Tagged: journalism

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Personal branding and the evolution of ‘innovative’ journalism

Personal branding should come easy to most journalists – it requires drive, networking and a hint of arrogance. It’s one of those buzzwords that gets bandied around frequently, and it’s used to describe a journalist’s image – what they do best becomes an extension of their name, and the two become one and the same.

We should really be living in a post-personal brand age – one where it’s become the norm and we know about what each individual does and what they’re good at. Two people who are endlessly cited as being masters of the personal brand to secure work are Josh Halliday and Dave Lee. I’m not going to repeat what’s been said elsewhere so you can read up on them at this BBC blog post, but they got their jobs at the Guardian and the BBC respectively by carving out a niche for themselves while still at university, Dave through his blog and Josh through a hyperlocal website.

Would students with comparable skills be picked up today? Unlikely. Take Marc Thomas, a student currently completing an MA a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University. He set up Plastik Magazine on his own and is using it to map alternative Welsh culture. He’s also released “Plastik Pass” – a citywide discount card that lets you save money at sandwich shops, boutiques and art galleries.

Incredibly innovative and forward thinking, and it’s the same kind of strategy that has made Monocle such a success story. As far as I’m aware, (and he’s free to correct me on this) Marc hasn’t been offered a full time job at any publications. I can’t help but think that if Marc was doing what he does now 2 or 3 years ago he’d be heralded as another wunderkind of journalism. Times move on, and the media industry’s mood changes. Something like a hyperlocal website isn’t particularly unusual anymore. Hell, even I run one.

At the beginning of the year I hurriedly penned a post on 3 Journalism New Year’s Resolutions. Point three was my worry that I had yet to develop a specialty in journalism, and that something transient like multimedia storytelling was less credible than a knowledge of finance or politics.

But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the fact that online journalism constantly continues to evolve means that it can potentially become one of the hardest skills to master? Subjects like politics, international relations and science are locked in time. That’s not to say there is no progression in their fields, but they are rules-based systems.

Online journalism has no rules. And to be considered innovative over a sustained period of time you have to constantly keep up with the evolving ecosystem by signing up to new apps, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and testing out things that aren’t even built for journalists with a view to integrating them into a wider news operation. What’s impressive now may not be in a year’s time. Adam Westbrook was the only person on his course at City university who had a blog, and that was only four years ago – something that has definitely changed.

Josh Halliday writes in the above linked post:

As a friend once said to me: “The difference between those who make it into the industry and those who don’t is that the successful ones were student journalists, as opposed to being merely journalism students.”

I think this statement is problematic. A student journalist implies someone who produces journalism, and happens to be a student. Whereas a journalism student implies someone who is constantly willing to learn, be proved wrong and explore new (possibly theoretical) ways of storytelling within the conventional framework.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but I think we should all be journalism students, from the unpaid intern to the overpaid executive. Without accepting that we all have things to learn then there will never be any progression in this industry. We’re all journalism students, and we should never assume that we’ve graduated – we’re just moving onto the next assignment.

And that’s where people like Marc come in. Marc is actually embarking on his own entrepreneurial adventure to commercialise Plastik Journal. We need to encourage more people like him – because at the moment being innovative doesn’t make financial sense.

Dave and Josh both plied their trade as prolific journalism students, but had to largely leave their personal brands behind once they entered the work of work. Witness Josh’s Twitter feed changing from patter about changes in local journalism and blog posts outlining online tools to an automated feed that pushes his latest article from the Guardian’s Technology section.

This is in no way his fault, but people like him, Dave, Marc and the Wannabe Hacks should really be given more say in the way an organisation is run. Right now the industry’s strategy seems to be offering conventional jobs to talented graduates who were spotted precisely because they were unconventional. And there’s nothing personal about that.