Given that Roy Greenslade has beaten me to blogging about my own event, I thought I’d better go ahead and blog about it here. I’m talking about JEEcamp of course – a conference-cum-unconference about journalism experimentation and enterprise. Put another way, if you read this blog, the sort of stuff I talk about.
It’s on May 21st at The Bond in Birmingham. Here’s what we’ve got:
- Keynote from Simon Waldman, Author, Creative Disruption, and Digital Director, Guardian Media Group. (When I started blogging this was one guy I always read – and he’s still ahead of the game.)
- Panel: What does the election result mean for publishers and startups? Confirmed so far: Tom Loosemore (ex-Ofcom, -BBC, now-Channel 4), Talk About Local’s Will Perrin and outgoing Creative Industries minister Sion Simon.
- Please nominate who you would like as the fourth panellist.
- Closing keynote: Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of Scotland’s first online-only newspaper, Caledonian Mercury (@calmerc), which launched earlier this year.
More importantly, in between all of that are a whole bunch of fringe meetings, chats over coffee and group discussions. You decide what to talk about here. Because, really, that’s what we go to conferences for, isn’t it?
And in the spirit of the internet, there’s a low barrier to entry: tickets are only £30
Last Friday I took part in a debate organised by UNESCO to promote World Press Freedom Day (full video here). Lined up to argue in support of the motion that “Unregulated political comment online helps the democratic process” were Sunny Hundal of the Liberal Conspiracy blog; the founder of MORI, Sir Robert Worcester, and, speaking from the floor, me.
Arguing against the motion were Westminster University’s Professor Steven Barnett; the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson; and, speaking from the floor, Nick Jones, formerly of the same corporation.
With an audience of diverse professional backgrounds packing the Frontline Club, it was a healthy discussion – although if you’ve attended a journalism event in the last few years you’ll have recognised some of the threads throughout, as the usual straw men were wheeled out to justify either regulating the internet or ignoring it altogether: ‘it’s not representative‘; ‘it’s just sound and fury, signifying nothing‘ (actually, no one quoted Shakespeare, sadly).
I’ve addressed some of the general anti-web arguments in another blog post, but I thought I’d add a couple of specific observations about the thinking behind the arguments being put forward at the event.
The Zero Sum view of journalism
Thomson’s argument (listen in full here) started with the idea that political comment online could not be left in isolation, but needed to be selected and presented within an editorial context and analysis – not surprisingly, the sort of context and background that the BBC itself could provide.
Members of the public did not have the “understanding” that journalists could provide, said Thomson*. Continue reading
It is hard to imagine that a sports-crazed country like the US would have any dearth in sports reporting. However, while professional and major college sports get covered no end by traditional media, sports leagues and user-generated sites alike, high school and minor college sports remain largely uncovered, an issue that is being exacerbated by declining revenues.
This was one of the reasons that inspired Ted Sullivan, a former minor league baseball player and a graduate of Harvard Business School, to ease the pain of parents, coaches and fans of youth sports, literally, by launching an application that is making the process of scoring simpler, and allowing for easier distribution of stats from the field.
“An entire category of content called real-time sports doesn’t exist for what is the enormous majority of athletic events happening everyday, whether that is organized sports from the small college level or high school and youth sports,” says Sullivan.
Having not only played the sport, but also having coached at a downtown little league in Manhattan, Sullivan understood the challenges of scoring baseball manually. Earlier this year, along with co-founder Kiril Savino, he launched GameChanger, an iPhone application that transmits data in real time from the field. Using the tool, scores and stats, as they happen, can be tapped into an iPhone by coaches, fans and parents. This is translated into a “gamestream” that appears on the Gamechanger site instantaneously so fans can access live updates, box scores, and play by plays.
Balls, strikes and hits are recorded using the tool’s menu options, and players are tracked by dragging and dropping names. In addition, a coach or scorekeeper can create a team’s schedule, roster and lineup. There is also a provision for fans to add to the stream by posting comments or uploading photos and video.
“I believe in the mobile device as a great data collector,” says Sullivan. While mobile devices are useful for content consumption, the very nature of smart phones prompts something more than passive viewing by the user. And this makes them ideal vehicles for data gathering and delivery.
So GameChanger provides an application to the community surrounding a team, which, in turn, allows the community to provide data from the field to GameChanger. In other words, it is crowdsourcing with organized content gathering.
Each team can have more than one hub based on how many people choose to use the app for scoring, but Sullivan assures me that the tedium of score-keeping restricts it to few, very avid fans or parents, thus reducing potential imposters or error-prone score keepers. Besides, GameChanger makes baseball scoring easy enough for anyone with a basic understanding of the sport, thus alleviating the need for extensive experience or in-depth knowledge.
“The key piece here that needs to be stressed is that this business doesn’t work if we aren’t providing a huge incentive to the person that is using the application and collecting the data for us for free,” says Sullivan. He explains that manual scoring takes an average of 45 minutes to an hour per game; factor in several games per week stretched over an entire season, and therein lies Gamechanger’s incentive.
Lisa Winston attests to this over at the MLB Blog, bemoaning the fact that an app “so brilliant and simple” wasn’t available when her daughter played in the little league.
All the content that is collected is available on the GameChanger site. While some content is free, more detailed information, such as play by plays, requires a subscription. Sullivan believes that the data is exclusive and time sensitive enough for people to be willing to pay for it. For a fee, a simple html code also allows local news sites to pull data from GameChanger’s database in the form of widgets. Profits are shared with news partners.
Potential other uses in journalism?
If such an application can make data gathering, analysis and distribution easier in the case of simple scoring of a little league game, could it find potential in other, more complex issues? Such as election results, exit polls or the statistics of climate change? With the popularity of crowdsourcing, citizens are being entrusted with more and more complex tasks in areas such as citizen science and E-governance. Such a foolproof application would increase participation and minimize error.
While projects like WNYC’s crowdsourced maps have successfully used their Web sites as data collectors, the content obtained from the public in such cases has been relatively simple, such as the number of cars on a street, or the price of milk at a grocery store. In these and similar such exercises, the task of making sense of the data or painting the bigger picture has been that of a journalist, perhaps rightfully so.
But if data-specific applications could be designed to maximize contributions from the public, it would perhaps make citizen journalism more relevant and valuable while reducing the workload on news organizations. It’s debatable if it will work for areas more serious than sports or entertainment, but, if anything, such weighty topics could use applications that would make information gathering easier.
In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.
Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.
Chapter by chapter
Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens – paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.
Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.
Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.
Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.
And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.
The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.
Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).
With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.
But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.
Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.
For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.
The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.
Here’s a little something I put together last night to keep myself amused as I watched the “front bench stitch-up” that was the Digital Economy Bill finally get pushed through. It’s just something to keep me sane…
(on a side note, I tried out YouTube’s captioning tool for the first time – the service synchronises perfectly)
An iTunes model for news may be a phantom, but publishers wanting to make money from content online can still learn from the experiences of the music sector. The latest launch in this area is the music sharing-and-buying startup mflow – a fantastic model which I think can offer a lot of ideas to publishers. Here’s how it works:
- You follow other people and see what music they’re sharing (‘flowing’). You also share (‘flow’) music yourself to your followers, adding comments.
- If you own a track and share it, the first time a follower listens they can hear the whole thing. After that, they can only hear a 30 second sample.
- Here’s the USP: if someone buys a track you’ve ‘flowed’, you get a 20% commission to spend on music yourself.
- Music consumption is highly social and mflow recognises this. If I can easily share music with my friends, I am more likely to buy music.
- Incentivise distribution. Distribution is a key part of any media operation: bad distribution can undermine a whole media project, regardless of the quality of the content. mflow recognises that, online, users are your distributors, and adds incentives. The more music I share, the more likely it is that I’ll earn a commission and be able to buy more music.
- Buying becomes a social act. I found a fascinating dynamic at play with mflow: when someone bought a track that I flowed, I would check out their flows (after all, they must have good taste!). I also felt more inclined to ‘return the favour’ by buying a track they had flowed. Conversely, when I was interested in a track being flowed by someone I didn’t know, I was less inclined to take the risk and buy it (but if it was someone I wanted to know, I probably would). So buying the track was not just about the content I would receive, but the social capital I would build by doing so.
- Tap into changes in our social networks. We are increasingly engaging in communities that are geographically dispersed. There’s only a certain time period during which we can pop around to our friend’s house to share our latest musical discovery – particularly as people age, move away from their home towns, get jobs, get married, etc. (this may be one reason our musical consumption declines). In many ways, mflow is like blog-DJing – a way to share what we’re listening to, or like, with others in our social networks, regardless of their location or timezone.
What publishers could learn from this:
- News consumption is highly social. You only have to look at the likes of Digg, Tumblr, and Twitter to see this playing out in the online space. Preventing users from sharing news devalues it.
- Incentivise distribution. The biggest problem with paywalls is that they don’t address the distribution issue (the New York Times’ mooted plan to allow users access to content if they’ve come via a link is one exception that particularly interests me). If you insist on having a paywall, why not allow subscribers to easily share a whole article? Or if you’re limiting the numbers of articles you can access for free, allow users to access more articles if they share headlines via social networks. More promising strategies may be to stop worrying about the content and build and sell the distribution network itself – e.g. mailing lists.
- Buying becomes a social act. Again, how do you make the act of buying more social? A commission on content is one idea but I can’t see it working with news. More promising avenues may be merchandise, events etc.
- Tap into changes in our social networks. When at least a third of your users come from outside of your physical distribution area, it may be worth focusing less on geographical communities & more on communities of interest online.
Any other ideas? Meanwhile, feel free to follow me on mflow… 😉