Training the crowd as journalists

In the Philippines, the ABS-CBN TV network has been training citizens – 1,000 in the first recent class, 700 in the next – to report on the upcoming election there. They call it the Boto Mo iPatrol and count 15,000 members. Their curriculum:

They will orient the “patrollers” on the fundamentals of citizen journalism—from shooting pictures or videos using cell phones or cameras, to writing captions and telling a story, to uploading their reports to the Internet. They will also be briefed on the electoral process and the ethics of journalism.

I’ve argued that training is going to be a key role for the professional journalists and news organizations as they learn to collaborate with and empower communities to report on themselves. ABS-CBN News is doing that, gaining thousands of new witness-reporters in a story too large for any news staff to cover alone and adding value to their coverage, including verification.

Even fake news isn’t safe

The Onion’s CEO Orders More Pandering to Advertisers

The Onion is hurting badly. To survive, the publication must cave to advertisers, CEO Steve Hannah has declared in a memo to staff, which we’ve obtained and reproduced after the jump.

You may recall that the multimedia humor juggernaut killed two of its local print editions in May. The move came amid a “very rough first half of the year,” as Hannah puts it in his memo, and a total of $6 million in cost reductions.

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How a Metafilter member caused the New York Times to pull down altered photos

new york times martinAdam Gurno does not have any particular expertise in photography or digitally altering photos, other than the fact that he has several kids and occaisionally uploads their pictures onto his computer. But when the Minnesota computer programmer was perusing through a photo slideshow at the New York Times’ website, one of the images caught his eye. Gurno has been a member of the Metafilter community since 2005, and yesterday during his lunch break he followed a link from there to the slideshow shot by Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins. The photographer had taken photographs around the United States of abandoned construction projects left unfinished because of the housing and securities market collapse.

“I was on a lunch break and I was paging through it, and I really liked it,” Gurno told me in a phone interview. “And then I was looking at the shot with just the framing, the half done house, a shot from the inside. And right at the top there was this tiny bit of wood, and it sort of set off a little internal alarm. We built our house a few years ago and I’ve seen houses being built, and I have a good idea of what a frame looks like … The angle on it seemed a bit unreal and it kind of made me say, ‘I don’t know, I think these are kind of fake.’ I kind of got the feeling it was. So I posted about it on Metafilter.”

Specifically, he wrote, “I call bullshit on this not being photoshopped,” a phrase he said he later regretted because it was so widely quoted. Gurno then went back to his day job work, but the entire episode continued to bother him, and he felt that he needed to provide more evidence. So he took the photo, split it right down the middle, and used Adobe to overlay the two halves together. Just as he suspected, the two shots were identical.

Essentially, the photographer had taken half a shot of the house and then mirrored it to make it look as if he had taken a shot of the entire frame. To try to cover up his work, he added in some features to try to mask the fact that both sides were basically the same.

“Then someone [on Metafilter] said, ‘hey, someone should send this to the New York Times,’ and I actually had that idea so I went to the New York Times and went to the contact page and emailed the public editor and I think the web editor,” he said. “I wrote something like, ‘I found this photo essay, and I looked at this picture and I think it’s been manipulated,’ and I think that’s all I said. I got the standard form response, saying, ‘thanks for contacting us, yada, yada, yada, we always read the stuff submitted.’ And then I went back to work, and in the evening I took care of my kids, had dinner with my wife, and went to bed. When I woke up I found that the New York Times had pulled it down, and a bunch of other sites started linking to it, and it sort of really blew up when I was gone.”

new york times photo

So what does this say about the web community’s ability to essentially act as a fact checker for mainstream media stories?

“When you do computer programing there’s an old maxim that to 10,000 eyes all bugs are shallow,” he replied. “It’s an open source thing. What it means is that if you have a lot of people looking at it they’ll find all the bugs in your program, and I think the same goes for this. If I wouldn’t have found it then someone else would have found it … and I think in this case I was the lucky one.”

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5 Ideas to Transform Newspaper Sites

I sometimes wonder whether we are held captive by old school thinking. At our newspapers at Mediafin, we are in the process of integrating web operations with the print publication, a move which I fully endorse. There’s one major risk to this: that we might end up seeing the web as just another way to distribute newspaper articles rather than a radically new opportunity.

People who have spent years writing for print newspapers could easily fall victim to the horseless carriage syndrome — the belief that they can continue to apply the same thinking that they applied to an old technology to a new, fundamentally different one. At the turn of the century, many saw the automobile as a new variation on the horse-and-carriage, not realizing that the car was in many ways very different. Just as cars are fundamentally different from horseless carriages, or cinema is fundamentally different from theater, the web is fundamentally different from newspapers.

We have only begun to perceive those fundamental differences, like the streaming and social character of the web. Thus, many newspapers are still looking at the web in old print terms — and not using their websites as anything more than a place to post the exact same material that they put in print. We should at least try to think out of the newspaper box and imagine how our presence on the web could be completely different from what it is today.

Five Suggestions for Change

Let me suggest some possibilities for how a newspaper’s web presence could be radically different from the way it’s been so far:

1. Create micro-sites.
Instead of having a single website divided in sections which often replicate the sections in the print newspaper, we could have many different sites each focusing on a specific topic of interest to our communities. For example, at Mediafin, we know our community has various interests — financial services, markets, technology for consumers, technology for enterprises, etc. Why not have a separate website for each to better target community members’ interests?

2. Streams of content.
The news on each of those more specialized sites or networks would be like a stream of blog posts or microblog posts. In other words, it would look more like Twitter, Facebook or FriendFeed rather than a collection of newspaper articles. Of course, posts could be longer than the famous 140 characters of Twitter, but overall the look would be far more stream-like. There could be a special section for link journalism, using a tool such as Publish2.

3. Use wikis for context.
Instead of only posting static articles, newspapers could use wikis to help provide background and context. A wiki format would allow both the newsroom and the community to contribute their expertise. Of course, the comments would enable the community members to post links, see members’ profiles, and maybe even rate articles and comments.

4. Boost audience interactions.
Forums would enhance both synchronous and asynchronous interaction. One could imagine using some embeddable virtual 2.5-D environment such as Metaplace to enhance the interactive experience. Metaplace is a platform that enables you to make your own virtual environment and connect through hyperlinks or simply embed it on your site. A newspaper could easily transform one of Metaplace’s stock “worlds” to match the look and feel of the newspaper and organize chat sessions there.

5. Give participants more control.
It would pretty much be up to the user how all these components of the newspaper site(s) would be organized. Community members would also have the option to either participate in synchronous discussions using avatars in the 2.5-D space or participate in that same discussion using a text-only environment. The idea is to make the participation experience more user-centric: let the users decide how to experience the information, news and discussion flows.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Implementing any of these out-of-the-newspaper-box ideas would require that both journalists and community members adapt to something rather new. This could be a disadvantage for journalists accustomed to old-school print thinking; it could actually be more problematic for them to adapt than for the community.

Another possible objection might be the reaction of the advertisers. Would they appreciate the possibility offered by some of these ideas — like creating separate websites for each topic — to better target very specific segments of the community? Or would they instead deplore the fact that the community has been split up, making it harder to reach a broad range of readers?

I think the real benefit of separate environments/sites for advertisers is that they can focus on the relevant audience. The audience’s behavior — reading, commenting, participating in chat discussions, etc. — will offer insights that are relevant for advertisers planning their campaigns. The only thing is: advertisers will need to be convinced of these new possibilities. Journalists are not the only ones who tend to be conservative in regards to online innovation.

metaplace.png

A clear advantage would be that such a model makes it possible to react very fast on the news, with Twitter-like speed. Adopting a blog-stream style of posting would allow newspapers to update much more quickly than if they continued to shovel articles online in the old “online print newspaper” style.

At the same time, wikis would provide in-depth analysis and context. The whole operation would be very much community driven, using sophisticated comments, forum and wiki systems. People would have the choice to refer to existing online networks for their profiles, to create a new profile on the site or they could stay anonymous.

Some sites have already adopted some of these ideas. I was inspired to list some of the above elements by the Columbia Tomorrow site. I especially like that site’s combination of a blog-like news stream with in-depth overview pages, and that it offered the possibility for community members to start their own discussions on news posts. The site features a video explaining how this project organizes the interaction and the news.

If you have other such examples or ideas for other components of the news site/network of the future, let us know!

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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Journalistic narcissism

At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, Andrew Sullivan said, “Journalism has become too much about journalists.”

True. It’s not just that newspapers are covering their own demise as thoroughly as Michael Jackson’s. This is about the mythology that news needs newspapers – that without them, it’s not news.

In an offhand reference about the economics of news, Dave Winer wrote, “When you think of news as a business, except in very unusual circumstances, the sources never got paid. So the news was always free, it was the reporting of it that cost…. The new world pays the source, indirectly, and obviates the middleman.” This raises two questions: both whether news needs newsmen and whether journalists and news organizations deserve to be paid.

I tweeted Winer’s line and Howard Weaver then started a discussion with this tweet: “Is it news if it’s not reported? I don’t think so.” I don’t think he’s saying that the reporting needs to be done by a professional, but he is saying that reporting is what makes news news. Does news need the middleman?

Steve Yelvington just tweeted that “The Washington Post ’salon’ debacle is a clash between myth and reality on so many levels: ‘the select few who will actually get it done.’” Being needed.

The realization of that myth – the myth of necessity – hit me head-on when I read an unselfconsciously narcissistic feature in The New York Times this week about the room where the 4 p.m. news meeting is held. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has likened that meeting to a “religious ceremony.” The Times feature certainly acted as if it were taking us inside the Pope’s chapel: “The table was formidable: oval and elegant, with curves of gleaming wood. The editors no less so: 11 men and 7 women with the power to decide what was important in the world.”

Behold the hubris of that: They decide what is important. Because we can’t. That’s what it says. That’s what they believe.

I was trained to accept that myth: that journalists decide what’s important, that it’s a skill with which they are imbued: news judgment. I worked hard to gain and exercise that judgment. The myth further holds that no judgment of importance is more important than The Times’; that’s why, every night, it sends out to the rest of newspaperdom its choices. News isn’t news until it’s reported and it’s not important until The Times says so.

But why do we need anyone to tell us what’s important? We decide that. What’s important to you isn’t important to me. Why must we all share the same importance? Because we all shared the same newspaper. There is the wellspring of the myth: the press.

I am trying to cut through these many myths about newsso I can reexamine them. In something I’m writing now for another project, I say: “To start, it is critical that we understand and question every assumption that emerged from old realities – for example, that news should be a once-a-day, one-for-all, one-way experience just because that’s what the means of production and distribution of the newspaper and the TV broadcast necessitated.” And: “Owning the printing press or broadcast tower used to define advantage: I own and control the means of production and distribution and you and don’t, which enables me to decide what gets distributed and forces you to come to me if you want to reach the public through news or through advertising, whose price I alone set with little or no concern for competition.”

No more. The press has become journalism’s curse, not only because it now brings a crushing cost burden but also because it led to all these myths: that we journalists own the news, that we’re necessary to it, that we decide what’s reported and what’s important, that we can package the world for you every day in a box with a bow on it, that what we do is perfect (with rare, we think, exceptions), that the world should come to us to be informed, that we deserve to be paid for this service, that the world needs us.

The journalistic narcissism that extrudes from the press extends to so much of the journalist’s relationship with her public. Jay Rosen just tweeted his headline for Plain Dealer Connie Schultz’ return of spitball (below): “A blogger was mean to me so that means I’m right.” John McQuaid tweeted that he feared I was “only abetting Connie Schultz’s effort to turn a real debate into a bloggers vs. MSM culture war.” He’s right. Schultz didn’t address the substantive objections to her hare-brained and dangerous scheme; she made it about her.

Oh, I know, this is all a big set-up for your punchline: A blogger is talking about narcissism? Heh. Isn’t blogging the ultimate narcissism? But who called it that, who made that judgment? Journalists, as far as I’ve seen. When they talk, it’s important. When we talk, it’s narcissism. What we say can’t be important – can it? – because we’re not paid and printed. But I don’t want to replay the blog culture war, which I keep hoping is over. I want to question assumptions, to find the cause and effect of myths.

And that’s what Winer is trying to do when he reminds us that the important people in news are the sources and witnesses, who can now publish and broadcast what they know. The question journalists must ask, again, is how they add value to that. Of course, journalists can add much: reporting, curating, vetting, correcting, illustrating, giving context, writing narrative. And, of course, I’m all in favor of having journalists; I’m teaching them. But what’s hard to face is that the news can go on without them. They’re the ones who need to figure out how to make themselves needed. They can and they will but they can no longer simply rest on the press and its myths.

: LATER: Good discussion in the comments already. I particularly like this from Craig Stoltz:

At the WaPo, where I used to work, the story conference room was decorated with (1) the metal frame with sticks of backwards type that was used to print the “Nixon Resigns” front page [it is said that that wall had to be reinforced to bear its weight--myth?]; (2) a framed Post advertisement from the early 70s reading “I got my job from the Washington Post,” which Gerald Ford was good-natured enough to sign; (3) two columnar shelves of important tomes written by Post staffers over the years; and, yes, (4) a polished wooden table whose craftsmanship and sheen suggested the Pedestal of Truth.

No coffee was allowed in the room.

Confession: Every time I was in that room I felt inspired, breathed in the myth, absorbed the history and mission that made the Post such an extraordinary institution [and which makes these week's "salon" disaster so heartbreaking].

That room and the myth it conveyed may have made me a better journalist.

I suspect it made me a more arrogant, and therefore ultimately vulnerable one.

: In Twitter, Aaron Huslage asks: “How is curating journalism different from the NYT editorial meeting? isn’t it, at heart, picking ‘what’s important’?” And I responded: “Now it doesn’t have to be one-for-all. And it’s not necessary what’s ‘important’ (as the NYT says) but ‘relevant’ (Google’s goal).”

: Juan Antonio Giner takes apart the Times room: an analog space for a digital age.

: Tim Russo responded to Schultz, though she refused to respond to him.

: ANOTHER great comment, this one from David Weinberger:

May I add one more, related, myth to your collection, Jeff? Here goes: It’s possible to _cover_ the day’s events.

This is just a different way of putting your formulation “One man’s [sic] noise is another man’s news.” But I think it’s worth calling out since the promise of global sufficiency is a big part of traditional newspapers’ promise of value to us: “Read us once in the morning, and after going through our pages, you will know everything you need to know.” (Do radio stations still make the ridicule-worthy “Give us 8 minutes and we’ll give you the world?” claim.) Yeah, no newspaper would ever maintain that claim seriously if challenged — they know better than their readers (or at least they used to) what they’re leaving out — but it’s at the base of the idea that reading a paper is a civic duty. The paper doesn’t give us _everything_ but it gives us _enough_ that reading one every day makes us well-informed citizens.

The notion that newspapers give you your daily requirement of global news — which works to wondering, along with Howard, if there is such a thing as “news” — seems to me to be as vulnerable as the old idea of objectivity. Like objectivity: (1) It’s presented as one of the basic reasons to read a newspaper; (2) it hides the fact that it’s based on cultural values; and (3) it doesn’t scale well in the age of the Net.

Ultimately, this myth is enabled –as so many of the myths of news and knowledge are — by paper. Take away the paper and the newspaper doesn’t become a paperless newspaper. It becomes a network. That’s what’s happening now, IMO. From object to network … and networks are far far harder to “monetize” (giving myself a yech here) than objects….

: In the comments, Jay Rosen says narcissism is an even more apt metaphor than (he thinks) I know:

Jeff: You should improve your grasp of what narcissism is. The term is commonly used to mean self-absorption or excessive self-regard (”it’s about meeeee”) but that’s a subtle misunderstanding. True narcissists have a weak concept of self because they often don’t know they leave off and the world begins. In the clinical sense, key features of a narcissistic personality disorder are grandiosity and a lack of empathy.

I’m not trying to correct you; I’m saying that if you look closer at what pathological narcissism is, beyond its pop culture meaning, this might allow you to strengthen your critique. For example, equating newspapers with democracy is grandiose in the extreme, right? The prize culture could be connected to the “need for admiration,” and so on. It may be a better metaphor than you have let on here– and worth developing. Cheers.

Politics makes….

When she pushed her dangerous agenda to change copyright law through Congress to protect her industry, company, and job, Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz got all huffy with me when I suggested that she should register as a lobbyist because she was trying to influence legislation in which she had a direct interest and benefit while being married to a U.S. senator.

Well, now she reveals in a puffy P-D video (at 4:50) that her husband will have to recuse himself from voting on her protectionist legislation – if, God and good sense forbidding, it ever comes to a vote – because he has a beneficial interest in it through her newspaper salary. Seems to prove my point, but nevermind. Note also that I asked her husband’s office to whether he was supporting the legislation and never got the basic journalistic (blogs are journalism, too) and governmental (they work for us) courtesy of a reply.

Schultz says that if she should have to register as a lobbyist, then so should I and other columnists and bloggers. Except, of course, I don’t have personal ties to Congress. Hell, I can’t even get them to answer questions.

At 20:55 in the video, Schultz says, “We’ve been hearing some things behind the scenes where the people who need to be paying attention to this proposal are.” Hmmm. Considering that this is legislation she’s trying to push and the people who matter in legislation are in Congress, one could be led to believe that she’s talking about lawmakers and one wonders whether she’s hearing these things, behind which the scenes. But she doesn’t say. So, nevermind.

Schultz also complains (at 23:40) that I didn’t pick up a phone to call her before commenting on what she said before all the world in her column. I didn’t see the need to call her; her opinions and relationships were clear. Again, I did try to report as I said in that post, asking her husband a question he did not answer. I’m told Schultz is writing her Sunday column on this and me again this week and she hasn’t picked up the phone, either. But nevermind.

Schultz is trying to say that I made this personal because I dared to bring up her marriage. That itself is a dodge. It’s not personal. It’s about our government and our laws – about our most precious law, the First Amendment. I believe she is proposing something very hazardous to the health of the First Amendment, the internet, and, ultimately, journalism as it must evolve online. I also think she should be scrupulously transparent not just about the fact that she is married to a senator – which she is – but also about every conversation about this legislation she has had with him and with other people in and around Congress – because she does have exceptional access.

Now, I hope we can return to the substance of the discussion and I hope she will respond to the my argument that the fundamental economics of media and journalism have shifted and that such attempts at protectionism would ultimately shut off newspapers and their journalism from the conversation that will distribute it. Let’s have a talk about the imperatives of the link economy.

(To repeat my relevant disclosures: I worked for almost 12 years for the parent company of the Plain Dealer, as president of Advance.net and, where I started the paper’s affiliated web site, Cleveland.com, gaining some resentment from staff at the paper because it did not control the site. I am a partner at Daylife, an aggregator but one of the sort – like GoogleNews – that Schultz has no problem with because it sends traffic to journalism at its source. I am directing the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, where we are attempting to outline sustainable models for journalism. And I’m a blogger and twitterer who quotes from and links to journalism and believes that is a good thing.)

: LATER: Here’s Schultz’s next column, out through the syndicate. She doesn’t deal with the issues and discussion at all but tries to hide behind her own distortions to make this personal. She says I’m acting as if it’s news that she’s married to a senator. Of course, it’s not. But a columnist trying to push protectionist legislation to benefit her industry, company, and job while married to a legislator, yes, that’s news. And since I complained, it’s news that her husband will now recuse himself from voting on this dubious legislation. She and her idea are still dangerous.