Monthly Archives: March 2011

Quicker, smaller, more transparent: What Knight should do next? #JCARN

This month’s Carnival of Journalism is about “driving innovation” – in the wake of the end of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge five year run, among other things. Here’s my take:

Driving innovation needs to be quick

Any innovative idea needs to be able to deploy and iterate quickly – and any scheme to fund innovation needs to support that.

Having been through the Knight News Challenge three times, and reached the final shortlist twice, I was struck each time by how much changed in the online world between the initial submission and final award: If an internet year is worth 4.7 normal years, this process was taking over 3 ‘years’ in internet time. So much changed during that period that by the time I had reached the second or third stage, I wanted to re-write the whole thing.

In contrast, when I entered Channel 4’s 4iP fund (far from perfect, but certainly faster), the time from application to approval was swift. This allowed us to spend a few months working with the funders in addressing the issues the project raised (in Help Me Investigate’s case, largely legal ones) and still being able to start work before the Knight awards had even been shortlisted.

Why the difference? Perhaps because of the next point. Continue reading

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Is community moderation etc. journalism? Another ice cream question

Photo by Photoctor

Looking down? Photo by Bhaskar Pyakurel/Photoctor http://www.flickr.com/people/dev07/

Here we go again. Fleet Street Blues reports on a user comment which “seems to makes quite a lot of sense”. It reads as follows:

“Five years or so ago, there was a certain kind of old-school journalist who, converted to the cause, as it were, banged on at length about the importance of hacks having a web presence of the highest order to demonstrate the new skills. It turns out, however, that the new skills are a piece of piss (particularly with current web technology), and promoting a yarn via Google, Facebook, Twitter etc is, in reality, an administrative task rather than a journalistic one. If you want to employ a proper journalist rather than a cheap web monkey, the SEO stuff really is secondary. (Of course, there is the fact that many employers actively want web monkeys rather journalists because they are so much cheaper, but that’s a whole other debate.)”

What is wrong with this picture?

Well even before we get to the conclusion, the premise is flawed.

The headline is indicative: “The difference between promoting a yarn… and writing it”

This is the usual ‘drawing a line’ waste of time (“Is ice cream strawberry?”) that seeks to establish some kind of higher ground that journalists can occupy, rather than actually asking what we want to do in our journalism.

If you want to have a web presence to demonstrate new skills for your career, fine. If you want to use those skills to produce good journalism while you’re at it, however, then you’ll probably do a great deal better.

The point of community management/SEO/social media optimisation etc. from a journalist’s point of view is that it should seek to involve readers as early as possible, and so improve the editorial product while it is produced. Not only that but also so that, once published, any errors/additions etc. are likely to be added by users.

It’s the difference between seeing users as passive audiences, or as active collaborators.

If you see them as audiences then, yes: SEO/SMO/community management is an administrative job akin to being a papergirl or delivery man. Let’s all look down on those poor web monkeys who fail to live up to our own high standards.

If you see them as collaborators and users, however, then no: SEO/SMO/community management is not something you can comfortably leave entirely to someone else.

via Mary Hamilton.

Hyperlocal Voices: Jason Cobb, Onionbagblog

Onionbagblog

As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series, Yessi Bello speaks to Jason Cobb, publisher of Wivenhoe’s Onionbagblog, which has moved with its author from town to town, and from covering local sport to an increasingly civic focus, including coverage of council meetings. Cobb describes attending his first Full Council meeting as “almost on par with this despair of watching sub-standard non-league football.” He now also publishes The Wivenhoe Forum.

Who are the people behind the blog?

My blog is essentially my own personal online home, where I can create and dump any digital content that comes my way.

My day job involves managing online communities, as well as producing online content for local schools. Sitting somewhere in-between is my blog, hopefully as a platform for local co-operation and engagement.

When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

I started blogging in 2003 using Blogger. It was the online equivalent of the old punk rallying call of here’s a chord, here’s another one – now go and start a band. Starting a blog was as simple as setting up an account with Blogger.

I’ve since moved platforms to a WordPress self-hosted site, which offers more flexibility and control over the design. But ultimately it really is still all about the content.

I’ve changed direction, if not focus, in the eight years that I have been blogging. This shift more or less reflects my own offline lifestyle changes from sport, to local community issues, and then my current lifestyle change having moved out of South London to the North Essex estuary wilds. Essentially I blog about what I see around me.

In Lambeth I witnessed an incredibly poor level of local accountability when it came to local council matters. The press gallery for Full Council meetings was often empty, with local journos guilty of being caught asleep on the job.

Through blogging and tweeting about some of the political twaddle that was taking place, I was able to engage the local community in how petty local politics can often appear from the outside.

It is great to now see many similar local blogs carrying on this level of political accountability, as well as the traditional media taking to tweeting from within the Town Hall.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

The mighty Urban 75 has always been an inspiration in terms of community passion, and what is possible to achieve collectively online.

The South East 853 blog often overlaps with similar local authority themes that I addressed in Lambeth.

Lurking About SE11 was an online neighbourhood friend, although we only ever met once by accident, despite constant accusations that we were in league together.

memespring is doing some very interesting work with data journalism in South London.

Since my move out towards North Essex, Keep Colchester Cool and the online/offline creative hub at 15 Queen Street have both offered much support and many opportunities for collaboration.

There is a tangible sense that Colchester is going through a period of positive creative growth. It is no coincidence that this move coincides with the emergence of the Cultural Quarter in the town.

By continuing to blog about hyperlocal matters in my new home of Wivenhoe, I have been able to connect with others members in the community and share ideas as to what direction our estuary town is hopefully taking.

How do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

The distinction is often one that is made by the traditional news media, and not by bloggers who are simply going about their business. We are all observers and reporters of events that happen around us. Traditional media may make money out of this process, but that is the only difference.

I personally operate best in a news patch that I know inside out. Size is all-important here – I have little interest in what is happening in a one mile radius outside of where I live and work: that is for others to look into.

Traditional media spreads itself thin by the very nature of being tied down to a financial model of covering a greater footprint.

Having moved into a new town, I am slowly, slowly finding my feet, and finding out more about the social history. Being active online in the area is a great opportunity to go about learning more about the sense of history in the place I now call home.

What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

Covering local sport was a large part of my old blog. I then began to ask more questions about how local decisions were made, and why this supposedly democratic process was often leading towards a shambles of democracy in the local town hall.

Attending my first Full Council meeting was something of a key moment, and one that was almost on par with this despair of watching sub-standard non-league football.

This has led to breaking new stories such as the Lambeth Councillor who attended only 50% of meetings yet still claimed his full allowance ; the local journo who received a police caution for the common assault of a cabinet member and the allegation that the Leader of Lambeth Council ordered an apolitical officer to hack into the email account of a fellow Councillor.

Sadly the downside to this local level of journalism is that you don’t exactly make yourself popular with the local politicians that you are holding to account. I felt some sense of justice when a Lambeth Councillor who left a completely random comment with racist connotations on my blogwas then ordered by the Council to participate in social media training.

Moving forward and I have recently set up a hyperlocal forum for the community where I now live. The Wivenhoe Forum is growing organically, and it has been great to see how locals are joining the online community and starting conversations about how we can make out town an even greater place to live and work.

What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

To my great surprise my traffic levels have doubled since my blog took a more rural direction along with my house move.

I prefer the more qualitative approach to measurement than quantitative. Many new opportunities come my way via my blog. I am able to make offline connections in the local community, something that a daily data report of unique users is unable to compare with.

How to create a Facebook news feed for a journalist (or anything else)

James Ball articles Facebook page

I’ve been enjoying The Independent’s individual Facebook feeds for journalists, football teams and other ‘entities’ of their news coverage. So much so that I wanted the work of journalists on other news organisations to be brought to me in the same way.

But other newspapers are not offering the same functionality, so I thought I’d do it myself. Here’s how you can do it too:

Create a Facebook page for the journalist

Go to the Facebook Pages page and click ‘Create Page‘ in the upper right corner. Continue reading

All the news that’s fit to scrape

Channel 4/Scraperwiki collaboration

There have been quite a few scraping-related stories that I’ve been meaning to blog about – so many I’ve decided to write a round up instead. It demonstrates just the increasing role that scraping is playing in journalism – and the possibilities for those who don’t know them:

Scraping company information

Chris Taggart explains how he built a database of corporations which will be particularly useful to journalists and anyone looking at public spending:

“Let’s have a look at one we did earlier: the Isle of Man (there’s also one for Gibraltar, Ireland, and in the US, the District of Columbia) … In the space of a couple of hours not only have we liberated the data, but both the code and the data are there for anyone else to use too, as well as being imported in OpenCorporates.”

OpenCorporates are also offering a bounty for programmers who can scrape company information from other jurisdictions.

Scraperwiki on the front page of The Guardian…

The Scraperwiki blog gives the story behind a front page investigation by James Ball on lobbyist influence in the UK Parliament: Continue reading

How will people use your content? (Bad slideshow design)

gruffalo cake recipe

Design is not just about aesthetics but usability as well. This is particularly relevant when you are designing content online. So when I encountered this example of a slideshow for a cake recipe, I had to share it.

1. There is no ‘print’ option on the page

2. The ingredients are on one page, the recipe instructions take up a further 9 pages. So using the browser’s print option would involve clicking at least 19 times (9 times to get to the next page, 10 times to print each page – more clicks if you add in clicking on menus, etc.)

What do people do with recipes? Not this, if they can help it.

Thinking about how people might use your content should be part of how you design it. Newspapers have evolved over centuries in response to this – and even that doesn’t stay still, as the way that people use newspapers continues to change.

So what should this slideshow include? Well if you have to use a slideshow then at least include a link to a printable or fullscreen version (if they have the laptop or tablet in the kitchen) of the full recipe.

And if you’re going to allow people to ‘share’ it (as this slideshow did), don’t let that mean sharing just one part of the recipe (as, sadly, this slideshow did. I pity the person who received my message saying that I thought they might like step 1 of an incomplete recipe).

Thankfully the slideshow format is not used for any other recipe on The Guardian’s recipes page. Meanwhile, it’s a good lesson in bad design.

Should you ‘brand’ a hashtag?

Faisal Islam: Sure that all the brilliant BBC reporters realise that #BBCBudget goes against the entire point of SOCIAL media. It will be abandoned.

Two experiments by news organisations with Twitter hashtags during today’s UK budget have raised an issue around ‘branding’ and how appropriate it is to social media.

The BBC, it seems, is encouraging users to adopt the #BBCBudget hashtag to flag their tweets as part of the ‘national conversation’. Channel 4’s Faisal Islam, above, feels it’s a waste of 3 characters.

But Channel 4 itself is trying something not too dissimilar: #C4cuts aims to crowdsource details of UK spending cuts. Ed Fraser, online editor for Channel 4 News, is quoted by Journalism.co.uk as saying the channel wants to “harness the power of social media and the wisdom of the crowd”. Continue reading