5 steps to turn you into a journalism coder (maybe)

I’ve been thinking alot about coding.  Staring at some code for an hour and then realising that it’s not working because you spelt slider wrong will do that!  So it was nice to see a piece on the Guardian website, Head of Cardiff J-school Richard Sambrook has been pondering the whole issue of journalism and coding.  It made me think about how I learnt to code and I wanted to share that with you.

But before that, a brief detour to Richard. He starts with a question:

Do journalists need to learn computer code? It’s a question which has raised passionate debate in the US – with typically polarised responses. As yet in the UK it elicits little more than bemused curiosity. But it’s an increasingly important question as media adapts to the volatile requirements of digital technology and changing consumer expectations

The comments on the piece are also worth a read. They have the usual range of view from “whatever they do it won’t be proper coding” through “it’s cheaper to get someone else to do it” and out the other side of “don’t journalists have enough to do”.

I’m not sure whether the bemused curiosity is aimed at the question or the US debate. I’m very much in the camp that raises an eyebrow at the debate.  There is no doubt the industry want it, as much as the industry want anything these days. As with data and social there are always going to be unicorns. But for me  talking about journalists and coding  is a moot point. It happens. Debating if it’s important seems to take time away from actually trying it.

Language

It strikes me (and I know I’m not alone in this) that this is a problem of language rather than utility or necessity.  Think about the debate that the phrase Citizen Journalism creates. (It’s OK I’ll wait while some of you stop shouting at the screen). Now imagine you call yourself a coder and then some journalist comes along and starts saying what they do is coding! That’s the debate.

The industry has co-opted coding as a shorthand for many, differing practices and we use it inconsistently (there is no ‘correct’ here) . Everything from a bit of HTML, using R to do data journalism and even doing a bit of hardware programming with your Raspberry Pi.   Like many other things (data journalism etc.) its a reason to talk about other, more fundamental issues facing the industry. Coding isn’t a thing anymore. It’s a trope.

Sambrook’s article is a great example of that.  Dig below the surface and he’s really aiming stuff towards a balance of the technical skills that are needed to get a more  ‘scientific’ type of perspective. That’s a nod to the ‘precision journalism’ school of thought, one echoed in a comment by Liz Hannaford (whose blog is worth a look b.t.w).

My 5 steps to becoming a coder (for what it’s worth)

What about these 5 steps then?

In an earlier post I shared the process I went through to create some archive picture mashups.  The last part was a little bit of code that made it possible to mix between the two.

<script src="//code.jquery.com/jquery-1.10.2.js"></script>
<script src="//code.jquery.com/ui/1.10.4/jquery-ui.js"></script>


 <div id="timemachine"> 
<h1> Andy's time machine </h1>
<p>Mix the old and new with Andy's time machine </p>

<div id="holder">
     <div id="new">
       <!-- don't worry about the weird img src here-->
       <!-- I'm using google drive to host the images-->
       <!-- Replace these with the images you want to use-->
       <!-- The modern image here -->
       <img src="http://drive.google.com/uc?export=view&id=0B1Gp8j4WdzDgc0duVnpzZU5sS28" />
     </div>
      <!-- The old image here. -->
     <div id ="old" class="overlay">
      <img src="http://drive.google.com/uc?export=view&id=0B1Gp8j4WdzDgX0RNX3E0a3JzazQ" />
     </div>
  
</div>

 <p>Move the slider to go back in time</p>

 <div id="slider"></div>

</div>
 

See the Pen An image before and after slider by Andy (@digitaldickinson) on CodePen.

Here’s how I learnt to do that in five easy steps.

  1. Load up Google
  2. Load up Codepen.io (a place to experiment with html and scripting).
  3. Load up Stackoverflow ( a place where people ask questions about coding,  html and scripting)
  4. Search and  cut-and-paste the fork out of stuff until it works.
  5. Share and let others see, learn from and critique what you’ve done.

Yes, I’ve been doing this a while so some of it has stuck and that helped speed up what I was searching for.  But along the way I learned how to do loads of things that I’ve now forgotten. It did the job and I moved on.

Getting a job done.

Ok. It’s semi-serious advice and I’m definitely not saying that coding is easy.  And in saying that I hope I’ve tempered any criticism that coders might imply from this post or any apparent perception that ‘I don’t get’ how busy journalists are. But the point for me is not that coding is any more or less useful than co-opting any process into your journalism process

The key is that you need to know what your journalism practice is.  After that you can see what fits and what doesn’t.  If the coding is too much then it’s about co-opting people in to the process.

Don’t learn ‘coding’ and look for a problem to solve.  Find a problem and then ask if a bit of code might help. If the problem is too big find someone who can help. 

That last part – engaging with people who could help is another good reason to dive-in, have a go and pick up a bit of the language. It’s like trying to learn a little bit of a foreign language for a holiday.  People who speak it often appreciate the effort.  Those who’ve invested some time learning this stuff like it when you make an effort to understand what they do – you know, a bit of journalistic empathy!

Whatever the motivation, on a very basic level I’d recommend giving coding a go. If you find yourself doing ( or really enjoying) lots of this stuff than actually learning a structured approach (like learning the piano rather than busking) will only enhance the process. But for me there is a really basic reason, if the right opportunity comes along. to have a go.  When you press run or refresh or whatever you’re doing to make it go it’s actually quite a buzz when it works.  There aren’t many things we make and do these days as part of our jobs that get such instant feedback.

Doing data in a journalism course

It’s a subject that isn’t going away and it’s also one that generate a huge amount of debate – data journalism. If ever there was a perfect hook to hang all of journalisms best and worst it’s data journalism! But a recent flurry of tweets and a nice ‘there’s no reason not to try this stuff’ post from Matt Waite focussed on one part of the debate – how should we be doing more of this in our j-courses and who should be doing it at.

It was something that Matt kicked off with a tweet:

Quite a few people pitched in (an assortment of tweets below):


There is an interesting point in there about adjunct courses – essentially but not exclusively online courses – which I think is fair. There’s no better way to  put journalists (and students) off than combining maths and computers!

As I said in my response, we do ‘data’ across all of our courses and I thought I’d share an example of the kind of intro practical stuff we are doing with first years (year one of three year degree). It’s done in the context of a broader intro to data and journalism and it’s developed and expanded throughout the three years (more so as we are shifting things around in the courses.) including a dedicated data journalism module.

My take at this stage is that data journalism is worth considering as part of a more structured approach to journalism. The students are no doubt fed up of my Process into content mantra.

Anyway. Two slideshows below are an intro – context lecture and the other is the related workshop. And, yes, I know there is a fair bit of visualization in there – charts and maps – which some data people can get quite sniffy about. We are careful to make the point that not all data is visual but I do think a visual output can be a quick win for capturing peoples interest. It’s just the start.

Again, these are just the slides, there is the usual amount of narrative and discussion that goes with this. They are presented as is:


 
Let me know what you think if you get a chance.

Creating Instafax style video on your ipad? Harder than you’d think

20140227-150324.jpg

Earlier in the week I wrote a post about making instafax style video using free stuff online. A few commentators, on and off the site, suggested that this would be the kind of thing you could do with your ipad.   So I thought I would take a look.

The short answer is: You’d think it would be easy. Actually it’s a bit of a pain.

The first step is finding a way to make the image/text side of things,

Making nice images.

I tried a few apps to see if I could get that combination of editing (cropping and image manipulation) and text that I got from Pixlr.

A neat solution to the image manipulation and cropping came from Aviary. Their app has a neat crop tool and the image manipulation/filter tools are nice to play with. But Aviary’s text tools are pretty limited. You can add text but it’s limited by size and is always center aligned. Not quite what I want.

I also had a look at the Instagram focused end of the market.  One app that I liked was AfterPhoto. It crops to a square ratio but the text tool is limited to one line at a time. What makes up for that limitation however is the ability to add ‘layers’ of text. Another option was Over. It shares a similar style of editing with Afterphoto but the text tools are pretty flexible. It’s not free though.

As it turned out Pixlr was also the solution to the problem on ipad as it was on the web, with it’s PixlrExpress app.  Square cropping, nice text and image manipulation Well done Autodesk! The only thing to remember with PixlrExpress is apply all your filters etc. before you add text!

Being positive about it, you could say that you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to image editing apps on the ipad. You could range around and cherry-pick the nice fonts and filters from a number of them.

Making the video

There are surprisingly few, useful, free apps for video editing on ipads. ‘But wait a minute Andy’ you cry. ‘What about  imovie’. Technically you could say that’s cheating anyway as it’s only free if you happen to own a swanky new ipad. The rest of us chumps paid for it! But it’s nice and swish.

Sadly it falls at the first hurdle. In Apple’s cuddly style it demands that any stills fill the screen and are animated to make them dynamic and interesting. Now I love a good Ken Burns effect as much as the next man but it’s not what we want here.

Another issues is that you can’t set the resolution of the video clip (you cant set a custom width and height) so any video produced would be cropped by instagram. iMovie Fail!

In terms of other video editing options, it’s slim pickings. There are a few  free video editor that I tried but most failed when it came to keeping the images in the right resolution.  Some did but watermarked the video. In one way that was less of a problem as instagram actually crops it out. But that’s not the most ethical or fair way to go.

The best solution I found was an app called Flipagram. A very neat app that will quickly build up a slideshow for you. It has the added bonus of allowing you to record your own narration. That could be a real plus-point for those looking to leverage the audio-slideshow style of narrative. The downside is that it does add a watermark.

And the result…

But what about adding video…

If you do want to mix video and images (and have both behave in terms of resolution) then, I’m afraid, you’re paying for an app.   Even if you pay, as I said before, it’s slim pickings.   The big problem, as far as recreating instafax goes, is that the text tools on most editing apps are risible.

If I had to recommend an app (and a workflow) it would be a combination of VideoCrop (free) and Pinnacle Studio.(£8.99). Use video crop to crop the video to the right format and then use Pinnacle to piece it together. Pinnacle respects the aspect ration of the video and images you use so any video you output should crop nicely in Instagram.  Be prepared to wrangle with the tools though (especially text and the mystical composite setting). It’s a steep learning curve.

Conclusions

So it is possible to recreate my original experiment on an iPad using free tools. But the process underlined for me that the assumption that your iPad/smartphone/tablet, is a multimedia power house is pretty wide of the mark.  Moving outside the TV box with video is a case of moving around apps. A combination of tools will get the job done but as with most things, money buys you flexibility.

That said, if image slideshows is your thing then the Pixlr/Flipagram combination is a winner in my books.

Let me know what you think.

Data journalism: Making it real

The following is an edited version of a chapter I contributed to  a new book Data Journalism: Mapping the Future, published  by Abramis academic publishing. The fact that I’m in it aside, I can heartily recommend it as a great mix of practical and contextual information. Go and buy one. Go on!

During the 2008 summer Olympics, the Beijing Air Track project took a team of photographers from Associated Press and used them to smuggle hand-held pollution sensors in to Beijing. Using their press access to the Olympic venues, they gathered pollution readings to test the Chinese government’s data that a series of extreme emergency measures put in place in the run-up to the games had improved the cities notoriously poor air quality. They were not the only organisation to use sensors in this way. The BBC’s Beijing office also used a hand-held sensor to test air pollution gathering data that appeared in a number of reports during the games.

beijing-air-quality-days-compared
AP’s interactive report visualised the level of air pollution

Clean air. Clean data
The Air Track project and AP’s interactive report  are now cited as a:

 “prime example of how sensors, data journalism, and old-fashioned, on-the-ground reporting can be combined to shine a new level of accountability on official reports”.

In contrast to the Chinese data, the level of transparency displayed in the way the data was collected vividly illustrates how sensors can play a part in reinforcing data journalism role in the process of accountability.

Testing the context, provenance and ownership – where our data comes from and why – is a fundamental part of the data journalism process. If we are not critical of the data we use (and those that provide it), perhaps becoming over-reliant on data press releases , we can risk undermining our credibility with data-churnalism or, worse still, data-porn! . As data journalism practice evolves, whilst the basic critical skills will remain fundamental, it would seem logical to explore ways that we reduce our dependency on other sources all together. The Beijing project, with its use of sensors, offers a compelling solution. As Javaun Moradi, product manager for NPR digital, succinctly put it:

“If stage 1 of data journalism was ‘find and scrape data.’, then stage 2 was ‘ask government agencies to release data’ in easy to use formats. Stage 3 is going to be ‘make your own data’”

Crowdsensing data
The three stages that Moradi identifies are not mutually exclusive. Many data journalism projects already include an element of gathering new data often done using traditional forms of crowdsourcing; questionnaires or polls. As much as involving the audience has its benefits, it is notoriously unpredictable and time-consuming. But as individuals we already make a huge amount of data. That isn’t just data about us collected by others through a swipe of a loyalty card or by submitting a tax return online. It’s also data we collect about ourselves and the world around us.

An increasing number of us strap sensors to ourselves that track our health and exercise and the “internet of things”  is creating a growing source of data from the buildings and objects around us. The sensors used by the AP team were specialist air pollution sensors that cost in excess of $400 – an expensive way for cash-strapped newsrooms to counter dodgy data.  Since 2008 however, the price has dropped and the growing availability of cheap computing devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino and the collaborative and open source ethic of the hacker and maker communities, have lowered the barriers to entry. Now sensors, and the crowd they attract, are a serious option for developing data driven reporting.

Hunting for (real) bugs with data
In 2013, New York braced itself for an invasion. Every 17 years a giant swarm of cicadas descend on the East Coast. The problem is that exactly when in the year the insects will appear is less predictable. The best indicator of the emergence of the mega-swarm (as many as a billion cicadas in a square mile) seems to be when the temperature eight inches below the ground reaches 64 degrees (18C). So when John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor for data news and journalism technology, met with news teams to look at ways to cover the story, he thought of the tinkering he had done with Arduino’s and Raspberry Pi’s . He thought of sensors.

Keefe could not find a source for the data that offered any level of local detail across the whole of New York. He took the problem of how to collect the data to a local hackathon, organised by the stations popular science show Radiolab, who helped create a “recipe” for an affordable, easy to make temperature sensor which listeners could build and send results back to a website  where they would map the information

Developing collaboration.
Whilst sensors play an enabling role in both examples, underpinning both the Beijing AirTrack and Cicada projects is the idea of collaboration. The Beijing project was originally developed by a team from the Spatial Information Lab at Columbia University. Combining the access of the media with the academic process and expertise of the lab gave the project a much bigger reach and authority. It’s a form of institutional collaboration that echoes in a small way in more recent projects such as The Guardian’s 2012’s Reading the riots. The Cicada project, on the other hand, offers an insight into a kind of community-driven collaboration that reflects the broader trend of online networks and the dynamic way groups form.

Safecast and the Fukushima nuclear crisis
On 9 March 2011, Joichi Ito was in Cambridge Massachusetts. He had travelled from Japan for an interview to become head of MIT’s prestigious Media Lab. The same day a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a devastating tsunami and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, starting the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Ito, like many others, turned to the web and social media to find out if family and friends were safe and gather as much information as he could about the risk from radiation

At the same time as Ito was searching for news about his family, US web developer Marcelino Alvarez was in Portland scouring the web for information about the possible impact of the radiation on the US’s west coast. He decided to channel his “paranoia” and within 72 hours his company had created RDTN.org, a website aggregating and mapping information about the level of radiation .

For Alvarez and Ito the hunt for information soon developed into an effort to source geiger counters to send to Japan. Within a week of the disaster, the two had been introduced and RDTN.org became part of project that would become Safecast.org. As demand outstripped supply, their efforts to buy geiger counters quickly transformed into a community driven effort to design and build cheap, accurate sensors that could deployed quickly to gather up to date information.

SIDENOTE: It will be interesting to see how the experiences of Beijing and Safecast could come together in the coverage of the 2020 Olympics in Japan

Solving problems: Useful data and Purposed conversations
Examples such as WNYC’s cicada project show how a strong base of community engagement can help enable data-driven projects. But the Safecast network was not planned, it grew

“from purposed conversations among friends to full time organization gradually over a period of time”

There was no news conference to decide the when and the how it would respond or attempt to target contributors. It was a complex, self-selecting, mix of different motivations and passions that coalesced into a coherent response to solve a problem. It’s a level of responsiveness and scale of coverage that news organisations would struggle to match on their own. In that context, Moradi believes that journalism has a different role to play:

Whether they know it or not, they do need an objective third party to validate their work and give it authenticity. News organisations are uniquely positioned to serve as ethical overseers, moderators between antagonistic parties, or facilitators of open public dialogue

Building bridges
Taking a position as a “bridge” between those with data and resources and the public who desperately want to understand the data and access it but need help  is a new reading of what many would recognise as a traditional part of journalism’s process and identity. The alignment of data journalism with the core principles of accountability and the purpose of investigative journalism, in particular, makes for a near perfect meeting point for the dynamic mix of like-minded hacks, academics and hackers, motivated not just by transparency and accountability. It also taps into a desire not just to highlight issues but begin to put in place solutions to problems. This mix of ideologies, as the WikiLeaks story shows , can be explosive but the output has proved invaluable in helping (re)establish the role of journalism in the digital space. Whether it is a catalyst to bring groups together, engage and amplify the work of others or a way, as Moradi puts it, to “advance the cause of journalism by means other than reporting” , sensor journalism seems to be an effective gateway to exploring these new opportunities

The digital divide
The rapid growth of data journalism has played a part in directing attention, and large sums of money, to projects that take abstract concepts like open government and make them tangible, relevant and useful to real live humans in our communities. It’s no surprise, then, that many of them take advantage of sensors and their associated communities to help build their resources. Innovative uses of smart phones, co-opting the internet of things or using crowd funded sensor project like the Air quality egg.  But a majority of the successful data projects funded by organisations such as the Knight Foundation, have outputs that are almost exclusively digital; apps or data dashboards. As much as they rely on the physical to gather data, the results remain resolutely trapped in the digital space.

As far back as 2009, the UK government’s Digital Britain report warned:

“We are at a tipping point in relation to the on-line world. It is moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without”

The solution to this digital divide is to focus on getting those who are not online connected. As positive as this is, it’s a predictably technological deterministic solution to the problem that critics say conflates digital inclusion with social inclusion . For journalism, and data journalism in particular, it raises an interesting challenge to claims of “combating information asymmetry” and increasing the data literacy of their readers on a mass scale .

Insight journalism: Journalism as data
In the same year as Digital Britain report appeared, the Bespoke project dived into the digital divide by exploring ways to create real objects that could act as interfaces to the online world. The project took residents from the Callon and Fishwick areas in Preston, Lancashire, recognised as some of the most deprived areas in the UK, and trained them as community journalists who contributed to a “hyperlocal” newspaper that was distributed round the estate. The paper also served as a way of collecting “data” for designers who developed digitally connected objects aimed at solving problems identified by the journalists. A process the team dubbed insight journalism .

Wayfinder at St Matthew's church (Image copyright Garry Cook)
Wayfinder at St Matthew’s church (Image copyright Garry Cook)

One example, the Wayfinder, was a digital display and a moving arrow which users could text to point to events happening in the local area.

Bespoke's Viewpoint Contour Homes' office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook
Bespoke’s Viewpoint Contour Homes’ office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook

Another, Viewpoint was a kiosk, placed in local shops that allowed users to vote on questions from other residents, the council and other interested parties. The questioner had to agree that they would act on the responses they got, a promise that was scrutinised by the journalists.

The idea was developed during the 2012 Unbox festival in India, when a group of designers and journalists applied the model of insight journalism to the issue of sexual harassment on the streets of New Delhi. The solution, built on reports and information gathered by journalists, was to build a device that would sit on top of one of the many telegraph poles that clutter the streets attracting thousands of birds. The designers created a bird table fitted with a bell. When a woman felt threatened or was subjected to unwanted attention she could use Twitter to “tweet” the nearest bird table and a bell would ring. The ringing bell would scatter any roosting birds giving a visible sign of a problem in the area. The solution was as poetic as it was practical, highlighting not just the impact of the physical but the power of journalism as data to help solve a problem.

Stage four: Make data real
Despite its successes sensor journalism is still a developing area and it is not yet clear if it will see any growth beyond the environmental issues that drive many of the examples presented here. Like data journalism, much of the discussion around the field focuses on the new opportunities it presents. These often intersect with equally nascent but seductive ideas such as drone journalism. More often than not, though, they bring the discussion back to the more familiar ground of the challenges of social media, managing communities and engagement.

As journalism follows the mechanisms of the institutions it is meant to hold to account into the digital space, it is perhaps a chance to think about how data journalism can move beyond simply building capacity within the industry, providing useful case studies. Perhaps it is a way to help journalism re-connect to the minority of those in society who, by choice or by circumstance, are left disconnected.

Thinking about ways to make the data we find and the data journalism we create physical, closes a loop on a process that starts with real people in the real world. It begins to raise important questions about what journalism’s role should be in not just capturing the problems and raising awareness but also creating solutions. In an industry struggling to re-connect, it maybe also starts to address the issue of solving the problem placing journalism back in the community and making it sustainable. Researchers reflecting on the Bespoke project noted that:

“elements of the journalism process put in place to inform the design process have continued to operate in the community and have proven to be more sustainable as an intervention than the designs themselves”

If stage three is to make our own data, perhaps it is time to start thinking about stage four of data journalism and make data real.

 Refs:

Alba, Davey (2013) Sensors: John Keefe and Matt Waite on the current possibilities, Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, 5 June. Available online at http://towcenter.org/blog/sensors-john-keefe-and-matt-waite-on-the-current-possibilities/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Alvarez, Marcelino (2011) 72 Hours from concept to launch: RDTN.org, Uncorked Words, 21 March. Available online at http://uncorkedstudios.com/2011/03/21/72-hours-from-concept-to-launch-rdtn-org/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Ashton, Kevin (2009) That “Internet of Things” thing, RFiD Journal 22 pp 97-114. Available online at http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?4986, accessed on 25 September, 2013
Department of Business Innovation and Skills (2009) Digital Britain: Final Report, Stationery Office
BBC (2008) In pictures: Beijing pollution-watch, BBC News website, 24 August. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/front_page/6934955.stm, accessed on 12 August 2013
Blum-Ross, Alicia, Mills, John, Egglestone, Paul and Frohlich, David (2013) Community media and design: Insight journalism as a method for innovation, Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 14, No 3, 1 September pp 171-192
Bradshaw, Paul. and Brightwell, Andy. (2012) Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: Help me Investigate: A case study, Siapera, Eugenia and Veglis, Andreas (eds) The Handbook of Global Online Journalism, London: John Wiley & Sons pp 253-271
Ellison, Sarah (2011) The man who spilled the secrets, Vanity Fair, February. Available online at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/02/the-guardian-201102 , accessed on 13 September 2013
Gray, Jonathan, Chambers, Lucy and Bounegru, Liliana (2012) The Data Journalism Handbook. O’Reilly. Free version available online at http://datajournalismhandbook.org/
Howard, Alex (2013) Sensoring the news, O’Reilly Radar, 22 March. Available at http://radar.oreilly.com/2013/03/sensor-journalism-data-journalism.html, accessed on 12 August 2013
Kalin, Sari (2012) Connection central. MIT news magazine, 21 August. Available at http://www.technologyreview.com/article/428739/connection-central/, accessed on 22nd August 2013
Knight, Megan (2013) Data journalism: A preliminary analysis of form and content. A paper delivered to the International Association for Media and Communication Research, 25-29 June, Dublin
Livingstone, Sonia and Lunt, Peter (2013) Ofcom’s plans to promote “participation”, but whose and in what? LSE Media Policy Project, 27 February. Available online at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mediapolicyproject/2013/02/27/ofcoms-plans-to-promote-participation-but-whose-and-in-what/, accessed on 23 September 2013
Moradi, Javaun (2011) What do open sensor networks mean for journalism?, Javaun’s Ramblings, 16 December 16. Available online at http://javaunmoradi.com/blog/2011/12/16/what-do-open-sensor-networks-mean-for-journalism/#sthash.yXXlHoa2.dpuf, accessed on 9 August 2013
Oliver, Laura (2010) UK government’s open data plans will benefit local and national journalists, Journalism.co.uk, 1 June. Available online at http://www.journalism.co.uk/news/uk-government-039-s-open-data-plans-will-benefit-local-and-national-journalists/s2/a538929/, accessed on 12 August 2013
Rogers, Simon. (2011) Facts are Sacred: The Power of Data (Guardian shorts), Cambridge, UK: Guardian Books
Safecast History (no date) Safecast.com. Available online at http://blog.safecast.org/history/, accessed on 25 September 2013
Sopher, Christopher (2013) How can we harness data and information for the health of communities?, Knight Foundation, 16 August. Available online at https://www.newschallenge.org/challenge/healthdata/brief.html accessed on 10 September 2013.
Taylor, Nick, Marshall, Justin, Blum-Ross, Alicia., Mills, John, Rogers, Jon, Egglestone, Paul, Frohlich, David M., Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick (2012) Viewpoint: Empowering Communities with Situated Voting Devices, Proc. CHI 2012 pp 1361-1370, New York: ACM (don’t understand this reference)
Taylor, Nick, Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick and Cheverst, Kieth (2013) Leaving the wild: lessons from community technology handovers. in CHI ’13 (don’t understand this reference)
Waite, Matt. (2013) How sensor journalism can help us create data, improve our storytelling, Poynter.org. 17 April. Available online at http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/digital-strategies/210558/how-sensor-journalism-can-help-us-create-data-improve-our-storytelling/, accessed on 28 August 2013

Educating the competition out of journalism

Over the last month my department has had a number of accreditation visits. Two of the training councils that, in the UK at least, inspect, accredit and generally rubber stamp what we do, the BJTC and the NCTJ,  have both been in looking at our courses. Thanks to a lot of hard work by colleagues all of our courses get the seal of approval. Hurray!

Both visits included a lengthy session of questions for the course team around the why and how of what we do. For the most part, they are always useful and constructive; lots of things to reflect on and change to keep improving what we do. But sitting through the process raised a bit of a point to ponder for me.

Given the relative focus of each of the accrediting bodies (Broadcast for the BJTC and print for the NCTJ) it was interesting that both asked about the public facing provision and 24/7 nature of our output. The question really amounting to ‘do you have a 24/7 public facing news operation?’

Opportunity

Learning by doing is something that we pride ourselves (and something we are told to do more of) on but when we learn we make mistakes and mistakes in journalism, in public, can be a learning experience. It has real impact on people and, well let’s be frank, it can cost money – not one of the learning outcomes of our course the last time I looked! So we try to give as many public facing opportunities as we can but often keep what we do, though with no less of demand that the stories are real and newsworthy, internal.

Within the university world there are also opportunities for people to engage in other media – student newspapers and media have always been traditional stomping grounds for our students. But as a division, apart from the usual advice and support for those working on stories, we don’t have any involvement in the paper. It’s (rightly so in my view) a student union publication and independent from us.

More recently we have also come under pressure to make what we do more entrepreneurial. Making students aware of the opportunities of social media and how they can use things like blogs etc. to promote themselves and reach a niche is, I think part of that.  We’ve seen that work (and all credit to the students here) in things like blog preston, the preston messenger and more.  The burgeoning hyperlocal/local media market could and should be a rich vein for students to explore and develop their carrear chances.

Just because we can…

So when I hear the question about 24/7 news operations here is what I ponder – should we really be doing that?

  • Should we as a public funded body (unless the government really get the claws out) plonk ourselves in to that landscape and risk flattening or at the very least skewing the local media economy? Even a relatively small journalism school represents an effective staff far in excess of most local newsrooms.
  • If we make it self-sustaining and sell ads (and measure success in a business like way encouraging that business focus many say we lack) then don’t we simply add more weight to that flattening effect? If I added our marketing and business courses to the mix of numbers….

What I’m also pondering is why organisations that claim to represent the interests of media organisations are also advocating that education organisations do that. Yes, on the face of it students will gain experience (although I don’t see that it’s the only or best way to do it) but at what costs to the organisations or media landscape the students are looking to work in?

Having sat in many a room listening to regional and local news orgs bemoan the impact the BBC has on competition, it feels like a very strange day when I sit in a room and hear more than one regional news editor advocating the setting up of direct competition.

Diagnosing the noble disease – how we treat journalism in the 21st century.

peri

This is the original script to a short presentation I gave University of Northampton’s ‘Imagine Journalism in Ten Years’ Time‘ mini-conference chaired by Kevin Marsh,  and organised by John Mair. Other speakers included: Professor Jay RosenMatt Andrews who has his talk here ;Teodora Beleaga, who has her slides here, and Judith Townend who has put her slides and talk online. The talk is a development of one I gave last year at last years Nordic media festival and an ethics lecture I gave a few weeks ago. (which I may put up here soon)

Journalism education is at an inflection point. The mix of disruption in the journalism industry and in the education market has created a growing movement demanding a radical rethink of the what, how and who of journalism education. This paper takes the position that this also calls for a rethink of the way we frame journalism when considering how we might react to this changing environment. It rejects the idea of journalism as a profession in favour of the idea of journalism as a diagnosis.

In thinking about where journalism is going to be in ten years or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about big toes. I want to take the next 10 minutes or so to tell you why.

A few years ago now we actually got some people from industry in a room and asked them what the journalist of 2015 would look like. The first thing they said was quarter-past-eight was a more realistic goal. Twenty-five past eight is still not quick enough.

Here are some of the things the identified:

  • Technology and practice
  • Design principles.
  • Content management and online publishing
  • Storytelling and the impact of new mediums
  • Multimedia – video, audio, photography and image manipulation
  • Web technologies
  • Social networking and Web 2.0/3.0
  • Semantic web and what that means for journalists – Tagging, Geotagging
  • Search engines and their impact on content creation
  • Budgeting, business practice and legislation
  • Developing entrepreneurial skills
  • Building a personal brand
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Identifying, developing and pitching an idea for a multi platform project
  • Building Networks and Managing Relationships
  • The editorial, legal and ethical challenges of developing and managing UGC
  • Managing a complex multi-platform production

Thinking about what I teach, this is pretty much how things break down:

  • Social media
  • Curation (real time curation) –
  • Data Journalism – big data. Transparency vs accountability.
  • Community
  • Multi-platform – the impact of community and persistence
  • Innovation
  • Entrepreneurship

Much of that could be dissmissed as overly practical – lots of digital toys. But I just want to point out how much conversation they generate around law, ethics and personal and professionalism identity. This is not just playing on the web!

To try and some that up in to the kind of person we want to produce – the journalists of that future we are talking about today will be 

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

Given where I am and who is the room I think it’s valid to take a little detour from what we teach to How we teach.

Like the journalism industry, education has been disrupted by new technology (and no small amount of political and social disruption too).

Howard Finberg one of the directors at the  American Poynter institute told an audience at the European Journalism Centre that Journalism education is at its own inflection point. He sees one possible response to this as 

 the unbundling of a journalism education from a journalism degree. Think about the unbundling of news and information from the traditional mass media delivery methods, such as a newspaper or television broadcast.

He questions who we care about the most in journalism education claiming that making about the faculty the center of the decision making process is a recipe for what Eric Newton at the Knight Foundation refers to this as a “symphony of slowness.

There is an element of the Utopian in a lot of the rhetoric around this idea; the idea that the internet will solve the problem; it will make information accessible to everyone. But there is also more than a good deal of commercial concern, often unspoken; can we make money?

One of the unbundling projects at Poynter’s News U (one that Finberg cites) charges $65 for their introduction to journalism module but (as of yesterday) it’s only available to registered students at Florida state.

In one sense might not seem so revolutionary when it’s not quite as unbundled as the ideal would have it – it’s more an extra to the Florida degree bundle. But the level of student engagement tells a story about the way that people want to learn as much as the state of the industry in general tells us about the way people want to consume news.

So, like the journalism industry, the education industry looks to change the way we do things.

Clearly that’s as much about the way we teach as what we teach.

For the progressives, looking to the Internet enabled mass teaching movement, that’s as much about understanding that we need to engage with more than our students. We need to open up and engage with the community around us. Now I bet that does sound familiar to the industry people in the room…

A popular peg for this is the teaching hospital analogy. The idea of learning by doing is not new in journalism – education or industry. But the importance of community engagement comes idea comes from a heavy commitment to the Civic and participatory Journalism movements: It can’t just be an issue of practicing on the community it has to be practicing with them.

Digital as well as media literacy often go hand in hand in civic journalism.  Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation’s president and CEO commented on the importance of this (as he said thanks for a whopping great grant to help facilitate it):

“In the 21st century, successful communities will be those who can best connect with each other and the world using digital media. ”

The connection between what often gets called Media literacy and democracy is one that journalism has never been afraid to co-opt in to the formulation of its own identity the fourth estate. In that sense I suppose we could also say media literacy has never been too far removed from discussions of media ethics  – You need to understand what and how journalism works to be properly critical of it. A challenge for journalism at the best of times let alone, at least in the UK, in this post-Leveson world. 

So the idea is that we (journalism education) should educate people to the way we do things (essentially the practical stuff) in journalism as well as equip them to understand the way what we do affects their world is not just a key part of us surviving the disruption but a key part of sustaining democracy.

Enabling a plurality of voices is something that is meant to be part of what we do in journalism. But what is being suggested here is that we are also about aiming people to do it without us – to fill the gaps. It should be part of journalism educations job to enable the bottom-up corrective for the mostly top-down perspectives of the news media.’ Gans (2003:103).

This perspective inevitably gives rise to the idea of citizen journalism – trust me, it does!
And in that conversation about the way we teach this new cohort of semi-journalists to be media literate (how gloriously pompous is that!), draws our attention to the elephant in the room : Who we should be teaching?

So, as much as the journalist of the future may well be:

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

 they may also be someone:

…who doesn’t work for a media organisation.

Perhaps we could call it unbundling journalism from the media.

At the very least its about finding a different way to talk about it that isn’t bundled so heavily with the institutions of journalism and journalism education. That’s why I like to think about the idea that journalism is a diagnosis not a profession

To finish, let me make sense of the big toe reference. I want to talk about gout.

Gout is a disease that’s typified by an inflamed, red, very painful big toe. It’s been referred to as a noble disease. One respect a noble disease is one that comes with no stigma – like cancer but unlike mental illness say. But in the case of gout, noble means: distinguished by rank or title.

It’s been called the patrician malady – “Historically seen as a disease afflicting upper-class males of superior wit, genius, and creativity” The The Oxford Illustrated Companion To Medicine notes that the Roman poets suffered a lot from Gout and notes that there was an effort to frame it as a noble disease whose sufferers could trace their family line back to Ulysses (Odysseus) the legendary Greek king of Ithaca. You know, the big poem.

The truth is it’s called that because you often get it from a rich and privileged diet – over eating and too much rich wine.  It’s confusing noble with privileged and trying to spin the negatives.

In some ways I think we have come to think of Journalism as a noble disease. You’re special if you have it. Second only to “kings and poets”.

Of course anyone can catch gout just as, in my view, anyone can catch journalism. Maybe we are guilty of building up a structure that simply sustains a romantic view of  what has essentially become an industrial disease.

When we talk about the future of journalism it’s clear we need to think about journalism differently. The core concepts of democracy and social responsibility are coming to the fore and in a practical and collaborative way that goes beyond simply claiming them as defining parts of a professional ethic – they are symptoms.

Clearly many people think that it’s the job of education to break out of the sanatorium business and help those who have caught it to manage the condition in a way that is beneficial to them and society. In that sense  trying to understand the future of journalism is an exercise in epidemiology rather than forensic pathology.

Notes:

As seductive as the teaching hospital model may be I don’t think it quite holds up in respect to its community service remit beyond filling a media hole.

When questioned about an apparent contradiction in the idea of caring about the people you work with in a community – something I talked about in developing the broad themes I teach, I made the point about the difference between the care and commitment an individual journalist makes to a person or audience vs a media organisation, both different in their own way, For me the model of the individual, socially responsible journalist is the more robust in the future. The institutional social responsibility of the media organisations (you get what we think is best for you) is, for me, one of the key factors in msm’s engagement problems.

You have no idea how long I have been searching for diseases to use as an analogy. I think gout works well but maybe the fact that I looked so long says that the whole endevour may not be worth the effort.Sorry for those who have had to sit through me trying it out and  I’d love to know your thoughts on the whole thing.

Image from Wikicommons and officialpsds

Pages of pages: Journalists and (self)promotion

promotion
Shouting about yourself on Wikipedia is not big or clever (Photo credit: Platform4)

I’ve been putting together some basic social media workshops to get my returning students back in to the swing of things. One of the areas I looked at was using social media (and social networks) as a base from which to promote themselves and their content.

Most of the stuff around this tends to settle on the old favorites – Twitter and Facebook. Recent banter also pulls in Reddit (Don’t know why. Anybody would think the President of the United states used it or something). But it was whilst pondering the idea of personal and professional identity that I found myself thinking of Wikipedia.

Multiple pages

Making a distinction between your personal and professional life online is key as a journalist. Platforms like Facebook make that easy – you can have more than one profile. You can also create a little public place for your ‘journo identity’ in the shape of a Facebook page.  A great way to gather and promote content under your chosen ‘brand’.

You can also set up a page on Google+. Now I know that there isn’t very much love for Google+ but hey, if there is a chance to get some of your information in to the biggest search engine in the world, why not!

Connect them all together with something whizzy like if this then that and you have a veritable multichannel-brandgasm of content.

Wikipedia

Of course the grandaddy of all sites with pages about people and things is Wikipedia. So it occurred to me that  a page about ‘journo you’ on Wikipedia might be an interesting thing to have.

The general feeling (when I did a quick twitter-pop) was ‘don’t do it’

@ because 1) it is against site terms and 2) you’ll look like an egotistical fool if you get caught.
@currybet
Martin Belam

But the whole T&C’s thing was a a bit grey.

@ If the subject of page definitely meets WP's notability guidelines, asking an existing member to create a page is allowed.
@JonathanDeamer
Jonathan Deamer

And not everyone thought it was a problem.

@ - if wikipedia is truly a content-neutral platform then so long as the content is true and the individual 'notable', why not?
@simonjgray
simon gray
@ I think if it for transparency re their journalism and what they bring to it, fair enough. If just self-promotion then crass
@BrunelJourSarah
Prof Sarah Niblock

But there was also some good advice for career progression.

@ but they should probably create one for their boss 😉
@paulbradshaw
Paul Bradshaw

So in general the advice was to avoid it:

  • It’s against the terms and conditions (as well as the spirit) of Wikipedia
  • It’s a bit sad

I can say from a quick tootle round Wikipedia it hasn’t stopped some from trying (the history tab in Wikipedia is great)

 Know who you are

I’d be interested in what people think about the whole wikipedia thing. But in general the exercise has just underlined a few things for me:

  • If you don’t know who you are why should your audience – having a clear idea in your head of the kind of content/journalist you want people to see online is key.
  • Be consistent – people will find you in the oddest places so make sure you as consistent a message across as much as you can control
  • Control is not the same as hiding stuff – The ability to control your profiles is not a reason to make stuff up or hide things just as transparency is not a requirement to lay your whole life bare.

 

 

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Ivory tower dispatch: RSS is like twitter.

Like others in J-school I’m getting to know new classes, spending a bit of time talking about the ‘gathering’ part of journalism and how digital tools can help. So yesterday I bullied my class of postgrads through, among other things, RSS and Google reader.

When I raised the topic, one of the class commented that “it’s just like twitter”

I initially disagreed, talking about the differences of simply gathering, organising and filtering content and actually interacting with people.  But I’ve had a little time to reflect and, do you know, I don’t think that’s a bad way to think about RSS at all.

Twitter is about building a network of people who you can engage with and (positively) use. A network that is big enough not only to give what you want but also what you thought you didn’t need. The serendipity of twitter is one of its charms.

RSS is a lot like that but with websites and not people. The bigger your ‘network’ of websites, the more chance you’ll find something of interest.

For journalists a lot of the motivations for using the tool are the same: network building; time managment etc.

Points of reference

When I introduced Reader, a few people in the room had heard of it (and used it); Most had not. That’s always a surprise to me, but not a criticism of the students. The early days of new classes are always an interesting reality check for me. My world (geeky and riven through with online as it is) is not always the real world! So it’s nice when something gives you pause to reflect.

It made me think a little more about points of reference. I’ve worked through a chronology of this stuff. Started using Reader before twitter and felt the transition in passive to active engagement as the web has developed. That makes sense to me. But a lot of people in the room have come the other way. Facebook and twitter are their point of entry and reference.

Maybe that shows that digital/online journalism is really maturing now (or maybe just my view). Like many other things it’s now as important to look back at how this stuff has developed as it is simply to use it. Even if that ‘history’ is only five or six years young!

Update Kate, the one who suggested RSS is like twitter, reminded me that I should quote my sources.

@ Aren't you supposed to attribute quotations? 😉 *cough* itwasme *cough*
@Kate_S_Mercer
Katie Siobhán Mercer

Daily mail student media awards?

Yeah, wouldn’t happen. But should it?

The always interesting Wannabehacks posted yesterday stating that The industry isn’t doing enough to support student journalists. The post really should have been titled The Guardian isn’t doing enough to support student journalists as it takes a pop at the frankly risible prize the Guardian is offering for its Guardian student media award:

[T]he quality of prizes has diminished year on year: “Seven weeks of placement with expenses paid (offered 2003-2006) is a good way to spend the summer. Two weeks of self-funded work experience is an insult to supposedly the best student journalists in Britain.”

It’s a fair point. Just how good you have to be to actually be paid to work at the Guardian?

Maybe we are being unfair to the Guardian though. Why do they need to carry this stuff? I know plenty of students who don’t want to work for the Guardian. So why don’t more papers step up? If it’s about spotting talent then shouldn’t every media org have a media award?

Truth is there is a bit of black hole out there when it comes to awards. Aspiring journos could be forgiven for thinking that there is very little on offer between that letter writing competition the local paper runs for schoolkids and the Guardian awards. There are actually quite a few – the NUS student awards for example. But none with the direct association of the Guardian awards.

But maybe it’s not about the award. The wannabe hacks post (and the letter it references) suggests that there is more a problem of expectation here.

The Guardian is a very attractive proposition to many aspiring journos. In a lot of respects it plays on that strength; it presents itself as a like the paper where things are happening. But there is a danger that things like competitions exploit that aspiration and begin to suggest a slightly dysfunctional relationship – aspiring journos trying their best to please the indifferent and aloof object of their affection.

Show them the money.

This isn’t just a print problem. The truth is the industry has a bit of problem of putting its money where it’s mouth is when it comes to student journos.

As an academic I see more offers of valuable experience than paid opportunities in my inbox. They tend to coincide with large events where industry doesn’t have the manpower to match their plans for coverage. In that sense there is no secret here, the industry is living beyond its means and it’s increasingly relying on low and no paid input to keep newsrooms running. But student journo’s bear the brunt of that. Yes, they get experience, but not much else.

No return on investment

Of course the flip-side to that argument is that many of those who enter the competitions would happily benefit from the association but don’t put back in. I wonder how many people who enter the Guardian student media awards have regularly bought the paper rather than accessing the (free) website?  You could argue the same when talking about work experience. How many students actually buy the product they aspire to work on?

But the reality is that, regardless of how much is put in, if you court an audience, you have to live up to their expectations – unreasonable or otherwise.

This is happening at a time when those same newsrooms are reporting on the commercial realities of education and how students need to demand value from their investment. As someone trying to respond to those expectations, perhaps I can offer some advice.  Perhaps the industry need to reflect on their advice to prospective students the next time they reach out or connect with student journalists.  Just how much are you expecting them to invest in your newsroom and what’s the return?