Tagged: jeff jarvis

Pro-am journalism: How to improve Rosen’s report card

A couple of weeks ago Jay Rosen gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum titled “The Past and Future of Pro-Am Journalism“. In it he spoke of public journalism’s achievements to date, but was ultimately disappointed with its progress. Indeed, since Rosen published What Are Journalists For?, the media doesn’t seem to have moved on in the way that he or I would have liked it to.

Rosen posits his thoughts as a report card – awarding grades to certain concepts depending on how well they’ve been executed or developed. He starts by saying that he is in a mood of frustration, and that pro-am journalism in its current state should be given a C Minus. What I’m going to do here is select a couple of observations, and suggest ways of improving those grades.

“Comment threads supply knowledge that improves accountability – C minus”

Comment threads are often touted as something that has changed what journalists do. In some senses, it has. Journalists reading “below the line” can see what the public think. They can point out inconsistencies and correct inaccuracies. Most of the time they are used for stimulating a debate around the article that continues long after it goes live on a site.

But the key problem with them is that they take place after the article. They still rely on a journalist posting what he or she believes to be the full picture, and then letting the public debate that after the fact. Dynamic comment threads could work as a form of story-builder.

Jeff Jarvis has come under fire recently when his views on the article were somewhat misrepresented, but his idea of assembling news as it happens is something that can be facilitated by better comment threads. Not everyone is part of Twitter, Facebook and other sharing networks. But a lot of people do check in to a news website. Using comment threads to help with the newsgathering and clarification process is a logical step. The article posts what the reporter knows (as soon as he or she knows it) and the comments help to fill in the blanks.

People familiar with the 1:9:90 rule (for every 100 people involved in an article, one will write it, 9 will comment, and 90 will just read) know that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Filling in a form, specifying what category the comment falls into to make for easy newsgathering, or including factcheck boxes can all contribute to a better form of thread than daily one upsmanship over on Comment is Free.

“Pro-am investigative journalism – Double F”

A tricky one. Investigative journalism is often thought of as epitomising journalism – a check on power and exposure of corruption. Sadly it is in limited supply thanks to both the financial resources required as well news organisations’ race to the bottom. But how to improve investigative reporting through pro-am journalism? The distributed network that we see in social media could equally be applied to large-scale investigative operations.

If a newspaper had reason to conduct a large-scale investigation into say, a financial institution, they could involve their ‘contacts’ far more than how they currently do. Journalists’ contacts are often treated like prostitutes – they are contacted when needed, for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time. But pro-am investigative reporting could see news organisations using the power of the expert distributed network over a much longer period of time.

How would they do this effectively? By first identifying the level of engagement that each participant wishes to give to a project. At the very top level you could include financial analysts who have specialist knowledge and want to see changes made to the financial system as a whole. At a lower level there are people who have a more local grip on things – experts who see the effects of the institution in their part of the world, but not the bigger picture. And at the basic level, you have a public who are prepared to sift through pages of spreadsheets to identify relevant information.

So far this part has already been done. The Guardian do it a lot. The last example of this was the Sarah Palin emails, something with little news value but a brilliant test to see how this kind of journalism might work. Using networks to help people join the dots (as Rosen notes could have been done pre-financial crisis) is a crucial skill that news organisations could provide.

To put it succinctly – in 2011 we are doing more, but we should be doing so much more. Rick Waghorn has identified the need to roll out the collaborative mindset from a content-centric basis into things like advertising (the same should be said for all aspects of a news organisation), but the way in which content is produced is still imperfect.

Rome wasn’t built in a day – it took over a thousand years to develop and expand into the city it is today. Lets hope it doesn’t take that long for journalism to rebuild itself.

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Should we start employing offline community managers?

Community managers are part of a new trend in journalism – employing people to act as a moderator of comments, to spot what content is most popular with readers and to help journalists deliver their content. As Kate Day, social media and engagement editor at the Telegraph says, they’re supposed to help “build a loyal, engaged digital audience”.

Last week I had my first experience of structured teaching as part of the NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge. It took place in a community centre, and I discussed local issues with residents, showing them what I do and how to develop story narratives.

In this case, I was doing the job of a community manager, but offline. Talking to people, including them and working with them on the storytelling process. Teaching (as anyone who’s done it will attest) not only helps the students but also gives those delivering the teaching a great deal of food for thought. Thinking of newspapers as gatekeepers, or newspapers as organisations who’ve blown it, what media organisations could really do with is engaging directly with all of their community.

Online communities aren’t created by newspapers. Communities are drawn to websites because they have a common interest. Those with an interest in photography rally to Flickr, videomakers to Vimeo. The Guardian doesn’t ‘create’ a community of readers – that community of interests already exists, and the Guardian website draws those people together.

But if we acknowledge at all that print has a future (I believe it does), then it makes sense to foster and strengthen the sense of community amongst people who aren’t frequently online but nonetheless want to participate in their local media.

Much is made of the online audience – after all, it’s caused the most disruption in the newspaper business in the last century. But part of the process of moving to a collaborative, open media is also including those who don’t engage with online media but still want a part to play.

This may work less well on a national level (something like Guardian Local was the right idea, and appropriately Hannah Waldram who ran the Cardiff site has now moved into community management at the Guardian), but on a local or regional level it’s crucial.

Offline community managers could lead sessions in teaching basic storytelling, show people how to get data out of public authorities, or audio and video skills.

This would do three things.

First – an explicit acknowledgement that the news organisation no longer owns the monopoly on knowledge and information, because it’s prepared to help the community develop their own skills.

Second – a widening of the potential pool of contributors to a news organisation, creating an ecosystem of people who are slightly more skilled up than the average person snapping a photo on their phone.

Thirdly – and regretfully, it would cost time and money.

I’m under no illusions that in a time where newsrooms are cutting journalists, they’re unlikely to want to employ journalists to teach or act as formal go-betweens.

Nonetheless there are signs that some are prepared to adopt this type of strategy. The Journal Register meeting between readers and journalists overseen by Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Emily Bell is fascinating viewing, and Rosie Niven’s piece in the The Journalist about Newsroom Cafes also provides some information on promising projects.

My feeling is that if we concentrate on online too much, we are in danger of alienating a set of readers who still have a lot to offer. But online comments come after a story is finished – encouraging people to engage with stories as they develop would be a great step to participatory media.

Yes online is the future, and yes it’s the most exciting aspect of news. But if we simply focus on curating, nurturing and building an engaged online audience at the behest of involving them in the actual storytelling process we are simply creating another subset of people who live in a bubble. And journalism doesn’t need any more of those.

Entrepreneurial Journalism – The role of universities

Last week I wrote a post titled “Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups”, and it generated a healthy stream of debate across several other blogs. If you want to catch up and see everything that’s been tweeted, discussed and written about the topic, I’ve created a Storify page here.

But how do universities fit into the equation? Is there a place for them to foster startups and entrepreneurial spirit in their students, and do they have an important role to play in creating a culture shift?

Startups are created from minimal resources and minimal staffing. For a web startup you’d want people fulfilling the roles of development, marketing, product management and CEO. Getting people all thinking in the same way is one thing, making it work is another.

So why not harness the extraordinary resources that many universities possess? When are you more likely to come across a larger collection of potential developers, lawyers, marketers, promotional staff, copywriters, artists and graphic designers? The advantages of university go further; being in full time education provides a financial safety net for all involved. It decreases the potential fallout if an idea fails (something that was discussed in depth over the last week) and it also means that new opportunities can be comfortably incubated in higher education.

Food for thought is an excellent talk by Jeff Jarvis at last year’s TEDx NYED event, where he mentions that the current mentality towards education “assumes that all knowledge flows from the lectern”.

Why? Is it so unreasonable to think that some students know more than their lecturers? Did Mark Zuckerberg really benefit from the paternalistic approach towards teaching while he studied computer science? In order to foster startups, we need to first understand students’ strengths and weaknesses, and then shift to a system where a university acts as a starting point for  their own academic and practical experiments.

Jarvis mainly refers to school education in his talk, but I think that in some universities the attitude is equally prevelent. The institution’s mentality can be summarised thusly; they have the answers, and you don’t. So queue up for three years and maybe you’ll have the answers too.

To foster entrepreneurial spirit we may have to fundamentally break down and build back up again the idea of what exactly a university is and what role it fulfils. The connected world means that I can seek out the best educators in each field from my computer; I can listen to philosophy podcasts from Oxford despite never possessing the academic rigour to attend the institution.

Universities should seek to provide the space and facilities where students can work co-operatively on real projects that can be set up as viable businesses. Outside of specific business and entrepreneurial courses, how widely is this promoted? My guess is not at all.

I’m not claiming that if you shift a university’s purpose from academic top-down institution to bottom-up facilitator of ideas then overnight you create a hundred new viable businesses. But in the same way that throwing enough mud at a wall means that some of it will stick, creating the mindset and opportunities to develop hundreds of ideas will mean that some of them will be successful.

To create the “ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism” that I spoke about last time, what I’ve outlined above really needs to happen. There are only two occasions in life where one is able to set out on a business venture and not be adversely affected by failure; the privileged position of having come from a lucrative industry like finance and having money to spare, or being a student. In both cases, the individual doesn’t stand to lose much, and has both time and resources in plentiful supply.

Not everyone can, should or wants to be an entrepreneur. I understand that. Maybe someone’s been slipping prozac into my coffee this week but suddenly I’m ludicrously optimistic about the future of journalism.

Content-wise, we’ve reached a state where things have plateaued. There will always be new apps and services, but most have now fully acknowledged the shift that’s taken place in content production. Now it’s time to flesh out the business aspect of it. I think it’s refreshing that many media companies don’t know what they’re doing and there’s been a complete system failure. So what do you do when the system fails? Reboot it.

Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups

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?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

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?