Beware the digital native.

Here is a little quote to start the post.

“If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly.”

Responding to the general discussion about who is working the digital news vein, Pat Thornton has posted another take on the problems with management pointing out that Management should reflect demographics (AKA management can’t be just a bunch of old white guys)

The only way to expand into new demographics (mostly younger) is to have people in those demographics in management and actively consult younger staffers about what they want. No more guessing.

Honestly, how else are newspapers going to expand their audience if they don’t have people they are trying to court making decisions?

It’s a good post and I have swapped a couple of comments with Pat about the problems I have with his point. OK, I say problems. In the main, there isn’t a lot to disagree with. News organisations don’t look like the community they serve and that is a problem. Who could argue with that?

The transparency that digital platforms create means that people look directly at us and if they don’t recognise what is looking back then they leave. That’s tied directly to the thorny issue of diversity in the newsroom.

Can you only (afford to) be a journalist if you are a privately educated graduate with the resources to take the salary hit? Why are there not more black and female journalists and managers and influencers in our news organisations? All serious and systemic problems to chew over and try to resolve.

But I don’t think this is the nub of what Pat is saying and what he finds frustrating. This isn’t about diversity, it’s about innovation.

Young and smart or old and predictable?

In the main he seems to be suggesting that only young people (30 – 40) are really innovating online citing the creators of Amazon and Google as examples of young ‘Web titans’. Lets have more of them in decision making positions:

Let’s say you have 10 top editors. At least one should be a digital native. How many newspapers can honestly say that?

Can’t argue with that. Some bright people, young or not, wouldn’t go a miss. But I do have a problem with the term Digital Native. Why?  There is no such thing as a digital native. And it’s dangerous to assume there is.

The natives are restless

In the past it’s been easy to see the move of the mainstream media to the web as some kind of land rush. Hell, I’ve even referred to the move in negative terms as a form of Rachmanism. The logic would follow that there was an indigenous people or sitting tenant of the web that was somehow deposed. Now that would be a digital native.

Of course the logic doesn’t follow. Yes, there where early pioneers – even a founder – but no incumbent population

So what is this digital native thing all about? Who are digital natives?

According to the alleged inventor of the phrase Marc Prensky:

They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past.

He was using this in an academic framework talking about the need to embrace new technology in teaching as kids do in life. Of course the big flaw in this is that in journalism, as in education, not all kids/young people are fluent in that way especially when it comes to J-students. As Mark Comerford points out.

My j-students are often rigidly locked in to an analogue vision of the industry, see print as their future and do not easily understand the principals of conversation contra lecturing that many of us propagate as the (only) future for journalism. The have some degree of technical knowledge (though that is often over-estimated) but no great conceptual grasp of the shift from analogue to digital.

And the diverse, dynamic and fast changing nature of that conceptual change means that the landscape is too fluid to sustain any long standing definition that could sustain anyone being called a native.

Going native

So what we need to talk about here are not digital natives but people who have gone native (or better still the enthisiastic adoptor that Sarah Hartley talks about.) Picking up on Pat’s theme, I want to see enthusiastic adoptors of any age get a chance to change the way things are done and make newsrooms look more like the community they serve.  It is essential that we get more of that diversity that is so vital both commercially and socially.

But I don’t want a tribe of digital natives springing up creating digital divides – old/young, get it/don’t  – because rather than having the keys to the digital kingdom, all that the attitude really tells me is that they have gone really native. And when that comes with claims that having more of them is just what you need to get the job done…

‘Ten divisions of those men’ might sound tempting but that was a quote from Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.

Perhaps the best example of what can happen if you go too native

Top quality student websites

Mark S. Luckie over at 10,000 words has posted his top ‘best of the best’ student media websites from the US.

The winner for him is the Alligator from Florida U.

The Alligator is hands down the best online student newspaper and rivals the pros in its news coverage and use of multimedia elements. Just listing the stellar components that make up the site warrant its own individual post.

You can’t disagree. It’s a great site. But do read the article and take a look at the six other sites he recommends.

Its a great list and it offers plenty of food for thought. Here in the UK the structures for students journalism can be a whole lot different. At my university for example the student paper, Pluto, is run through the students union. Though students from journalism courses are involved the department maintains a distance from the publication – kind of church and state. So we tend to run smaller newsday style websites as part of class exercises

I’ve been developing the use of CMS‘ withing my courses for the last 4 years and this year all of the second years have been blogging as part of their assignments, the momentum is building for better and better online content.

The structures of courses and the university can often feel restrictive but technology seems to want to jump over them. When I see stuff like the Alligator I get excited and jealous (in a positive way) about what you can achieve.

Roll on next year.

The story is dead. Long live the story

What's the story

Image by Kaptain Kobold

What’s the story?

It’s a common question in journalism. But like so many things is the ‘story’ about to go?

Kevin Marsh has been pondering (and his pondering is worth noting) how his ‘announcement’ of the death of the story is coming back to bite him. It started in and article he wrote for the UKPG where he pondered on the way digital had made stories infinite:

Indeed, the idea of “the story” becomes meaningless – a learning-challenge-and-a-half when “the story” has been journalists’ major currency

Eek. If Kevin says the story is dead then obviously people will listen – and they have. And so in his blog post, Kevin is pretty bullish about the death of the story.

At one level – we journalists can’t escape the story as the unit of currency if for no other reason than one thing follows another and the conscious bit of the brain works in a linear fashion. At the same time, it’s also got to be our job – surely – to understand our audience’s need to navigate around our narratives and, crucially, to navigate back to our narratives when they themselves become the context, history and background for the next stor

Now, I couldn’t be happier that someone with clout is talking this way. I’ve been bashing my head against this one for a while. But I wouldn’t be so quick to ditch the ‘story’.

Article not story

As Kevin rightly says, what we know as a story in journalistic terms has ‘served us well’. But do we really mean story or are we really talking about an article or a package. Perhaps we need to take story back for what it is – the story – and not a description of the unit of publication.

The story of ‘Watergate,Thalidomide, the Iraq deception’ is not in the (admittedly Pulitzer prize winning) articles or reports. Its in the issues, lives and dynamic of the events. The journalism is a snapshot.

I’m talking a lot about the difference between a story and an article with my students at the moment. The first years, for example, are working in groups to cover a story. Between them they have to find a story and then decide what angle or issue each is going to cover in an article. I’m encouraging them to immerse themselves in the story, get inside it before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

In the same way I hate giving word counts, I hate to think that they are simply fitting a story in to a deadline. As Marsh says in his UKPG article:

The thing is, “the story” is defined by an output deadline: “What can we find out and illustrate in the time we’ve got left?” There never was anything special about that particular iteration of those facts and that illustration, though we became very good at creating the illusion that there was.

Everyone has a story to tell

Getting everyone to see that illusion – the journalists new clothes – is a daunting task and perhaps an pointless one. It’s also worth noting the importance of deadlines. But in maybe the positive here is that in recognizing that the story is more than the article we write, it might encourage the media to engage more with those who are part of it – those in the community with stories to tell – earlier in the storytelling process.

Whatever kills you makes me stronger

A great line from Alexandre Gamela thinking about Lisa Williams’ Ten Things Journalists Should Know About Surviving In a High-Tech Industry post:

[F]iring journalists doesn’t lead to an increase in newspaper competitivity, it just increases the number of competitors, since a single journalist can create it’s own media, and shadow the company who fired him.

A good point and one that a lot of people should and are embracing

My first reaction was to also wholeheartedly agree with his point of clarification that journalism is not a hi-tech industry.

[T]he problem with journalism nowadays is that uses a technology that is accessible to the rest of the people

But on reflection I may need a bit of pursuading

User friendly

One of the problems with a lot of hi-tech is that it’s hard to use and seems to be have made by people who have no idea of how the rest of us use things. I often ask myself if the people who make software actually use the stuff. In that sense the journalism industry has a similar problem – it is apart. Journalists are somehow different from the ‘rest of the people’ who use this ‘technology’.

When I’m talking to students about the web I often allude to the idea of poacher turned gamekeeper. As a consumer, there are a number of great things about the web and some pretty crappy things and its a good idea to try and hold on to that when you cross over to become a publisher. But often they don’t.

But it seems pretty clear that keeping the connection between what you consume and what you produce is vital to staying in the game.

Word counts are so dead tree

I’m slowly getting back in to the blogging vibe as we approach the end of term – not there yet but on the home straight. The students are getting in to their assignments which include a number of stories for online.

I’ve found that over the last few days, as the students work through their assignments, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions along the lines of “what should a word count be for my online articles”. Reflecting on this I understand it’s a reasonable question but I’ve found it a frustrating one.

My reply has been that word counts are for essays, dead trees and lazy people.

Now, let me just say that I don’t think that any of the students who ask that question are lazy or stupid (or a dead tree!). The thing that frustrates me is that it seems to me an old media way of quantifying the value, weight or merit of an article – 150 words = NIB. 2000 words = feature etc.

On the web, unique in its capacity for breadth and depth, word counts should surely be a redundant measure of an article. Perhaps you can make sure your intro is a content management stripping, mobile/twitter friendly 140 characters, or your headline is less than 35 to fit the design.

Whatever the motivation it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a measure of when you have done enough.

And that’s the risk with quantifying things in education; setting time limits and word counts. Suddenly people become slavish to them.

Structure better than blue sky?

I raise it as I’ve just read Mindy’s post on quantifiable benchmarks for j-education:

Quit saying, “They need to learn how to be entrepreneurial,” and give me a measurable result. Then I can teach them — not to do only that one thing, but to employ the skills it requires.

And I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes feel that asking for entrepreneurial skills is bit like admitting the industry doesn’t have them. And never will. But you see a conflict here.

On the one hand I crave structure. Like Mindy I don’t want to teach entrepreneurial skills. I want to nurture and encourage them. But often that structure can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Of course, the reality is that structure helps quantify progress. We can’t all go around just doing our own thing if we, the industry (and the students) demand a measure of competency*. So I’m glad that Mindy raised the question and I know the results will help redefine what we do.

Anything is better than being slave to old media convention.

Later: Amy Gahran responds to Mindy

*on that note. Would an academically acceptable measure of entrepreneurial skills be the student realised they could create a start up that would crush the local media outfit and then did it?

Video training: Avoid the training rollercoaster

the training rollercoaster

Stress and time are reduced if training has a long tail

Life seems very busy at the moment, busy good, but busy none the less so slow posting I’m afraid (no cheering at the back).

One of the busy things I did last week was spend a day(ish) with a group of editors from UK newspaper group Trinity Mirror. TM are really ramping up their online presence at the moment. Their hyperlocal sites in particular are picking up a lot of notice in the UK.

Anyway, as part of that digital thing the editors where doing a course called  ‘Creating Effective content’ and I had them for a session that fell under the broad heading of ‘multimedia’.

I spent a good part of the morning showing them Windows Movie Maker. Not because it’s what they use –  they have a mix of things – or what I think they should use,  but because it’s such a quick and user friendly way to illustrate the process. Within half-an-hour they where happily plugging away at creating a picture slideshow.

This is one of the most instantly popular things I do. The genuine excitement that comes back at just how easy it all is is very nice to see. Suddenly this multimedia stuff is not so hard and if video is part of the plan, perhaps it doesn’t look so out of reach. Baby steps

But I’m not telling you this to relive the warm fluffy feeling.

That evening the eds went out and used N95’s to shoot some interviews with the public about the way they consume sports news. They came back the next day with a brief to put together a kind of multimedia ‘report’.

What I noticed as I flitted round the room was that the flush of excitement they had with the technology had lost a little of its shine. As they battled with the limits of movie maker, for some, the frustrations and fears came back.

The training rollercoaster

I see the same thing with my students and the practical training I deliver. A basic overview of a bit of software or kit can give people enough of a taste to get them fired up. But give them a project to go out and try it and the fear factor is ramped up again. Of course the value is in using the experience of that first project and incorporate that in to follow up training. The stress can be very quickly reduced and people move much faster. We all know that’s how we learn – guided experience.

But it’s surprising how much training in the new digital skills forgets that last bit. A lot of the time it deals with it in a FOFO way – You’ve had your training now F*** off and find out yourself.

So if you are thinking about the training for your journos ( and no, there is no other way to get it right other than training) here are a few things to think about:

  • Define and test your workflow
    Training isn’t an opportunity to define a working process. Get someone who knows what they are doing to make sure your workflow is fit for purpose. It doesn’t need to be tested to breaking point. Most importantly make sure that it is as consistent as it can be across all centers in your org.  Training isn’t fault finding.

I’ll mea culpa here. When showed WMM to the TM eds a I completely missed a problem with the MP4 video that the N95’s produced – not directly compatible. So I needed to source a bit of software to sort it out*. An easy solution but introducing the new software shifted things back in to feeling ‘technical’

  • Get kit in place
    Many orgs still buy in training before all of the centers have kit in place. Ideally they should be taking their kit to the training. Yes, skills will be transferable – you can busk your way round most cameras having used one – but there is a level of confidence gained in knowing you are working with the same kit you will use day in, day out.
  • Split your training in to two parts:
    The first part should be quick, directed and aimed at confidence building – simple, directed examples. Avoid letting the training simply be about serving the workflow. Remember this isn’t the chance to define things. It should end with a definite project to work on. The second part should be based on a review of the project. More specific skills can be introduced. This stops that first ‘hump’ of stress from being too steep a mountain to climb.
  • Build in mutual support
    Support the training with an online component – a blog or forum. Keep the forum private for delegates only. The forum should be moderated by the trainer or by a qualified member of staff who can answer questions quickly but more importantly push information and ideas out. Better still, if you are all under one roof, assign mentors or buddies (I hate that word but you know what I mean). If you’re the boss, maybe even spring for coffee for them so that they can meet once in a while.
  • Permission to fail.
    A long with the idea of playtime (think of it like googles 20% time), permission to fail is a really important concept in training terms for me. I hear a lot of talk of editors demanding content from people the day after a course – no pressure – and of course it hardly ever works out. The school of hard knocks is a romantic throwback. It is not a good model for encouraging staff in what may already be a sensitive working environment.

Feedback always welcome.

*A neat little bit of windows shareware called WM Converter

Digital Editors Forum

News of the second Digital Editors Forum:

 The next meeting of the Digital Editors’ Network will focus on maximising the potential of sport on media websites and tips for search engine optimisation.

Robert Hardie, managing editor of Northcliffe Digital Integrated Media, will kick off the discussion about online sports coverage with an update on his group’s strategy of developing websites for major football and rugby clubs covered by its titles.

Websites such as for Derby County fans (getting 2million pages impressions a month) and for Leicester City sit alongside local newspaper sites and will form part of a national network of sports sites aimed at providing a greater appeal to online fans and more advertising opportunities.

Simon Wharton, managing director of PushON Ltd, will initiate a discussion on how media websites can best use search engine optimisation.

He will use his experience in running an award winning online marketing agency in Manchester to reflect on ways to gain an advantage in the increasingly competitive battle for online audiences.

The Digital Editors’ Network meeting will take place at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston on Jan 29th from 12.30pm when a buffet lunch will be provided. The meeting will get underway from 1pm and will be attended by members of staff from the journalism department and website managers from across the media industry.

Places are likely to be limited so please email Nick Turner, head of digital content at CN Group at to book a place and get full event details.
More information on the network at:

The Digital Editors’ Network meeting coincides with an evening event at UCLan which is hosting a discussion on sports journalism in the digital age. The panel will be chaired by Charlie Lambert, of the BBC.

More details at:

The quality debate: Journalism Vs Journalists

Mark Hamilton has been pondering the video quality debate.

Commenting on Howard Owens’ ‘1 hour video’ view he saw the value of a competitive approach but:

I’m still tryng to reconcile his argument about better journalism with his earlier insistence that there’s no ROI on video that takes longer than an hour to shoot and edit. In his argument for quality storytelling, something doesn’t connect.

A comment from Howard produced a longer response, quoting Howard, to clarify his point and question whether that approach would “leave us with video not as connective, attractive, entertaining storytelling, but as commodity.” And in turn that would impact on the quality of journalism.

Illustrating a solution

Earlier in the week Mark had commented on my post about illustrative video, wondering about the application.  And as an aside I’ve been reflecting on the idea that, perhaps, seeing video in that way, as part of a broader reporting process (and maybe by necessity following ,at least in the early implementation, the 1 hour rule) is the way to reconcile the story Vs. commodity idea.

If that ‘1 hour’ video is running along with a well researched ‘print’ story then the storytelling is not compromised. You get a better ROI on that because it isn’t your only investment in time and you still get usable text content (the core of journalism business)

But that’s an aside. (And a bit of Mea Culpa follows).

Don’t forget the journalist

I strayed perilously close to being a bit of a troll this week as I got in to a comment discussion with Zac Echola over a post he made defending/expanding Howard’s view. I though Zach was missing a point with his take on lazy journalists not getting it.

His view:

While intangibles like “reputation” and “preferred source” and “best” are nice for marketing yourself to clients or possible new readers, they’re not as valuable in the long tail market.

Now he may be right, but things like “reputation” and “preferred source” and “best” are concepts that journalists have been defining themselves with for a long time. And the point I made was that unless that kind of thinking was factored in to change and development the you would lose/devalue/demotivate the most valuable commodity of all in that thinking – the journalist.

With that in mind I find myself sharing some of Mark’s concern. Not because I think Howard’s (or Zach) view is anti-journalism. Far from it. It’s more because both sides of the debate touch heavily on the core defining elements of journalism but neither have satisfactory answers for those who question what will result.

Does someone still have to be a journalist

In the abstract the disruptive approach may seem to devalue the process of journalism – squash it, commodify it and reduce it the pounds and pence. On the other side the quality approach could be accused of hiding a way of doing journalism that, for all but the biggest, is not economically sustainable. Journalism for the sake of journalism in the face of an obvious commercial reality.

So let’s be blunt. The way this debate keeps raising a question for me. Can we really keep framing this debate in terms of journalism vs business. Or do we accept that the debate isn’t really about journalism It’s about journalists and what it will mean to be a journalist. What the job and meaning of that role will be and how that will set them apart from what they do.

If we substitute journalist for journalism, then are asking; Can there be two kinds of journalist out there? Can there be, as the debate would have, it ‘quality’ journalists and ‘disruptive’ journalists?

That would be stupid, wouldn’t it?

Meld Online

Meld is on day 3 and the delegates have been working hard on their pitches. Matt Marsh spent the day with them refining personnas. Hard work but there are some great results.

I’ve been milling around with a various cameras capturing bits and pieces. You can see more on the Meld blog.

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