Tag Archives: Journalism Technologies

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.