How to stand out from the crowd-sourcing

Alan Rusbridger made some interesting comments on crowd-sourcing during the recent Hugh Cudlipp lecture. The Guardian has been at the forefront of harnessing the potential power of its readers, not just to read the news but also to help make the news. He said:

The last year has seen us crowd-source tax-avoidance – the internal Barclays documents that can (after a legal fight) be found on Wikileaks and whose publication undoubtedly led to changes in legislation and attitudes to corporate tax avoidance.

It began with a traditional piece of investigation by David Leigh, followed by participation and analysis by people who really understood this world. It was classically an example of “our readers know more than we do”.

The Guardian has made the most of its readers’ knowledge and resources, in stories like the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, examining Tony Blair’s complex tax affairs, and trawling through MPs’ expenses forms for further revelations.

Of course, the Guardian has also benefited from audience participation in other ways, such as the Trafigura affair, but their moves towards active crowd-sourcing are really promising. Rusbridger added:

These examples show how – so long as it is open to the rest of the web – a mainstream news organisation can harness something of the web’s power. It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do.

When the MPs’ expenses records were finally released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian built a tool to allow readers to help sift through the huge amount of data, which led to stories like this. It was a big step, taking this kind of work out of the hands of reporters and putting it into the public domain, and one that other media organisations were struggling with too. But this actually just ties in with other trends towards collaboration in sites like Help Me Investigate. As Paul Bradshaw commented on his Online Journalism Blog:

This isn’t ‘citizen journalism’: it’s micro-volunteering. And when you volunteer, you tend to engage.

It wasn’t without hiccups. There was a huge amount of information to work through and, as with all projects, enthusiasm dipped after a while. This was the state of play on the site today:

But in many ways, the more important story was the second MPs’ expenses project. It was launched to much less fanfare but, with lessons learnt from the first attempt, has been a better example of how crowd-sourcing can actually work. One of the development team, Simon Willison, explained how they tried to improve the second project:

The reviewing experience the first time round was actually quite lonely. We deliberately avoided showing people how others had marked each page because we didn’t want to bias the results. Unfortunately this meant the site felt like a bit of a ghost town, even when hundreds of other people were actively reviewing things at the same time.

For the new version, we tried to provide a much better feeling of activity around the site…

Most importantly, we added a concept of discoveries—editorially highlighted pages that were shown on the homepage and credited to the user that had first highlighted them.

Clearly, these are works in progress. As with any new tool, it takes a bit of experimentation to see how they will work in practice. But that is why the second Guardian project is, in many ways, more promising than the first. It shows that given a relatively manageable amount of information, some clear goals, and with a layer of editorial control to manage the project, a group of engaged readers can make for a much better news story.

Computer assisted reporting – not so scary after all

The whole idea of computer-assisted reporting (CAR), that is using databases to gather and analyse information which can then be used in a news story, might sound scary but it’s actually pretty useful.

Ok, so it involves numbers and statistics and scary new computer programmes, but when you see how useful it can be, there’s no denying that it’s worth it. And as our lecturer, Glyn Mottershead, pointed out, it’s no worse than standing on someone’s doorstep for three hours waiting for them to come home.

In fact, CAR is nothing new to journalism, and was used as far back as 1952 when CBS used a computer to analyse the results of the presidential election. There are now organisations set up to promote this kind of reporting, such as the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in the US.

Of course, things have moved on a bit since then, and there is now more to CAR than just statistics. There are plenty of opportunities for online databases to add value to our reporting, as well as helping us to see connections we might otherwise miss.

There are some fantastic examples out there, including MySociety, which builds websites focused on democratic issues, such as TheyWorkForYou and FixMyStreet. Another great one is Who Knows Who, set up to keep a record of the links between various public figures, so if you were working on a story about Boris Johnson and wanted to know who he has been meeting up with, you can see it here.

But newspapers can also make the most of this kind of detailed statistical reporting. It’s easy to think you need the weight of a massive news organisation or a fancy computer system, but Louise Acford at The Brighton Argus proved this isn’t the case. She broke down crime statistics by ward to write this in depth crime report.

So it might be time-consuming but it’s not impossible. Like anything, once you master the technical tools, you can use them to improve your reporting and come up with stories you would never be able to write otherwise.

Skydiving in New Zealand

We’ve been talking a lot about digital storytelling lately, since our lecture from Daniel Meadows a few weeks ago (see my post here). So here’s my first attempt, enjoy!

To pay or not to pay

The big media issue this week has undoubtedly been paywalls (again), following the announcement by Johnston Press that it is piloting a paywall scheme in six of its local papers. This is the first news organisation, though I suspect not the last, to follow in the footsteps of Rupert Murdoch, who will introduce paywalls on The Times site in spring 2010.

Rupert Murdoch, courtesy of World Economic Forum on Flickr

They’re also talking about it stateside. As I write, the big cheeses of American journalism are gathered for a two-day workshop called From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age? at the Federal Trade Commission (see the live webcast, search #ftcnews on Twitter for the latest updates, or read Rupert Murdoch’s comments) for a flavour of the debate.

So it was quite fitting for us to have a talk from Rob Andrews of last week, where we discussed whether the whole idea of paying for news was viable. It doesn’t look promising. According to research commissioned by, only 5% of people would be willing to shell out if their favourite sites started charging, with 74% saying they would rather switch to free alternatives.

We all know many of these surveys have been done and the numbers vary, but the overwhelming message is that most people have got used to accessing news for free and they want it to stay that way.

The Financial Times might attract 128,000 paid subscribers, but that is only a fraction of its 1.6 million registered users. And charging for specialist content is a very different concept from charging for mainstream news which is also available elsewhere.

This is so twentieth century…

A lot of the discussion about paywalls reminds me of the way people used to think about websites: the idea was to get readers to come to a site and find everything they could possibly need there, so they would have no reason to look elsewhere. That’s the kind of activity a paywall relies on.

I have no doubt there are some readers out there who do act like this. But what if you like to get your business news from The Telegraph, but you prefer the Guardian’s take on environmental issues? What if you like reading in-depth analysis in The Independent, but you still enjoy a sneaky fix of celebrity gossip from the Daily Mail? If all these sites have erected paywalls (and presumably some, if not all, will follow Murdoch’s lead in time), how do you continue to find the content you like, without having to pay for access to every site?

For me, micropayments would seem to be a better option, as they could take different reading habits into account. I know there are some (including Times editor James Harding) who say this could lead to an endless stream of stories about Britney Spears and the like. But I suspect this wouldn’t actually happen in practice because there’s no way stories like that could survive behind a pay wall; there are simply too many other sources. And if nothing else, micropayments might mean we get to use magic virtual coins à la Charlie Brooker – surely that’s reason enough?

Or more practically, we could have a kind of Oyster card for news. You could pay as you go for each article you read, or buy the news equivalent of a travelcard, an all-you-can-read buffet of news.

There is no single right answer. Each idea has its merits and until someone tries them out, there’s no real way to know which, if any, will actually work. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this but I actually respect Rupert Murdoch for giving it a go. After all, we need to try something; we can’t just go on as we are hoping the current models will somehow start working.

But what about digital?

I have some sympathy for the “news wants to be free” approach espoused by Jeff Jarvis and others (it has more nuances than that but for the sake of simplicity, that’s the gist). But I also know that the advertiser-funded model has completely broken down and probably won’t ever recover fully, even once the economic situation improves. Now that newspapers are no longer the primary form of reaching a mass audience, and sites like Gumtree and craigslist have cornered the market in classifieds, there’s no going back.

And despite all the talk about trying to generate income by offering services other than just news, such as Times+ (Simon Jenkins puts the argument nicely here), I think we are kidding ourselves if we imagine it would ever bring in enough to make up for plummeting print revenues. I’m also not sure people identify themselves quite as strongly with a particular news brand as they once did, so the appeal could be relatively limited.

I don’t have the answer, but I know we can’t carry on as we are. We need to re-assert pride in our content. News has a value; it isn’t free to produce and shouldn’t be free to consume. Now let’s just hope the readers agree.

A lesson in social media experimentation

“I was asking the right questions. It was the questions that were important and because I wasn’t absolutely certain, people were more likely to debate and answer. I don’t ever feel like I have the answer to things.”

So said Joanna Geary, Web Development Editor for The Times, when she came to speak to the journalism postgrads at Cardiff University last week. Joanna previously worked on the Birmingham Post, and as it happens, @bhampostjoanna was one of the first people I followed on Twitter. I remember finding it really exciting that some regional papers were actually taking social media seriously, rather than being stuck in the technological dark ages.

Joanna also told us about how she set up her own blog, and it was reassuring to know that despite taking an interest in the web, she didn’t go into the project knowing how it would turn out. Like most of us experimenting with online tools, she just gave it a go.

But one of the biggest issues that her lecture raised for me was the network of community bloggers Joanna set up at the Birmingham Post. She convinced about 35 bloggers from across Birmingham to be part of an experiment in social media, to blog for the Birmingham Post website. The contributors came from various backgrounds, from a university professor to an automotive expert to a student fashion designer.

This is an exciting venture and one which, particularly at the time, pushed the boundaries of what could be done when bringing social media and journalism together. This was no doubt a boost to the paper’s engagement with its community, attracting a new and different audience online from those who would traditionally read the print version. In fact, in many ways, this did what local and regional newspapers should be doing: providing a platform for debate among members of its community.

So it’s all good then? Well, not quite. I’m entirely in favour of experimentation and there is definitely a place for this kind of activity. But I think we should also consider whether there are any potential downsides. As Joanna said, sometimes it’s asking the questions that’s important, even if you don’t have the answers. I certainly don’t have the solutions (and given the amount of soul-searching out there in the industry, it seems no one does), but I’ll have a go at a few questions.

Is it right for newspapers to ask for content without paying people? Even on a blog, if your writing is driving traffic to a company’s website and therefore holding up its advertising revenues, shouldn’t you receive some kind of reward?

Is it sustainable? Joanna told us there was quite a high dropout rate among bloggers, mainly because they weren’t being paid, and the paper didn’t have the resources to keep recruiting potential bloggers. If blog content isn’t updated regularly, tech-savvy readers will simply go elsewhere.

Did it work? Joanna told us they ended up with a small but very committed community engaging online.

I have to admit I wasn’t convinced at first by the idea of a network of bloggers, largely because I sometimes get the feeling that newspaper companies are focusing on this kind of content at the expense of investing in journalists who are covering stories bloggers wouldn’t.

But the more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s a good opportunity to hear fresh voices and fresh perspectives, and anything that improves our ability to engage with readers can only be a good thing.

I suspect that Joanna’s next challenge, helping to figure out how to implement paywalls at The Times, might be a harder nut to crack.

The golden age of journalism is now

When I tell people I’m training to be a journalist, most tell me I must be mad. They say newspapers are dying and there’s no future left in journalism.

Well I think they’re wrong.

Our recent lecture by BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones gave me a different perspective on the ongoing and occasionally overblown debate about the decline of newspapers (see @themediaisdying on Twitter for a flavour of the argument).
He argued that the whole notion of a golden age of journalism is pretty badly exaggerated. We might have grown up with images of a cynical hack turning up at the scene armed only with a notebook, a Trilby and his razor-sharp wits, but we all know that’s a bit of a myth. You only have to read Michael Frayn’s satire of Fleet Street, Towards the End of the Morning, to see how ridiculous these stereotypes can be.

Some aspects of news production probably are worse than they were 20 years ago, with fewer staff under pressure to produce news for multiple platforms. But the positive developments more than outweigh this.

Improvements in technology mean that we, as print journalists, have far more creative ways to tell a story than just the old black-on-white newsprint. We can use audio, video, interactive tools or maps. We can cover events as they unfold with live blogging, as in this minute-by-minute live coverage of the recent Labour leadership challenge. And we can engage with our readers on a whole new level by linking out to sources, and using blogs and Twitter.

Rory Cellan-Jones, photo courtesy of matlock on Flickr

Mr Cellan-Jones also pointed out that his blog allows him to cover many more stories than he would be able to on traditional TV news bulletin, with its strict time limits and demand for an immediate news hook. His blog allows him to show readers and viewers that he is on top of the little stories as well as the big ones, and gives dedicated technophiles a place they can go for regularly updated content.

The same is true of newspapers: there are no limits to publishing online, so journalists can follow up many different aspects of a story, whereas there might only be room for the main points in the print edition. This just shows how the web version can complement the print story. The content on the web will probably only get a tiny proportion of the readers of the print version, but it adds so much value for those who are really interested and want to know more.

Kicking it old school

So far, so good for new media. But do we have anything in common with that Trilby-hatted hack?

The answer is a resounding yes. As much as I love social media and am really excited by its potential uses in journalism, I’m a firm believer in the traditional journalistic techniques. Nothing can replace knowing your patch, cultivating sources, and being able to conduct a good interview and take it down in shorthand.

So I think Mr Cellan-Jones’ advice to us holds true. He said:

“Have a good grip of the old basics of journalism. I think those career skills are still valid. I think a lot of the essentials that have been around for 20 or 25 years still apply.”

But it’s perfectly possible to draw these different sets of skills together, to combine traditional methods with the new opportunities offered by the web. This coverage of Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry just shows how much more can be offered on the web for those who want more than just the print story. Mr Cellan-Jones concluded with some upbeat thoughts for us too:

“It is a lot more fun… It is a lot easier to do stuff than when I started. You have an instant playground out there where you can try it out and make mistakes.”

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get out there and do it.

Digital storytelling

I had a vague idea of what digital storytelling was before this week, but I hadn’t really taken the time to think about the possibilities it held for enriching the way we, as journalists, can communicate. But after an enthusiastic lecture from Daniel Meadows, I now just want to get out there and get on with it!

Daniel told us about his adventures back in 1973 aboard the Great Photographic Omnibus, a project he set up to travel the length and breadth of the UK taking pictures of people. A simple concept you might think, but the results were fascinating. They are little slices of people’s lives: the clothes they wore, the people they were with, what they had been doing that day. Perhaps at the time, these would have seemed trivial, but looking back, that collection of photos is a fantastic snapshot (excuse the pun) of what those people were doing in 1973.

So if a picture can say so much, what about a video?

Digital storytelling projects have sprung up around the country, giving ordinary people a chance to write, shoot and edit video about any subject they want. BBC Capture Wales is one of the best collections, with some fantastic little insights into what people are passionate about. Some of the examples that appealed to me were Que Sera Sera, Sparring Partners and Jellicoe Gardens, but there are plenty on there to choose from. Breaking Barriers is a similar project based in Caerphilly. Check out A Winter Tale to start with.

For journalists, this kind of resource is like gold dust. Not only does it give us the chance to get to know what people in our area are interested in, but it gives them the opportunity to tell their story, to engage with the community in a totally different way. If media organisations can harness that, it could strengthen and enrich our journalism.

But more than that, these videos show the possibilities of finding new ways to tell stories, which, after all, is what we’re all about. They can be funny, poignant, hard-hitting or nostalgic, and if we can use these new techniques, it could help our stories come alive for readers. It can take time, and it’s not always right for every story, but used appropriately, it has the potential to be very effective.

One of the examples given in the lecture was Rape of a Nation on MediaStorm. Watch it. It explains far better than I can why this kind of innovative storytelling is so important.

Images have power. So do words. Put them together and you could have a piece of reporting or feature writing that packs much more punch than it could in print. That’s not to say that traditional newspaper reporting does not have power, but this shows that we can go beyond the printed page to tell stories in ways that will engage our readers on a whole different level. It doesn’t replace print, but it could enhance it.

We have these tools at our fingertips and we should really make the most of them. My overriding thought throughout the lecture was ‘why am I not doing this already?’ It just seemed such an exciting way to tell a story. I’ll be experimenting with it over the next few weeks and hopefully the results should be going up on this blog, so watch this space…