Tag Archives: karthikaswamy

GameChanger: providing tools for citizen sports journalism

It is hard to imagine that a sports-crazed country like the US would have any dearth in sports reporting. However, while professional and major college sports get covered no end by traditional media, sports leagues and user-generated sites alike, high school and minor college sports remain largely uncovered, an issue that is being exacerbated by declining revenues.

This was one of the reasons that inspired Ted Sullivan, a former minor league baseball player and a graduate of Harvard Business School, to ease the pain of parents, coaches and fans of youth sports, literally,  by launching an application that is making the process of scoring simpler, and allowing for easier distribution of stats from the field.

“An entire category of content called real-time sports doesn’t exist for what is the enormous majority of athletic events happening everyday, whether that is organized sports from the small college level or high school and youth sports,” says Sullivan.

Having not only played the sport, but also having coached at a downtown little league in Manhattan, Sullivan understood the challenges of scoring baseball manually. Earlier this year, along with co-founder Kiril Savino, he launched GameChanger, an iPhone application that transmits data in real time from the field. Using the tool, scores and stats, as they happen, can be tapped into an iPhone by coaches, fans and parents. This is translated into a “gamestream” that appears on the Gamechanger site instantaneously so fans can access live updates, box scores, and play by plays.

Balls, strikes and hits are recorded using the tool’s menu options, and players are tracked by dragging and dropping names. In addition, a coach or scorekeeper can create a team’s schedule, roster and lineup. There is also a provision for fans to add to the stream by posting comments or uploading photos and video.

“I believe in the mobile device as a great data collector,” says Sullivan. While mobile devices are useful for content consumption, the very nature of smart phones prompts something more than passive viewing by the user. And this makes them ideal vehicles for data gathering and delivery.

So GameChanger provides an application to the community surrounding a team, which, in turn, allows the community to provide data from the field to GameChanger. In other words, it is crowdsourcing with organized content gathering.

Each team can have more than one hub based on how many people choose to use the app for scoring, but Sullivan assures me that the tedium of score-keeping restricts it to few, very avid fans or parents, thus reducing potential imposters or error-prone score keepers. Besides, GameChanger makes baseball scoring easy enough for anyone with a basic understanding of the sport, thus alleviating the need for extensive experience or in-depth knowledge.

“The key piece here that needs to be stressed is that this business doesn’t work if we aren’t providing a huge incentive to the person that is using the application and collecting the data for us for free,” says Sullivan. He explains that manual scoring takes an average of 45 minutes to an hour per game; factor in several games per week stretched over an entire season, and therein lies Gamechanger’s incentive.

Lisa Winston attests to this over at the MLB Blog, bemoaning the fact that an app “so brilliant and simple” wasn’t available when her daughter played in the little league.

All the content that is collected is available on the GameChanger site. While some content is free, more detailed information, such as play by plays, requires a subscription. Sullivan believes that the data is exclusive and time sensitive enough for people to be willing to pay for it. For a fee, a simple html code also allows local news sites to pull data from GameChanger’s database in the form of widgets. Profits are shared with news partners.

Potential other uses in journalism?

If such an application can make data gathering, analysis and distribution easier in the case of simple scoring of a little league game, could it find potential in other, more complex issues? Such as election results, exit polls or the statistics of climate change?  With the popularity of crowdsourcing, citizens are being entrusted with more and more complex tasks in areas such as citizen science and E-governance. Such a foolproof application would increase participation and minimize error.

While projects like WNYC’s crowdsourced maps have successfully used their Web sites as data collectors, the content obtained from the public in such cases has been relatively simple, such as the number of cars on a street, or the price of milk at a grocery store. In these and similar such exercises, the task of making sense of the data or painting the bigger picture has been that of a journalist, perhaps rightfully so.

But if data-specific applications could be designed to maximize contributions from the public, it would perhaps make citizen journalism more relevant and valuable while reducing the workload on news organizations. It’s debatable if it will work for areas more serious than sports or entertainment, but, if anything, such weighty topics could use applications that would make information gathering easier.

Augmenting reality through journalism

It should come as no surprise that “augmented reality” – the technology that overlays virtual layers of data upon the real world – could be useful for journalism. If Yelp’s augmented reality application downloaded to your smartphone can generate a digital screen with ratings and reviews of a restaurant even as you enter it,  it’s not hard to envision a time in the future when your handheld could offer real-time news from your surroundings, almost as it unfolds.

Not surprisingly, news organizations are jumping on the bandwagon. In the past couple of months, Esquire magazine in the US and Wallpaper in Europe unveiled fancy “augmented reality” editions. Robert Downey Jr. came to life on the cover of Esquire, and videos and animation augmented text through the pages of Wallpaper. Last summer, Popular Science used a GE-powered augmented-reality feature with 3-dimensional wind turbines on its cover.

While all of this is “cool,” allowing publications to improve reader experience and perhaps, revenue, by providing interactivity and entertainment, none of them specifically utilized the potential of augmented reality to enhance delivery of serious content, as the Guardian’s Mercedes Bunz eloquently pointed out. While these publications have provided a good prelude to how the technology can be utilized, news organizations should segue into actually doing journalism with augmented reality instead of merely offering it as dessert.

Event reporting

One of the obvious uses of the technology would be in the reporting of live events. This has particular relevance in planned or staged events, which can range anywhere from international climate summits to polling booth stats to reporting from live games, and by extension, perhaps, award shows and concerts. Similar to the superimposed first-down line on NFL football fields, which has often been used to describe how augmented reality can overlay virtual information on real objects, stats about the distance of a quarterback’s pass, the speed of a tennis player’s serve, exit poll results on election days, or data released at international summits can be virtually generated so people can view them on their smartphones even as the event transpires.

Mixed media
Another way to utilize the technology more relevantly for journalism is a method employed by the company Moving Brands for its paper, Living Identity. Holding up the print edition of a story in front of a webcam in this case generates a live feed of the latest news and updates about the content in question. Such an integration of various forms of media might indeed be one of the biggest benefits of the technology – allowing users to engage and interact online through special tags and markers in the print product would enable news organizations to not necessarily charge for online content, but offer additional features accessible only through the print version. This might be an avenue to generate profit for an otherwise dying print product.

Localizing content
Augmented reality thrives on hyperlocal content, as seen by applications like Yelp’s Monocle and Mobilizy’s Wikitude, which can offer a user facts on a restaurant or site of interest, based on his location. Such applications utilize a smartphone’s GPS coordinates in conjunction with localized data garnered from the Web in order to provide information. If you can wave a smartphone in front of the Niagara Falls to get stats about the popular destination, why not point it in the general direction of a location of interest and generate a digital screen of the latest news from the region in question? It would be nice to see publications invest in providing local, breaking news through applications downloaded on smartphones, for instance. This would also allow national publications to “localize” themselves. Some radio stations already do this by providing news and traffic updates based on the location of a user’s handheld device.

User-generated content
Another important point to note is that many augmented reality apps are based on social sites, so much of the content for data points is user-generated; Wikitude even allows users to integrate to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, thus making the application socially aware. This concept brings up a whole host of possibilities for news organizations to not only provide more local information to readers, but also to seek user-contributed content. The New York Times, rightly taking a leaf out of the books of these companies, plans to implement augmented reality for its movie and restaurant reviews. While it’s at it, what the Times might also consider is reader input. It would be cool to whip out a mobile phone and see what Sam Sifton has to say about a restaurant, but in keeping with the ways of social media and technology, it would be somewhat wanting if users aren’t allowed to offer their own views and ratings.

Explaining concepts and background
Augmented reality also allows an interactive, engaging way for publications to explain background and concepts for issues they report on. Mainstream media entities like the Times and the BBC, and independent online startups like Flyp media have effectively used multimedia to elaborate on complex principles – from climate issues to African history.  Augmented reality could add a new dimension, quite literally, to this format of content delivery, without a reader having to navigate hyperlinks or popup windows.

In addition, it can enhance charts and graphical representations of information and localize them to make them more pertinent to a reader. Layar, the first-ever augmented reality browser, has developed an application that can help users track bailout money that was given to US banks by the Obama administration, for instance. News organizations would do well to augment their reporting in similar fashion; reading about a big bank miles away from where readers live can be informative, but knowing that a local company received federal money is often more relevant to people.

Apart from content, however, augmented reality’s more important potential might be in the area of revenue generation. Despite being a brainchild of technology, one essential factor in case of both the Esquire and Wallpaper augmented-reality issues is, of course, that readers need to have a print edition of the magazine to be able to experience the features. In addition, the features are interactive and engaging, and regardless of whether they offer exclusive information, they have the potential to keep readers riveted.

Advertising and revenue generation
Much has been said about the success of rich media ads in driving purchase intent; augmented reality can and is providing more effective strategies for advertising. In addition to making advertisements fun and engaging, publications could also use the technology to provide targeted advertising, which would be less rather than more disruptive for the user.  In a simple case, only users interested in purchasing that BMW would hold up the print ad in front of their computer screens to generate a virtual car that shows off all its features, for instance (though who in their right mind wouldn’t want a digitally-generated Z4 to zip in front of their very eyes?). The great potential of this technology for advertising is already being seen, as more and more brands jump on the augmented reality bandwagon. In fact, companies have perhaps implemented it most innovatively and effectively in order to help consumers get a real sense of the values and functions of their products.

With the growing number of paid smart phone apps, news organizations are beginning to understand that the audience is more likely to pay for technology than for content. Augmented reality (and mobile phones) have a long way to go before the technology can become mainstream, but it certainly has the potential to be one of several revenue streams that the media can begin to employ.

What augmented reality can do above and beyond everything else is make information relevant and tangible to a reader or viewer. For years, media puritans have worried about the Internet causing fragmented communities, and taking citizens away from their local communities. Smartphones enabled with augmented reality might be the answer to bridge that divide, as they provide a necessary interface between the real and virtual realms, offering as they do virtual information in a very real world. Geotags and location-aware digital maps not only unleash Web 2.0 information in front of the user, but also keep him or her firmly rooted to the ground he’s standing on.

Combating the digital divide in the developing world with mobile phones

Last week, the Guardian reported on a few promising citizen journalism projects in Africa that use mobile phone technology effectively to not only communicate with people but to also allow the audience to contribute to newsgathering. As opposed to the excessive – and even frivolous – growth of smart phone applications in the Western world, mobile phones in developing countries, which are nowhere near as sophisticated as ones in America and Europe, are being used as a reliable proxy for high-speed Internet access to perform basic functions, such as paying grocery bills and delivering medicines. Cell phone companies have bought into this as well, developing cheap, reliable phones with ease of use and practical functionality.

The Ushahidi crowdsourcing project that the Guardian article elaborates, is perhaps one of the best known and most successful mobile journalism exercises in Kenya. Ushahidi–which means “testimony” in Swahili–attempts to gather as much information from the public as possible and then verify this collected data with the help of computer and human confirmation. Launched during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi has since been implemented worldwide — from monitoring unrest in the Congo, tracking violence in Ghaza, to reporting on the Indian elections earlier this year.

The project allows people to contribute in the form of simple text messages, photos and video delivered through smartphones, or reports submitted online; this is posted in real time to an interactive map, accessible directly through smart phone technology. This information can also be converted to formats that are readable in various communities by news organizations in developing countries. The technology itself is open source, so anyone can help enhance and develop it. In order to verify the accuracy of information obtained in the case of breaking news events, Ushahidi has also launched the Swift River Project, which helps voluntary participants worldwide to separate good information from ‘noise,’ or in the team’s own words, in “crowdsourcing the filter.”

Basically, the way it works is that once the aggregated data comes in through multiple streams, be it Flickr, Twitter, or Ushahidi, people can go in and rate the data – the information is thus verified by the sheer power of numbers, as in any crowdsourcing project. In addition, the information is filtered through machine-based algorithms to confirm accuracy. Ushahidi used a similar method to track the Indian elections earlier this year through VoteReport.in. In India, “moblogging” or microblogging, made possible through the explosive popularity of cell phones, has been growing for the past few years. Sites like smsgupshup.com and Vakow.com – Indian versions of Twitter – allow people to disseminate 160-character messages to groups, enabling amateurs to deliver personalized, customized news through sms messages. This makes up for the relative lack of interactivity from mainstream Indian news organizations.

Cell phones as tools for information dissemination are particularly valuable in countries like Zimbabwe where radio transmission is often blocked. Text messages can allow an uninterrupted flow of information in such cases. The Guardian‘s Activate 09 project sends out headlines to tens of thousands of citizens in the Southern African country through sms messaging. In addition, the paper has been crowdsourcing ideas from its global audience on the different methods available to reach thousands of people during breaking news events.

The Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit, has partnered with Google and a Uganda-based telecommunications provider MTN, to answer important queries sent in by residents via text messages; questions range from clarifications about deadly diseases to agricultural problems. In Kenya, RSS feeds from the Internet are fed into mobile phones to educate and inform people, and text-to-speech tools that convert sms messages into audio files are helping the visually impaired. Some Western companies are encouraging Kenyans to take part in crowdsourcing projects in return for micropayments. Citizens perform small tasks such as transcribing audio and tagging photos for small sums of money. The BBC is now providing English language learning capabilities in Bangladesh through cheap audio and SMS lessons through a partnership with mobile service providers.

Despite the availability of hi-speed Internet access in Western countries, the versatility of the cell phone as a vehicle for citizen journalism is very special indeed. The ability of a phone to provide real-time, on-the-ground coverage is undisputed, whether you see an unusual occurrence on the street on your way to a mall in Los Angeles or witness a riot in a displaced community in Darfur.

Are the winds blowing in the direction of paid content, targeted advertising and better journalism?

Free does not mean that content has no value, but when the very sustenance of the entity producing that content is in danger, the concept of “free” begins to edge closer to devaluing content.

But even if content online has been free for so long, if it is captured back and tightly shut under a pay wall, does it become more valuable as a result? Or would news organizations have to earn that money if and when they finally achieve that pay wall?

As has been pointed out several times before, and on this blog as well, pay walls have been tried, tested and have, in effect, mostly failed. But many of the experiments that have involved paid content have erected pay walls around generic content or opinion that would perhaps be available elsewhere for free.

Moving toward specialized content

It is a pretty reasonable assessment that the more reasons a news Web site gives its readers to spend time on a site, perhaps by offering in-depth, contextual and narrative journalism, the higher the chances are that they will linger on the page longer, and even buy products through targeted advertising. And for better or for worse, this idea that the most engaged readers of a Web site will not only be willing to pay for content but also click through and purchase products advertised on the side of it is catching on.

As Steve Myers writes in Poynter:

“…pay structures create narrower, more specialized audiences and offer more opportunities for higher-yield, behaviorally-targeted advertising, which changes depending on users’ online habits.”

He explains that as paid sites start to attract more focused readers who recognize and identify a brand and content, it would also make it easier for news organizations to use targeted advertisements.

Free and paid content can co-exist

What worries me, however, is that news organizations are looking at options as either-or propositions. Getting your users to pay for content does not mean you can do away with Google, like Rupert Murdoch seems to believe.

There’s no denying that random visitors that are led to a site through search engines account for a large enough percentage of revenue to be ignored, as Paul pointed out in a previous post. In fact, it’s been roughly estimated that stumbling from search engines can make a news site about 50c a day per person, way less than subscriptions can, but it is still close to a hundred million a year, considering the average newspaper gets about a million visitors per month through Google searches alone. For the actual math, I direct you to the excellent Ryan Chittum at CJR.

Hence, blocking Google might not be the answer, but it is also important to note that the Wall Street Journal does have over a million readers subscribing to its content monthly, and since these users prove to be valuable to advertisers, specialist content could well be the answer for other newspapers as well.

There have been complaints all around that for an industry on the brink of collapse, news organizations are less than savvy in the area of market research, and aren’t doing much at all to help determine the monetary value of the content they offer and the kinds of products they should be providing in order to make money.

Instead, what many news organizations have resorted to over the years, is the “massification” of news in order to appeal to the broadest conceivable audience, a process that merely erodes the quality of journalism, without offering solutions for revenue generation, since such audiences do not have a brand identity that advertisers can appeal to.

As Slate editor David Plotz points out, the more media companies and editors begin to focus on the numbers, the faster they will shift from their pursuit of a “mass audience” and begin to produce more exclusive, in-depth content. Along that line of reasoning, Steven Brill’s Journalism Online plans to charge only the most frequent users who seek very specific content while allowing cursory surfers to avail of most topical news for free.

Following the lead of financial publications

Successful pay models, such as the Economist’s premium content, and the Financial Times’ paywalls are, after all, based on loyal readers returning to a site frequently on account of the exclusive content it provides. Financial publications, of course, are in a league of their own when it comes to paywalls, because of their high value, well-differentiated content and affluent consumers.

But as WSJ.com’s Alan Murray explained in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, most news organizations should be able to tap into the idea that loyal readers will pay for exclusive information, as long as they steer clear of charging for the most popular content, which has the potential to yield maximum traffic and hence, revenue.

Whether it is due to declining ad revenues and falling readerships or the recession, newspapers in the US from the Minneapolis Post to the Arizona Republic, are adopting the idea of pursuing these “loyal readers” to sell their content. Others, like the Tribune company, are merely seeking them to target advertising.

Very early this year, Andrew Currah, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, called on news organizations to not give up their core editorial values in the quest for clickstream data, not simply because such lack of focus would be detrimental to journalism, but because it would not prove to be beneficial to revenue generation in the long run.

“The basic logic of a webcentric strategy is to maximise the size of the audience around the news, for as long as possible. But a rush to generate clicks may in fact erode the distinctiveness of the brand and its connection to a specific audience,” Currah wrote.

Regardless of what they’re seeking – direct payment for content or indirect revenue through clickthrough advertising –  specialized, in-depth content to retain that brand and connection has got to be good for journalism.

Clay Shirky on Twitter and the social media revolution

Here’s a great interview with Clay Shirky by GRITtv’s Laura Flanders.

Clay Shirky talks about the power of digital networking, and how social media  can do everything from cause revolutions to create whole new political parties when done right.

The simplicity of Twitter, of course, is its genius. It has the power to do so much by doing so little. But that’s not the only thing that’s simple about Twitter. The service itself was only intended to share 140-character messages with the world. Its significance is its evolution. Everything from @replying and retweeting to using hashes and symbols can be attributed to the users. It has brilliantly allowed users to define it – almost entirely. As Shirky points out, “Most of the uses of Twitter were not imagined by the designers of the service – they were managed by the users of the service.”

As Claire Cain Miller wrote in this NYT piece, Twitter exploded to unprecedented popularity by outsourcing “its idea generation to its users.” Continue reading

Asian Correspondent taps into region’s blogosphere to fill foreign newshole

James Craven believes that instructive blogging should be paid. That was part of his inspiration behind leaving a job as CEO of a successful B2B media company and launching Asian Correspondent, a news site intended to report and aggregate news and information from the continent.

“I think that the blogosphere is one of the most important things to happen in media in the last thirty years. And I think it’s a real game changer. That said, the biggest problem with it is that it is quite difficult to navigate and find content. There’s enormous opportunity in working hard to find like-minded writers that have synergy, and to create channels that allow readers to find the sort of information they’re looking for globally,” he says.

To achieve this, Craven and his team hand picked thirty-five bloggers spanning thirteen different Asian countries after a careful survey of the region’s blogosphere, based on quality of reporting, relevance and popularity.

Craven admits that while he has the utmost respect for sites like the Huffington Post, which have been able to generate so much influence and traffic in less time than it took the New York Times, he does not agree with the idea of paying little or no monetary rewards to writers who contribute time and effort, not to mention page views and unique visitors to such sites. “It’s highway robbery!” he says.

So, it may come as a surprise that Asian Correspondent, the first such undertaking for Craven’s Hybrid News Limited, is being hailed as a HuffPo for Asia. However, the motivations are somewhat similar. Craven hopes to capitalize on the inarguable talent that lies in the blogosphere, and also tap into the mobilizing power of the Internet that is so exclusive to blogs and citizen media.

“It struck me that recent events such as the Obama election, the UK PM scandal and the Afghan elections were huge media moments, driven by citizen reports,” says Craven. “It also struck me that some of the audiences individual bloggers were building completely blew away anything that could be done cost effectively in print.”

That doesn’t mean the site will merely harbor a collection of views and opinions from people around Asia. Bloggers, who are paid a set monthly fee, will provide commentary, opinion and fact-based reporting.

Sometimes, bloggers are in a better position to cover a story than traditional journalists, says Craven. This is especially true with declining revenues that are unable to sustain foreign bureaus and international correspondents in western countries such as the US and UK.

Craven cites the example of the Philippines-based blogger who covered the recent devastating floods in the region for Asian Correspondent. “In the case of Paul Farol in Manila, a couple weeks ago, when the floods lapped his door, he was in the perfect position in terms of content, photography and video to cover that story.” In addition, there are advantages to being a native in narrating such an experience. The mainstream media is often unable to empathize with locals, or see a story in the same way as residents.

But do readers in other countries want to read that story about floods happening thousands of miles away? Craven believes that there is an appetite for these subjects; the key is targeting the right people. Seeding such articles with groups that would be interested, such as, say, the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce, would increase impact and interest.

“We’re interested in digital PR and traditional marketing, which would introduce [such] stories as they break to the large Filipino community in America and obviously target the Philippines as well.”

The same is true of advertising, according to Craven. Context-based ads are the answer for revenue generation. Advertisers such as Exxon Mobil and BMW don’t believe that aligning their message with gossip news will help them sell their products. “If you can create that context and advertisers can see that their buyers are reading your paper, then it’s not just about millions of hits. It’s about the right hits and that’s what we’re doing with Asian Correspondent.” The site is already approaching advertising agencies to purchase media campaigns that go directly to readers, and has a couple of partnerships.

Craven is confident that there is money to be made online with stories that don’t necessarily involve Britney Spears. No conversation about journalism is complete, of course, without invoking Spears, or the kind of reporting she represents: universally rejected by the mainstream media, and yet, attractive in its ability to generate traffic, page views, and hence, revenue.

Craven worries that many news sites that start out with high ambitions of delivering quality news content often degenerate into celebrity gossip portals. Asian Correspondent does not plan to go that route, he insists. “It doesn’t have to be the most popular or most commercial story or angle to still be a real business. I think we have to make sure that our business looks for opportunities to report on stories that aren’t being covered by anybody else.”

With a home page that showcases stories as wide-ranging as a standoff between Tasmanian timber workers and environmentalists, the banning of fake Twitter accounts in India,  and the Afghan elections, that is exactly what the site is trying to do. News reports from bloggers are supplemented with AP news wire from the region. Citizen journalists are also  encouraged to post their stories, and there is plenty of room for multimedia reporting and citizen videos.

Editors are based in Chang Mai, Hyderabad and Brisbane, and the site attracted over 140,000 unique visitors within the first six days of launching its beta version. If the model is successful, there is a plan to expand to other countries and continents.

“I call the company hybrid because I feel that my business model is a combination of all the fantastic elements of investigative journalism and foreign correspondence, but also through model delivery platforms.”

The past few years have seen a slew of news sites aimed at deploying citizen journalists and bloggers to fill a newshole in international reporting. How successful any such site will be depends on quality content and a viable business model.

Asian Correspondent seems to have the right ideas. If it can attract the right audience and advertisers, it could be well on its way to being a comprehensive source for Asian news.

Arriving at an ideal social-media policy for journalism, Part 1: Perspectives from journalists and news organizations

Much has been said about the Washington Post’s now-infamous incident with issuing restrictive social-media guidelines after Managing Editor Raju Narisetti expressed his not-so-subtle views on war spending and public-official term limits on his Twitter page. Narisetti’s own first reaction to the policy was another tweet: “For flagbearers of free speech, some newsroom execs have the weirdest double standards when it comes to censoring personal views.” He since retracted and shut down his Twitter page on account of “perception problems.”

The Post’s own media reporter Howard Kurtz poked fun at the incident with this tweet: “I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes.” He then gave a half-hearted, almost contrived endorsement to his organization’s policy, calling the furor surrounding the incident “much ado about nothing” while emphasizing that social media are important channels for communication with readers. The newspaper’s technology writer Rob Pegoraro was also quick to insist that journalistic interactions through social media are indispensable.

It is hard to deny the fact that opiners are neatly divided between journalists and news organizations–in other words—between those that use social media and those that want to regulate it.

The very essence of social media is that it offers readers a glimpse of the “person” behind the journalist. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor looks at social networks as an opportunity for news organizations “to show readers that news is not a commodity produced by a faceless institution but a rich, collaborative process.”

For instance, Post political reporter Chris Cillizza, whose Twitter account, “The Fix” is named after his blog at the paper, entertains readers not only with snarky political comments but also by finding humor in life’s little trials, and his Twitter page has been surprisingly—and comfortingly—unhindered by all the drama. If his tweets were to trickle down to news article URLs in keeping with the Post’s new regulations, I wouldn’t follow him. It’s safe to say, neither would 14,540 others.

Despite these differences, even old-school news organizations agree that social media are important. But can managers, editors, reporters and readers agree on a social media policy? To that end, it would, perhaps, be helpful to analyze guidelines that have so far been proposed by different news organizations, and more importantly, how they have been received.

The policies

The Wall Street Journal laid down its own set of social-media regulations over the summer to much opposition.“Sharing your opinions,” the Journal said in an e-mail to staff members, “could open us to criticism that we have biases and could make a reporter ineligible to cover topics in the future for Dow Jones.” A tad more ridiculously, it continued, “Openly “friending” sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.”

Apart from confidential sources that any journalist would be expected to protect through sheer common sense, social media interactions with reporting contacts can only serve to enrich the exercise of newsgathering, and allow a more transparent process while at it.

Continuing in the same vein of going against the grain of journalistic transparency, the WSJ guidelines also insist that reporters not “detail how an article was reported, written or edited.” Social media guru Jeff Jarvis rightfully points out that these rules challenge the very idea of the collaborative nature of journalism that is promoted by online media.

The ability of a journalist to interact with his audience, be it by seeking story ideas, soliciting sources or sharing the newsgathering process is one of the main advantages of social media. Time’s James Poniewozik astutely calls blogs and social networks, the “DVD director’s cut with commentary.”

Perhaps, one of the most ridiculous of guidelines comes from the AP, which over the summer issued a set of rules, among them, asking employees to control not only what they said on social networks but also what their friends and acquaintances said: “It’s a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn’t violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted.”

The AP’s rules came in the aftermath of one of its reporters posting a critical comment about the McClatchy newspaper chain on his Facebook profile. Mashable’s Ben Parr expressed rightful outrage at this, pointing to the ridiculousness of holding an employee accountable for another individual’s words.

Some guidelines, of course, are acceptable, though none seem to require much more than common sense and ethical awareness on the part of the reporter. For instance, the WSJ’s following rules:

  • “Don’t recruit friends or family to promote or defend your work,” or
  • “Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors or aggressively promote your coverage.”

Also reasonable are rules curbing the sharing of confidential company information. “Posting material about the AP’s internal operations is prohibited on employees’ personal pages” is acceptable as a standard for all staff members at an organization, not exclusively for journalists.

This was one of the reasons why the NYT found itself in a tight corner earlier this summer, when its reporters tweeted about internal discussions at the paper. The Timessocial-media rules are actually more reasonable than most, merely asking reporters to avoid conflicts of interest, maintain political impartiality, and exercise good judgment.

But when a group of journalists decided to broadcast proceedings from an internal staff meeting, the Times decided to throw down the gauntlet. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, made a valid point: “When you’re in an internal meeting that is not public where you’re discussing policy, you would no more Twitter it than pick up the cell phone or call up one of your friends and say, ‘Hey you’ll never believe what (Executive Editor) Bill Keller just said!”

And while that is perfectly reasonable, Jennifer Lee, one of the tweeters from the meeting insisted that there is often something to be said for sharing internal information about your news organization with your audiences. For instance, her tweet about Times’ Pulitzer winners was not only acceptable, but also good for the paper, she said.

Are readers excited to learn these nuggets of information directly from journalists they follow? Sure, it’s certainly more personal than reading a press release. And when the news is about the organization itself, it is especially helpful to hear employees’ unfiltered opinions. If not for Twitter, I probably would have had no way of knowing what Howard Kurtz thought about the Post’s regulations.

Distinction between individual tweeters and institutional ones

Where the Times went a bit far in its regulation was Bill Keller’s insistence that tweeting policies should follow what was already being implemented with regard to what reporters say on television or speeches: anything said was representative of the entire institution. This seems reasonable till you consider that Twitter is a “personal-social” page. It is not like appearing on television to talk about your thoughts and viewpoints on an issue as a reporter from the NYT might be expected to on Meet the Press.

This sentence among the Post‘s guidelines, rings a similar tone: “Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.”

Along the same lines, Rob King, Editor in Chief of ESPN.com, called Twitter a “live microphone.” The site’s guidelines state that “editorial decision makers (such as reporters and writers) essentially represent ESPN in all social networks, and hence, should exercise appropriate judgment (this is as opposed to policies for the rest of ESPN’s staff who may extricate themselves from ESPN affiliation in personal blogs).

ESPN sparked its own controversy when it recently banned reporters from using Twitter for content not sanctioned by ESPN.com, and Mediaite actually questioned the use of the “live microphone” metaphor in an interview with ESPN spokesman Paul Melvin: “Does ESPN recognize the difference between a Twitter feed and a live microphone on television (which requires incredibly exclusive access as well as millions of dollars of broadcast infrastructure)?”

Melvin’s response: “The point here is that all of these media are public. Whether it is TV or radio or a blog, a column a tweet or any other publishing format, these are all public media. The words we use have impact, and we should be mindful of that.”

This is significant. What a journalist says in a tweet cannot be similar to what would appear under a byline or on live television or on radio. Social media don’t operate strictly within the sphere of the workplace. Social media are part of what journalists carry home with them; it is where they ought to be able to express views wholly unrestrained by the rigid rules of traditional journalism. It is also where they delight their readers with a goofy tale about their dog and the latest controversy unfolding on Capitol Hill with equal aplomb.

A distinction should be made (as is done in the business world) between “individual” tweeters, and tweeters who tweet “under the umbrella of an organization.” Corporate policies on social media separate the personal from the professional, and hence are less restrictive on an employee’s right to tweet or blog. By these standards, @washingtonpost would clearly cross the line by tweeting about enforcing a term limit on senators such as Mr. Byrd, but @rajunarisetti was entitled to his opinion. As individual tweeters, journalists should not “relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens,” as the Post guidelines require them to.

The BBC, perhaps comes closest to adopting this sort of hands-off approach to the use of “personal” social media by its reporters: “Many bloggers, particularly in technical areas, use their personal blogs to discuss their BBC work in ways that benefit the BBC, and add to the “industry conversation”.  This editorial guidance note is not intended to restrict this, as long as confidential information is not revealed.” In addition, it excludes “personal” blogs from the guidelines, as long as no affiliation to the BBC is mentioned, and even encourages employees to include a disclaimer.

Is unadulterated objectivity possible?

It does, however, specify that editorial staff “should not be seen to support any political party or cause.” It also warns employees to discuss “any potential conflicts of interest” with managers and editors. This is a common theme among regulations cited by all news organizations. Perhaps, if a reporter did not share on his social network opinions and viewpoints on subjects he was reporting on, that would be acceptable.

But then again, restricting specific types of content is a slippery slope. As Editor & Publisher editor Jennifer Saba questions,“Somebody could say, ‘Oh I really enjoy Mad Men,’ and if they cover TV, does that mean they are biased?”

Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander raises this very question in his piece: “Can a reporter who doesn’t cover sports tweet that a team’s owner is a tyrant? Should an editor in the Business section post a comment on her Facebook page that gun owners are paranoid?” I’m not sure if his question is rhetorical, but unfortunately for Saba, he fails to answer it. The New York Times, ever our reliable source for information, jumps in, however: “A City Hall reporter or a politics editor might be “friends” with several different City Council members as well as the Mayor, but not just with one of them. But a reporter or editor whose work has nothing to do with City Hall could be “friends” with people who work there with no conflict of interest.”

But then again, is unadulterated objectivity on a subject a journalist has studied closely, even possible? As James Poniewozik writes, “any person who immersed him or herself in a vital, contentious subject all day and formed no opinion about it whatsoever would be an idiot, and you do not want to get your news from idiots.” And if he does have an opinion, is it in keeping with journalism’s goals to shield it?

Not surprisingly, organizations that appear to be least restrictive of journalists’ use of social media are also the ones that have embraced social networks to effectively disseminate information, engage with the audience, and promote content, such as the BBC and the New York Times, and NPR, which is touted by many as the most effective user of social media, most notably, Mashable.

Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-chief of the Guardian, another organization known for its utilization of social media tools for citizen journalism and crowdsourcing, has perhaps been most convincing in his ringing endorsement of journalists’ use of such networks to interact, engage and impart information. He has clearly stated on the site’s editorial pages that one of the advantages of Twitter is that it allows reporters to publish, unhindered by the confines of the newspaper and its Web site. This is also reinforced in the site’s social media statement, which promotes the idea of an open forum that promotes all forms of social networking interactions with readers.

Any set of reasonable rules for social media, then, are more common-sense parameters than anything else. And one would hope that journalists would be smart enough to not broadcast something on Twitter that would jeopardize their own credibility, alienate audiences, or embarrass their organizations.

As NYT’s David Carr writes “if you can’t trust the women and men who put out your newspaper to use their keyboards wisely regardless of platform, what are they doing working for you?”

[Part 2 will look at perspectives from history, such as the role of objectivity and the influence of technology on the changing rules of journalism]

Walking us through Reuters’ multimedia time lines: Q&A with Jassim Ahmad

Reuters has been among the leading news organizations in its use of Internet technology, both in its forays into citizen participation in the developed and developing worlds, and in experimenting with audio visual tools to offer fine narrative journalism.

Following the success of its online documentary on the Iraq war last year, Bearing Witness, Reuters recently produced another interactive multimedia time line, this one elucidating on the impact of the current financial crisis.

In Bearing Witness, the agency brought together five years of reporting from 100 correspondents and photographers to give a comprehensive account of significant events that transpired during half a decade of the war, from reasons that led to the conflict, recounts of battles in various Iraqi cities from Baghdad to Fallujah, the army offensive led by the US and its allies, and political, economic, and social consequences. In addition to offering personal accounts from its reporters, the project illustrates numbers and statistics through elaborate infographics.

The Times of Crisis project offers a peak into the impact of the current financial disaster over the course of a year since it was first set off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It is a compelling narrative not only in terms of its rich multimedia interactivity, but also in what it brings in terms of the human face of the impact, providing anecdotes and stories from real people.

I recently got a chance to interview Jassim Ahmad, Head of Visual Projects at Reuters, over e-mail. Below is the exchange:

Q. What inspired Reuters to do this? What was your main motive behind the two projects?

We were first inspired to produce Bearing Witness to mark half a decade of war in Iraq – a story to which Reuters has dedicated a team of 100 correspondents, photographers, cameramen and editorial support staff. The conflict has been the most dangerous in history for the press. 139 journalists and 51 media support staff have been killed (latest figures from CPJ) including seven Reuters colleagues. Our ambition was to go much further than simply repackage our coverage. We sought to tell the wider story through reflection and behind the scenes perspectives of conflict reporting.

Bearing Witness received exceptionally positive feedback and picked up a string of awards in the US, UK, France and Italy. We chose the financial crisis for our next initiative – undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of our times and one which Reuters is able to tell with exceptional depth with its financial expertise. Whereas most news coverage has understandably focused on the local and regional effects of the crisis, ours would attempt to show its global significance.

Chronology is the natural backbone of a wire news agency. We wanted to re-imagine the classical news “time line” with a much more visual approach.

Q. As someone that coordinates such visual projects, I was wondering if you could shed some light on how a story is approached differently for multimedia vs. text. Is there a different philosophy when a journalist has to let pictures and videos tell a story without getting in the way of it?

There is no one multimedia model. We try to embark upon each project with fresh eyes. Each subject determines its own mix of special reporting, research and interactive design. Unlike automated feed and search-based approaches, we would manually curate the story for quality and cohesion. Through 15 streams of information spanning news, visuals and data, we carefully pieced together this puzzle into a single fluid narrative – putting the story in its total cross-media context in a way only multimedia can achieve.

Q. Do you feel that these sorts of multimedia projects afford people deep, contextual knowledge without them having to go through 20 odd pages of print to get the same breadth of detail? In other words, can this sort of journalism replace traditional reported pieces?

Photography in particular is unparalleled at conveying information with power and immediacy. We would weave together stories, pictures, video, graphics and data so that each piece of information advances the story within an immersive mixed-media experience. This accessible framework would deliver both immediate impact and greater depth for those that sought it.

There are different degrees of production and in-depth multimedia is not a replacement for existing forms of journalism. However, for the appropriate subject, it can deliver unequalled emotion, clarity and understanding.

Q. In countries and regions where high-speed Internet is still not very prevalent and where broadband is not accessible, could such stories pose limits on readership, as they tend to be time consuming and extensive? Is that a problem?

Lack of broadband connectivity is a barrier for many, but multimedia need not always equate to bandwidth-intensive video. Our interactive visual timeline is a case in point. I would argue that language and complete lack of connectivity for many are greater barriers. That said, rebranded editions of Times of Crisis were simultaneously launched on client web sites from Australia to France, Germany to the Gulf. Whereas Reuters content traditionally feeds into our clients’ products, this shows how we can be end-producers for our clients on stories with global resonance.

Q. Despite the effectiveness of such multimedia projects, why do you think more mainstream organizations are not doing these types of stories? Did Reuters encounter any resistance when you embarked on these initiatives?

Rich multimedia demands editorial time and creative resources, as does all special coverage. For those willing to invest in production, the reward is compelling, distinctive site-building content. Finding new ways to engage audiences has to be a key step towards securing new streams of revenue.

Reuters has the advantage of a truly global presence and teams working in every medium. We continue to use this basis to explore new approaches to information gathering, visualisation and interactivity to evolve storytelling.

Today’s online news: too much surface area, but too little depth?

Even though I had followed the latest financial crisis since its inception on every news site of relevance, I had to wait for the Atlantic’s cover story on the topic to understand where Wall Street had gone wrong (at least to the extent that anyone understood it).

While online news as it exists today is great for 24/7 access, real-time updates, increased transparency, and multiperspectival discussions, it still lacks the depth and detail of a feature story in a print magazine.

As a proponent of digital communication, I can appreciate the pervasiveness of news coverage in the online age, but as a student of journalism I often crave the completeness of long-form journalism, which is lacking on the Internet.

In a very enlightening article in the Nieman Reports’ fall edition, Matt Thompson brings up this very point about digital journalism. Thompson writes that while each new day brings with it an array of breaking news stories on various topics, virtually none of them purport to explain the significance, context or relevance of the subject at hand. Continue reading

Taking cues from Citizen Science

One rap against citizen journalism is that there is always a possibility that it isn’t accurate or credible. Unmonitored, unmoderated blogs can get it wrong. Well, so can traditional journalists, but with blogs, it’s harder to hold someone accountable, and erroneous information is that much trickier to retract.

Would it help then, to look for ideas in a field where inaccuracy is barely tolerated, if at all? The media should be able to tap into crowd wisdom for credible content if, as Dan Schultz notes, “members of the scientific community, a professional group that arguably maintains higher standards for verification than journalism, are trying to harness the crowd in the same way that we are.”

Citizen science has been effectively used in one main way – collection of data, which is then used by scientists for contextualization, analysis and consolidation with experiments and previous scientific literature.

Be it recording the dates of Spring’s first lilac blossoms, or counting the number of eggs in bird nests, citizens are contributing in meaningful ways, so scientists can then then use this for more specialized tasks, like assessing the information thus obtained to study the impact of global warming or the influence of human activity on wildlife.

Perhaps, the closest counterpart to this use in journalism is something akin to WNYC’s crowdsourced project to track price gouging in New York City or the Shropshire Star’s map of fuel prices. In both these exercises, citizens were not expected to do much more than report their daily observations.

Since scientific research usually requires a high level of education and training, the tasks get divided neatly between professionals and dabblers. As Schultz points out, in the case of science, “professionals have bigger and better things to do; it doesn’t make sense for a PhD to use a million-dollar telescope to look at something that a hobbyist could view using a thousand-dollar one, especially when there is so much of the universe left to unlock.”

This is not to say that such a clear definition would not work for journalism. In fact, citizen journalism pioneer Jay Rosen has often said that division of labor is essential for crowdsourced journalism projects. In WNYC’s case, citizens were responsible for collecting information that was put together in a story. In more complex investigative projects, the public is given the task of perusing documents, as is happening with The Guardian’s investigation of the MP’s expenses scandal.

Another idea would be to outsource so-called “fluff” journalism to the public (self plug warning). Many sites are already implementing this, by allowing citizens to post blogs and articles on lifestyle and recreational topics. Schulz suggests hyperlocal content as one such department where citizens can often do a good, if not better, job than reporters.

One of the main problems is that unlike scientists, journalists–irrationally or not–are in constant fear of being replaced by amateurs. Hence, they seem more hesitant to solicit citizen help. The fact that journalists are losing jobs, however, has more to do with the lack of revenue-generating mechanisms on the Internet than it has to do with bloggers posting content online. In fact, by recruiting audiences to act as eyes and ears for news organizations, the latter would actually save costs and be able to divert resources toward more specialized reporting.

Secondly, in the case of scientific crowdsourcing or citizen science, there is a distinct classification of contributors and their scope of contribution–as identified by what professionals, amateurs and citizens can do. This leads to a clear division of labor, which is not quite possible in journalism, at least in the way it is being practiced right now. While there is no doubt that journalism needs a special set of skills and training, it’s not rocket science, quite literally.

Amateurs contribute toward citizen science in significant ways by performing unspecialized tasks. In the case of bloggers, on the other hand, short of traveling to a war zone (with some exceptions) they are pretty much doing–or attempting to do–what professional journalists routinely do.

The solution is not to curb bloggers and independent journalists, however. It is to produce the sort of in-depth, high-quality journalism that makes newsroom journalism “special.” In order to have clear-cut division of labor, professionals merely have to offer a product that makes use of the creativity and resources that are available to them. And in the process, they can implement projects that involve the lay public so the latter can do what they do best.