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.

Journalism Technologies: 2. Google: Good or Evil?

‘Don’t Be Evil’ is the memorable phrase often attributed as a sort of internal company motto at Google, and one of the points behind lecture 2 in my Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield is to get students to actively consider a bit more about the search engine they use morning, noon and night.

Looking to the writing of Evgeny Morozov to provide a little fly in the ointment, I pointed up his use of the term ‘technological solutionism’ as a critique of our desire to let tech solve problems which perhaps don’t really exist in the first place. Activity tracking apps such as Fitbits are an example I used to illustrate this – we’re all told that doing 10,000 steps every day will help keep us healthy, but studies have begun to imply that some users take that as an excuse to be less healthy in our areas of their lives, such as diet, so the effect is in fact negated. Google has examples from its own stable of products, not least the now partly abandoned Google Books project.

In the workshops I asked students about the other Google products they used. Gmail was almost unanimous, it seems to have had notable growth at the expense of other email providers over the past year or two. When I asked why, the responses were all of the ones you might expect – “it’s free” “it’s simple to use” “it’s just easier” – and are all the same reasons why the main Google search engine product first scaled the heights back in the early 2000s.

Using Canva In The Classroom

Displaying Canva on the screen in my classroom.

My final year Journalism Innovation class is running for a second year, and as was the case last time round, there are more than 50 students spread across three seminar groups. They’ve all chosen the module as an option, which is great.

The module begins with a few weeks of learning various more advanced social media and digital skills, with which they may not already be familiar. Week one was making gifs using Giphy, and today for the second session we made subtitles for Facebook videos as well as socially shareable graphics, the latter with Canva.

It’s one of the best free tools available for quickly making shareable content and is particularly useful for the range of size templates it allows you to play with, including Instagram images and website banner ads as well as the more normal Twitter and Facebook posts. Canva operates on a freemium basis, with certain fancier patterns and backgrounds costing small sums of money, but plain ones come free.

I asked each group of students to suggest someone in the news, then took them through how to find a copyright-free image before adding a quote to create a suitable graphic. Then, I let them do one on their own, before sharing to Twitter. I had produced a helpsheet in advance, too, and that helped keep this part of the sessions to a brisk 30-40 minutes or so. The students all picked it up very quickly and I’d definitely use Canva to do this again.

One sign of the times: groups were split roughly equally between those who wanted to produce Tom Petty tributes, and those who had never heard of him.

Journalism Technologies: 1. The Triumph of The Nerds

We’re back and the second edition of my Journalism Technologies module for first year students at the University of Huddersfield has begun. As last year, the first week served as an introduction, with the lecture looking at the development of personal computing from the introduction of the Altair in 1975, to the Microsoft-Apple deal of 1997.

It me.

We’ve got slightly more students than last year and the lecture room was absolutely packed. When I asked what the phrase ‘Silicon Valley’ meant to people, someone piped up with “isn’t it what they put in breast implants?” If they learned nothing else during the 50 minutes or so I was talking, at least I was able to put everyone right on that.

In the seminars I kicked off by asking everyone their three favourite apps, according to how much battery life they’d spent on them over the past week. The big riser this year was undoubtedly Spotify: not only do roughly half of the students in my groups use it, all of those who do subscribe to the Premium service (students get this half price, but still). A couple of years back YouTube was the main way in which 18-year-olds were accessing music. Since then, Spotify has just got too good for many to turn down. Who says people don’t pay for content online?

Trinity Mirror In Talks To Buy The Express

The old Daily Express building in Manchester.

I was asked by the University of Huddersfield’s press office to write a bit for their View From The North blog on Friday about the announcement that Trinity Mirror is in talks to buy the Daily Express and its sister titles. And here’s my by now lukewarm take in full:

THE Daily Express was once the biggest newspaper in Britain. Owned by Lord Beaverbrook and produced in art deco palaces in Manchester, Glasgow and on Fleet Street, it routinely sold four million copies a day.

Now it struggles to shift a tenth of that and has a reputation for being more interested in lurid conspiracy theories about Princess Diana than serious journalism. So why would the owner of the Daily Mirror be interested in buying it?

Trinity Mirror is the UK’s biggest publisher of newspapers and magazines, with the Huddersfield Examiner among more than 200 local and regional titles in its stable.

Buying the Express and its sister publications would allow it to squeeze more cash out of the dwindling print journalism market, with significant cost savings to be had across advertising sales and back-office functions.

Trinity Mirror is nursing a hole in its pension scheme of more than £400 million – significantly more than the value of the entire company. And with the might of Google and Facebook making it hard for anyone else to make serious cash from online advertising, doubling down on print remains the easiest way for Trinity Mirror to stay afloat in the medium-term.

There’ll be changes to the actual newspapers, too. Expect glossy showbiz photos which currently feature in OK! Magazine, also part of the Express empire, to start turning up in the Mirror titles.

A big change in the politics of the Express is surely inevitable as well, with hard Brexit Euroscepticism likely to give way to a softer, potentially pro-Labour stance. This would make for a notable shift in the centre of political gravity of Britain’s declining but still influential print media.

But no matter what Trinity Mirror does, the real glory days of the Express will remain a distant memory.

New Editor For Saddleworth News

Saddleworth News

Congratulations to Ruby Anstee, the new editor of Saddleworth News. This is the hyperlocal website for Saddleworth and the surrounding area I started almost eight years ago, and it’s great to see it still going strongly long after I stopped having any involvement with it.

Well done also to Stuart Littleford, who has done a great job with the website over many years. He’s made sure Saddleworth News is a lively, well-read source of local information, with great engagement on social media too (more than 9,000 Twitter followers and 7,500 Facebook likes is good going for an area with a population of about 20,000). It’s undoubtedly one of the longest-running and most successful hyperlocal websites around, and long may that continue!

Journalism Technologies: 24. Your Future Is Arriving Now

And so to the last week of term, early this year because of a late Easter, and the final week of teaching in the inaugural Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield. Wrestlemania overnight on Sunday cut the lecture attendance a bit (although some students came straight in having not been to bed, which shows a remarkable commitment to both professional wrestling and academic life).

The lectures up until now had been preoccupied with the present day and the very recent past. So it seemed sensible to use the final one in the series to look into the future, and speculate on some of the developments we might be able to expect in media in the coming years. Likely to play an increasingly significant role in our world more generally is the sharing economy, and with its tradition of freelancing and part-time work, there’s no reason to doubt that more journalism will be done this way. At the centre of this part of the economy are the rising giants of Uber and AirBnB, and so the first section of the lecture traced their stories, the problems they’ve recently faced, and where they might go next.

One intriguing battle dominating the thoughts of many industrial leaders, from Uber to Google and GM and Ford, is to be first on the grid with a driverless car that really works. The reason why this is potentially vitally significant for the media: a potentially dramatic increase in the amount of leisure time for commuters and drivers, which they will probably spend, well, consuming media. Might an Uber TV be the next Sky or Netflix? If it is, then a taxi company which doesn’t own any taxis will suddenly become one of the world’s most important media companies. But then, companies that already fit that bill used to be just social networks, computer makers and online bookshops, so Uber would just fit into a well-established trend.

If there is a lesson, is that’s to see the future of media, we probably need to look outside what we currently think of as the media.

Journalism Technologies: 23. “The Internet is a Series of Tubes”

What a week to be discussing why politicians don’t always have the best grasp of issues around technology, security and privacy. The title of the lecture comes from the memorable, rambling attempt at explaining net neutrality, delivered by aged Senator Ted Stevens in 2006. Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s remarks on Sunday about WhatsApp encryption and ‘necessary hashtags’ don’t perhaps quite come into that category, but they’ve attracted plenty of amused scorn all the same.

With three separate tech giants – not just WhatsApp but also YouTube and Uber – facing negative stories on three different front pages on Monday morning, it made sense to put those at the start of this lecture. The rest covered an exploration of the dark web, how an initial failure to properly understand security almost cost Glenn Greenwald the Edward Snowden story, and then a discussion of privacy and social media, informed by some positive and negative academic perspectives on the topic – from Jeff Jarvis and his optimistic view of ‘publicness’ to Christian Fuchs’ often-criticised but still interesting Marxist perspective on whether Facebook exploits its users.

We had a bit of fun in the workshops this week. After a brief chat on the WhatsApp/encryption issue following the terrorist attack at Westminster, I encouraged students to consider how much information we all leave scattered around social media, and what that means for our privacy. To illustrate the point, I asked a series of questions about me, and got them to examine my online footprint to see what they could find out in just a few minutes. After that, I got students to put their email addresses into haveibeenpwned.com so they could see whether their details had, at some point, been stolen as part of one of the major tech hacks of recent times, and could therefore theoretically be on sale somewhere on the dark web right now. Suffice to say, quite a few passwords needed changing.

A hat-tip to Reply All for this interesting recent episode on the sale of Uber accounts, which helped me develop some ideas for this week’s classes.

Journalism Technologies: 22. Hyperlocal

Week 22 of Journalism Technologies brought me back to a subject I know a bit about, hyperlocal journalism. I was very closely involved in this area during my time setting up and running Saddleworth News in 2010 and 2011, and I’ve maintained an interest in it ever since.

It’s probably true to say that the hyperlocal sector has, in general, not lived up to some of the expectations which certain commentators ascribed to it back then. With some very honourable exceptions, it hasn’t really replaced some of the declining ‘district’ coverage offered by local newspapers. Experiments conducted by legacy media companies in this space, such as Guardian Local and Sky Tyne & Wear, have been scrapped despite some critical acclaim. Nor has there been much outside cash, whether through investment, grants or advertising, for UK hyperlocals, which has left our sector looking rather impoverished when compared with the US.

But on the other hand, I don’t think many of us involved in hyperlocals really believed the hype back then. Hyperlocals at their best, then and now, and whether on a WordPress site or a Facebook page, offer information which helps bind communities together, information that may not be readily available anywhere else. Sometimes this is journalism, and research by Andy Williams, Dave Harte and Jez Turner shows that council coverage is a key part of many hyperlocal sites, while at other times it’s probably not – that same research demonstrates the eternal popularity of posts about community events and local history. Hyperlocals may not be the flavour of the month these days, but they are a part of the media landscape and will certainly remain so.

In the workshops this week, I got students to find a hyperlocal from their hometowns and discuss their strengths and weaknesses, before searching for new ones to add to the Local Web List directory. This is the best online resource available to navigate the UK hyperlocal sector. There are more than 600 entries, and after a bit of work from my students this week, there’s a few more on there now.