Monthly Archives: March 2010

Interview: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, head of datajournalism at Owni.fr

Past OJB contributor Nicolas Kayser-Bril is now in charge of datajournalism at Owni.fr, a recently launched news site that defines itself as an “open think-tank”.

“Acting as curators, selecting and presenting content taken deep in the immense and self-expanding vaults of the internet,” explains Nicolas, “the Owni team links to the best and does the rest.”

I asked Nicolas 2 simple questions on his work at Owni. Here are his responses:

What are you trying to do?

What we do is datajournalism. We want to use the whole power of online and computer technologies to bring journalism to a new height, to a whole new playing field. The definition remains vague because so little has been made until now, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to slideshows, online TV or even database journalism.

Take the video game industry, for instance. In the late 1970’s, a personal computer could be used to play Pong clones or text-based games. Since then, a number of genres have flourished, taking action games to 3D, building an ever-more intelligent AI for strategy games, etc. In the age of the social web, games were quick to use Facebook and even Twitter.

Take the news industry. In the late 1970’s, you could read news articles on your terminal. In the early 2010’s you can, well… read articles online! How innovative is that? (I’m not overlooking the innovations you’ll be quick to think of, but the fact remains that most online news content are articles.)

We want to enhance information with the power of computers and the web. Through software, databases, visualizations, social apps, games, whatever, we want to experiment with news in ways traditional and online media haven’t done yet.

What have you achieved?

We started to get serious about this in February, when I joined the mother company (22mars) full-time. In just a month, we have completed 2 projects

The first one, dubbed Photoshop Busters (see it here), gives users digital forensics tools to assess the authenticity of an image. It was made as a widget for one of our partners, LesInrocks.com.

More importantly, we made a Facebook app, Where do I vote? There, users can find their polling station and their friends’ for the upcoming regional election in France.

It might sound underwhelming, but it required finding and locating the addresses of more than 35,000 polling stations.

On top of convincing a reluctant administration to hand over their files, we set up a large crowdsourcing effort to convert the documents from badly scanned PDFs to computer-readable data. More than 7,000 addresses have been treated that way.

Dozens of other ideas are in the works. Within Owni.fr, we want to keep the ratio of developers/non-developers to 1, so as to be able to go from idea to product very quickly. I code most of my ideas myself, relying on the team for help, ideas and design.

In the coming months, we’ll expand our datajournalism activities to include another designer, a journalist and a statistician. Expect more cool stuff from Owni.fr.

Greenpeace's Kit Kat video: behind the scenes at Nestle

Background;

Transcript:

Nestle staffer 1: “Greenpeace have done a viral video attacking our sourcing policy. I do so hope people don’t pass it on and it becomes a huge viral hit.”

Nestle staffer 2: “Yes. I know what will stop people passing it around and it becoming a huge viral hit: get YouTube to take it down for alleged copyright infringement.”

Nestle staffer 1: “Yes, that will definitely stop people passing it around and it becoming a huge viral hit. That is a good idea and I hope you get all the credit for that.”

Must user-generated-content threaten quality journalism?

The BBC’s User Generated Content (UGC) Hub does not further meaningful civil participation in the news, and the routine inclusion of UGC does not significantly alter news selection criteria or editorial values. So concludes Jackie Harrison’s study on audience contributions and gatekeeping practices at the BBC.

The study found many of the previous barriers to news selection have been removed or are not applicable to UGC.

“User generated content has been absorbed into BBC newsroom practices and is now routinely considered as an aspect of, or dimension to, many stories. In this sense the traditional barriers which formed the gatekeeping criteria of the 1990s have been altered forever.”

Harrison sees the changes to selection criteria as a real and worrying threat to quality and standards at the public broadcaster. Her study raises interesting questions about the value of UGC and how it should be measured. She fears the growing tendency to utilise audience content, often for convenience, risks an increase in “soft news” at the expense of quality journalism, and worse, the degradation of public knowledge.

Harrison does not see the hub as progressing civil debate or public engagement on a meaningful level, and she anticipates future use of UGC may grow more opportunistic. This is obviously at odds with the active debate and participation the hub set out to foster, and which has dominated previous ideals of audience participation.

Selection and moderation

In an earlier study, Harrison looked at what caused some stories to be used by the BBC and others to be rejected. Here she reinvestigates these reasons in the context of UGC, finding that in many cases UGC can, if not make these previous concerns irrelevant, make the case for automatic rejection less compelling.

While the hub is subject to resource-intensive moderation and methodical processes to ascertain UGC authenticity and quality it is, like all news organisations, still learning how to most effectively utilise audience participation.

There are growing and unresolved tensions for journalists in balancing the BBC’s traditional journalistic standards while fostering open communication, promoting free speech, and at the same time protecting the site and the audience against possible offence.

Inevitably, this gives rise to judgement calls which are necessarily subjective.

Harris suggests two questions then arise from this:

  • Does UGC reflect public opinion and
  • two, are they simply generating noise…of little value, and,
  • is it a public service broadcaster’s job to provide a platform for all sorts of views including unpalatable or unpleasant ‘‘non-majoritarian’’ comment and, if it is not, why not?

BBC journalists told Harrison, “The difficulty with opening up the floodgates to participation is that ‘the full spectrum” of opinions must be considered to further the aims of the ‘global conversation’.”

Should we be concerned, as Harrison seems to be, that material gathered at the hub is not always deemed of particular quality? Or does the value, as Stuart Purvis suggests, lie in the telling, the fact that new and possibly previously unheard voices are given a platform?

We are right to expect quality content from the public broadcaster, but opinions on what that means differ widely.

This can be seen in the debate between Paul Bradshaw and his students, and the BBC staff regarding UGC content and external links. It seems while hub head Matthew Eltringham spoke about the relevance of content, what he was really talking about was quality content. If the BBC opened up linking to contributors’ sites, would it have to do it for all contributors, and what kinds of complications would this pose?

The future of UGC

Perhaps we should not be viewing the growing tendency for “soft journalism” through UGC as a degradation in quality, but part of the evolution of the BBC. Unless of course, it does come at the cost of investigative, serious journalism, which clearly the BBC has a mandate to invest in.

Harrison rightly points out the hub is only one part of the newsroom, but a part that is increasingly relied upon as an additional source of information, shared between departments at the BBC.

What the study doesn’t address is how successful the UGC hub has been in engaging people who have previously not interacted with the BBC, or who have not taken part in public debate in general. I suspect it is unlikely to have encouraged society’s voiceless. We must assume at the least, that people taking part have access to technology, which is of course, one of the major difficulties of the idea of the new electronic, egalitarian public sphere.

The hub does represent a deliberate and conscious effort to seek audience interaction and better serve the public interest, though what this will mean for the BBC, and for the public, in the long-term is still unclear.

It will be interesting to see how the hub develops and where UGC can go. Is Harrison right in predicting it will grow more meaningless or, more drastically, has meaningful civil engagement in the news already met its untimely death, as Steve Borris declared?

Online Journalism lesson #10: RSS and mashups

This was the final session in my undergraduate Online Journalism module (the other classes can be found here), taught last May. It’s a relatively brief presentation, just covering some of the possibilities of mashups and RSS, and some tools. The majority of the class is taken up with students using Yahoo! Pipes to aggregate a number of feeds.

I didn’t know how students would cope with Yahoo! Pipes but, surprisingly, every one completed the task.

As a side note, this year I kicked off the module with students setting up Twitter, Delicious and Google Reader – and synchronising them, so the RSS feed from one could update another (e.g. bookmarks being published to Twitter). This seems to have built a stronger understanding of RSS in the group, which they are able to apply elsewhere (they also have widgets on their blogs pulling the RSS feeds from Twitter & Delicious; and their profile page on the news website – built by Kasper Sorensen – pulls the latest updates from their Twitter, Delicious and blog feeds).

The BBC and linking part 2: a call to become curators of context

A highlight of my recent visit with MA Online Journalism students to the BBC’s user generated content hub was the opportunity to ask this question posed by Andy Mabbett via Twitter: ‘Why don’t you link back to people if they send a picture in?’ (audio embedded above and here).

The UGC Hub’s head, Matthew Eltringham, gave this response:

“We credit their picture … we absolutely embrace the principle of linking on and through. I think the question would be – if Andy sends in a picture because he happened to witness a particular event, how relevant is the rest of his content to the audience. I think we’d have to take a view on that.”

It was a highlight because something clicked in my head at this point. You see, we’d spent some of the previous conversation talking about how the UGC hub verifies the reliability of user generated content, and it struck me that this view of the link as content could risk missing a key aspect of linking: context.

In an online environment one of the biggest signals in how we build a picture of the trustworthiness of someone or something is the links surrounding it. Who is that person friends with? What does this website link to? Who gathers here? What do they say? What else does this person do? What is their background, their interests, their beliefs?

All of this is invaluable context to us as users, not just the BBC.

While we increasingly talk about the role of publishers as curators of content [caveat], we should perhaps start thinking about how publishers are also curators of context.

Curators of context

And on this front, the corporation appears to have an enormous culture shift on its hands – a shift that it has been pushing in public for years, with varying degrees of success in different parts of the organisation.

BBC Radio, and many BBC TV programmes, for example, use users’ pictures and tweets and link and credit as a matter of course, while some parts of BBC News do link directly to research papers.

Yesterday I blogged about the frustration of Ben Goldacre at the refusal of parts of the BBC News website to deep link to scientific journal articles. In the comments to Ben’s post, ‘Gimpy’ says that the journalist quoted by Goldacre told him in “early 2008” that linking was “something which must be reviewed”.

In May 2008 the BBC Trust said linking needed major improvements, and in October 2008 the Head of Multimedia said linking to external websites was a vital part of its future.

And this month, the corporation’s latest strategic review pledges:

“to “turn the site into a window on the web” by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites: “making the best of what is available elsewhere online an integral part of the BBC’s offer to audiences”.”

Most recently, this week the BBC’s announcement of 25% cuts to its online spend motivated Erik Huggers to make this statement at a DTG conference:

“Why can’t we find a way to take all that traffic and help share it with other public service broadcasters and with other public bodies so that if our boat rises on the tide, everyone’s boat rises on the tide?

“Rather than trying to keep all that traffic inside the BBC’s domain we’re going to link out very aggressively and help other organisations pull their way up on the back of the investments that the BBC has made in this area.”

To be fair, unlike other media organisations, at least the BBC is talking about doing something about linking (and if you want to nag them, here’s their latest consultation).

But please, enough talk already. Auntie, give us the context.

UPDATE: More on the content vs context debate from Kevin Anderson.

UPDATE 2The BBC have started a debate on the issue on their Editors’ Blog

The Human Journalism project in Spain

periodismo humano

The journalist and photographer Javier Bauluz is the only Spanish winner of the Pullitzer. He has published a preview of his next project, focused on journalism and human rights, at periodismohumano.com.

“The responsibility of the crisis: the greed of a few and the lack of controls from whom should control them, the representatives of the people and the toxic journalism that reports the reality only in terms of the media corporations’ political and economic interest”.

Such is Bauluz’s view of the current media crisis.

He then describes a picture well-known to anyone who has ever worked in big media: “There are more and more tired journalists, many hostages in their newsrooms, doing and saying what they’re told”.

With this perspective in mind, Bauluz thinks that the only solution to reconstruct journalism is for groups of colleagues to get together and organise online, supported by citizens, foundations and philanthropists. So we can say that non-profit journalism is not only an American or English idea.

“First it was an option, now it’s a need,” argues the Pulitzer prizewinner.

Using the WordPress platform (and its open source benefits), periodismohumano.com will see daylight in the following weeks with the Universal Declaration of Human Right as their only flag and with all content available in all possible formats:

“If you want to save whales, you’re a member of Greenpeace; if you want doctors in Somalia, you’re a member of Doctors Without Borders; if you want quality information, you’re a member of Periodismo Humano (Human Journalism)”.

Video journalism in Africa – guest post

Ruud Elmendorp, a video journalist in Africa, writes about his experiences in the job

“Monsieur le journaliste? Votre interview avec le ministre est a deux heure.”

Mister journalist? Your interview with the minister is at two. Thank you, I say to the lady on the phone. Finally I managed to arrange an interview with a minister in Rwanda.

Some hours later I set up my tripod and camera, and start asking my questions. There I am with a small digital camera – and myself only. The minister is told that I am a correspondent for Dutch national television – normally the type of media you would expect to come with a camera man, reporter and a boom operator for the sound. The very kind and distinguished minister doesn’t give a wink about my solitary presence, and comments profoundly on the issues I raise.

Just because he’s used to it.

Before 2000 I was the typical television reporter coming with a crew. When the small digital cameras entered the market I took the challenge to do it on my own. As early video journalists we for some reason were forced into an innovative and creative approach. We had to do something different to the traditional crews, and so we did.

That was before I moved to Africa. Continue reading

The BBC and linking part 1: users are not an audience

UPDATE: The BBC have started a debate on the issue on their Editors’ Blog

Ben Goldacre is experiencing understandable frustration with the BBC’s policy on linking to science papers:

Jane Ashley of the website’s health team, says that when they write an article based on scientific research:

“It is our policy to link to the journal rather than the article itself. This is because sometimes links to articles don’t work or change, and sometimes the journals need people to register or pay.”

In email correspondence defending their policy, Richard Warry, Assistant editor, Specialist journalism, adds:

“Many papers are available on the web via subscription only, while others give only an Abstract summary. In these instances, the vast majority of our readers would not be able to read the full papers, without paying for access, even if we provided the relevant link.”

This just doesn’t stand up. Here’s why:

  • An abstract alone is actually very useful in providing more context than a journal homepage provides
  • It also provides useful text that can be used to either find another version of the paper (for example on the author’s or a conference website),
  • It provides extra details on the authors, giving you more insight into the research’s reliability and also an avenue should you want to approach them to get hold of the paper.
  • Even for the ‘vast majority’ who cannot pay for access to the paper, they will still be taken to the journal homepage anyway.
  • Believing that the time spent pasting one link rather than another is better spent on providing “authoritative, accurate and attractive reportage” is a false economy. Authoritative, accurate and attractive coverage relies at least in part in allowing users to point out issues with scientific research or its reporting.
  • Catering for a ‘vast majority’ belies a broadcast media mindset that treats users as passive consumers. The minority of users who can access those papers can actually be key contributors to a collaborative journalism process. If you let them.

If it helps, here’s a broadcast analogy: imagine producing a TV package which captions a source as ‘Someone from the Bank of England’. That’s not saving time for good journalism – it’s just bad journalism.

Linking – and deep linking in particular – are basic elements of online journalism. Why can news organisations still not get this right? More on this here

Print's advertising problem – tying one hand behind its back

Last week Karl Schneider, Reed Business Information’s Editorial Director, spent an hour chatting with students in my Online Journalism class. Most of it is available on video here, but of particular interest to me was a point Karl made about how Reed separated its online advertising into a separate company very early on, and are now reaping the benefits (embedded above).

“Because we had print businesses to protect we spent at least as much time worrying about not doing something on the web that would undercut the money coming in in print as worrying about ‘How do we make this new stuff grow’ … One of the big revenue streams for us was recruitment ads … So when we started to do online jobs one of the big challenges was ‘How can we do this without damaging all of the money tied up in print?’ And very quickly we realised that if we worry about that, we’re going to be rubbish at online job ads, because we’re always going to be operating with one hand tied behind our backs. And we’ll be competing against pure-play onlines who won’t have that worry.

“So what we ended up doing was setting up our online jobs advertising operation as a separate business and allowed it to compete head-to-head with our print business, and it caused all sorts of internal arguments – but it was absolutely the right thing to do because we’re making more money now out of online jobs than we ever did from print jobs. Less per job – there’s a lot more job ads – but it took separating it off [as a separate business] to do it.”

I’ve written about this problem before. Although on paper there are economies to be made by combining print and web ad sales, that’s not a strategy for future growth.

Instead, it appears to result in a prolonged addiction to the dying cash cow of print ads (and, anecdotally, a frustrating experience for advertisers wishing to move money from print to online). Judging by the recent research into magazine ad sales (PDF) in the US (image below), the magazine industry may need to listen to Karl’s experiences.

87% of ad staff work across both print and web

Image taken from CJR research into magazine websites (link above). 'To' should say 'Two'

RSS feeds, advertising and selling attention

Media organisations who only offer partial RSS feeds might be interested to look at a couple of posts from 2 websites with different experiences of monetising their feeds. First, Jason Snell of MacWorld:

“RSS doesn’t generate revenue directly. There are ads in RSS, sure, but they’re cheap and lousy and don’t have remotely the return as ads on web pages.”

Then, John Gruber of Daring Fireball (cached here if you find it as slow as I do):

“The ads in most sponsored RSS feeds are indeed cheap and lousy. The ads in DF’s [Daring Fireball’s] RSS feed are neither. They’re priced at a premium, and have attracted (if I do say so myself) premium sponsors.

“If you’ve got a model where revenue is tied only to web page views, switching to full-content RSS feeds will hurt, at least in the short term. The problem, I say, isn’t with full-content RSS feeds, but rather with a business model that hinges solely on web page views. The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers. Web page views are a terribly inaccurate, if not outright misleading, metric for attention. Subscribers to a full-content RSS feed are among the readers paying the most attention, but generate among the least web page views.”

Snell’s response: “What works for [Gruber’s one-man] kind of site doesn’t necessarily work for our kind.”

It’s also worth noting the tertiary benefits of full RSS feeds. Offering full RSS feeds makes it more likely a developer is going to create something useful out of it (expensive development time for free), bringing more readers and attention to your advertising or, in the case of the BBC (which may have licensing issues holding it back), fulfilling its public service remit.

Do you or your organisation do anything interesting with your RSS feeds? Are they full or partial? I’d love to know.

(Note, OJB uses the <more> tag to to ensure the homepage isn’t dominated by a single post. Unfortunately, this results in partial RSS feeds. Some day I’ll sort this.)