Monthly Archives: February 2011

Teaching community-based journalism

Image by AndYaDontStop

Image from Flickr by AndYaDontStop

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.

I’ve recently been asking students – at both City University London and Birmingham City University – to complete assignments that ask them to do just that.

The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)

The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.

Here’s what I’m learning so far.

I have to explain why community matters

The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.

We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest’; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.

Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.

I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.

Common misunderstandings about community

At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.

One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.

The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.

Two key questions to ask were illustrated by one particular student, whose draft contained a brief section titled ‘What do I have to offer them?’ and another titled ‘What do I get back?’. Addressing both questions ensures the project is balanced.

A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.

Likewise, tools needed to be chosen based on where the community is, and what the tools did. There’s no point starting a blog if all of your chosen community are using Facebook. And there’s no point choosing Facebook if you want the information to be available to search engines.

Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.

How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?

Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.

Assessment

As the assignment is inherently experimental, I’ve borrowed the marking scheme from the ‘Experimental Portfolio’ assignment on Birmingham City University’s MA Online Journalism. This is designed to allow students to ‘fail’ to meet their own objectives without necessarily failing the assignment itself. Put another way, they are assessed on process, not product (and online, of course, the process itself is often the product).

The three assessment criteria, then, are: research; creativity and viability; and analysis. So as long as the student’s community strategy is based on research, and they critically analyse the results, that is A Good Thing. This is Masters level education – they should be learning something from their work, and yes, that means being prepared to fail. The assessment of creativity is aimed at both ensuring that taking big risks is encouraged, and that creative and effective executions are also rewarded. Few things depress me more than a student who is afraid to learn anything because they might lose marks.

Communities of practice

The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.

There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.

One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).

Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.

Tell the government what you want from the Public Data Corporation

Public Data Corporation consultation

If who are excited about the prospect of open data, but frustrated by its execution (or just one of those people who complain that data doesn’t change anything), the government are inviting comments on what shape the Public Data Corporation should take.

It’s a refreshingly simple execution: a WordPress blog with each question as a separate blog post – presumably it cost a lot less than £300,000. But of course the questions are theirs, and they are:

1.      Which public sector datasets do you currently make use of?

2.      How easy is it to find out what datasets are held by public sector organisations?

3.      How do you, or would you, decide whether a dataset has value for you or for your organisation? What affects how valuable they are, for example timeliness, granularity, format?

4.      Which datasets are of most value to you or your organisation? Why?

5.      What methods of access to datasets would most benefit you or your organisation?

6.      What gets in the way of you or your organisation accessing datasets or data products?

7.      What are the most exciting applications of datasets or data products you are aware of – here or internationally? We are, again, particularly interested in the following areas: registration activities, environmental science, critical infrastructure and the built environment.

8.      Are there any datasets or products you’d like to see generated? How would you or your organisation use them, and what social or economic benefits do you think they would deliver?

9.      From your perspective, what would success look like for the Public Data Corporation?

10.  Have we got the name for this organisation right?  Do you have any suggestions on naming that might better convey our aims?

It’s a shame that there isn’t any space for more open discussion – and that so many of the questions resemble market research. But still, the more journalists who pile in – the more justifiably we can moan later. So go ahead.

Post your responses here.

No, blogging for free is not feudalism

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom on Flickr

The sale of the Huffington Post has sparked another raft of posts about how we’re all suckers for building up the value of these companies through giving away our content for free.

The New York Times’s David Carr is typical, describing users as “A Nation of Serfs” and quoting Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa’s similar soundbite “a world of digital feudalism”.

Carr misses the point entirely: that this is not “people working free” (sic) but an exchange. A user exchanges demographic details and content for the functionality offered by Facebook. They put their photos on Flickr because they benefit from the network, access, and tools.

This is nothing new: we do not criticise telephone companies for being built on people ‘giving away their content’ in the form of the billions of conversations that take place across those networks. Or the demographic data we hand over when we sign up. Oh, and we pay them.

It’s a symptom of journalistic egocentrism that it should seem odd that other people hand over their content ‘for free’ (and of being a little threatened?).

Another symptom is to see the likes of Twitter and Facebook as content platforms, rather than communication networks.

Even the Huffington Post is a network as well as a content platform – the interesting problem for that site in selling to AOL is that while some people will have been happy to contribute for the network benefits (access to likeminded individuals), some will not.

But here’s where feudalism is no comparison to make. Serfs didn’t have a choice. Huffpo bloggers can leave – as indeed, many left similar operations before (Anthony De Rosa‘s analysis is sophisticated enough to recognise this). One of the questions occupying my mind at the moment is whether the current domination of Facebook will turn out to be a stepping stone to other forms of blogging, or if the social network will be enough for most people.

The fundamental point is that this is a marketplace, and if the exchange does not feel fair, users will move on – as they did with MySpace, and Friendster before that.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wider problem around corporatisation of the public sphere, but don’t insult millions of people by calling them serfs.

Hyperlocal Voices: Phyllis Stephen, Edinburgh Reporter

Edinburgh Reporter

Yessi Bello continues the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews, talking to the Edinburgh Reporter‘s Phyllis Stephen.

Who were the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?

I am the person behind it. I had just graduated with a Masters in Journalism and needed to find an outlet for my work based here in Edinburgh. It seemed to me – particularly after attending the News Re:Wired conference in January 2010 – that hyperlocal is the new buzzword and that I could do it right here on my own doorstep.

I had loads of new multimedia skills desperately needing to be used and practiced. Prior to that I had been a solicitor for a number of years but took a career swerve in 2008 when I decided to go back to university. Same skills – different result! Continue reading

Serene Branson: The Sun changes its story – but not the URL

Serene Branson Grammys Stroke story 3am

It appears last week’s guidance from the PCC on correcting URLs as well as the contents of stories has not reached The Sun. Serene Branson’s on-air slurring was initially mocked by the tabloid with the headline “Grammy’s reporter goes gaga”. When it emerged that the presenter may have* suffered from a stroke the article was rewritten – but not the URL:

sun_SereneBranson_URL

The Daily Record, meanwhile, have changed their URL as well as the headline (or their content management system has done it for them). 3am haven’t changed anything (see image at top).

A further issue occurs here too: comments posted on the original Sun story remain, but now – under a now more sober report – these appear insensitive.

More recent commenters can be seen criticising these older comments, and without any notice on the article that it has been updated, those commenting under their real names could argue that their reputations are being damaged as a result.

Certainly there’s an ethical issue here: if you change a story so substantially that original comments now no longer apply, should you remove them?

Via Dave Lee, whose post ‘Serene Branson: The disturbing viral that shames us all‘ should also be read.

*UPDATE: The station website says she was examined by paramedics but not hospitalized. “Her vital signs were normal” and “she says that she is feeling fine this morning”.

3 things that BBC Online has given to online journalism

It’s now 3 weeks since the BBC announced 360 online staff were to lose their jobs as part of a 25% cut to the online budget. It’s a sad but unsurprising part of a number of cuts which John Naughton summarises as: “It’s not television”, a sign that “The past has won” in the internal battle between those who saw consumers as passive vessels for TV content, and those who credited them with some creativity.

Dee Harvey likewise poses the question: “In the same way that openness is written into the design of the Internet, could it be that closedness is written into the very concept of the BBC?”

If it is, I don’t think it can remain that way for ever. Those who have been part of the BBC’s work online will feel rightly proud of what has been achieved since the corporation went online in 1997. Here are just 3 ways that the corporation has helped to define online journalism as we know it – please add others that spring to mind:

1. Web writing style

The BBC’s way of writing for the web has always been a template for good web writing, not least because of the BBC’s experience with having to meet similar challenges with Ceefax – the two shared a content management system and journalists writing for the website would see the first few pars of their content cross-published on Ceefax too.

Even now it is difficult to find an online publisher who writes better for the web.

2. Editors blogs

Thanks to the likes of Robin Hamman, Martin Belam, Jem Stone and Tom Coates – to name just a few – when the BBC did begin to adopt blogs (it was not an early adopter) it did so with a spirit that other news organisations lacked.

In particular, the Editors’ Blogs demonstrated a desire for transparency that many other news organisations have yet to repeat, while the likes of Robert Peston, Kevin Anderson and Rory Cellan-Jones have played a key role in showing skeptical journalists how engaging with the former audience on blogs can form a key part of the newsgathering process.

Unfortunately, many of those innovators later left the BBC, and the earlier experimentation was replaced with due process.

3. Backstage

While so many sing and dance about the APIs of The Guardian and The New York Times, Ian Forrester’s BBC Backstage project was well ahead of the game when it opened up the corporation’s API and started hosting hack days and meetups way back in 2005.

Backstage closed at the end of last year, just as the rest of the UK’s media were starting to catch up. You can read an e-book on its history here.

What else?

I’m sure you can add others – the iPlayer and their on-demand team; Special Reports; the UGC hub (the biggest in the world as far as I know); and even their continually evolving approach to linking (still not ideal, but at least they think about it) are just some that spring to mind. What parts of BBC Online have influenced or inspired you?