Last Friday I attended the BBC Social Media Summit, an event described by Julia Posetti as aiming to set ”a collaborative academic social media research agenda for journalism”.
Over a hundred hacks, bloggers, students and others crammed into a sweaty conference room a few metres away from the Director General’s office, and as usual the blogosphere communicated their thoughts on the event quickly and succinctly, some of which I’ve collected here.
Two sessions stood out for me throughout the day – a presentation by Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera, and a panel that discussed whether startups could compete with social media that included representatives of Storyful, Audioboo and the New York Times. Rather than give you a blow by blow account of what happened (you can find that out by watching the excellent BBC College of Journalism footage) I thought I’d give a perspective on why conferences like this are still happening.
Jay Rosen has spoken about something that he calls “the ethic of the link“. It’s the idea that the link embodies everything that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned for the web, which is to connect people. It connects people to areas of knowledge wherever it can be found – in the form of a news site, a blog post, or a photo.
This is something that is taken for granted by web enthusiasts. We have no problem with sending people away from our content, because it’s all about connecting people to the best source of knowledge, not our best source of knowledge. So when the session titled “Can startups compete with mainstream media?” began I was somewhat puzzled.
The discussion that followed was very good, but the question was framed in the wrong way. It attempted to compare two different things. They shouldn’t be looking to compete with each other, because it takes us back to a bloggers vs journalists style debate again – the two should look to complement each other rather than compete.
It’s a mindset which seemed to be uncomfortably pervasive throughout the day. As someone remarked to me afterwards; “I thought we were over that sort of debate…apparently not”.
What are journalists for? was first published 12 years ago, and yet there we were in White City discussing whether or not it was ethical to give members of the public flip cams, whether a live video taken from a mobile phone and instantly published “scared” the BBC, or whether we should be wary of collaboration between individuals and big media.
In 2011 I don’t think we should be asking the questions that are based around what the roles of startups and mainstream media are. Mainstream media have recognisable brands, huge manpower, contacts, prestige and reach. Startups are more nimble, can specialise easily and can get things done quicker.
When I want to start work on a new project, I don’t identify someone who can do things that I can’t and then try and learn all their skills myself – I ask them to come and help me. It’s madness that we’re still having to debate this, but possibly appropriate given that it was held at the BBC.
The importance of specialism in journalism is frequently discussed, but maybe it’s time to do the same with conferences. Most people I spoke to agreed that the day had been interesting, but there was a sense that we didn’t really need a conference like this now, but in five years time when new points of learning and development had emerged.
How many more case studies of Twitter do we really need?
How many more examples of how you can harness the wisdom of crowds?
And how many more discussions about the futility of mainstream media building their own versions of existing services rather than employing the ethic of the link to connect people to knowledge?
An interesting article in yesterday’s Observer focuses on several young entrepreneurs that have created promising business start-ups in spite of the tough economic climate. None of those startups really resemble a journalistic endeavour (video platform SBTV comes closest), but what provoked a few thoughts in me is the relationship between young journalists and their future employers.
Last month I worked on the Media Briefing’s Paywalls 11 conference. One of the most interesting findings in a day that was full of stats was by media analyst Nick Thomas. He said that his company’s recent survey of 14,000 adult internet users found that 31% would pay for music in future, but the proportion that would pay for news was only 13%. So there’s a big wall already; people simply aren’t prepared to pay for news, at least in a tangible, straightforward sense.
How does this mesh with the idea of a journalism startup? As is oft-documented, the US has always had a buzzing scene based around startups, particularly in Silicon Valley. The idea really appeals to me. Getting together with a team of three or four initial staff and controlling the product in its entirety is both liberating and terrifying, and I imagine that it’s this mix of adrenalin and fear that compels many to go the way of a startup.
But why don’t we see more of it here in a journalistic sense? Many UK journalism schools are innovative, and the projects produced by some students are intelligent and unique ideas. Why then is the idea of working for a national newspaper or magazine still perceived as the Holy Grail? We live in an age where news is not defined by the platform, it’s defined by the content. Readers care less about where the news is coming from, and more about whether whoever is writing it has any authority. More and more, people are realising that non-traditional news organisations hold the key to a particular beat; take Guido Fawkes.
Readers can deconstruct and take apart pieces that reek of inaccuracy; so we’re in an age where it matters less who you write for, but how good you are.
Why is that important for trying to understand a startup culture? Because it reinforces the idea that the playing field is wide open. Take your chance now, while everyone from the top to the bottom of established media companies is scratching their head. Chances are you’re less likely to be doomed to failure than you think you are.
But none of that will happen. The idea that joining a big name company comes with its own kudos still outweighs the possibilities of a startup for many graduates. Your mum is more likely to ask when you’re going to get a real job if you’re involved in a startup rather than getting on the Telegraph Graduate Scheme.
And that’s painful. Painful because I think that unless we put facilities in place (mentoring schemes, cheap co-working spaces, more funding opportunities) we’re in danger of just recycling what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. Good graduates should be making their own way, not joining a creaky newspaper house that’s on its last legs. Newspapers had their chance. They sat on the sidelines as their industry fell apart, and they did nothing to understand or connect with the readers who felt disillusioned with what the news industry had become. Without the necessary implementations, graduates are right to feel that they have to tread the age old career route of journalism.
Let me suggest an alternative future. A cluster of startups that all produce content within a really niche area of content. I don’t mean “multimedia reporting”, I mean honing in on something that’s so specialised that they do it better than anyone else in the world. This ecosystem of startups grow up in the digital age; they are digital natives, and understand everything that comes with that. They stick to what they do best and don’t try to be all things to all men (magnify that idea to something like the FT and you can see that it works).
This group of startups not only feed their customers directly but enter into open collaboration with news organisations. When they do, they are paid. It’s by outsourcing and recognising that they stopped being leaders in many areas of reportage long ago that newspapers will reap the benefits of becoming a platform for these startups. Good content: check. Keeping a trusted brand: check.
I fear that none of that will happen. Not because it’s unrealistic, but because the mindset required and facilities needed aren’t prevalent in the UK. Startups also need luck, not only in implementing and selling the product but also in happening upon a perfect meeting of minds with the people they choose to set up shop with. Co-working spaces are still generally priced at a premium membership rate, and people have little or no clue as to whether they have any routes to access funding.
Yesterday I tweeted this:
Final thought: If grads are still feeling the pull of big media, how can we ever create a proper ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism?
I received a myriad of replies, some of which discussed the problem and some of which despaired because they really wanted to give the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about a go. Hopefully they will. Let’s experiment a bit, shall we?
Data journalism has been practiced by journalists since the dawn of time. Fact-checking and raiding information for discrepancies is one of the main tenets of the profession, but what we understand to be ‘data journalism’ today is a term that has been thrown around for the past couple of years.
It refers to producing stories that specifically revolve around data, obtained through FOI requests, leaks, or simply publicly available sources like data.gov.uk. What has also produced an explosion in the idea of data as a form of journalism in its own right is the proliferation of tools like Many Eyes. A journalist can put in information one end and out the other comes a nice looking visualisation that should make that data slightly more appealing and understandable to the reader.
Journalists are now finding new supplements to add to their stories. They’re plotting stats on a map, they’re graphs showing local crime figures and some are even reluctantly starting to work with computer programmers, facilitated by organisations like ScraperWiki. Despite this, I can’t help thinking that the ‘data journalism’ tag is at best another buzzword and at worst misleading.
In its current state, I’m of the opinion that the majority of data journalism is just eye candy for other journalists. The reality is that our audience don’t really care about fancy visualisations. Visualisations don’t do any more than say “here’s the information, only it’s in the form of a picture instead of a spreadsheet”. Readers are more likely to care about the day to day aspect of news; what their local councillor is doing or why a local shop has closed down. Both those examples could be presented in a way that could be said to be ‘data journalism’, only I’d just prefer to just call it journalism.
If we’re constantly publishing data to please the geeks (I’m looking at you, Guardian) aren’t we simply guilty of falling back into the same pattern of news organisations as producer and reader as powerless consumer? Are we over-estimating the interest with which the public regard various pieces of data? It’s the same way that a high-minded and idealistic graduate may approach the dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. Reporting on a humanitarian crisis and exposing the things that led to it is unquestionably a paradigm of journalistic excellence. But do the public really care? We are bombarded with so many images of war, famine and horrific scenes of human conflict that ultimately one becomes quite desensitized. The point being that people care more about the planned proposal to build a block of flats next to their house than corruption and war in Africa; it’s that day to day aspect of news again.
So why should the public care about data? Well, it’s our job to make them care. How can we make sure that we’re working with data as a legitimate means of storytelling, rather than just because it looks cool? I recently produced a visualisation for someone who was writing a story about university course approval ratings. The story came from the writer’s picking apart of the data and making it relevant to the reader. It questioned why certain courses had dire opinions of their tutors’ feedback, and why less than half of one course thought that academic support on their course was deemed acceptable. So the piece originated from a piece of data, but why call it data journalism? Its execution was exactly the same as attending a council meeting and picking apart the minutes, or talking to a local business about profits and business from the last quarter. Both of those examples originate from data, but neither of them would be classified today as data journalism.
I’d like the Open Data movement to take a more evangelical and mainstream approach to lobbying organisations to publicly release data. They have to realise that the majority of people don’t actually care about the vast majority of data published because it isn’t relevant to their everyday lives. The MPs expenses story ran for so long because it genuinely caught the public eye. They could see the relevance of this information in all constituencies, with people they knew and had either elected or voted against in elections gone by. It’s an example where the data was meaningful and also was the story, but its example is all too rare.
The last Wikileaks dispatch, arguably the biggest piece of data journalism to date, still failed to do that. Does anyone apart from a metropolitan elite really care what’s going on in US embassies? Perhaps they should, but I don’t think they do. And I think the biggest pitfall of ‘data journalism’ as a movement is that it’s making a lot of journalists shout when no one is listening.