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.

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.