Grounding journalism education

This is a version of a Keynote speech I gave at the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia conference #JERAA17 in December 2017

I’ve just recently changed jobs. It’s a move across. I’ve gone from being a Senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire to being a Senior lecturer in journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University. In some ways, nothing much has changed. But starting in a new university, well, it feels a little bit like visiting Australia from the UK; we speak the same language but each place is, in it’s own ways, very different. So it goes with universities. Each has its own unique bureaucracy!

But apart from that dissonance of being in a new environment, one of the things that gave me pause for thought was the application process…well it would. But I realised that It was the first time in a long time (I was at my last post for nearly 20 years) I was essentially asked to seriously reflect on “why do you want this job?”.

Now, if I’d been looking at a big pile of papers to grade…”why do you do this?”might have become a more existential question… But, after nearly 20 years in journalism education, it was a reality check — “why do you want to still carry on doing this” and on the basis that, given my current pension pot, I’ve possibly got another 18 years doing it, ‘what are you signing up for?’

For those of you here who are recently from industry or still with a foot in the industry, I guess those are questions you may have considered too.

So I wanted to reflect a little on that today and think about the kind of direction those next 18years might take.

I started lecturing online journalism in 1999. UCLan had started the first MA online journalism in the UK (pretty much the world I think). My background is in media production, and amongst other things my career followed the increasing use of computers in production; through the use of sequencers and samplers in music production, none-linear video editing and on to the emergence of the web — that experience and the fact that I’m an unrepentant geek is what landed me at UCLan teaching HTML to journalists. Weeks of it! That’s how you got websites up and running in the days before content management systems; I sent students on work placement to mainstream media websites and they were using FTP/Dreamweaver to publish.

The course was pretty much self-contained. There was little or no cross-over with the other postgraduate courses. The broadcasters broadcast, the print people printed and on-liners, well, we on-lined…We all toiled in our corners. and so it was in industry. I’m sure many of you will remember that time. Somewhere in the corner of the newsroom or even on another floor where the geeks lived ….the ones doing, well, who knows what.

But over the next 5 years or so, what had been seen exclusively as an output medium, albeit with its own unique properties, on the edge of journalism, many began to creep into the mainstream. People began to pay attention not just to when and how their stories appeared online but also where those stories were coming from. Digital was starting to become as much a part of the input process of reporting as it was the output of the journalistic process.

Within industry the reaction wasn’t always positive. In newsrooms there were many tales of the divide between analogue and digital news — tales of audible gasps if a person crossed the room from print to the online ‘side’. It’s maybe that it was around that time that the issues of sustainability — money — kicked in with a vengeance…It comes to something when you can cite the first dot com bubble as influencing recruitment.

Its a problem that hasn’t gone away. But it’s perhaps telling of the state of things now that one of the most high profile philanthropic funders in journalism right now, especially in projects around Trustworthy Journalism is — Craig Newmark. The same Craig Newmark who, I’m pretty sure if he’d walked in to some of the executive meetings in newsrooms I was in around 2006, might not have been so welcome. His site Craigslist was the shorthand for the evil of digital disruption and diminishing economic returns.

Now, its digital we are told, is the ‘new normal’. In the print newsrooms that were the first to grapple with digital, there has been a flip. The desk in the corner, or more likely in another building (or state) is the print desk.And it was the print newsrooms that really grappled with this. Broadcasters, perhaps because of the prevalence of state funding, especially in the UK and Australia, seemed curiously absent from the early debates.

But digital has caught up with the expectations of quality and functionality broadcast journalists demand. The promised digital disruption of video that drove many local non- broadcast newsrooms to invest in video in the mid-noughties, is finally here thanks in no small part to the ubiquity of mobile. That initial reticence to engage with digital in broadcast means we are now revisiting debates from that time. Podcasts for example are now (at least the second time around or trying) seen as viable content both editorially and economically. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no podcasts before Serial!

Balancing the equation of what industry wants, how we define journalism through our actions and what the consumer does makes journalism training a moving target

What I find interesting here is that perhaps this explosion in multimedia is perhaps more fully formed and familiar to consumers than many in broadcast might feel comfortable with — a broadcast version of platform-dissonance print journalists have experienced. If you want to start a fight in a newsroom just hold your phone up in portrait not landscape — 90 degrees of professional separation. It’s a pithy but reliable example of a pervasive problem that describes the broad challenges we face in both industry and education — common practice, best practice and industry practice don’t always match.

Teaching the new normal

It’s inherent in the nature of journalism courses that they are vocational — they prepare people to work in journalism by reflecting industry practice. So it’s perhaps inevitable that the reality of how capable journalism has proved to be in responding to change and the new digital reality, is something we wrestle with more and more in academia. I look at student journalists, graduating this year and I know the industry priorities — what they demand from new hires — have radically changed in the three or four years they have studied.

I remember being at an academic conference in the mid noughties and being asked, in the face of all this new stuff, what goes? Implicit in the question was that there was so much new stuff to cover, what of traditional journalism goes to make room.

The new normal it turns out is difficult target to hit

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a good deal of the last few years working with newsrooms making the digital transition. I’ve been with over 400 journalists of various levels of seniority — junior reporters to group editors — in a room looking at one aspect or another of the shift to digital and one of the questions I always asked in one form or another was ‘what would make your job easier?” Answers varied. In the early days it was always a variation on the theme of ‘can we turn off the internet’. But, I don’t want to make too light here. Commonly the two top answers were: time and resources.

What ‘resources’ means varies. Sometimes it’s as simple as a new mobile phone. But more often than not it means people. More people with the right skills to do what needed to be done…by association the people we as journalism educators provide.

But it was time that was the deal breaker. More time to do all the things that needed to be done and be able to develop expertise with the new ideas and tools that pop up, finding ways to make them work.

A shared brain for industry

As a journalism educator how do I read that? For me more broadly it speaks of an industry that it recognises and reacts to challenges but doesn’t have time or resources to learn from them. It’s an industry telling me that it doesn’t have the time to work out what to do with the people it knows it needs but doesn’t know what they will do!

Time is something that seems to be in short supply for everyone. We all function in an attention economy —but time is literally money to media organisation.

In comparison, time something that we are relatively rich in in academia — (I’ve made a note to myself to duck behind the podium at this point….)

I know. If I asked you that ‘what would make your job easier” question, you’d no doubt give me the same answer — time and resources. Who wouldn’t like a new mobile phone?

But experimenting with new tools and thinking about what journalists might do with them and the types of journalism they might produce is something has always been part of what I do — it has to be when the landscape changes so fast. Its rare that any of us can simply roll out the same lecture as we did last year.

Early on in my career I got into the habit of blogging my experiments and my thinking. You had to really. Those of us teaching online and digital journalism were few and far between so it was the only way to call on the collective community brain before social media came along. More than that though, it’s opened the door to working on new ideas and collaboration and addresses that resources question. It’s helped ground me in the huge range of contexts where journalism is done.

– as a side note, blog, it’s an amazing tool for sharing and organising thoughts. We don’t do it enough. Experiment with Medium or WordPress. In a world of tweets and updates saying what people are thinking and doing, it’s a wonderful and essential way to say ‘why’ we think and do things.

One of my most popular posts this year is on how to create socially shareable video — with captions etc. — using powerpoint. Why? Because I needed to teach a class socially shareable video and there wasn’t time or consistent access to resources to teach them adobe premiere or after effects. I get loads of feedback on that from journalists who use it as freelancers small newsrooms where time and IT resources are limited.

The David Moyes Excuse generator was an perfect example of the power of Knowledge exchange.

Here’s another example. If you’re a soccer fan, some of you in the room might remember David Moyes. He was the manager of Man UTD for a little while. He didn’t do well. The running joke was that he always had an excuse for a poor performance. I was working with a group of journalists in a two day session called ‘the art of the possible’. Basically, two days of permission to experiment. — on a side note, how forward thinking was that of the media org! The journalists had an idea for a little widget that would automatically generate an excuse based on your problem. So, they thought about the excuses and I went away and did some hacking around with some javascript, to make — the David Moyes excuse generator.

Methodological interlude — we are journalism academics after all — ‘should journalists code is a common question, so here’s my code development methodology…


Google IAnThen Cut And Paste

I digress. By the end of the two days, it was up and running and on their site and it caused a bit of a stir — a bit of viral hit.

This basic code did the rounds of the newsgroup for a good long while, re-skinned as various things until eventually there was enough of a use case that a version of the functionality was made available in their content management system.

Now, the viral nature of this aside — and man do I wish I’d had a pound for every hit that thing generated — what I loved about this process (as with the PowerPoint example)was it showed open innovation can work. It made an impact not just as a piece of content but also on the way the organisation worked. In academic terms, that’s tangible knowledge exchange; Academia and industry working together, sharing knowledge in an open and informative way for mutual benefit.

In a world full of the known unknowns of that time vs resources equation, renting time with our collective brain, that’s something that the industry badly needs. We can be the pause before industry engages with the idea. If that means they become a little less reactive and more responsive to the digital churn. That benefits everyone. That target moves a little less.

But the impact of that collaboration is just as important for us as academics in a world where Knowledge exchange is not just an aspiration but a KPI.

Research and Knowledge exchange are the new normal

The balance of research and impact/KE we generate is increasingly being measured and assessed. If it doesn’t already, it will very likely define our contracts and workloads in the future. KE is sometimes a hard sell in arts and humanities but Journalism is such a unique blend of think and do, done in such close proximity to the industry, that it seems like an open goal right now.

That doesn’t mean ‘traditional’ research isn’t important. We aren’t just doers, we are critical thinkers and doers. It’s interesting that in Australia, the relationship between research and practice in J-schools seems closer than in the UK. There’s also often not a lot of love for the “ivory tower” in the industry- the idea that we don’t know what its like on the ground, is a frustratingly common throwback to a traditional view of traditional research.

But you know as well as I do that everything you’re talking about in this conference over the next few days is what the industry is talking about. Journalism research is a very much a live and relevant.

Research can be a painful process for people coming into education. It is for me. Its frustrating for those used to the speed of journalism. But if we can make clearer paths between research and knowledge exchange through things like phds by practice and more collaboration and pressure to recognise none traditional research outputs, then we are beginning to move beyond an perception of research as some process of generating esoteric ephemera no one sees.

That’s important to industry too. We sit in a really useful place to be a critical friend to journalism and if we can do that in an open and accountable way, through research and communicating what we do, that better places us to be honest brokers for journalism in broader policy discussions. We can turn that passion we have for the profession into advocacy with impact.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when that is more relevant and vital than now. As much as I hate the term, and I really do hate the term, it’s one of the most poisonous, critically empty phrases in use at the moment ,fake news has proved common cause for journalism and academia. Unlike broad contexts like digital which simply feels like a debate on disruption, the new world order of Trump and the increasingly partisan media landscape, feels like an existential threat we can get behind philosophically and professionally. It goes beyond genres and practice right to heart of what we think journalism is for, doesn’t it.

And in that context, I guess this is when I put my critical friend hat on.

The gaps in representation

It almost goes without saying that journalism is in very a difficult place to be right now. The bite seems harder and more vicious than ever before. Restructuring, layoffs, newsroom closures. Perhaps it feels all the more vicious right now, when we know good journalism remains vitally important . Now more than ever, we need to double down on living up to the ideological link between journalism and democracy — core ideas of keeping people reasonably and fairly informed about what is going on around them and holding those who seek to get in the way of that accountable.

But we know that the bites are leaving the biggest holes away from the world stage of TweetStorms and Trump. Journalism is not happening at a local level as it should.

Closures and consolidation in local and regional media have left gaps. People talk about the democratic deficit caused by a shrinking local media. Some go as far as to talk about news deserts. But these are not new problems to wrestle with.

In the past, the response to these issues has been a patchy mix of newsroom driven collaboration and a bottom-up community driven responses. The former often struggles by inheriting the systemic problems of sustainability from its parent. The latter often rendered invisible to the mainstream thanks to a deep seated institutional lack of diversity. But there’s movement in the right direction,

It’s interesting, for example, to see demands in Australia to offer tax exemptions for community media. In the UK, the Welsh government announced it has budgeted nearly 200k over 2 years to support the development of community and local news services. In 2012 the House of Lords even suggested that investigative journalism should be eligible for ‘charitable status’. Accountability, especially at a local level has reached the level of soft state intervention.

In the UK, as part of the licence fee settlement, the BBC has set up a local democracy reporters scheme — paying to put reporters into regional newsrooms to cover what UK journos would call ‘court and council’ — civic reporting. The material they create is shared in a common hub which other media organisations, including community and hyperlocal media can get access too.

That project has not been met with universal acclaim. Many in journalism seem pre-programmed to resist intervention in journalism in any form, including other journalism organisations. But it does show that outside of the punch and judy of populist politics and industry debate, there is a broad recognition and concern for the sustainability of ‘accountability journalism’.

But perhaps the most promising but challenging response to the issue is a rise in third sector organisations entering the space. Non-profits doing accountability journalism and in one form or another, giving their content away.

As a model it isn’t new. It gave us Propublica. But more recently, driven by investment from organisations like Google, Facebook’s Newsroom project or Craig Newmark’s foundation, there is a growing, influential and relatively cash rich ‘3rd and 4th sector’ of accountability journalism spinning up. Whats positive is that we are also seeing a growing presence of universities and academics in the mix. There’s the News Integrity Initiative in the US for example.

I know the issue of the ‘duopoly’ of Facebook and Google is a common windmill for us to tip at here. But whatever motivation you ascribe to the funders, the money and support is there and that’s shifted the focus back to the viability of model for philanthropic funding journalism.

I know it’s a model that’s of interest to you here in Oz. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation for example is asking questions of sustainability and, like others, looking to philanthropy and recognition of non-profit media organisations I mentioned earlier.

New models for the local journalism army

What’s good to see is that is starting to filter down to a local level.

In the UK for example, Google have funded the not-for-profit media organisation The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to set up The Bureau Local, which uses a community model to build up investigations, often data driven, into stories with national significance but built for local use and impact — they share the content for anyone to use.

Effectively uncoupled from the economic model of traditional journalism, locally focussed accountability journalism organisations take on a bridging role. They see themselves actively stepping into the gaps left behind by journalism but retaining a close proximity to the identity of journalism — it’s about connecting community with journalism.

Fourteen years ago two students of mine started a hyperlocal blog called Blog Preston. That now runs as a CIC ( a form of company registration under uk law designed for social enterprises) with an aim to strengthen Preston as a community. That blog is now arguably as visible, if not more so than the local paper — it allows it to experiment with innovative ideas like a print edition which pushed over 10,000 copies into the city (the local daily newspaper in Preston has a certified circulation of 9,874). It’s made them visible and vocal advocates for their city and the community has responded in support.

We are also seeing experiments with new models of ownership and accountability within the organisations— cooperatives like community newspaper The West Highland Free Press. It serves a geographical area of over 250 square miles with a readership of 8,000 covering the islands of Skye, Lewis and Harris. The newspaper has been worker-owned since 2009 and also has a flourishing website. There is also The Bristol Cable which operates as a coop both financially and editorially.

As part of their commitment to community and as part of their business model, these organisations also offer training and support for journalists looking to learn new skills -especially data journalism — but theres a reading of who is a journalists here that might sit uncomfortably with some traditionalists. If citizen journalism gave you existential shivers then you’re in for a rocky ride. Many of these organisations are also vocal in their criticism of traditional journalism- they are there because traditional journalism has failed.

Now I’m not sure I would agree with that. But for whatever reason — there’s whole conferences in that — there are gaps and they are being filled by people who have affinity with journalism but aren’t the mainstream. They are in but not of journalism.

It’s a really positive development. But issues of sustainability still loom. There aren’t enough of these organisations and there certainly aren’t enough at local level.

It’s time for universities to step up to the local gap

So to end with here’s a little thought experiment and chance for me to be a bit provocative.

The best journalism education is hands-on. We create working journalists by having them work as journalists.

Industry demands that of us and it’s our commitment to the student — “we’ll give you the skills you need”.

I think it’s right that the stories our students tell in learning those skills are about real people, real events. I don’t want simulations or classroom exercises to feed the gallery of newsrooms hacks who question the experience our students have

We go to great lengths to create learning experiences and even media platforms in the service of that process – course websites; Papers and magazines; Broadcast output

But let me ask you a question. Who is your competition?

Is there anyone else publishing news where your uni is based? What about the local newspaper? Is there one? How do you rate it? How does the community rate it?

Chances are they well respected. All of the studies I’ve read show the level of trust and confidence in local media is still high. People value their local media outlets.

But let flip that question a bit. How confident are you in the current media climate it’s that it will be able to keep going?

Lets put some numbers in play here.

UCLan has a student cohort in journalism of over 150 students. At MMU its nearer 200. Being conservative, that’s 20–30 ‘reporters’ who at various times of the year will be out in the local community looking for stories to tell. Be it basic reporting or more in depth investigations.

So given the resources, time and a relative level of financial security universities have what’s stopping journalism courses filling that accountability gap?

  • Why not start a Blog Preston or a bureau local from within the university?
  • Why not go out and build a coop like the Bristol cable?
  • Why not buy the local newspaper or radio station?

There is an opportunity right now in journalism education, even if it’s just a thought experiment, for us to flip the model of how we work.

At the moment our feet are firmly planted in industry and in academia. But in the current media climate, we are at risk of simply delivering students with the prescribed skills and critical underpinning into an industry that, through attrition will take them further away from those communities where they learnt their trade. We need to think about how we can plant our feet firmly in the community around us — ground ourselves there and reach out to the industry. We can’t hope that journalism finally sorts itself out and reaches back.

In shifting that perspective, we don’t lose anything. We can still service the need to provide students trained with the skills industry needs, and we do that experimentation and thinking that industry can’t do. But we can also do what journalism is supposed to do, a role the industry is increasingly struggling to service , and that’s to make sure that our communities are represented.

So I worry about the next 18 years. In part because yes, some things will stay the same. Yes students won’t turn up to lectures sometimes; University bureaucracy won’t go away. That can get boring. But where I think it really matters, things are really going to change. They already have. The industries of journalism and academia I found myself over 20 years ago have changed radically, often despite their best efforts. We need to think about how we respond to that.

The what and the how are just going to be the moving target they always were. What is more important is that we hold on to the why we do what we do and vital that we think more deeply about who benefits. Because people do really do benefit.

So as much as I worry, I don’t really see myself doing anything else.

It’s a lot of work. But why wouldn’t you want to do this stuff…

As journalism academics we not only have the chance to influence the influencers. We create the influencers. We are the influencers! (i’ve got a note to myself here to not try and laugh like a power crazed maniac at this point)

How powerful and empowering is that?

Why open data needs to be “Citizen literate”

A “data literate” citizen isn’t someone who knows how to handle a spreadsheet — it’s someone who inherently understands the value of data in decision making.

So says Adi Eyal in a piece very much worth a read, called Why publishing more open data isn’t enough to empower citizens  over on IJnet.

I’m right behind the sentiment expressed in the headline.

I’m fascinated by the tensions caused by the use of open data – or perhaps more specifically the rhetoric of its use.  I often find myself questioning the claims of the ‘usefulness’ of open data, especially when they are linked to social and community outcomes. I share Eyal’s view that  whilst there may be some big claims, “there is not yet a larger body of work describing how open data has brought about systemic, long-term change to societies around the world.”

Some might argue (me included) that its just too early to make judgements.  As idealistic and iconoclastic as the promises may be at times, I do think it is just a matter of time before we begin to see tangible and consistently replicable  social benefit from the use of open data.

But the the key challenge is not the destination or how long it takes to get there. It’s how we do it.

In the IJNet piece Eyal makes a distinction between simply freeing the data and its effective use, especially by average citizens. He makes a strong case for the role of “infomediaries” :

These groups (data wranglers, academics, data-proficient civil society organizations, etc.) turn data into actionable information, which can then be used to lobby for tangible change.

I’m very drawn to that idea and it reflects the way the open data ecosystem is developing and needs to develop. But I do think there’s an underlying conflation in the article that hides a fundamental problem in the assumption that infomediaries are effective bridges – It assumes that open data and open government data are the same thing.

It’s an important distinction for me.  The kind of activities and infomediaries the article highlights are driven in the most part by a fundamental connection to open government (and its data).  There is a strong underpinning focus on civic innovation in this reading of the use and value of open government data. I’d argue that Open Data is driven more  by a strong underpinning of economic innovation – from which social and civic innovation might be seen as  as value created from the use of services they provide.

There is a gap between those who hold the data and use it make decisions and those that are affected by those decisions.   I don’t think that open data infomediaries always make that gap smaller,  they simply take up some of the  space.  Some do reach across the gap more effectively than others – good data journalism for example.  But others, through an economically driven service model, simply create another access point for data.

From an open data ecosystem point of view this is great, especially if you take a market view. It makes for vibrant open data economy and a sustainable sector.  From the point of view of the citizen, the end user, the gap is still there. They are either left waiting for other infomediaries to bring that data and its value closer or required to skill-up enough to set out across the gap themselves.

The space between citizens and government is often more of a market economy rather than a citizen driven supply chain.

There is a lot of the article that I agree with but I’d support the points made with a parallel view and suggest that as well as data literate citizens as Eyal describes them, open data infomediaries need to be “citizen literate”:

A citizen literate data infomediary isn’t one that just knows how to use data – its one that understands how citizens can effectively use data to be part of a decision making process.






Hyperlocal. open data. journalism conference: If you’ll come, I’ll build it.

Update: I’ve decided on dates. 6th and 7th of November 2015 in Preston. If you’re interested you can tell me what you’d like to see through a quick survey

As part of my current research activity into hyperlocal and open data, I’m finding myself at events talking to a lot of people in open data circles and a lot of people in Hyperlocal circles. But more often than not they aren’t the same events.

I know there are lots of moves to get hyperlocal’s interested in data journalism (especially with the election fresh in peoples mind). Likewise I know that a lot of open data people are also committed to (or ideologically disposed to ) the transparency and accountability aspects of journalism.

So, finding myself with some resources (that does mean money), I thought it would be fun to get some people in the same room.

So if you’re a hyperlocal, open (government) data person, journalist or local government person involved in data, would you come round to my place for a mini-conference on Making hyperlocal data journalism?

I have some ideas for what we could do…

  • Some open training sessions in data for hyerplocals
  • Some awareness raising from government people about what’s happening at a local level in terms of data
  • Business models for hyperlocal data
  • Best practice for working together to build data communities at a local level.
  • can (and should) government tell stories with data

…but I know loads of people are doing some or all of these things already so if nothing else,  it may just serve as a chance to get together and share this stuff with a hyperlocal focus.

At this stage I’d love to know if you’d be interested. What would you like to see? What format should it take? Who would you like to see speak or be in the room?

Initially I was thinking about a day or two at the end of August (maybe beginning of September but don’t want to clash with this event in Cardiff). But it could be later if people thought that was better. It would be in Preston.

Let me know in the comments below what, who and when to get the ball rolling.

Credit: Sofa picture Creative commons by net_efekt via Flickr

Reflecting on the Leeds #Datadive

Last Friday night,  I found myself in a sun filled loft workshop in Leeds. All the people in the room seemed to be in one corner, but that’s where the (free) bar was.  Tables are set out in rows. Solid wood and rubber topped refugees from the re-fit of Birmingham library. They are already filled with laptops.

This loft space belongs to the ODI’s node in Leeds The laptops belong to data scientists but the people are a mix of the data savvy,  local and national charities. All here for the first, it’s hoped of many, DataDives.

The event was organised by DatakindUK, a chapter of the US group Datakind who “create teams of pro bono data scientists” to work with organisations to solve problems. Local charities are invited to pitch requests for help. If selected they provide data which ,in the run up to the event is cleaned up by data heroes, ready to be pitched at the start of the weekend.  Local organisations also pitched in data. Leeds City Council and their DataMill, for example, had offered up data to use.

So, after beer and chat, the three charities pitched their problems.


  • Volition, representing a large network of mental health organisations in Leeds, had a common problem. Lots of information about the organisations and their work (literally a database of the stuff) but wanted to link it with data about mental health issues in Leeds.
  • Voluntary action Leeds had stacks of interviews with young people, exploring the issue of being a NEET (not in employment, education or training). They wanted a way to sift the text to look for common themes and also wondered if there was a way of detecting unknown Neets in existing demographic data.
  • The Young Foundation (who also co-sponsored the event) have recently set up a new project in Leeds gathering information around financial exclusion. The project, part of a broader range of projects Leeds are running, looks at the growth of loans, payday lenders etc. They wanted to surface data around the issue.

The rest of the evening was a kind of slow-speed-date where the volunteers in the room pitched themselves and their skills and where wooed by the charities. Eventually splitting into teams to get to work on the Saturday and Sunday.


Datakind are an interesting organisation and new one on me.  They are clearly very much at the altruistic end of the hackathon/datalab movement. Their founder is Jake Porway who used to work for the R&D lab at The New York Times (it seems you’re never far away from journalism!). He told Wired that he wanted more from the data boom that was happening around him: “the things that people would do with it seemed so frivolous — they would build apps to help them park their car or find a local bar. I just thought, ‘This is crazy, we need to do something more.'”

That more isn’t just the pro-bono aspect – free data scientists.  The Datakind people in the room are also there to pass on skills to the organisations.

It was great to see the charities getting excited about the possibilities of everything from simple tools like Wordle to more complex text analysis software and maps.

Sunday afternoon and it was time to show and tell.

The end results where a real mix of the complex – synthetic personality types for identifying the financially excluded – to simple infographics. But there was real impact in the data on the people in the room perhaps best exemplified by the debate and discussion that was generated by an extra mapping project that sprang up during the weekend.

They simply took the datasets each group were finding/generating and mapped them. Technically, not that much of a challenge (except for a tricky issue with local government boundaries) but the insights where immediate.


Where is the value.

When I spoke to representatives of the charities, there was a general feeling that data was important. They all recognise that the third-sector is fast becoming data-driven. But beyond the process of writing reports or bids, the real value of data was still to be explored and understood. It just feels important.

The complexities of the third-sector ecosystem don’t help when it comes to raising awareness of events like this though. Even when free help, and experience is on hand.

When I asked people about how they found themselves at the event, it revealed a complex web of umbrella groups, agencies and initiatives – understanding that would need a datadive in itself!  The organisers where similarly challenged; pulling the event together had proved a slower and more complicated process compared to their London datadives.

Good people. Good work.

After the ODI summit last year, I found myself reflecting on the difficult line there is between the power to do good and the power to do business that data provides and after the event I found myself chatting  through similar issues with Paul Connell, one of the founders of the ODI Leeds node. He was pragmatic about the challenges; balancing the urge to do good with the urge to create the new Uber. A tension that often makes hack events tricky spaces.  So, with my research hat on,  its tempting to start try and unpick the motivations of activities like this beyond the desire to give those people involved “the warm fuzzies” as Datakind put it on their homepage.

But the vibe at the Leeds Datadive event really did make it feel impervious to scepticism.  The results, rough round the edges as they were, felt ‘useful’.

As an example: One of the teams, analysing data around NEETS, looked at sanctions imposed on young jobseekers (the stop in benefits that’s imposed if you don’t tow the line with your employment service).  Sanctions vary, but you can get 4 weeks ‘ban’ for missing an appointment.  Mapping the data seemed to make a compelling point – the most sanctions were applied to people who live furthest away from the job centres. That peaked a fair bit of interest from journos in my feed (even on a Sunday morning).

Whether further analysis proves that or, more likely, reveals the finer detail, is moot. In a short space of time, simple but no less surprising truths about the experiences of people in Leeds were revealed.

DatakindUK hope this is going to be the first of many events outside of London and I’d make a point of tracking them down next time.

How can you spot a digital native? Check their little finger.

Apropos of nothing really, I got into an interesting chat with some of the third-year journalism students about how our use of social media would evolve. I wondered aloud about how the physical way we access information might change us.

Writing blisters Vs Phone rub .


I pointed to my middle finger as an example. I have, albeit smaller than it used to be, writing blister. The result of  pressing too hard on my pen through years of school. At it’s peak it was an ink-stained blog on the end of my finger.  Checking with colleagues, they all had the same. Different fingers, but the same rough patch.  How likely, I wondered, was it to have a writing blister today?

According to my students, and I asked the same question of the prospective students I spoke to today, not very. But what they do have is a rough patch of skin on the inside edge of their little finger. It’s caused by resting your phone on your finger when using it. Others reported flatter finger ends or callouses on the ends of their fingers and thumbs. But the rough little finger was the most common.

It got me thinking about shibboleths.  The ways we can distinguish between natives and those new to a culture and it’s landscape.  It’s been interesting to watch people quietly check their little finger and check whether they carry the mark.

Light the flaming torches and stand back: Are you a good leader of your social media mob?

I’m pulling together my yearly online journalism ethics lecture. It’s the fifth-ish lecture on this module (some previous ones online) and the fast-moving nature of this stuff means I’m really starting from scratch but I always go back to previous ones to see where my thinking was.

A prevailing theme for me has been how the ethical standard is set and who sets it. The online landscape clearly stretches moral and ethical concerns and the question for me has always been about how much of that we take on board, how much we take on the norms of the web, and how much is a more fundamental journalism ethic that we should stand by.

In questioning that in my lectures over the years, what I’ve noticed is that the tone of online journalism has changed. It’s divesting itself of some of the tradition and reveling in the norms of the medium. Ethics is on the move and the volume has gone up.

So this year my general starting point for the lecture is that outrage is the new journalism.

Outrage is nothing new for online journalism (and it’s not a new observation). Take comment sections on news sites. They are great examples of outrage creation – baiting readers with a story you know is going to get comments regardless of the tone of the comments.

Take this example from the Daily Express about the apparent calls to move a grave because of it’s proximity to a Muslim grave. Skip to the comments and revel in the outrage. By a strict reading of any rendering of a professional journalism ethic, it seems pretty hard to defend.

The argument about who is responsible for the comments on a site is well-worn. Comment systems work within resources and the law.  Despite efforts by some publications to curb offensive behavior, the idea that the publication or the journalist take any responsibility for eliciting these comments in the first place seems moot. Even if they are providing the target, the damage is done by those who pull the trigger – the people who comment.

This form of outrage creation is also now common in social media. A casual tweet or post –  ‘you won’t believe what this person just said’ – and a viral hit and loads of links later most walk away. But not everyone.

Increasingly I’m seeing a different form of outrage creation. It’s not the fire-and-forget of an article and it’s comments, it’s sustained, crowd-sourced, journalist as brand-outrage. It’s I’m outraged and I want you to share that outrage . Literally share it. Retweet, hashtag and join me in confronting the source of my outrage.

We can tell ourselves that this is simply engaging with an audience. This is the power of social media to right wrongs. It may be. But by another name it’s an angry mob. It may be hashtag shaped pitchforks and flaming torch apps but it’s a mob and it’s your influence (often affiliation with a recognisable journalism brand) and audience (a healthy follower count) that they gather round.

In the social media world its easy to see follower counts as a gauge of popularity. Like audience figures or circulation counts. It’s easy to forget that they are individuals with the capacity to reach out and touch. Perhaps that’s why it can take journalists by surprise when they turn on you.  Still, it can be deceptivly easy to distance yourself from the activities of your audience – they aren’t friends, You don’t follow them; a useful degree of separation.

So when someone posts something vile on social media or trolls another user using a link to your work or a hashtag you’ve promoted, its easy to fall back on the same rhetoric that’s used for commenting on web sites. You might make the ammunition but you don’t fire the gun.

What’s the difference? Is someone who goes on to troll a target of your outrage any less of a responsibility than a commenter on your website? Remember this is ethics not law.

I would argue that whilst the comments on a website help create and feed a mob (with all the issues that can create for a site) what you post on social media means you create and lead a mob.

Social media mobs have done some great things but ethically, are you doing the right thing by and with yours?


 – I know by citing the Daily Express I’m not doing myself any favours. It’s easy to write them, and the commentors, off as some kind of nutjob fringe. Sadly they are journalism. For the sake of this post the visibility and tone served a purpose. I’m sure that journalists from sites with more active moderation (and more generally agreeable politics) would testify to no less offensive and distressing material appearing on their virtual doorstep. 

 – I tried really hard not to push the gun/arms metaphor here but forced to I’d have to say that I don’t think journalists on social media are like gun or ammunition manufacturers, even though the logic of distance against blame makes for some very similar ethical positions. For what it’s worth I think a lot of journalistic use of social media is more like the activities of the National Rifle Association. 

When is data journalism not data journalism?

When it’s data driven journalism….

I’m doing lit-review at the moment (this might sound academic but it essentially consists of me yellow-highlighter-penning-the-feck out of papers and journal articles) and I came across a little loop in defining data journalism that got me thinking, thanks to Wikipedia.

Look at wikipedia’s definition for data journalism and you before you begin you’re told:

Not to be confused with Data driven journalism

Look at data driven journalism and you’re told:

Not to be confused with  Data journalism

Oh and don’t even think about confusing either of them for database journalism.

Reading the definitions there’s a hint of why. Data driven journalism is one process of the broader practice of  Data journalism. Data journalism reaches outside of journalism to encompass data science and designers.

Does that mean that I can say that if I come from the school of thought that wants to play down (or distance myself) from the idea that data journalism is about output – visualization – that I do data driven journalism? Does the difference speak to philosophical/professional position?

Just get on with it?

In one sense I don’t have a problem with the distinction – it makes a kind of sense. I’m also sure many others won’t, dismissing it with the weary sigh that prefixes  ‘what does it matter what we call it, lets just do it’. 

As an observation, I have to say it’s stuff like this that really needs nailing down if data journalism (or whatever you call it) wants to be left alone just to get on with it.

One of the research papers I’ve read (it’s a great paper btw) suggests, is that “at least part of what is considered as forming the contemporary trend of data journalism mainly operates in the realm of discourse”.  In other words the idea of data journalism is not fixed.

One reading of that is that its a developing field and in that there is bound to be an element of evolution (in the Darwinian sense). Look at the wikipedia page for Computer assisted reporting:

It has been suggested that this article be merged with Data driven journalism. (Discuss) Proposed since October 2011.

You could argue that conceptually (in the minds of those just doing it) this has already happened. The CAR page, like many others on Wikipedia, will serve as much as an archive for the term, reflecting that, at one point, it was considered coherent enough of a thing to warrant it’s own page.  USeful for me as an academic but redundant going forward.

But you could also read it as making it up as we go along – that’s not very precision is it.


Ebola Zombie image hoax: A useful reminder of the value of reverse image search

Update: This is an insanely popular post on my blog in terms of people searching for ebola zombie. Even if the picture wasn’t the thing that made you search for Ebola Zombie, I think I can say with some certainty that any report you’ve read of ebola zombies is false.  

I was casting an eye over my twitter feed today when I saw this from @TheMichaelMoran:

It links to an article with the headline “Ebola Victim Rises From The Dead In Africa, Fear Of Zombie Apocalypse”. It’s all kinds of wrong and, trust me, you don’t need to click through.  In fact if you happen to know the person who wrote it, for all kinds of reasons, they really should get (at the very least) a shouting at.

It’s staggering how powerful these linkbait engines are with shit like this. The social amplification alone on this means that I’m pretty sure that, want to or not, you’ll get a sense of this in your feeds at some point.

Of course, it’s been spotted by a number of people including, I discovered after a quick search,  Gawker who featured it in their Anrtiviral feature last week.

But…and I really must stop thinking about it because it’s very, very depressing…it serves as a useful exercise in image checking. which I’m sticking-up here as reference for students for two reasons.

The first, and it’s a bit of side issue, is to note the filename. In this case it’s third-ebola-victim-africa.jpg .  Yes.You can SEO your images!

The second is, as much as anything else of the usefulness of reverse image searching:

So the image:



Is actually a mashup of this, from (world war z)

and this mask, from make artist Jordu Schell at

And the easy way to find out…


  • Go to
  • Click the little camera icon
  • Use the URL:

You have to work a little harder with Google’s reverse image search. But it gets you there and it often has a little tidbit of something to start a trail when TinEye has no results.

Elite Media trolls, banter and journalism

The Guardian’s James Ball has an interesting , and suitably search-bait-headlined, comment on internet trolls that’s worth a read.  The last par is the kicker:

The transformative promise of the internet was that it would shift control of the media agenda away from an elite group of editors to the public as a whole. At the moment, we risk merely shifting from the agenda of elite editors to that of elite trolls. Surely we can do better than that.

If you want a definition of trolls then James has that covered too –

tiny groups of – let’s just say it – arseholes are swarming our cultural coverage

I agree that the idea that internet would move power from the media elite is being challenged. But I’m not sure that power is being shifted. I worry more that the media is shifting itself into the same space as the troll elite (in some cases taking on its behavior or, as James suggests, at the very least feeding it).

Social media is now the ‘audience’ as far as journalists day-to-day experiences are concerned. I think that’s why some struggle with trolls, especially the idea of ignoring them. They confuse trolls with the audience because in terms of a journalists perspective through social media, they are there audience.  It’s a vicious circle. Attention is attention.

I also look at my social media feeds and I see a lot of media, trolling media. I see journalists on some media sites taking swipes at other journos. I see articles that reference or can be traced back to ‘banter’ (I believe this is what we have to call it these days) on social media. Of course, the swipes are more often than not good natured and this is nothing new.   Hell, the Daily Mail is the biggest troll the BBC has ever had!  But the insular nature of the debate – fleet street/media gossip –  isn’t confined to the columnists  or the editorial section anymore. The elites/cliques and communities are more visible and vocal. In the same way that journalists might see social media as the audience do social media see that as journalism?

So as I look through my feed and follow stories like gamergate etc. I  finding myself asking, How much of that elite trolling is being done by elite media?

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that journalists create/welcome/deserve trolls. I know there is a difference between trolling and ‘banter’ and that ‘banter’ is a broad church that covers some pretty shitty behavior. Trolling is something that needs some serious and fundamental thought in newsrooms – its about feeling safe when you work.  But I think it might be a little too easy to see trolling/banter as an aberration or something necessarily separate.

I’m thinking about this a fair bit at the moment as I start the year’s teaching thinking about where social media fits into their journalism. James’ piece made me wonder that faced with a bunch of students who are active and established users of social media (where, take it from me,  the public ‘banter’ is pretty robust)  I should really be thinking about getting it the other way round: Where does journalism  fit into their social media? For many of them, that’s their experience of journalism as a consumer, it’s perhaps the first experience of many of the next generation of news consumers.

How we behave online as journalists just gets more complicated  the more we do it.  Interesting times.





Am I responsible for a shitty freelance market?

Yesterday I posted about using Medium as a platform for my second year students. In passing I mentioned that Contributoria also looked like a good bet. That led to a brief exchange with Sarah Hartley (editor at Contributoria) which also included Leeds Met uni lecturer Karl Hodge, about how the process of pitching to contributoria could be included in teaching.  That lead to this from freelancer @digitaldjeli (whose website on news from Africa and more  I can recommend btw.)

A fairly lengthy exchange followed which I found a bit frustrating and ill-tempered (I actually said ‘rude’ at the time). I’m sure digitaldjeli thought much the same of me.  But it was food for thought and I wanted to get down a couple of points down. (Yes, it’s my blog and I can ruminate if I want to)

Looking back, the conversation seemed to touch upon a few broad, interrelated points:

Journalism courses (encouraging students to pitch) skew the market  

I wasn’t sure who or what that original tweet was aimed at, so I asked digitaldjeli if it was the fact that it was students pitching:  

I’m not really sure that I like the distinction between students and journalists here.  I expect that mine are both. Or for that matter that all students are carefree with no responsibilities.  As to whether it’s courses like mine that are adding to the weight of the hammer I don’t know.

A brief look through of the figures suggests that there would be around 14-16,000 people studying journalism and information related degrees in the UK( a guesstimate based on figures from the OECD).  That’s not taking into consideration NCTJ type courses etc.  But let’s also factor into that the industry redundancies. Estimates put job losses in papers alone at the 8,000 mark (that was a few years ago). I’d say there were more journalists entering the market than students. But, being fair, across the industry as a whole,  that’s a lot of people that could be fighting to be heard in the freelance market.

All of which suggests a broader point I heard echoed in digitaldjeli’s tweets:

The freelance industry is a in a shitty state, please don’t make it worse

It’s easy to see how that point connects with the first – it can’t support the people already in the market so why flood it with more. In that respect I think it’s appropriate to question if offering the courses we do is unfair on everyone, including those students on a course who might expect to make a living; asking who is taking the risk. But taking the industry as a whole we aren’t great at being fair.

I can be generous and say it’s competitive. But the truth is that people will take whatever edge they can to get ahead; everything from dropping a name, leveraging a contact, citing past employers on bios or paying for a course.  Healthy competition is OK and the great thing about the web is that it means players like contributoria can explore ways to help broaden (and maybe flatten) the playing field. But plenty of people will exploit that. It’s as likely to be a dodgy internship as much as a training course that exploits or closes a door on broader opportunity.

I recognize that the compulsion to analyse the industry and its models to understand sustainability isn’t one that stops with the mainstream parts of the industry. Journalism education and training, in all its forms, is just as much part of that process and  it’s right that we should feel that pressure and be held to account.  The vast majority of people I know in the edu/training sphere care and worry very deeply about that.

I’m certainly not comfortable with the idea of us essentially ring fencing certain aspects of what is essentially an economy; barring one element to protect another. If we do that we have to get into the idea of what makes one lot a journalist and another not. (good luck with that but I really don’t care for the distinction). But maybe a shift in perspective doesn’t hurt.

Expectation or responsibility

It seems that the last 10-15 years of the journalism industry are defined by the concept of expectation. An expectation by some that life will continue, untroubled as it always has. An expectation that the web will make things better. An expectation that there should be special treatment or exceptions made.  I’ve always seen a big part of my job as managing and informing expectation so that people can make informed choices.  But one result of the conversation has been to get me thinking about responsibility. Where does my responsibility for this begin and end?

There doesn’t seem like there is going to be much settling down in the media landscape any time soon and it’s certainly not going to get flatter (or fairer). Asking how we can be more responsible in cultivating that landscape seems a more positive one than finding ways to deal with a set of increasingly conflicting expectations.