Sunday, April 26, 2009
"The Mumbai Project": Aka, How Journalism Can be Saved
The winter term at Ryerson University in Toronto has just ended, and with it, the departure of a group of Masters candidates in journalism who I had the real pleasure of teaching.
The course was officially entitled "JRN 8108 - Journalism Workshop." It was a weekly six-hour session where we were supposed to "workshop" ideas in journalism. I was given pretty much carte blanche to design whatever I wanted.
I thought about this for weeks and tried to figure out what would be useful, challenging, important - even fun. But journalism is in a period of such wrenching transition, it seemed the height of escapism to engage these young people who are on the verge of entering the unknown with silly exercises about non-verbal narratives, or slide shows. A public policy outcome seemed more useful and urgent.
When the events in Mumbai, India occurred last November, the answer was obvious: I would ask the class to design a template for covering a breaking news story. It must involve all platforms: text, audio, video plus new media forms including wikis, blogs, flickr, twitter and all forms of user generated content. It had to be accountable and transparent. It had to have a business plan.
The results were, I believe, transformative. When the class presented their results to the chair of the department and the head of graduate studies, the results were impressive.
I originally planned to invite two or three "real" industry leaders, but the students resisted. They were worried that if the project failed, it might adversely affect their ability get jobs. They needn't have worried.
I am enclosing the summary by the group's leader Adrian Ma. This collaborative effort shows that the next generation of journalists are inventive and entrepreneurial. I am more optimistic about the future of journalism today than I was when I first walked into the class back in early January.
Here is the description of the Mumbai Project aka - "One Stop Media":
Journalism workshop presentation backgrounder
Friday, April 3, 2009
This document contains brief summations of each group’s research, findings and recommendations.
1.0. Breaking News
The Breaking News group focused on analyzing existing newsrooms’ practices for dealing with breaking events, and streamlining the process to successfully transition early information into contextualized verified content as quickly as possible.
The group discussed protocol for a breaking news event and which standards to employ when parsing out information in the early hours. Accordingly, the group examined the processes of several different news organizations, such as The Globe and Mail, the National Post, Sportsnet and The Canadian Press.
Building upon those organizations’ standards as a foundation, the group developed a specialized set of procedures for a breaking news event:
OneStopMedia (“the site”) will be completely transparent about the verification of information and the origins of that information. If a report is only sourced from a post on Twitter, that caveat should accompany the information. This is true whether the information is presented in a traditional news story, or in another form elsewhere on the site.
Within the organization, a new or updated resource list will be compiled and distributed quickly. This will consist of a source list of policy experts on the subject, in addition to key early information sources such as bloggers and tweeters on the ground at the event. The resource list will be maintained as a wiki (although it will only be available to access and edit within the organization, not to the outside world).
Early reports will be packaged together based on live information coming in from Twitter, Facebook and other user-generated sources. This will be similar to the existing practice of running stories based on police band information before a reporter can be sent to the scene. The faster this early story goes live, the more quickly OneStopMedia will have a template for sites such as Google News or individual bloggers to aggregate. The story will then be updated as more information is posted and verified. For Example:
BREAKING NEWS: TERRORIST ATTACK IN MUMBAI
27 November, 2008, 00:39:49 a.m.
Mumbai—Chaos reigns in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, amid reports of a massive coordinated terrorist attack. According to unconfirmed reports from Twitter, terrorists have struck several locations including Nariman House, a business and residential complex in the city’s south end. As many as 200 people are reported dead, and hundreds more injured by gunfire. A group calling themselves the Mujahedeen has claimed responsibility.
More to come.
OneStopMedia would issue breaking news alerts on social networking sites through the organization’s personal contacts in order to spread news of the story. This is important because we want ours to be the link that gets “retweeted” and circulated elsewhere.
As events progress, we start presenting information in different ways:
Short video feeds of packaged news stories questioning our correspondents on the ground as we gain access. Videos would be cycled away from the top of the page as the info becomes stale.
“Live hits” that provide as much information as possible.
Continued coverage at key points in time throughout event (ie 12 hours in, 24 hours in, 36 hours in, etc.).
This may include live/raw footage of the area or event if available.
Focus on further verification and expansion of information. Switch from user-generated content to more in-depth analysis from our reporters.
As information accumulates, an ever-evolving timeline becomes a key feature of the main page.
All material in the timeline is colour-coded to indicate the level of verification.
Information will be updated both into the past and as news breaks. As new information becomes available it will be added to the most recent end of the timeline; as old information becomes updated/verified/disproven, it will be modified where it appears earlier in the timeline.
Mousing over words on the timeline will pop-up small windows containing more information or links. For example, mousing over “Mumbai” would give you information on the city, its geography and history. Presenting breaking news in these ways gives readers information in an accessible format (in a news feed, such as those used in an RSS reader, on Facebook, or on Twitter), but with a more organized and information-rich presentation.
Members: Geri Anderson, Daniel Kaszor, Marit Mitchell, John McGrath, Andrew Wallace
2.0. User Generated Content
As technology changes and media technology becomes more prevalent among the general public, the nature of breaking news is also changing. The first images broadcast now often come from cell phone cameras, and the quickest updates from Twitter feeds.
Research tells us Internet users enjoy being able to react to the material they see, read and hear, and to contribute their own content. Furthermore, the percentage of people who said they value each of these things increases significantly as we narrow the demographic slice to the younger generation. That means the importance of allowing readers to interact with and contribute to online news will only increase over the next few decades for news organizations hoping to attract readership.
News outlets can benefit tremendously by capitalizing on user-generated content (UGC), especially during breaking news events. Allowing users to contribute content can increase both the breadth and depth of coverage, and give news organizations access to information, photos and videos before reporters arrive on the scene. Online news media must take advantage of this immediacy in order to stay competitive within the news industry.
As a fairly new development, however, UGC brings with it practical and ethical issues that require careful deliberation. For example, what are the tools currently available, and which ones should a news outlet incorporate into its website? How can UGC be incorporated and managed in a way that does not overwhelm the reader, but is user-friendly and beneficial? How can a news outlet maintain the balance between moderation and censorship?
The OneStopNews model represents a selection of UGC that we believe to be the most valuable of the technology currently available, and the best ways to manage them. Some of the features worth highlighting here include the NewsTrust blog aggregator, threaded discussion board, interactive map, and filtered Twitter feed.
The NewsTrust blog aggregator points readers to blogs that have been rated most credible by those familiar with the topic or the source, thereby helping them sort through what is available and recommending only the best. The discussion board encourages readers to contribute to threads initiated and monitored by journalists, in an attempt to guide discussions toward a deeper exploration of important issues related to a major news event. The interactive map allows readers to contribute information and content from different locations within Mumbai, which manages UGC geographically, and in so doing paints a more diverse and complete picture of how the events unfolded than text, audio or video would allow. The Twitter feed comes from a single reporter (who can re-Tweet important information that he or she receives from other Twitter users) rather than the public at large, in order to avoid the publication of unverified rumours, as well as a flood of Tweets that would make it difficult for readers to follow and use. Each of these elements emphasizes the importance of selection, focus and moderation in managing UGC.
Communities are built around user contribution, and are designed to seek information and stimulate discussion. There are several models for managing these communities, each with different sets of benefits and costs—any journalistic enterprise that attempts to build an online community of users must tackle the decision of moderation before the site launches, and build a comprehensive set of guidelines and standards that address as many possible concerns as possible before the conversation begins. Public journalism projects are also bringing journalists into new legal territory. Generally, sites are not being held responsible for comments posted online unless they refuse to delete questionable posts, but this is an emerging issue and the legal situation is still evolving. For more details on standards and best practices for managing community, see the full write-up.
By understanding the strengths of user-generated content, and finding the best practices for managing it, news organizations can capitalize on the potential benefits of new technology while continuing to uphold high journalistic standards and serving its readers.
Members: Miriam Boon, Connie Fan, Jackie Johnstone, Rana Latif, Jennifer MacMillan, David Psutka, Jennifer Walter.
According to the Principles of Journalism, a list compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, truth-telling is a journalist’s first obligation. “Journalistic truth,” as the Pew Center refers to it, “is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” But the process doesn’t end there, even in a breaking news situation. Once data is collected and fact-checked, journalists must help their audience answer the final ‘W’: Why.
This last step is becoming more important as the amount of available news and information increases. In an environment where news can be written by almost anyone, contextual analysis is a valuable and necessary addition to a news website. As the Pew Center explains, “As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need – not less – for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting into context.”
OneStopNews, as the title suggests, is meant to provide all the answers to users’ questions about the Mumbai attacks. Instead of leaving the website in favour of Wikipedia, users can stick around and read backgrounders on Mumbai and its people, once they’ve been brought up to date with the information on the attacks. The contextual components of OneStopNews help users situate the Mumbai attacks in a broader cultural, geographic and historical framework.
The “context” components include a soundslide, combining audio recordings and photographs from the event. We have also created a list of facts and general historical information about Mumbai and India, arranged in an easy-to-maneuver chart. “Mumbai by the Numbers” is a list of basic facts about Mumbai in the form of a Harper’s index. We have come up with ideas for three blogs that will provide three different kinds of analysis, from citizen accounts of life in Mumbai, to experts’ takes on the events. Finally, we have added an aggregation of stories from major news outlets, which would link users to longer-form features from other respected news sites. This places OneStopNews in a trusted, transparent and open online community.
Members: Sarah Bridge, Hannah Classen, Josh Hume, Jessica Johnston, Joseph Loiero, Ashley Walters.
4.0. Business Model
In the course of this project, this group (and the class as a whole) reached a consensus about charging readers for online content: in short, it’s not feasible. “Pay walls” that prevent readers from accessing content prior to buying it are just that—walls that hinder efficient flow of information.
Since we want to attract the greatest number of readers, and not drive away the search engines that lead readers to us, erecting a barrier to content is self-destructive. And to state a point that has been made already in numerous articles about the problem of how to make journalism profitable again, readers have never actually supported news financially. Advertisers have. We have therefore focused our efforts on an advertising model for supporting Internet journalism.
Note that in the case of a breaking news event like the Mumbai attacks, ads must be selected with sensitivity to the seriousness of the story. Ads for frivolous products or with light-hearted messages would be in poor taste alongside reports of a great disaster.
Research shows that advertisers are holding back when it comes to devoting their resources to online marketing. Hence, there is a lot of room for growth in online advertising. If we can attract readers to the site and give them reason to spend time on it, we can also offer advertisers a valuable audience.
Currently, social networking sites attract the most Internet users. One of the most compelling aspects of the web is its ability to bring people together and let them share information and interact with each other. It makes sense, then, to combine the social networking function with breaking news. User-generated content must play a pivotal role in the breaking news site, and it must be easy for people to contribute to the discussion—and to the news itself.
The challenge is doing so in a way that allows us to indicate the distinction between content that is journalistically sound (reliable, clearly written and well-sourced, for example) and user-generated or social content—much as newspapers delineate between opinion pieces and hard news articles.
Using our interactive tool, readers can take note of what other people have commented on or recommended. They can also join the discussion more actively by adding their own comments. In theory, at least, the tool attracts more eyeballs to the site, and keeps them there. It increases the “stickiness” factor of the breaking news destination: giving people opportunity to engage with the content and with their social group will keep them on the site longer and motivate them to return. (Note: readers can also interact with ads on the site: they can choose to skip ads they find offensive or irrelevant, or tag those they find useful.)
At the same time, the tool keeps user-generated content visually distinct from other content on the site, to help readers properly evaluate what they read.
Members: Rehana Begg, Riva Finkelstein, Amy Fuller, Carolyn Morris, Morgan Passi, Theresa Suzuki, Christiana Wiens.