenses were presented in search-unfriendly PDFs. So I was looking for a place people could upload those PDFs and post comments, tag and annotate them.

Scribd was the obvious option: you can comment and tag – but not annotate. After a number of responses on Twitter (in particular Jen Michaels’ suggestions and Marcelo Soares, who had converted Brazilian parliamentary salaries from PDF to Excel with Able2Extract), I had one from Fred Howell of A.nnotate.

A.nnotate was indeed an ideal candidate – however, the website charges for use, which made it redundant for crowdsourcing purposes. But I was feeling cheeky…

“Perhaps you could let users do #mpexpenses for free as a great bit of PR?” I asked.

Fred saw the potential. Within a couple of hours he had twittered back:

“Put a list of all #mpexpenses pdfs for free shared online annotation at :

So credit to Fred – and the power of Twitter. Had The Guardian not created their tool, we had hacked together our own platform within hours – and there lies lesson #1: the power of the web to enable people to mobilise very quickly. It also brought to mind something I said to a group of people at an event the same day: don’t obsess with the tools – the networks are more important: because through the networks you should be able to find someone who knows the tools, or how to use them.

The Guardian meant Fred’s efforts were – this week – to no avail. But in the longer term, I know who to turn to if I need a bunch of PDFs annotated – as will anyone else who saw those tweets. And anyone reading this blog post will know about A.nnotate too. So there is lesson #2: it wasn’t the PR of ‘delivering a message’ but simply ‘doing a good turn’, which in social media is the best PR there is.

But I still wish there was a free online PDF upload service that did annotation.

The Guardian’s tool to crowdsource MPs’ expenses data: time to play

So here’s The Guardian’s crowdsourcing tool for MPs’ expenses. If you’ve not already, you should have a play: it’s a dream. There are over 77,000 documents to get through – and in less than 24 hours users have gone through over 50,000 of those. You wonder how long it took The Telegraph to get that far.

Meanwhile, that process is doing much more than just finding ‘stories’. It’s generating data: the date, the amount, the type of expense, the type of document. When this stage is finished, The Guardian will have a database that will allow people to filter, mix and combine the expenses data in different ways.

It’s also about telling a ‘story’ in a different way. There’s an element of game mechanics in the site – that progress bar (shown above) compels you to bring the site to completion (it strangely reminds me of the Twitter game Spymaster). This makes it more engaging than a made-for-print exclusive – as I wrote about Help Me Investigate, this isn’t ‘citizen journalism’: it’s micro-volunteering. And when you volunteer, you tend to engage.

And when you treat news as a platform rather than a destination, then people tend to spend more time on your site, so there’s an advertising win there.

Finally, we may see more stories, we may see interesting mashups, and this will give The Guardian an edge over the newspaper that bought the unredacted data – The Telegraph. When – or if – they release their data online, you can only hope the two sets of data will be easy to merge.