Journalism Technologies: 13. Disruption!

Christmas has long since faded into the background and we’re well into the second term of the academic year at the University of Huddersfield. The Journalism Technologies module resumed on Monday with a change of focus. The first term was all about looking at different social tools and online platforms each week in both the lectures and workshops, whereas the classes now look much more closely at the response of the journalism world to those significant technological changes.

I’ve found in the past that students have only a sketchy idea of how the career they want to pursue is actually funded, so the opening lecture of the term was all about traditional business models in journalism, and how those have been disrupted. Looking back at the development of commercial media companies in the UK, I couldn’t resist including this classic ITV Yorkshire Calendar report on the opening day of Radio Aire in 1981, fronted by none other than Richard Madeley, and featuring an interview with news editor Mike Best (later of Calendar himself, now a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University).

The sheer concept of a ten minute news bulletin at 7am and 8am on a local commercial radio station is quite something. These days only Today on Radio 4 manages that.

In the middle part of the lecture I got into the decline in classified advertising, and lamented the failure of newspapers to capture very much of the market for digital classifieds. Rightmove, established in 2000 as a partnership between four leading property agents, successfully cornered the market in property, and now has a market capitalisation of (wait for it) £3.8 billion. Trinity Mirror, the UK’s largest newspaper publisher, is on £280 million. Here’s what you could have won, as Jim Bowen used to say.

The session finished by introducing a classic business theory, the Innovator’s Dilemma, first coined by Clayton Christensen. Applying it to some well-known examples from technology, I highlighted the failure of Xerox to capitalise on the incredibly innovative computers it developed in the early 1970s but never released, and then the fall from grace of Kodak. Posing the question, have newspaper companies suffered from the innovator’s dilemma, I left the students to do a bit of reading in time for next week. The spoiler alert is, of course, that they pretty much have.

The Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute 2017

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (picture: Cygnusloop99/Wikipedia)

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (picture: Cygnusloop99/Wikipedia)

I’ve been chosen to take part in next week’s Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School in Phoenix. Hooray!

All the details are here. There are 12 lecturers from around the US, plus representatives from Mexico and the UAE, and me.

Part of the deal is that attendees are obliged to either be about to begin, or to have just started, a course in journalism entrepreneurship. I started my final year Journalism Innovation module in September, and with 52 students it’s taken up a lot of my time so far this academic year. But it’s been great fun, and I’m hoping next week’s sessions will really help me along the way with it. I’m actually holding two hackdays with the students not long after I’m back, so it’s pretty timely.

Journalism Technologies: 12. The Everything Store

The first term of our Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield draws to a close this week as students submit their learning logs, written on either WordPress, Blogger or Medium, reflecting on what they’ve looked at so far in the lectures and practical workshops. The last lecture of the series was on Monday and was about a company a little different from the others in that it has traditionally been all about retail: Amazon.

However, it’s more than just The Everything Store these days. Amazon dominates cloud computing through Amazon Web Services with a third of the market (Microsoft is next, languishing at 9%), and the beginning of The Grand Tour – enjoyed by many of my students taking advantage of a free six-month Amazon Prime trial for those in education – is in biggest move yet into content creation. There’ll be more to come, too. Amazon is now firmly one of the ‘big four’ media and technology companies, alongside Google, Apple and Facebook.

The theory attached to this lecture was Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, first outlined in this memorable piece in Wired magazine in 2004. Part of the theory states that hits are becoming smaller as it becomes easier for consumers to find niche products more to their taste. Re-reading the book before the lecture, his section about hits notes that *NSYNC’s record for the fastest selling album in US history, set at the music industry’s peak in 2000, was unlikely to ever be beaten. Well, eventually it was, by Adele in 2015. I suppose you could even say she said Hello to the record, forcing *NSYNC to bid it Bye Bye Bye. But perhaps you’d better not.

Journalism Technologies: 11. brb

Journalism Technologies moved on this week to direct messaging, encompassing everything from texting to an area of much less familiarity to men in their 30s like me: Snapchat. In the lecture, I noted some notable similarities and differences between the developments of these particular technologies, compared with those looked at in previous weeks. As is so often the case, universities were involved: whether M.I.T. as with the Compatible Time Sharing System back in the 1960s, or Stanford (alma mater of Google and, at a push, Apple) through Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat.

One interesting difference comes with texting. Never a big deal in America, this was initially conceived by a Finnish engineer, while the first SMS was sent between two British engineers in 1992. The Finns helped popularise it though, thanks to all those almost-indestructible Nokia handsets which were everywhere from 1999 onwards, when users began to be able to text friends on different networks. Even though Twitter was initially designed as a form of public text messaging, some in the office hadn’t even heard of texting when the idea was first mooted there in the mid-2000s.

Even now, the world’s biggest messaging platform, WhatsApp, is not an especially significant player in the US. Only 7% of American internet users have the app, while that figure is a third in Europe and significantly higher in Africa and the Middle East. That last point, its penetration in areas which in many cases missed out on the desktop computer revolution almost completely, helps explain why Facebook paid such big money for it back in 2014.

This week’s theory was UGT: Uses and Gratifications Theory. It’s a body of scholarship which examines why we use particular forms of media, and what we get out of it when we do. A classic example is a 1949 study of newspaper readers, deprived of their daily read by a strike, who told interviewers that it was the ritual of reading the paper they missed, rather than the actual content of the articles. An interesting 2016 study by Vaterlaus et al applied UGT to Snapchat, asking students at an American university why they liked it so much. Something well worth presenting to my own first year students, I thought, especially as many acknowledged in the workshops that it was at least rivalling, if not surpassing, Facebook and Twitter as their social platform of choice.

Journalism Technologies: 10. Audio

We’ve been looking at audio and podcasting in Journalism Technologies this week. My colleague Caroline Pringle delivered Monday’s lecture, which explored the origins of platforms including Soundcloud and Audioboom, as well as how podcasts including Serial and Radiolab have led to a renewed interest in longform documentary-style journalism.

The workshops involved getting students to record and upload a basic piece of audio to Audioboom using their phones, but also listening to a podcast. This was something that a small group of students had never done before. By contrast, some were keen podcast listeners (my three groups of Sports Journalism students had a lot of love for Joe Rogan’s UFC podcast), but most had only dabbled occasionally in podcasting. Often it was simply that they didn’t know where to start, and needed a recommendation or two.

I aimed to provide that by picking out a podcast for each course group for them all to listen to and review on their blogs. The Sports Journalism students got a recent one from FiveThirtyEight, for Music Journalism it was a vintage episode of This American Life, Broadcast Journalism students are listening to one of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History episodes, with Journalism students getting the classic opening episode of Serial series 1. I’m looking forward to reading what they all think.

Journalism Technologies: 9. Broadcast Yourself

It’s just over a decade since Jawed Karim stood in front of some elephants at a zoo in San Diego and mumbled into his friend’s camera for 18 seconds. It was the first video uploaded to YouTube, which Karim co-founded along with two other former employees of PayPal. A year and a half later, it had already grown to become the fifth largest website on the internet, and was sold to Google for $1.65bn – a fortune at the time, but cheap at the price considering its continued impact on the media landscape.

This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies took in the story of YouTube’s rise and rise (there still hasn’t been a fall), by way of its various battles with the old big media companies, angry at how their content was being shared and shared again. YouTube, with Google’s help, was ultimately able to resist years of legal pressure and avoid going the same way as Napster. The final irony is that YouTube has become much more like broadcast television – a home for professionally made content rather than the ‘broadcast yourself’ homemade videos on which it made its reputation – while any TV station you care to name has a platform which somewhat resembles YouTube, not least the BBC’s iPlayer.

For a theoretical approach, I turned to Spreadable Media, a 2013 book by the father of participatory cultures, Henry Jenkins, along with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Explaining the way certain videos spread on YouTube, they draw a contrast with sticky content, a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his memorable book The Tipping Point. Jenkins and the others say that no matter how good – sticky – a piece of content is, these days it still needs people to share, recommend and remix it to their networks, so it can reach a large audience.

The practical sessions involved getting students to actually make quick and easy YouTube videos, using the platform’s basic in-built editor and some of the copyright-free footage and music available on there. Despite being big consumers of YouTube, only relatively few students in the groups had ever uploaded anything themselves before. At least now they know where all that tinkly music so beloved of vloggers comes from!

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

“How many of you in the room have a Flickr account?” asked my colleague Caroline during her lecture on photo sharing in Journalism Technologies this week. Not a hand went up, other than ours. An indication of how selfies, filters and apps have taken over this space, since the days a decade ago when putting pictures on the internet meant looking at those familiar blue-and-pink dots.

The stories of Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram took up much of Caroline’s lecture. The key concept she introduced was that of mass amateurisation, memorably applied to the social web by Clay Shirky. Because reading lists don’t always have to feature readings, we made his 2005 TED talk on the subject required viewing this week. The workshop featured a bit on how to take your own smartphone photos and embed them, before some guidance on searching Google Images and, yes, Flickr, for Creative Commons images.

Getting journalism students to keep their heads up and look out for interesting things in the world around them is a perennial challenge. When you’re a journalist, all sorts of things can seem like potential stories – from the planning sign pinned to a lamppost, to all those posters on the community noticeboard. The next homework task is to get them to take just such a picture while walking around Huddersfield, do a bit more research into the story, then write it along with the embedded image in their blogs. I’m looking forward to seeing what they all find.

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

I gave Twitter the big build-up during Journalism Technologies this week, echoing Emily Bell’s memorable statement that it’s the most significant invention for journalism since the telephone. I’ve been saying something similar since I first started teaching at universities five years ago.

Back then, I used to say then that while Twitter probably wasn’t going to remain the key journalistic tool it had become, it was something students had to learn to be successful in 2011. And I can still say the same now. Despite Twitter’s many boardroom battles and other business woes in the years since, it’s still an essential part of a media professional’s daily life.

That corporate strife was a theme of much of the lecture I gave on Monday. The origin stories of these major tech companies can be instructive about the sort of operations they have become: Apple at the intersection of technology and art like Steve Jobs, and Google where engineers like Larry and Sergey are king. For Twitter, it’s a confused mess, with a group of bickering rivals who stumbled on a remarkable communications tool with a user base which developed most of its key strengths (from the @ reply to retweets) while its creators fumbled through trying to turn it into a business.

The Public Sphere was the week’s key theory, important not just because it’s a concept which helps explain Twitter’s centrality to modern public life, but also as the students had already looked at Habermas in another module in week two, and this was a timely refresher for them. But alongside a discussion on that, the workshop featured some quick practical tasks as we ran through more advanced Twitter features including Advanced Search, Lists and Followerwonk, as well as embedding tweets and making your own personal profile look a bit more professional.

One of Monday afternoon’s classes with a group of Sports Journalism students coincided with the horrific pile-up involving four horses and jockeys at Kempton. Quickly, I was able to show the students how to use the location filter on Advanced Search to track down a journalist tweeting from the course. It’s yet another new important skill, in a career more full of them than ever before.

Meanwhile, it’s congratulations to Journalism first year Maria Ward-Brennan, who won a £10 app store voucher in a little competition I ran during Monday’s lecture. I challenged the students to find a creative way to use Twitter while I was talking, and to post their entries on #journotech. Maria won for this, which was annoyingly accurate.

IMPRESS, Regulation and Hyperlocal News

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Saddleworth News.

Should we be impressed by IMPRESS? Four years after the Leveson Report into press standards, a new regulator has finally won formal recognition by the independent body established to do the recognising. But there is some derision from Fleet Street for a body which is, after all, funded by sex scandal ex-motorsport boss Max Mosley.

Most newspapers and magazines around the UK have thrown in their lot with a different body, IPSO, while others including The Guardian and Financial Times continue with their own arrangements. Those publishers aren’t happy with running anything past a recognition panel, and would prefer their own forms of self-regulation.

In a past life I set up Saddleworth News, now at nearly seven years old one of the country’s best-established hyperlocal news sites. Even though I’ve long since moved away, I keep an interest in the site and the sector more generally. This is relevant because of the 50 or so publishers currently associated with IMPRESS (either being regulated by them, or having applied to be), most are hyperlocal.

The original idea was that being part of an approved regulator would offer publishers a carrot: quick and easy resolution of libel disputes, settled cheaply before anything got to court. Along with this, a stick: if you don’t join up, you’ll have to pay the costs, even if you win. This latter sanction is included in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, but has yet to be invoked because of the lack of a formally validated regulator. Now IMPRESS has been recognised, the prospect of section 40 has risen back up the political agenda. Although a story in Tuesday’s Times hinted that the government may now back down.

So, confusion for a bit longer. But it’s hyperlocal publishers who have much to lose here. The News Media Association, which represents the newspaper and magazine industry, has claimed that the hyperlocals who have thrown in their lot with IMPRESS have done so unnecessarily, because they don’t meet the government’s own definition of ‘relevant publisher’ which includes a requirement of at least 10 members of staff. But those criteria also feature being subject to editorial control, publishing news content, engaging in commercial activity and having different authors – all of which apply to, say, Saddleworth News, the sort of organisation which could theoretically be wiped out by a vexatious litigant angry at coverage of a contentious local matter. Having the institutional support of an official regulator could offer welcome and much-needed back-up.

As the-then Culture Secretary Maria Miller put it in the Commons in 2013: “Those exempted by virtue of the fact that they are a micro-business can choose to gain the benefits of the costs clauses by joining the regulator, providing an incentive for them to join if they so wish and a choice to small organisations, perhaps before they grow in size and inevitably become a relevant publisher.” For all its faults, IMPRESS is probably even more appealing for a hyperlocal now than it was then.

There’s more on this from Matt Abbott over at C4CJ.

Journalism Technologies: 5. The Facebook Effect

You can’t discuss social media for very long before you arrive at Facebook, so in a way it’s a surprise we’ve waited until five weeks into our Journalism Technologies module to get onto it. This was the lecture delivered by my colleague Caroline Pringle on Monday, focusing in particular on the development of the platform. It’s tempting to think that it’s been around forever, and for 18-year-olds it just about has, so going back and exploring how it became what it is today is really worthwhile. And, as a show of hands confirmed, not that many teenagers have seen The Social Network.

The key concept introduced was that of The Filter Bubble, a term coined by Eli Pariser – best known for his role at MoveOn.org – and explained by him in this TED talk. Roughly speaking, it describes what happens when algorithms, such as those which power Facebook’s news feed, increasingly show us only content it thinks we’re going to be interested in, based on our previous online behaviour. It’s ironic that Pariser went on to co-found Upworthy, one of a series of BuzzFeed rivals which suffered a big drop in traffic thanks to a Facebook algorithm tweak in 2014.

The workshops focused on using Facebook for practical journalistic purposes. In part, this is about finding appropriate groups and pages to like, helping to turn the news feeds of our students into ones more useful to trainee journalists. Less Unilad and more, well, everything else. The highlight though was the section on using Facebook for broadcasting, when everyone had a go at Facebook Live. Even though I reminded all the groups to set their privacy to ‘Only Me’ to avoid spamming confused family and friends, one was enjoying himself so much he let everyone in his network see his stream. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be doing this in a lesson?” wrote his mum in a comment. I can vouch for him: he was.