Monthly Archives: March 2017

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.

Journalism Technologies: 21. Data Journalism

It was over to my colleague Caroline Pringle once again this week, for Monday’s lecture in our Journalism Technologies module. She looked at data journalism, a term often used in passing but relatively poorly understood by a lot of journalism students, who may not get much opportunity to put it into practice while also learning the more traditional basic skills of their trade.

Of the points which Caroline made in the lecture, the one about 90% of all data in human history being generated within the last two years is the nugget which remains the most jaw-dropping. With all that data floating around, journalists simply can’t afford to be put off by charts, tables and statistics, even if they ended up becoming interested in this as a career because they enjoyed English and couldn’t hack maths.

For the practical sessions, we gave students a dataset each – Sports Journalism students, for example, got the BBC’s Price of Football survey from last year – and they were told to work in small groups to identify some key lines, and then write the first few sentences of a story for either a local, regional or national publisher. This worked well as an exercise to fit easily within an hour-long class. There are plenty of interesting factoids in even such a relatively straightforward dataset, ranging from the cheap prices on offer at high-flying Huddersfield, to the extraordinary fact that North Ferriby’s cheapest season ticket is actually dearer than the ones at their Premier League neighbours, Hull City. Now all of the students have done a tiny bit of data journalism once, it’ll be much easier for them to believe they can do it again.

Journalism Technologies: 20. Did That Really Just Happen?

This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies was listed in the module handbook at the start of term as being about UGC and verification, an important skill which journalists increasingly need when sorting fact from fiction on social media. But with the growing focus on fake news since then – a term which has had an extraordinary half-life, taking it from little-known buzzword to over-used cliche in a matter of months – I thought this was a good opportunity to explain to the students that recent history.

For an academic concept to help illustrate these overlapping areas of fake news and UGC verification, I turned to a great book by my PhD supervisor Stuart Allan, Citizen Witnessing. Students are often familiar with the idea of ‘citizen journalism’, something often taught in A-Level media classes. Stuart’s book offers a nuanced evolution of that rather broad concept, and examines more closely those who record, post and share content when they find themselves caught up in dramatic news events.

A key difference from the ‘citizen journalists’ of Indymedia who came to prominence covering the Seattle protests of 1999 – who can arguably be described in turns as cousins of the sport and music fanzine writers of years gone by – is that citizen witnesses aren’t actively trying to do journalism as such.  To me, the greater journalistic act takes place when a newsroom attempts to verify that material, before publishing it as part of a news report. So I agree that those witnesses are better not described as journalists of any kind. But regardless of the terminology, journalists are increasingly under pressure to do that verification, and quickly, and the emergence of a skills gap in this area within journalism has led to the outsourcing of that task to growing players such as Storyful.

Rather than getting all the students to take a look at Stuart’s book though, I decided to get them to read Guardian editor Kath Viner’s essay of last summer. Even though it was written largely before the Donald Trump-based rise of fake news, it’s still a good read, especially for an audience with little prior knowledge of this area. One interesting aspect of that: plenty of students were more than a bit surprised to discover the rather uncertain provenance of the infamous David Cameron/pig story.

Journalism Technologies: 19. The Power of the Crowd

We’ve moved onto the final part of the inaugural first year Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield. The opening term before Christmas was all about introducing the students to different platforms week by week in the lectures, then taking them through how to use them in the workshops, before they submitted a reflective learning log on their blogs. Next, we examined the ways in which changes in technology have impacted on media companies both old and new, and students produced content analyses comparing legacy journalism outlets with pure players.

Now, students will be required to do a third assessment by Easter, in which they complete a piece of journalism using at least two social tools to help tell the story. And the first lecture to support this part of the module came from my colleague Caroline Pringle last Monday, on how to make the most of online communities.

Caroline took the students through some of the ways in which people gather online, and the places where they do that, from more traditional forums to Facebook groups both public and private. Mumsnet remains a classic example of how a strong community can become not only a thriving forum, but a significant media brand in its own right. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, of those of us in the room only me and Caroline would admit to ever actually going on it, but I suppose 18-year-olds aren’t really in their target demographic (I went on Mumsnet occasionally in my past life as a stay-at-home dad, although really only for recipe tips – the rest of it seemed a bit impenetrable, even for me).

For concepts to help students understand the power of online communities, Caroline turned to both the classic idea of the wisdom of crowds, as well as Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus: that many of us use much of our increased spare time in order to create and share things online, just as in the past we’d have used that time to, perhaps, inadvertently become experts on TV shows. For Shirky, it’s a typically optimistic view of how the development of technologies is generally a positive thing in all sorts of unexpected ways.