Journalism Technologies: 12. Amazon – The Everything Store

It’s the last week of term before Christmas and it’s also been the conclusion of the first half of the Journalism Technologies module here at the University of Huddersfield. This meant a look at the tech and media giant that is something of the odd one out among Google, Facebook, Apple and the rest: Amazon. But although it was traditionally an online bookshop, it’s rather more than that now.

In the year since I last gave a lecture on Amazon, its various reputational challenges – from the alleged poor treatment of both office and warehouse staff, to its assorted tax avoidance measures – have not really bitten the company’s bottom line as they might have done. We still can’t help but use it to buy, well, just about everything. A quick show of hands in the lecture revealed plenty of first year students doing much of their Christmas shopping with Amazon, not least because they get a free introductory spell of Amazon Prime if they sign up with their academic e-mail addresses.

On Amazon Prime, the second series of The Grand Tour has begun, notably on the same day as Netflix’s flagship The Crown began its second offering, and the market for streaming has grown ever more competitive in the last year. The announcement that Disney is buying the significant entertainment arm of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, hints that at least one old media player is bulking up to try to compete. In the short-term, the next television battleground between these players could turn out to be for the next set of rights to the Premier League, with Amazon – soon to be showing ATP men’s tennis – surely at least taking a look at picking up some of the rights now held by the soon-to-be-Disneyfied Sky, and BT. Who comes out on top in that particular auction will be one of the most interesting media stories of early 2018.

Journalism Technologies: 11. brb

Week 11 of the first year Journalism Technologies class at the University of Huddersfield was all about direct messaging, a form of communication that seems even more pervasive than the major social networks. Which certainly helps explain why so many have become dominant players, not least Facebook’s own Messenger and WhatsApp, which it memorably bought for an absolute fortune almost four years ago. And when better to look back than in the week when texting turned 25.

Snapchat has been the focus of a lot of scrutiny this year, after turning out repeated overtures from Facebook and going through an IPO. Early highs have been followed by a few months of downbeat news, with reports of less interaction with power celebrity users and a possible dwindling of interest in its key under-25 demographic, mainly because of the way in which Facebook has ruthlessly copied many of Snapchat’s central features for its own Instagram platform. There’s no evidence of it in my seminar groups – Snapchat remains almost unanimously used, and in many cases by far the most popular app around.

With references to the Uses and Gratifications Theory and the 2016 paper by Vaterlaus et al on why teenagers in particular actually use Snapchat, posing this question to students drew some interesting responses. But if there was one theme above the others, it was that Snapchat was the best way to communicate with a select group of maybe four or five friends, often in a group chat, and often using just text. In a sense not much different from WhatsApp or Messenger, and students said they quite regularly have the same friends in chats on those platforms too. All very confusing if you’re my age and older but then, Snapchat’s still not really for us.

Journalism Technologies: 10. Audio and Podcasts

The focus of week 10 of our first year Journalism Technologies class at the University of Huddersfield switched to viewing to listening, with my colleague Caroline Pringle’s lecture on audio and podcasting.

One of the benefits of holding workshops on a module like this, is getting your own personal focus groups of 18-year-olds about their media consumption. This time last year, Joe Rogan’s podcast was by far the most popular among the groups (admittedly most of the ones I take do Sports Journalism). Now, it’s much more varied, with lots of different podcasts getting a shout, but virtually none having more than one listener. Those being listened to range from the well-known, such as My Dad Wrote A Porno, to a whole host of fan-produced ones about a range of lower league football clubs. I’m sure the Lions Roar podcast at Guiseley is a cracker, but I have to say it was a new one on me.

I picked out various podcasts for the students doing different courses to listen to and review. For the Sports groups, I chose one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries, now that the brand has extended from the acclaimed series of TV histories (shown here regularly on BT Sport, if you’ve splashed out for it but can’t face watching any more of the Ashes) into audio. I think the series has got off to an impressive start, and I’ll be interested to see what the students make of it.

Journalism Technologies: 9. YouTube: Broadcast Yourself

After a break for reading week, Journalism Technologies has resumed at the University of Huddersfield with a lecture and workshops about sharing video online, with a particular focus on the giddy rise of YouTube. As with many of the platforms we’ve looked at in this module, such is the impact of it on our lives it’s easy to forget it was created as recently as 2005.

Not that everything’s universally rosy for YouTube. A Times investigation earlier in the year that revealed how Google Ads for various blue chip, high-profile companies were being served alongside extremist videos, led to a bump in the road as many took their advertising cash away, at least for a time. A bit of a follow up came more recently, with questions about how some significant YouTubers who have developed large followings for videos of their children are actually treating their kids. This related warning by James Bridle written – where else – on Medium, got plenty of traction online.

YouTube has taken some steps in this area. The YouTube kids app offers a much safer environment for younger children, and seems to do a solid job at filtering out anything that is potentially dodgy – no easy task when so many of the videos concerned bear a lot of similarities to the more benign child-friendly content (toy unboxings, dolls talking to each other, and so on). But as more of these stories come along and hurt YouTube in the pocket, it’s going to have to work longer and harder on making the platform safer for both advertisers and viewers.

In the workshops this week we’re getting students to upload a basic video to YouTube, then do some of the more straightforward annotations, such as subtitles and adding ‘cards’ – which is those little links and such which appear at the top corner of YouTube videos. Surprisingly few of the students had ever actually uploaded anything to YouTube themselves before, despite all being avid viewers. The trend of this generation towards lurking online rather than being active content creators is something I’m seeing more and more as the years go by, and part of my job when teaching first year journalism and media students, is to gently get to them embrace being more confident in making and posting material for themselves.

Journalism Technologies: 7. A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

It was Caroline’s turn to give the lecture in our Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield this week, on the subject of how we share photos online, from Flickr to Instagram and all points in between.

None of the students in the room – and there are 100 or so doing the module this time – have a Flickr account. It’s a bit of a shame because it wasn’t so long ago that Flickr was really setting the standard in photo sharing and online communities. It’s still a useful resource, though, with about 300 million Creative Commons images, often of high quality, available for anyone to use in, say, blogposts or whatever.

Flickr remains a key part of the story though, and it was central to Clay Shirky’s initial formulations of concepts such as ‘mass amateurisation’ and ‘mass democratisation’ which he helped popularise a decade and more ago. As a reading we got students to watch this 2005 TED talk of his, which remains eerily prescient, and still well worth watching.

Journalism Technologies: 6. Twitter: What’s Happening?

We were talking Twitter for week six of Journalism Technologies at the University of Huddersfield. I first taught at a university in Leeds back in 2011, and I remember prefacing one of my early sessions by saying something to the effect of: ‘Twitter may not be the most important online tool for journalists forever, but it is right now, and that’s why I’m going to show you how to use it’. Then I sort of imagined it would have slipped from favour by now, but despite all kinds of headwinds, it remains as central to the day-to-day work of media professionals as it ever was.

The lecture took students through some of those headwinds, something which has been an almost constant feature of Twitter’s history, dating back to the in-fighting between the four co-founders and technical challenges which marked its early years. To be honest, Twitter became huge almost in spite of everything, and its utility as the best place on the internet for live, instant communication, remains its unique, and just about only, selling point.

One of Twitter’s thorniest issues is: what, if anything, it should do about Donald Trump. Having tweeted his way to the presidency, he spends his early mornings firing off all kinds of messages as these things take his fancy. Overnight, a Twitter employee, apparently on their last day, deactivated the account for 11 minutes, to widespread amusement. Not everyone within Twitter is happy to let the President keep on tweeting.

Meanwhile, I once again ran a contest to see who could come up with the best tweet on the #journotech hashtag during the lecture. As I was hobbling about with a dead leg after falling over on Saturday, the winner was undoubtedly this from Josh Lees.

Journalism Technologies: 5. The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Apple

Week 5 of the Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield is all about Apple, the story of its rise, fall and remarkable renaissance since Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, as well as the way in which its products have disrupted a whole host of media-related fields, not least the music industry.

Even though it seems like old news, there’s nothing that sums up Apple’s stunning rise in the 2000s like the iPod – the ‘Perfect Thing’ – a consumer product that was as trendy and desirable and user-friendly as just about any you could mention from all of history, and which helped to transform the world of music and, perhaps even more incredibly, is now barely even produced having been subsumed by the iPhone. The iPod still has its fans though, and second-hand iPod Classics almost go for more on eBay today than they might would have cost new.

You can get some serious cash for your old iPod Classics on eBay.

I turned to the Social Shaping of Technology theory as this week’s academic perspective. In particular, SST theory makes a strong counterpoint to the technological determinism I introduced the students to in week one. SST argues that the main driver is of technological change is not, for example, the relentless improvement in capability of microprocessors, but rather owes more to a range of other social and economic factors, not just technical ones.

For me, Steve Jobs, his design chief Jony Ive and Apple in general offer a compelling argument for this. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs lays out in considerable detail, he retained a remarkable input on even the smallest details of Apple’s products, often driving engineers to distraction while also heeding his own instinct for beautiful-looking products, and going against conventional industry wisdom. At any other major tech company, then-market leader Sony for example, the iPod’s iconic trackwheel would surely have been ruled out through a series of committee meetings. But Jobs wanted it, and that brilliant design feature arguably more than anything helped set Apple onto a path of success unprecedented in corporate history.

Journalism Technologies 4: The Facebook Effect

For the fourth week of this year’s Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield, I was in Dubai for a work recruiting trip and so my colleague Caroline Pringle not only did the lecture, but also led all six workshops. Thanks Caroline!

I’ve embedded her lecture on Facebook at the top of this post. And even since the lecture was delivered last Thursday, the Facebook Effect on the media has become even more pronounced. Tests of a different form of news feed, with all non-friends and sponsored posts hived off elsewhere, has prompted panic among news executives in the six countries where the trial has been taking place. This Medium post by a Slovakian journalist reports a drop in post interactions to just a quarter of previous levels, virtually overnight.

The days of Facebook being a simple firehose for traffic aren’t quite what they once were, and occasional tweaks to the algorithm have from time-to-time prompted similar palpitations among social media editors, but this appears to be another step closer to a ‘pay to play’ regime, with only publishers and others willing to pay for the privilege getting real estate in your news feeds. This may be superficially attractive to Facebook as a way of tackling arguably its biggest ever challenge – fake news – but would have an immediate and serious financial impact on publishers which have spent years trying to build traffic through Facebook, in turn using that to raise advertising revenue.

Facebook’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, has used this blogpost to try to reassure nervous publishers. The key line is: “We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.” But ‘currently’ doesn’t mean forever.

Journalism Technologies 3: The People Formerly Known As The Audience

This week in Journalism Technologies at the University of Huddersfield, I enjoyed telling the first years the story of blogging. In some ways it’s a bit of a rise and fall of blogging, from the very earliest experiments with personal blogs (before they were even called blogs) in the mid-1990s, through the rise of Blogger and WordPress, to its gradual decline in the era of social media to become just another part of the media landscape. The title is from Jay Rosen’s memorable 2006 article about all this published on – what else? – his blog.

When considering the impact of blogging on journalism, there’s still only one place to start: the publication by Matt Drudge in 1998 of the fact Newsweek had dropped its investigation into President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. When I asked the room whether the name Monica Lewinsky was familiar to everyone, there were quite a few shaking heads. This was all before most of the new first year students were even born, after all.

In the practical workshops we’ve been setting up blogs for the students to use in their first assessment of the module, in which they write a series of posts about the tools we’ll be using in future weeks. Once again I gave them the choice of Blogger, WordPress or Medium, the latter having the continued benefit of being extremely user friendly indeed, despite the various pivots and changes taking place with its financial model.

Even though blogging is far from being the most exciting part of today’s media landscape, it’s still worth students doing, I think. In part because you quickly pick up how to handle a standard CMS, as well as other associated skills born from running a website (moderating comments for example, and tweaking the layout). And also because a decent blog might well be the top result on Google for some students, or at least those with less common names. I still like blogs as a way to have a professional showcase for the right audience, even if the days of traditional personal blogs getting big traffic are receding into the distance.

Using Flow XO In The Classroom To Create Facebook Messenger Chatbots

My final year classes used Flow XO this week.

The first few classes of my final year Journalism Innovation module at the University of Huddersfield focus on some different bits of media and journalism skills the students may not have come across earlier in their time at university. This year we did making gifs, creating socially shareable graphics, doing subtitles for Facebook videos and, this week, another Facebook-based challenge: creating a chatbot for Messenger.

To guide students through the process I chose some local software in the form of Flow XO, a company based at Padiham in Lancashire. It’s got an easy to use interface and plenty of pre-set elements, allowing students to use it more or less off the shelf. The basic version is also free, and that was more than enough for the purposes of one two-hour class session.

Some students had already come across Messenger bots in the wild. Not from the few and mixed experiments that media companies have so far undertaken – the Wall Street Journal’s may be the best one I’ve used – but with some businesses who have already taken the leap into this area.

But with Amazon Alexa and its rivals signalling an increase in voice services around the home, and either WhatsApp or Messenger giving Facebook the number one messaging app in more than 150 countries worldwide, making content available in a form that will fit one or both is likely to become increasingly important for the news business too. Chatbots in and of themselves might not be the future, but I think we’ll soon be seeing more of them. Perhaps it won’t be long before we’re adding this to the lengthening list of ‘essential’ skills to be taught on a journalism course.