Monthly Archives: February 2012

Podcasting and principles of narrative – a case study

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how narrative techniques are used within journalism to engage users and then keep them reading/listening/watching/clicking. By way of illustrating this, specifically with relation to audio, I wanted to blog in some detail about how narrative is used in a very good example I came across last month: a Freakonomics podcast.

Before you read any further, listen to that Freakonomics podcast and pretty much any Guardian Media Talk podcast

… OK, done?

Right. These are great case studies for how podcasting uses three core principles of narrative:

  • Characters,
  • Setting, and
  • Movement

The two also illustrate different editorial demands: the Freakonomics podcast is a good example of exploring one issue in depth; while the Guardian podcast is about breadth: reacting to a number of current events and reporting across them.

I’m going to focus on the Freakonomics podcast because it uses the same basic techniques which are employed by Media Talk, but also some others beside. It’s also technically pretty straightforward.

That’s good because their approach also makes for good journalism, moving beyond the superficial to a deeper exploration and understanding – which is key when we talk about narrative.

Here’s how the Freakonomics podcast uses character, setting and movement particularly well to attract the listener and keep them listening:

The hook: a great introductory story

After an initial introduction by the presenters that gives us a feel for the show and their personalities (the first ‘setting’ and ‘characters’, if you like) we start with a story. It’s a story of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a good story – and it has characters, settings, and movement: a problem, a journey, and a resolution.

Why start with this story? Because it grabs the listener from the start, and it provides an immediate reward.

But it also sets up a tension, at around 5.40: why are we being told the story? What does it mean?

This is the first hook of the podcast.

Movement and relevance: bringing things up to date

We then change setting, moving to a recent story about modern medical hygiene.

The characters in this story are weaker (that’s probably why we started with the stronger story). But it has something the first doesn’t: a problem that affects us directly.

This is the central tension of the whole podcast – our second hook (at around 7’20, when the show theme and introduction is finally played). And we will have to wait until the end of the podcast for its resolution.

From the end of the beginning we move into the beginning of the middle. That central tension hanging in the air gives us a reason to listen to the end, but we also need continual movement within the middle period to keep us interested.

And so we move to a new story: the subplot, if you like (in this case, about financial literacy), which will, eventually come together with the initial story.

We hold on to find out how this tension between the two stories will be resolved.

Style and structure

Having looked at the over-arching structure of the podcast, I want to look more closely at how style is used to add extra interest to that.

Because there is a lot more to note about the telling of these stories.

A useful technique when looking at media production is to think about the choices that have been made by its producers. For example, you could tell these stories in any number of ways – handing over the narrative to an expert; narrating it yourself; reconstructing events dramatically.

But the producers make a choice in the first story which is worth analysing: they switch relatively frequently between interviews and narration.

The effect of this is to reinforce the listener’s sensation of movement: the narrative moves along quickly, and the contrast between voices creates a tension that helps maintain our interest.

Once the first interviewee’s story is established, we move to a second. Again, this adds to the sensation of movement, with a new character, and a change of setting.

Note that the speaker is introduced after they speak, introducing a brief period of tension as the listener wonders who this new voice is.

Also: under the sound of speakers, we sometimes hear music or other sounds. This helps establish the setting of the story they’re recounting. Something as simple as classical music (out of copyright, which is handy) can establish a period or a place. Generic comedic sounds can turn tragedy into comedy.

As the story moves into its middle phase, interviews become less narrated. At 9’20 we have a telephone interview. And instead of ‘cutting’ through narration, the style is more conversational, and the interviewee has more space to talk.

Interviewees are sometimes arranged in sequence so that their views are at odds. We have conflict. Put another way: having established the problem in the beginning, we are now introducing characters onto the stage to fight that problem out.

This helps solve one of the hardest problems in storytelling: the fat middle; how to get from the beginning to the end without losing interest.

Mini-stories

In the Freakonomics example interest is also maintained in a number of ways other than conflict. One is the way the podcast introduces mini stories within the larger story (how the research was done; how a character discovered flawed claims – complete with ‘detective’ soundtrack); and a third is a mini-quiz (with a comedic/’countdown’/’game’ soundtrack to make it less dry).

The peak of the conflict comes with a hosted debate between two characters who hold different positions on the problem (flagged up as a “puzzle” in the lead-up, which again uses ‘debate’ music to establish the setting).

It’s worth listening to how the host prompts the debate and summarises positions, and when the characters get to speak directly to each other.

Even within the debate there is structure: we start with consensus before moving onto disrupting that, and a final consensus.

To host a debate like this you need to know people’s positions first and plan the debate around those.

The end phase

Having resolved that conflict, then, we move onto the beginning of the end.

And to signal that change, we have a change of setting too: we have an interviewee walking us through a hospital. The sounds are key to this, often recorded separately so they can be heard more clearly in the edit.

The end of the podcast uses a common technique in storytelling: returning to the start. The problem established in the beginning – hospital hygiene – and the problem established in the sub-plot – financial literacy – are both resolved with both final lessons and consensus, and at the same time, the question hanging in the air of “What do these stories have to do with each other?” is also resolved.

What’s more, the resolution has meaning beyond just a story: we have learned something.

Just to reinforce this, after that resolution comes a fade-out, rising title music, and credits. Small things that tell us definitively: The End.

Principles of narrative in a news podcast

But how do these techniques translate to a more traditional news podcast? The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast is, as I say, more about breadth than depth: a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

But it uses many of the same techniques at a smaller level. We begin with a table of contents, which serves to establish a little bit of tension, including teasing clips of tasty quotes.

We again have two voices (often both journalists) to tell a story instead of one, to introduce contrast and a little tension, and some structure of questioning that sets the scene before exploring more problematic issues, and ends by looking forward.

Each change of story is accompanied by an audio sting to signal that change of setting – and sometimes that change of setting occurs within the story – as when, for example, we move from an interview or report to the reaction to it.

The peak – two-thirds into the podcast – is the discussion where we move from hearing 2 voices to hearing 3.

So you can see the same techniques used, but in a much shorter space of time, and in a more routine manner. The format is more restrictive, but also allows for more effective production. It’s the right tool for the job.

Rounding it all up

That’s a lot to learn, so let me try to summarise these techniques that are used again and again:

  • Firstly, think about establishing tension:
    • through problems and questions;
    • and through conflict and contrast.
  • Secondly, think about movement:
    • This is done through regularly resolving those tensions and establishing new ones (while keeping the main tension hanging until the end).
    • And secondly, through moving from setting to setting.
    • And thirdly, by having stories within your overarching story or stories (which is really the same as using tensions, but is worth identifying separately). Notice how narration is used frequently to move the story forward – mainly because there’s a lot of material to get through. Don’t add narration for the sake of it if your characters can move things along themselves just fine.
  • Thirdly, note how audio is employed beyond the core content.
    • Music is used to increase tension, describe character, establish setting, and even the genre of mini-stories.
    • Silence and volume are equally important: a moment’s silence can indicate a change of pace or setting. A sudden rise in volume can indicate the end of a section.
  • Finally, remember that all the above relies on those characters. It is the actions of characters that creates the movement; it is characters who introduce us to new settings. We need to hear those characters – and you need to find them.

Suggestions on building narrative into a podcast

Listening to those podcasts again with those points in mind, here are some suggestions on how you might plan to organise a podcast of your own on a single issue story:

  • What’s the central tension you are going to introduce at the start and resolve at the end?
  • Is there a secondary and related tension you can run alongside it and resolve simultaneously?
  • What’s the best mini-story to begin with? End with?
  • Who are your main characters? And when do they need to enter and leave the stage?
  • What are your settings? And how might we move through them as the story develops?
  • How can you maintain movement in your middle section? Do you have more mini-stories?
  • What extra audio might you need to signal setting, character, genre or movement?

Any other examples or suggestions welcome.

FAQ: The stream as an interface; starting out in data journalism

Here are the latest answers to some questions – this time relating to these predictions for 2012:

Q: What are the advantages of “stream” as an interface for news website homepages?

The main advantages are that it’s very sticky – users tend to leave streams on in the same way that they leave 24 hour news channels on, or keep checking back to Facebook and Twitter (which have helped popularise the ‘stream’ interface).

If you compare that to the traditional story layout format, where users scan across the page but then leave the site if there’s nothing obviously of interest, you can see the difference.

I think there’s room for both, but if you want to know what’s new since the last time you looked, the stream works very well. And it’s not difficult to combine that with subject or region pages that show the most important news of that day, for example.

I think it can work for every kind of news: the stream says ‘Here’s what’s new’ across all topics; the ‘layout’ says ‘Here’s what we think is important’ – in other words, it performs a more traditional ‘snapshot’ function akin to the daily newspaper layout.

2) What are the skills a reporter should have in order to be a top-notch, first-rate data journalist?

The basic skills are the same as any journalist: a nose for a story, and the ability to communicate that clearly. In data journalism terms that means being able to interrogate data quickly and then focus on the most important facts within it.

That will most likely involve being able to use spreadsheet formulae to work out, for example, the proportion of time or money being spent on something, or to combine different datasets to gain new insights or overcome obstacles put in your way by those publishing the data.

You also need to be able to avoid mistakes by cleaning data, for example (often the same person or organisation will be named differently, for example), and by understanding the context of the data (for example, population size, or methodology used to gather it).

Finally, as I say, you need to be able to communicate the results clearly, which often means pulling back from the data and not trying to use it all in your telling of the story (just as you wouldn’t use every quote you got from a source) but keeping it simple.

Games are just another storytelling device

Whenever people talk about games as a potential journalistic device, there is a reaction against the idea of ‘play’ as a method for communicating ‘serious’ news.

Malcolm Bradbrook’s post on the News:Rewired talk by Newsgames author Bobby Schweizer is an unusually thoughtful exploration of that reaction, where he asks whether the use of games might contribute to the wider tabloidisation of news, the key aspects of which he compares with games as follows:

  1. “Privileging the visual over analysis – I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
  2. “Using cultural knowledge over analysis – the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC’s One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
  3. “Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events – as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?”

These are all good points, and designers of journalism games should think about them carefully, but I think there’s a danger of seeing games in isolation.

Hooking the user – and creating a market

With the BBC’s One in 7bn interactive, for example, I’d want to know how many users would have read the analysis if there was no interactive at all. Yes, many people will not have gone further than typing in their date of birth – but that doesn’t mean all of them didn’t. 10% of a lot (and that interactive attracted a huge audience) can be more than 100% of few.

What’s more, the awareness driven by that interactive creates an environment for news discussion that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Even if 90% of users (pick your own proportion, it doesn’t matter) never read the analysis directly, they are still more likely to discuss the story with others, some of whom would then be able to talk about the analysis the others missed.

Without that social context, the ‘serious’ news consumer has less opportunity to discuss what they’ve read.

News is multi-purpose

Then there’s the idea that people read the news for “acquisition of understanding”. I’m not sure how much news consumption is motivated by that, and how much by the need to be able to operate socially (discussing current events) or professionally (reacting to them) or even emotionally (being stimulated by them).

As someone who has tried various techniques to help students “acquire understanding”, I’m aware that the best method is not always to present them with facts, or a story. Sometimes it’s about creating a social environment; sometimes it’s about simulating an experience or putting people in a situation where they are faced with particular problems (all of which are techniques used by games).

Bradbrook ends with a quote from Jeremy Paxman on journalism’s “first duty” as disclosure. But if you can’t get people to listen to that disclosure then it is purposeless (aside from making the journalist feel superior). That is why journalists write stories, and not research documents. It is why they use case studies and not just statistics.

Games are another way of communicating information. Like all the other methods, they have their limitations as well as strengths. We need to be aware of these, and think about them critically, but to throw out the method entirely would be a mistake, I think.

UPDATE: Some very useful tweets from Mary Hamilton, Si Lumb, Chris Unitt and Mark Sorrell drew my attention to some very useful posts on games and storytelling more generally.

Sorrell’s post Games Good Stories Bad, for example, includes this passage:

“Games can create great stories, don’t get me wrong. But they are largely incapable oftelling great stories. Games are about interaction and agency, about choice and self-determination. One of the points made by fancy-pants French sociologist Roger Caillois when defining what a game is, was that the outcome of a game must be uncertain. The result cannot be known in advance. When you try and tell a story in a game, you must break that rule, you must make the outcome of events pre-determined.”
And while reading Lumb’s blog I came across this post with this point:

” A story as an entity, as a thing doesn’t exist until some event, some imagination, some narrative is constructed, relived, shared or described. It must be told. It is “story telling”, after all. Only at the point that you tell someone about that something does it become real, does it become a story. It is always from your perspective, it is always your interpretation, it is a gift you wish to share and that is how it comes to be.

“In a game you can plant narrative as discoverable, you can have cut scenes, you can have environments and situations and mechanics and toys and rules and delight and wonderful play – and in all of this you hide traditional “stories” from visual and textual creators (until read or viewed they don’t exist) and you have the emergence of events that may indeed become stories when you share with another person.”

And finally, if you just want to explore these issues in a handy diagram, there’s this infographic tweeted by Lumb:

A Model of Play - Dubberly Design Office

A Model of Play - Dubberly Design Office

For more background on games in journalism, see my Delicious bookmarks at http://delicious.com/paulb/gamejournalism

Are Sky and BBC leaving the field open to Twitter competitors?

At first glance, Sky’s decision that its journalists should not retweet information that has “not been through the Sky News editorial process” and the BBC’s policy to prioritise filing “written copy into our newsroom as quickly as possible” seem logical.

For Sky it is about maintaining editorial control over all content produced by its staff. For the BBC, it seems to be about making sure that the newsroom, and by extension the wider organisation, takes priority over the individual.

But there are also blind spots in these strategies that they may come to regret.

Our content?

The Sky policy articulates an assumption about ‘content’ that’s worth picking apart.

We accept as journalists that what we produce is our responsibility. When it comes to retweeting, however, it’s not entirely clear what we are doing. Is that news production, in the same way that quoting a source is? Is it newsgathering, in the same way that you might repeat a lead to someone to find out their reaction? Or is it merely distribution?

The answer, as I’ve written before, is that retweeting can be, and often is, all three.

Writing about a similar policy at the Oregonian late last year, Steve Buttry made the point that retweets are not endorsements. Jeff Jarvis argued that they were “quotes”.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that (as I explain below), but I do think it’s illustrative: if Sky News were to prevent journalists from using any quote on air or online where they could not verify its factual basis, then nothing would get broadcast. Live interviews would be impossible.

The Sky policy, then, seems to treat retweets as pure distribution, and – crucially – to treat the tweet in isolation. Not as a quote, but as a story, consisting entirely of someone else’s content, which has not been through Sky editorial processes but which is branded or endorsed as Sky journalism.

There’s a lot to admire in the pride in their journalism that this shows – indeed, I would like to see the same rigour applied to the countless quotes that are printed and broadcast by all media without being compared with any evidence.
But do users really see retweets in the same way? And if they do, will they always do so?

Curation vs creation

There’s a second issue here which is more about hard commercial success. Research suggests that successful users of Twitter tend to combine curation with creation. Preventing journalists from retweeting  leaves them – and their employers – without a vital tool in their storytelling and distribution.

The tension surrounding retweeting can be illustrated in the difference between two broadcast journalists who use Twitter particularly effectively: Sky’s own Neal Mann, and NPR’s Andy Carvin. Andy retweets habitually as a way of seeking further information. Neal, as he explained in this Q&A with one of my classes, feels that he has a responsibility not to retweet information he cannot verify (from 2 mins in).

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. But both combine curation with creation.

Network effects

A third issue that strikes me is how these policies fit uncomfortably alongside the networked ways that news is experienced now.

The BBC policy, for example, appears at first glance to prevent journalists from diving right into the story as it develops online. Social media editor Chris Hamilton does note, importantly, that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”. However, this is coupled with the position that:

“Our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”

This is an interesting line of argument, and there are a number of competing priorities underlying it that I want to understand more clearly.

Firstly, it implies a separation of newsroom systems and Twitter. If newsroom staff are not following their own journalists on Twitter as part of their systems, why not? Sky pioneered the use of Twitter as an internal newswire, and the man responsible, Julian March, is now doing something similar at ITV. The connection between internal systems and Twitter is notable.

Then there’s that focus on “all our audiences” in opposition to those early adopter Twitter types. If news is “breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update”, being first on Twitter can give you strategic advantages that waiting for the six o’clock – or even typing a report that’s over 140 characters – won’t. For example:

  • Building a buzz (driving people to watch, listen to or search for the fuller story)
  • Establishing authority on Google (which ranks first reports over later ones)
  • Establishing the traditional authority in being known as the first to break the story
  • Making it easier for people on the scene to get in touch (if someone’s just experienced a newsworthy event or heard about it from someone who was, how likely is it that they search Twitter to see who else was there? You want to be the journalist they find and contact)

“When the technology [to inform the newsroom and generate a tweet at the same time] isn’t available, for whatever reason, we’re asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending a tweet.

“We’re talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.

“And we’re talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that’s moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the guidance will evolve as quickly.”

Everything at the same time

There’s another side to this, which is evidence of news organisations taking a strategic decision that, in a world of information overload, they should stop trying to be the first (an increasingly hard task), and instead seek to be more authoritative. To be able to say, confidently, “Every atom we distribute is confirmed”, or “We held back to do this spectacularly as a team”.

There’s value in that, and a lot to be admired. I’m not saying that these policies are inherently wrong. I don’t know the full thinking that went into them, or the subtleties of their implementation (as Rory Cellan-Jones illustrates in his example, which contrasts with what can actually happen). I don’t think there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do Twitter’. Every decision is a trade off, because so many factors are in play. I just wanted to explore some of those factors here.

As soon as you digitise information you remove the physical limitations that necessitated the traditional distinctions between the editorial processes of newsgathering, production, editing and distribution.

A single tweet can be doing all at the same time. Social media policies need to recognise this, and journalists need to be trained to understand the subtleties too.

Journalist Filters on Twitter – The Reuters View

It seems that Reuters has a new product out – Reuters Social Pulse. As well as highlighting “the stories being talked about by the newsmakers we follow”, there is an area highlighting “the Reuters & Klout 50 where we rank America’s most social CEOs.” Of note here is that this list is ordered by Klout score. Reuters don’t own Klout (yet?!) do they?!

The offering also includes a view of the world through the tweets of Reuters own staff. Apparently, “Reuters has over 3,000 journalists around the world, many of whom are doing amazing work on Twitter. That is too many to keep up with on a Twitter list, so we created a directory Reuters Twitter Directory] that shows you our best tweeters by topic. It let’s you find our reporters, bloggers and editors by category and location so you can drill down to business journalists in India, if you so choose, or tech writers in the UK.”

If you view the source of Reuters Twitter directory page, you can find a Javascript object that lists all(?) the folk in the Reuters Twitter directory and the tags they are associated with… Hmm, I thought… Hmmm…

If we grab that object, and pop it into Python, it’s easy enough to create a bipartite network that links journalists to the categories they are associated with:

import simplejson
import networkx as nx
#http://mlg.ucd.ie/files/summer/tutorial.pdf
from networkx.algorithms import bipartite

g = nx.Graph()

#need to bring in reutersJournalistList
users=simplejson.loads(reutersJournalistList)

#I had some 'issues' with the parsing for some reason? Required this hack in the end...
for user in users:
	for x in user:
		if x=='users':
			u=user[x][0]['twitter_screen_name']
			print 'user:',user[x][0]['twitter_screen_name']
			for topic in user[x][0]['topics']:
				print '- topic:',topic
				#Add edges from journalist name to each tag they are associated with
				g.add_edge(u,topic)
#print bipartite.is_bipartite(g)
#print bipartite.sets(g)

#Save a graph file we can visualise in Gephi corresponding to bipartite graph
nx.write_graphml(g, "usertags.graphml")

#We can find the sets of names/tags associated with the disjoint sets in the graph
users,tags=bipartite.sets(g)

#Collapse the bipartite graph to a graph of journalists connected via a common tag
ugraph= bipartite.projected_graph(g, users)
nx.write_graphml(ugraph, "users.graphml")

#Collapse the bipartite graph to a set of tags connected via a common journalist
tgraph= bipartite.projected_graph(g, tags)
nx.write_graphml(tgraph, "tags.graphml")

#Dump a list of the journalists Twitter IDs
f=open("users.txt","w+")
for uo in users: f.write(uo+'n')
f.close()

Having generated graph files, we can then look to see how the tags cluster as a result of how they were applied to journalists associated with several tags:

Reuters journalists twitter directory cotags

Alternatively, we can look to see which journalists are connected by virtue of being associated with similar tags (hmm, I wonder if edge weight carries information about how many tags each connected pair may be associated through? [UPDATE: there is a projection that will calculate this – bipartite.projection.weighted_projected_graph]). In this case, I size the nodes by betweenness centrality to try to highlight journalists that bridge topic areas:

Reuters twitter journalists list via cotags, sized by betweenness centrality

Association through shared tags (as applied by Reuters) is one thing, but there is also structure arising from friendship networks…So to what extent do the Reuters Twitter List journalists follow each other (again, sizing by betweenness centrality):

Reuters twitter journalists friend connections sized by betweenness centrality

Finally, here’s a quick look at folk followed by 15 or more of the folk in the Reuters Twitter journalists list: this is the common source area on Twitter for the journalists on the list. This time, I size nodes by eigenvector centrality.

FOlk followed by 15 or more of folk on reuters twitter journliasts list, size by eigenvector centrality

So why bother with this? Because journalists provide a filter onto the way the world is reported to us through the media, and as a result the perspective we have of the world as portrayed through the media. If we see journalists as providing independent fairwitness services, then having some sort of idea about the extent to which they are sourcing their information severally, or from a common pool, can be handy. In the above diagram, for example, I try to highlight common sources (folk followed by at least 15 of the journalists on the Twitter list). But I could equally have got a feeling for the range of sources by producing a much larger and sparser graph, such as all the folk followed by journalists on the list, or folk followed by only 1 person on the list (40,000 people or so in all – see below), or by 2 to 5 people on the list…

The twitterverse as directly and publicly followed by folk on the Reuters Journalists twitter list

Friends lists are one sort of filter every Twitter user has onto the content been shared on Twitter, and something that’s easy to map. There are other views of course – the list of people mentioning a user is readily available to every Twitter user, and it’s easy enough to set up views around particular hashtags or search terms. Grabbing the journalists associated with one or more particular tags, and then mapping their friends (or, indeed, followers) is also possible, as is grabbing the follower lists for one or more journalists and then looking to see who the friends of the followers are, thus positioning the the journalist in the social media environment as perceived by their followers.

I’m not sure that value Reuters sees in the stream of tweets from the folk on its Twitter journalists lists, or the Twitter networks they have built up, but the friend lenses at least we can try to map out. And via the bipartite user/tag graph, it also becomes trivial for us to find journalists with interests in Facebook and advertising, for example…

PS for associated techniques related to the emergent social positioning of hashtags and shared links on Twitter, see Socially Positioning #Sherlock and Dr John Watson’s Blog… and Social Media Interest Maps of Newsnight and BBCQT Twitterers. For a view over @skynews Twitter friends, and how they connect, see Visualising How @skynews’ Twitter Friends Connect.

Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act:

Moving away from ‘the story’: 5 roles of an online investigations team

The online investigation team: curation editor, multimedia editor, data journalist, community manager, editor

In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:

  • people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
  • and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.

Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.

Roles in a team: moving from churnalism to depth

Here’s what I’m trying (for context: this is on an undergraduate module at Birmingham City University):

Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).

The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.

The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.

(It’s interesting to note that at least one news organisation is attempting something similar with a restructuring late last year)

Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:

The Editor (ED)

It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).

Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:

  • A nose for a story
  • Project management skills
  • Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
This post on Poynter is a good introduction to the personal skills needed for the role.

The Community Manager (CM)

The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.

They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).

Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:

  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
  • A nose for a story
  • Contacts in the community
  • Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online

6 steps to get started in community management can be found in this follow-up post.

The Data Journalist (DJ)

While the community manager is focused on people, the data journalist is focused on documentation: datasets, reports, documents, regulations, and anything that frames the story being pursued.

It is their role to find that documentation – and to make sense of it. This is a key role because stories often come from signs being ignored (data) or regulations being ignored (documents).

Qualities needed and developed by the data journalist include:

  • Research skills – advanced online search and use of libraries
  • Analysis skills – such as using spreadsheets
  • Ability to decipher jargon – often by accessing experts (the CM can help)

Here’s a step by step on how to get started as a data journalist.

The Multimedia Journalist (MMJ)

The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.

They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.

They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.

Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:

  • Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
  • Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
  • Planning: pre-interviewing, research, booking kit

The Curation Journalist (CJ)

(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.

They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.

This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.

Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:

  • Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
  • Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
  • Ability to turn around copy quickly

There’s a post on 7 ways to follow a field as a network aggregator (or any other journalist) on Help Me Investigate.

And here’s a post on ‘How to be a curation editor‘.

Examples of network aggregation in action:

  • Blogs like Created In Birmingham regularly round up the latest links to events and other reports in their field. See also The Guardian’s PDA Newsbucket.
  • John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
  • This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.

Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story

If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:

  • Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
  • Profiles of key community members
  • Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
  • Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
  • Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
  • Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
  • The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.

You can read more on the expectations of each role in this document. And there’s a diagram indicating how group members might interact at the top of this article.

What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.

UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:

“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:

  • A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
  • An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
  • A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”

If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.

Moving away from ‘the story’: 5 roles of an online investigations team

In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:

  • people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
  • and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.

Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.

Roles in a team: moving from churnalism to depth

Here’s what I’m trying (for context: this is on an undergraduate module at Birmingham City University):

Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).

The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.

The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.

(It’s interesting to note that at least one news organisation is attempting something similar with a restructuring late last year)

Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:

The Editor (ED)

It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).

Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:

  • A nose for a story
  • Project management skills
  • Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
This post on Poynter is a good introduction to the personal skills needed for the role.

The Community Manager (CM)

The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.

They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).

Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:

  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
  • A nose for a story
  • Contacts in the community
  • Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online

6 steps to get started in community management can be found in this follow-up post.

The Data Journalist (DJ)

While the community manager is focused on people, the data journalist is focused on documentation: datasets, reports, documents, regulations, and anything that frames the story being pursued.

It is their role to find that documentation – and to make sense of it. This is a key role because stories often come from signs being ignored (data) or regulations being ignored (documents).

Qualities needed and developed by the data journalist include:

  • Research skills – advanced online search and use of libraries
  • Analysis skills – such as using spreadsheets
  • Ability to decipher jargon – often by accessing experts (the CM can help)

Here’s a step by step on how to get started as a data journalist.

The Multimedia Journalist (MMJ)

The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.

They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.

They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.

Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:

  • Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
  • Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
  • Planning: pre-interviewing, research, booking kit 

The Curation Journalist (CJ)

(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.

They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.

This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.

Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:

  • Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
  • Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
  • Ability to turn around copy quickly

There’s a post on 7 ways to follow a field as a network aggregator (or any other journalist) on Help Me Investigate.

And here’s a post on ‘How to be a network journalist‘.

Examples of network aggregation in action:

  • Blogs like Created In Birmingham regularly round up the latest links to events and other reports in their field. See also The Guardian’s PDA Newsbucket.
  • John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
  • This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.

Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story

If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:

  • Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
  • Profiles of key community members
  • Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
  • Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
  • Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
  • Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
  • The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.

You can read more on the expectations of each role in this document. And there’s a diagram indicating how group members might interact below:

Investigations team flowchart

Investigations team flowchart

What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.

UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:

“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:

  • A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
  • An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
  • A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”

If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.

“Data laundering”

Wonderful post by Tony Hirst in which he sort-of-coins* a lovely neologism in explaining how data can be “laundered”:

“The Deloitte report was used as evidence by Facebook to demonstrate a particular economic benefit made possible by Facebook’s activities. The consultancy firm’s caveats were ignored, (including the fact that the data may in part at least have come from Facebook itself), in reporting this claim.

“So: this is data laundering, right? We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

So, perhaps we can now say “Follow the data” in the same way that we “Follow the money”?

*Although a search for “money laundering” generates thousands of results on Google, most of them seemingly influenced by serial neologist William Gibson‘s use of the term to refer to using illegally acquired data, I can’t find an example of it being used in the way that Tony means it.

Leveson: the Internet Pops In

The following post was originally published by Gary Herman on the NUJ New Media blog. It’s reproduced here with permission.

Here at Newmedia Towers we are being swamped by events which at long last are demonstrating that the internet is really rather relevant to the whole debate about media ethics and privacy. So this is by way of a short and somewhat belated survey of the news tsunami – Google, Leveson, Twitter, ACTA, the EU and more.

When Camilla Wright, founder of celebrity gossip site Popbitch (which some years ago broke the news of Victoria Beckham’s pregnancy possibly before she even knew about it), testified before Leveson last week (26 January 2012) [Guardian liveblog; Wright’s official written statement (PDF)] the world found out (if it could be bothered) how Popbitch is used by newspaper hacks to plant stories so that they can then be said to have appeared on the internet. Anyone remember the Drudge report, over a decade ago?

Wright, of course, made a somewhat lame excuse that Popbitch is a counterweight to gossip magazines which are full of stories placed by the PR industry.

But most interesting is the fact that Wright claimed that Popbitch is self-regulated and that it works.

Leveson pronounced that he is not sure there is ‘so much of a difference’ between what Popbitch does and what newspapers do – which is somehow off the point. Popbitch – like other websites – has a global reach by definition and Wright told the Inquiry that Popbitch tries to comply with local laws wherever it was available – claims also made more publicly by Google and Yahoo! when they have in the past given in to Chinese pressure to release data that actually or potentially incriminated users and, more recently, by Twitter when it announced its intention to regulate tweets on a country-by-country basis.

Trivia – like the stuff Popbitch trades – aside, the problem is real. A global medium will cross many jurisdictions and be accessible within many different cultures. What one country welcomes, another may ban. And who should judge the merits of each?

Confusing the internet with its applications

The Arab Spring showed us that social media – like mobile phones, CB radios, fly-posted silkscreen prints, cheap offset litho leaflets and political ballads before them – have the power to mobilise and focus dissent. Twitter’s announcement should have been expected – after all, tweeting was never intended to be part of the revolutionaries’ tool-kit.

There are already alternatives to Twitter – Vibe, Futubra, Plurk, Easy Chirp and Blackberry Messenger, of course – and the technology itself will not be restrained by the need to expand into new markets. People confuse the internet with its applications – a mistake often made by those authorities who seek to impose a duty to police content on those who convey it.

Missing the point again, Leveson asked whether it would be useful to have an external ombudsman to advise Popbitch on stories and observed that a common set of standards across newspapers and websites might also help.

While not dismissing the idea, Wright made the point that the internet made it easy for publications to bypass UK regulators.

This takes us right into the territory of Google, Facebook and the various attempts by US and international authorities to introduce regulation and impose duties on websites themselves to police them.

ACTA, SOPA and PIPA

The latest example is the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) – a shadowy international treaty which, according to Google’s legal director, Daphne Keller, speaking over a year ago, has ‘metastasized’ from a proposal on border security and counterfeit goods to an international legal framework covering copyright and the internet.

According to a draft of ACTA, released for public scrutiny after pressure from the European Union, internet providers who disable access to pirated material and adopt a policy to counter unauthorized ‘transmission of materials protected by copyright’ will be protected against legal action.

Fair use rights would not be guaranteed under the terms of the agreement.

Many civil liberty groups have protested the process by which ACTA has been drafted as anti-democratic and ACTA’s provisions as draconian.

Google’s Keller described ACTA as looking ‘a lot like cultural imperialism’.

Google later became active in the successful fight against the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the related Protect Intellectual Proerty Act (PIPA), which contained similar provisions to ACTA.

Google has been remarkably quite on the Megaupload case, however. This saw the US take extraterritorial action against a Hong Kong-based company operating a number of websites accused of copyright infringement.

The arrest of all Megaupload’s executives and the closure of its sites may have the effect of erasing perfectly legitimate and legal data held on the company’s servers – something which would on the face of it be an infringement of the rights of Megaupload users who own the data.

Privacy

Meanwhile, Google – in its growing battle with Facebook – has announced its intention to introduce a single privacy regime for 60 or so of its websites and services which will allow the company to aggregate all the data on individual users the better to serve ads.

Facebook already does something similar, although the scope of its services is much, much narrower than Google’s.

Privacy is at the heart of the current action against Google by Max Mosley, who wants the company to take down all links to external websites from its search results if those sites cover the events at the heart of his successful libel suit against News International.

Mosley is suing Google in the UK, France and Germany, and Daphne Keller popped up at the Leveson Inquiry, together with David-John Collins, head of corporate communications and public affairs for Google UK, to answer questions about the company’s policies on regulation and privacy.

Once again, the argument regarding different jurisdictions and the difficulty of implementing a global policy was raised by Keller and Collins.

Asked about an on-the-record comment by former Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, that ‘only miscreants worry about net privacy’, Collins responded that the comment was not representative of Google’s policy on privacy, which it takes ‘extremely seriously’.

There is, of course, an interesting disjuncture between Google’s theoretical view of privacy and its treatment of its users. When it comes to examples like Max Mosley, Google pointed out – quite properly – that it can’t police the internet, that it does operate across jurisdictions and that it does ensure that there are comprehensive if somewhat esoteric mechanisms for removing private data and links from the Google listings and caches.

Yet it argues that, if individuals choose to use Google, whatever data they volunteer to the company is fair game for Google – even where that data involves third persons who may not have assented to their details being known or when, as happened during the process of building Google’s StreetView application, the company collected private data from domestic wi-fi routers without the consent or knowledge of the householders.

Keller and Collins brought their double-act to the UK parliament a few days later when they appeared before the joint committee on privacy and injunctions, chaired by John Whittingdale MP.

When asked why Google did not simply ‘find and destroy’ all instances of the images and video that Max Mosley objected to, they repeated their common mantras – Google is not the internet, and neither can nor should control the websites its search results list.

Accused by committee member Lord MacWhinney of ‘ducking and diving’ and of former culture minister, Ben Bradshaw of being ‘totally unconvincing’, Keller noted that Google could in theory police the sites it indexed, but that ‘doing so is a bad idea’.

No apparatus disinterested and qualified enough

That seems indisputable – regulating the internet should not be the job of providers like Google, Facebook or Twitter. On the contrary, the providers are the ones to be regulated, and this should be the job of legislatures equipped (unlike the Whittingdale committee) with the appropriate level of understanding and coordinated at a global level.

The internet requires global oversight – but we have no apparatus that is disinterested and qualified enough to do the job.

A new front has been opened in this battle by the latest draft rules on data protection issued by Viviane Reding’s Justice Directorate at the European Commission on 25 January.

Reding is no friend of Google or the big social networks and is keen to draw them into a framework of legislation that will – should the rules pass into national legislation – be coordinated at EU level.

Reding’s big ideas include a ‘right to be forgotten’ which will apply to online data only and an extension of the scope of personal data to cover a user’s IP address. Confidentiality should be built-in to online systems according to the new rules – an idea called ‘privacy by design’.

These ideas are already drawing flak from corporates like Google who point out that the ‘right to be forgotten’ is something that the company already upholds as far as the data it holds is concerned.

Reding’s draft rules includes an obligation by so-called ‘data controllers’ such as Google to notify third parties when someone wishes their data to be removed, so that links and copies can also be removed.

Not surprisingly, Google objects to this requirement which, if not exactly a demand to police the internet, is at least a demand to ‘help the police with their enquiries’.

The problem will not go away: how do you make sure that a global medium protects privacy, removes defamation and respects copyright while preserving its potential to empower the oppressed and support freedom of speech everywhere?

Answers on a postcard, please.