Just gimme the facts, ma’am

The last post I wrote about open lines of communication prompted a few comments (thanks all) including a well-reasoned argument from James Goffin that, sometimes, people just wanted the facts. Not interaction, not contribution, just… to know clearly and concisely what was going on. You can find more at his newspaper blog.

And I started to post a reply, James, but it got so long I’ve ended up lifting it out as a standalone post; I hope you don’t mind.
See, I am convinced to the point of being mildly obsessive that open journalism is a vital part of our future.
And I know, when I suggest we should operate wiki principles in our newsgathering and story-presenting, that not everyone out there will want to get involved. Some will indeed just want the facts.
However, the opportunities we can now offer those who do want to interact are now so great that surely we have to take every advantage of them? Even if it occasionally blows up in our faces like this.

I’d be willing to bet a large proportion of people (our potential if not existing audience) do want to be more involved with news-making – it’s just that they have little opportunity other than through online commenting, or by ringing the newsdesk to get barked at by someone who equates rudeness with importance.
For many, a newspaper must be a completely unfamiliar and impenetrable institution, possibly to be contacted in extremis, when other avenues have been exhausted. If they’re really unlucky they might even have blundered into a newspaper’s online forums and been put off for life.

Newspaper journalists who blog about their subjects have a great platform for interaction but not everyone uses it as a way of conversation yet, although I think that will change pretty quickly.
We don’t dispute that crowdsourcing is journalism, involving multiple contributors. It means that instead of a reporter setting out with a fixed idea of where the story will go, contributors take control. It can also mean a story becomes something very different to what the newsdesk originally thought it would be – and that’s a good thing, I think.

I understand the point James makes when he says “I just want someone I trust to tell me what is going on” – many people who ring a newsdesk phone are essentially saying that. But the whole issue of trust is a tricky one.
How do we trust someone? I’d guess it’s by establishing a relationship with them.
Do journalists on your average regional daily have that kind of relationship now?
I’d say not.

We need to be more open, invite collaboration, and earn trust. Existing readers probably do have a fair degree of trust and faith in their local paper but the competition is now so great, and the options for audience to go elsewhere so varied, that we need to be making far greater efforts to connect and set out our stall.
And why should someone trust us? Because we’re journalists? Nope, not going to happen. But if what we do is open, visible and open to comment and questioning, and if they are involved, then the dynamic starts to change. It’s hard to argue with the success of Spot.us, and I’m excited to see where Help Me Investigate goes.

Anyway, enough. Melanie Sill, of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, says it better than me:

Good journalism should speak for itself, but that only works if people are reading or listening.

We have to have an audience for what we do; the best way to build that audience is to offer people the chance to get involved, and produce great journalism they want to read. Otherwise, we’re writing for our newsdesks…

How open are your lines of communication?

And yea, it is written that when four or more editorial execs are gathered together to forward plan the coverage of an impending Happening, one among them will, at some point, spake thusly: “We should do a liveblog”.
And everyone else nods while secretly wishing they had suggested it, and the suggestee gains immense Multimedia Kudos and envy points.

Of course, ‘we should do a liveblog’ is just one of the options when playing Multimedia Newsroom Bingo. Other popular phrases include “Can we make a Dipity timeline”, “What about a SurveyMonkey” (it’s always ‘a’ SurveyMonkey – I love that) , “We could do some (ie. any) video” and that old favourite, “Get some comments off the forum” (ie. is there a workie who can translate all that textspeak into English?).

To be fair, I’m as happy to talk to the talk as the next meeting-attendee but there are times when it seems these meeting-friendly web 2.0 phrases disguise a deeper issue.
Because at the end of the day Dipity, liveblogs, surveys et al still come down to newsrooms trying to control what the story is. It’s not quite one-way traffic but a contraflow is most definitely in operation and we’re the ones in charge of the signals.
What we are really saying is this:

“Want to know the background to this story? Here’s our Dipity timeline” (featuring our rss feeds and images)

“Want to take part and get involved? Join our liveblog” (and we’ll pre-moderate comments, determine and set the polls and decide when it opens and closes)

Such an approach is massively counter-productive. Yes you might have a Googlemap on your website but will you allow your readers to contribute to it? If not, why not? Suppose you did allow anyone to edit and it backfired – would you risk such a venture again? Or is it a case of once bitten, twice shy?
And another starter for 10: Do you select the ‘anyone can edit this’ option when using Dipity? If you do, then you’re creating an opportunity for collaboration. If not, why not?

These are, I think, important questions we newspaper-types need to ask ourselves not just once but repeatedly. Otherwise, even when we tell ourselves we’re trying new ways to communicate, ultimately we’re still dictating how news is presented and served up.
We may not necessarily control what happens to it next on other sites but on our own, it’s pretty much ours to dictate.

But, look, the tradition model (write content, publish content in paper, sell shedload of newspapers), is gone. The current model of write content, upload some content, publish all content in print, is built on compromise and uncertainty. So where do we go from here? I don’t have the answer but I think it might look something like:

Ask people/publish
Expand on what people tell us…
PUBLISH WHAT IS KNOWN allowing anyone to keep asking/adding to content
Conclude findings in print…
… and keep asking and listening because what you end up with may be completely different to the idea you started with

For me what makes a website sticky are the developments in a topic I care about. I go back to take part, see what others are saying, how things have changed, to comment and expand. I don’t go back to watch a video of someone talking about a plan for a new housing estate.
I would dearly love to see the traditional newspaper website format replaced with something more akin to wikis and blogs. To have open-ended news gathering and reporting (where we don’t close down the comment option after a week whether people have finished talking about it or not), and to have newsrooms embrace an approach where collaboration and partnerships are seen as opportunities.

Joanna Geary’s latest blog post struck a chord with me when she said “I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves“.
Too many times we try to finish a story, we present it as a neat package with a beginning, middle and end, and present it to the reader with a flourish. We follow up of course, and we may start a forum thread, or publish readers letters – increasingly reporters blog about their stories too, once they have written them.

But it’s not enough. I’d love reporters to spend a week where none of their stories were featured in the newspaper – they would only be able to get their information out online, via a blog, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, a wiki – hell, they could even arrange a meeting at a local cafe and talk to people – anything but the printed page. I think it would be an eye-opener for everyone involved.
The way we currently operate – and I mean our wetware, not a company’s hardware – inhibits our ability to share information and our thinking. That, in turn, inhibits our ability to grow audience, reach, reputation and, by extension, revenue. We’re bright people; we can be better than this.

The end may be nigh but you don’t have to keep telling me…

Chris Brogan is an online social media star who has given me much to think about over the past 18 months or so that I’ve followed him on Twitter, and subscribed to his blog.
If you don’t, I recommend it – it’s here. And his latest post is so good I couldn’t resist sharing a few (there are many more on this blog) of the points here:

* Stories are points in time, but won’t end at publication. (Edits, updates, extensions are next.)

* Curators and editors rule, and creators aren’t necessarily on staff.

* Media cannot stick to one form. Text, photos, video, music, audio, animation, etc are a flow.

* Everything must have collaborative opportunities. If I write about a restaurant, you should have wikified access to add to the article directly.

* Advertising cannot be the primary method of revenue.

Good isn’t it? Makes me think and – more importantly- fires me up to want to achieve things. Which is why his blog remains in my feed reader at a time when I’m having something of a cull.
I was reviewing it recently when I realised that every third feed was talking, in varying tones ranging from glee to sad resignation about the death of the newspaper industry. And it also dawned on me that I could join in on the chorus of what was being written because I’d read it elsewhere, several times before.

Well you know what? I’m over it. In fact, I have a new rule: If you want to hand-wring about the state of the news industry on my time, you also need to have some interesting ideas about the future.
Because if you don’t – if you want to blog, tweet or podcast away about doomy, gloomy End of Days-type scenarios, then frankly I’m not interested any more. You see, you’re not giving me anything new to think about – you’re retreading old ground and you’re boring me.

So I’ve had a clear out of my feeds, ditching some long-followed blogs that I noticed were repeating the same tired old messages six different ways. I’m very interested in what people have to say about the future of news – whether they think the newspaper industry has a future or not – but I’m just not engaged by people wanting to drone on about, for example, the Journalists bad, Bloggers good debate.

Now, the paywall/subscription/free issue, now, I am interested in, and I change my mind about where I stand with almost every post I read. I’m also enjoying opions on the wary circling of the BBC and the major media companies, and UGC is another area I find exciting – there are so many talented people out there and we should be partnering up with them and attempting to share information and knowledge, not ignoring them.

Too often, I suspect eyes roll in newsrooms when a tweet is cited as a potential news source. As Chris Brogan says in his post “Collaboration rules. Why should I pick the next cover? Why should my picture of the car crash be the best?”

Just why are Flickr’s online communities so good?

I’ve been agonising over how newspapers can build successful online communities in a couple recent posts, notably here. And while I don’t want to drone on, I’m returning to the subject as I forgot about one flourishing website/newspaper/audience collaboration that’s doing just fine, thanks very much.

The Liverpool Daily Post’s Flickr 08 group was set up by the Post & Echo’s digital editor, David Higgerson, before he was spirited away to do Great Things at a strategic level, and he handed the responsibility to me… which is why I’ve started noticing just what an amazing place it is.

The Flickr group is everything you could want from an online community: Interesting; informative; collaborative; encouraging; supportive; constructively critical; self-policing – I could go on but you get the picture. (Sorry! couldn’t resist that one…)

So why does this group exist so amicably when other online spaces can be waspish, unhappy or downright mean places to visit?
Certainly shared interest is a major factor – these are people who love photography, love the photographic opportunities presented by the North West and love sharing their work with others.
Football fan networks tend to have the same sort of mutual desire to broadly get along, but footie followers seem more likely to fire off a snarling ripostes to a post they disagree with.
On Flickr the comments tend to be either praise or requests for technical information. I’ve noticed the same thing on interest-specific channels like this one on YouTube.

I think the fact that the Flickr community as a whole is so keen to interact with each other is something to be considered too; for example, many admins visit other groups, spotting shots they think are exceptional and requesting permission to add them. I love the fact that various awards are given out on Flickr for excellent work, and that users are generous with feedback and advice.

The discussion threads are also great opportunities for focused and supportive debates. On the Daily Post group a single post asking whether there should be an upload limit became a useful debate about the issue, culminating in a decision. I got the impression from reading the thread that members felt some users were uploading more images than strictly necessary, but it was all ‘no names, no pack drill’.
If that had been a similar debate on a newspaper forum I suspect it would have been derailed by arguments by the third post.

So maybe one of the keys to running a successful newspaper general interest forum is to not run a forum… it’s to run several. Most papers will already have football forums – should we now extend that niche approach to news? Poltical forums, crime forums, social issues, health – pick a topic, seed it with stories and links and see if people want to discuss it.

If debates do begin there’s no reason why a moderator shouldn’t post something along the lines of ‘Nice point, X, I think there’s more information about it through this link… what do others think?’ It just shows that the debate is being monitored by someone who has half-an-eye on people’s conduct, and who recognises valuable and interesting comments.

If one of the topic-specific forums doesn’t flourish then maybe it’s being done better by someone else, somewhere else. And I believe that with Web 2.0 it’s a real case of ‘if you can’t beat’em, join ’em’ – reporters should get involved with the debate where people are talking and link back while posting comments there.
That’s when a forum starts to become a useful network. And that, I think, is why Flickr is so successful.

Fair comment

Finding intelligent, reasoned reader comments on newspapers’ online sites can sometimes feel like a Snark hunt.
I’ve noted my thoughts on why newspapers can fail to encourage a flourishing online forum community before, and had some interesting feedback both here and via Twitter and Plurk.
Personally I don’t believe newspapers forums will ever succeed unless time and real effort is set aside for looking after them; too often they degenerate into name-calling, adverts or conversations between two posters that would make more sense conducted via instant messenger.
But I also don’t believe it is beyond the wit of newspaperkind to host intelligent, interesting and relevant forums for debate and comment – we just have to care enough that they succeed, rather than chalking them down as a ‘must-have’ on our online checklist.
So, having followed a Twitter link from Paul Bradshaw to Derek Powazek’s blog post on 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments I have some new thoughts to mull over.
Some of what he says chimes with what Mark Commerford suggested to me (regarding forums and the ability for users to flag comments which they perceive to be good or bad) and I’m also intrigued by his suggestion to scrap anonymity. All in all, lots to consider…

Networks and Journalism

It’s six months this week since I started spreading myself over the internet’s social sites in an attempt to shift my analogue brain up a gear.
I came home from a TM Leaders course last January shocked by my ignorance of Web 2.0 opportunities, and determined to do something about it. It started as a mild Twitter habit and has become an all pervading part of my life; one that has had an incredibly positive effect on my ability to do my job.

Contacts on my networks point me – either intentionally or as part of wider community sharing – at blog posts, sites, information streams and applications I would never have found out about on my own. I made a powerpoint recently and e-Grommet suggested I try it out on Slideshare, which I’d heard of but never used. As a result of joining that, and sharing information about myself and my interests, I found a real wealth of knowledge, including this great presentation about how how to understand the post Web 2.0 world which states, very neatly, the importance of networks.

Online networks, for me, offer a glimmer of hope for the survival of mainstream journalists – if we are just prepared to get out, get involved and share. These sites are the best way of reaching a worldwide network of experts and commentators (blogs, vlogs, podcasts, homepages), disgrunted whistle-blowers (forums, blogs) and potential readers. They let us market ourselves, our surveys and our stories, crowdsource, make eye-contact with people and ask them a question (I love Seesmic for this).

I was reading Adam Tinsworth’s One Man and His Blog this week for his take on how the media gets the whole ‘community’ thing wrong. It’s a great post and I’ve bookmarked it because I know I’ll want to re-read it – and share it.

I find our little locked-off world deeply frustrating. Mainstream journalism is like a hunter-gatherer hugging all the food to itself and dispensing it grudgingly, then expecting everyone else to share during the lean times.
And the sad thing is, it’s not deliberate. There aren’t many journalists who make a concientous decision to closet themselves away and be spoon-fed stories; they just wind up in this situation because there is no time. There’s no time to experiment, learn or even explore things online.

I’m always checking my networks at work; it isn’t a question of not having that enough to do – I’m always juggling myriad deadline-orientated tasks. What I do is snatch moments to visit networks and see what experts are discussing, what links they have found that might help me, and what is going on in the world beyond the enclosing walls of my office – and my own head.

So, six months in and I’m still learning, still getting things wrong, still loving this whole social media thing. I’ve made good friends, new contacts, had amazing, interesting conversations with people on the other side of the world whom I will never meet face-to-face, and whose support and feedback I value.

Journalism is a huge part of my life and it pains me to fall out with it but right now so many people in journalism are nodding at the right places while secretly wishing the interet would just go away. I don’t know where our industry is heading but I know that ultimately it will have to be a vastly different beast – leaner, wiser and (whisper it) a bit more respectful to social networks.