Friday, 30 October 2009

No news to report? Are you sure about that?

A tweet by Jay Rosen led me to this online news story by the Jackson Sun, which says that there have been no newsworthy incidents in the area overnight. So far, so boring right?
I wonder. Because I have also played the 'there is no news' card - and there was a very calculated reason for it, although it is a bit of a long story...

In the mid-ninties I was working for the Gloucester Citizen as a senior reporter, somtimes helping out on the newsdesk, mostly just bemoaning the fact that I had missed out on covering the Rose West trial because the only hotel room left in the whole of Winchester was a twin bed one, the other reporter assigned to cover it for the Citizen was a bloke (who had covered the West horrorfest since the start, to be fair), and the company didn't feel able to have a co-ed bedroom.
So as I kicked around the newsroom, complaining, an unexpected thing happened; the editor's door opened, a shaft of sunlight appeared and a voice issued forth saying: "I need you to go and relaunch the Forest of Dean edition". Truly, I was blessed.

For anyone not in the know, the Forest of Dean is a breathtakingly beautiful area of countryside on the Gloucester/Wales border, where sheep roam the roads freely (and get smeared along them by speeding motorists just as often) and tiny lanes lead to dizzying hilltops from which you can gaze across some of the most amazing views in Britain. In the mid-nineties. it also had one of the most bloody miserable, unhelpful, intransigent police forces that it's ever been my misfortune to have to ring on an early shift.

Nothing happened in the Forest according the FoD police. Nothing. Even when a serving police officer - who went on the run from the North East following a string of dubious incidents, including how he attained the status of widower - turned up dead in a bathtub in a Cinderford semi, after assuming a false identity and joining the local am dram group. The Rapture could have happened in the Forest, and the local police would have denied any such activity.
So one day, several weeks into the relaunch, I snapped. It was a Monday, 7.30am, and there was snow on the ground when I phoned Coleford police station to find out what had happened overnight. "Nothing" came the reply. And at 11.30am the Forest edition started landing at newsagents with a nib in the p6 Briefs column that read: "Not crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean overnight". Same story in the Incident Book at Cinderford's small police office - the Forest was at peace, and had been for several days, if that was to be believed.
Tuesday came, and I spoke to the desk sergeant at Coleford again. "Nothing". "No crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean since Saturday" ran the p6 nib. People were starting to ring say this was inaccurate because they were the victims of crimes; we explained the situation, and asked them to contact Coleford Police, also suggesting that perhaps they wouldn't mind telling their friends of this conversation?
Wednesday and Thursday came and went, and so did the p6 nibs. And on Friday I was summoned to see the superintendent at Coleford Police Station for an exchange of views that led with me climbing off my high horser, and them agreeing a series of protocols for working with the press, and asking me to go on their next drugs raid.

I can't say we became the best of friends but the 'there is no news' did at least kickstart the conversation and lead to some much-needed venting. I think both sides were arrogant and held each other in low estime, and with hindsight I feel a little ashamed that I used the Citizen's readers as a stick to beat the police with; it wasn't fair on those victims of crime, but... it did make a difference to how we were able to report crime, and -maybe? - how the police viewed those taxpayers.
So, I can't look at the Jackson Sun's little nib without wondering if there is some gameplay going on. I sort of hope there is.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Speaking Freely "This is a test from SpinVox..." (<<<< that's their headline btw)

"This is a test from SpinVox to my blog to see how long I can talk before, before it runs out of characters and how many if any mistakes it mate cos in that time. I am speaking very slowly and clearly there's no background noise. So everything should work perfectly well past experience."
spoken through SpinVox

The above comment was posted to my blog, from my phone, using Spinvox, a service I used back early in 2008 but quickly became disenchanted with because it couldn't post anything I said without mangling it.
I can live with the 'length of x3 SMS' posts because mobile journalism is about This Is Happening Now rather than Look What We've Put On Our Website For You but I can't live with the errors.

The sentence 'mistakes it mate cos in that time' should read 'mistakes it makes in that time' and the last sentence has been mangled; it should read 'perfectly well although that hasn't been my past experience'. But I did push my luck on the character limit so it's probably my fault it contracted the less-than-favourable bit of the sentence. Although it is suspicious.

Anyway, Spinvox verdict: Not improved enough for me to use again regularly. 

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Google Wave, transparency* and engagement

I've been using Google Wave for about a week now and every time I log on I discover something new. I've read a few gripes about things being broken, or it being too confusing, or too quiet, but for me the biggest problem is having time to play around with it enough to learn everything it can do.

Lifehacker has been invaluable, as has this post and this one although when I swept off in a, well, in a wave of enthusiasm to embed a wave on here I swiftly discovered my limitations. I was pretty downcast as well until I realised that it should be quite easy as it's all done by automation but the facility isn't switched on yet. And since my coding skills are pretty lowly I am really not up to tackling this without bot assistance. So instead of getting hung up on what it can and can't do, I think I'm better off trying to work out the rules of engagement.

For example, I've just crashed a Wave. It's about Flickr, I didn't mean too, but I have just added myself to the discussion simply by clicking 'reply' to see if I could. No one cared but it was weird that a debate was going on between a group of people who obviously know one another and suddenly I'm in the middle of it. All a bit too "Ta-daaaaaaa!" for me right now. I guess it's because I am still treating it like it's a private conversation; it is a public Wave on the public timeline but, like Twitter, it's not easy to keep that in mind when you're using it. It becomes a little world and when someone new arrives it's a surprise.

Here's something else to, raised by Nick Miller in the 'Wave, journalism and the mainstream media' wave I joined today:
Watching people type in real time is fantastic, in a voyeuristic way. You can see their minds working.

But do we want people to see our minds working? How many times have we written an email, tweet or forum comment, only for our censor to kick in and say 'don't send that!'.
How many times? For me, a lot. Right now I'm getting mocked for my poor typing skills by fellow wavers who can see me correcting as I'm going - but there's a lot more onus on me now to think through what I'm going to say. You know in Google Chat when it says X has entered text and it generally means they're sense-checking what they've written? In a wave, your thoughts are revealed letter by letter. And I get very self-conscious if I start a sentence, then backtrack/delete and rephrase it while other people observe me making those changes.

What Google has done is create an application that allows those watching a wave to see thought-proceses at work; a wave is an aid to Transparency. A journalist using a wave is asking people to collaborate wiki-style in information-gathering - in fact, s/he should be writing the article in the wave, so contributors can participate in living, breathing news-making - a space where they can throw questions, facts and comments in themselves - not be served up a flat, one-dimensional statement of facts that ends when the story is thought to be the required amount of words.

I remember last July when a crane collapsed on an apartment block in Liverpool, and how Twitter was integral to the Post and Echo's coverage - imagine if we'd been able to start a public wave on the topic and embed it on our websites. By bringing a contributing audience into our site and asking them to help us - using maps and images being added alongside observations and comments - the 'journalist as gatekeeper' would have been truly defunct. Rumours posted could be quickly checked and a breaking story updated constantly. And it would remain open for users to revisit, and add to. The playback option shows exactly who made what changes when, which is also pretty handy.

It's not Twitter, or Facebook, or a wiki, or even email but it is, I think, a great learning opportunity for journalists who are prepared for the sense of exposure and vulnerability it brings. Letting someone see the messy spaghetti of a story-in-progress is something we've been conditioned against for decades - it's many years since I sat my NCE but I'll bet the NCTJ is still interested in the end product, not the journey - and Google Wave is all about in-progress. It would be unsettling (and possibly, initially, irritating) as a journalist to type a statement and then see another wave participant dive in and start editing the text you've just written to change a fact, or add information but I'd imagine it would also be exciting to see a news story being woven out of random strands of questions and facts.

Google Wave is going to be what a journalist wants make it - crowdsourcing, debating, real-time news-gathering, breaking news, image sharing, archived events, live-blogging, polling, asking for feedback - but, I think, the most exciting thing it offers is the opportunity to change the way we think about interaction and engagement. As a learning tool for transparency, it really could be amazing.

* Shortly after I published this post it was pointed out to me that the headline read 'tansprency'; I told you my typing was hopeless...

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Using animation to tell a news story

No, I'm honestly not suggesting a return to those horrible stilted avatars reading the news headlines, but I do like the idea of using some animation to bring a reader into a story - particularly if the story is the latest in a long running saga and a handy recap of the tale-to-date would be useful.

I made my first cartoon using Xtranormal today; I know it's a site usually used for making training and presentation tools, but I was interested in whether it might work for journalists.
It took me about an hour and I had a lot of fun doing it. As the clip embedded here explains, I chose an avatar (there's everything from corporate to robot avatars available but I fancied having blue hair) and gave it a voice (she's really plummy unfortunately) then started adding animations.

The script is translated to audio, and it does sound stilted, although when I played around with some of the words and punctuation it improved. I think if I'd spent more time on it I could have got it to flow better.
So I know it's not Toy Story but it does the job, and I was more interested in seeing how efficiently it worked, and how long it took to put together, than the style and content.

Anyway, it made me think: why shouldn't we incorporate more animation in our websites? I don't mean some 'toon cat informing us of a moider in a local suburb, I'm thinking more about the options to introduce some fun back into what we do, and what we provide for our audience.
I'd love to see reporters being given time to make multimedia content - soundslides, cartoon, blogging, timelines, wordclouds - to compliment the words they have to churn out every day.

So, this is my first cartoon, made for free on a free site which offers paying customers more characters, audio, sets and other options.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The problems with second-guessing our online audience

Trying to second-guess what a newspaper's online audience wants from its website is a tricky business. Apart from those who come to our sites for information there are huge numbers there purely for commercial services, and who find our sites through searches, not unflagging loyalty.

The second most viewed news article on the Echo site so far this month is a beauty contest semi-final; at the time of writing, it's more than 5,000 hits ahead of (and two rankings higher than) an exclusive interview by the sports editor with the CEO of Liverpool FC, a club that can truly claim to be a global brand with fanatical followers around the world. In short, that was an article you'd have put money on securing the number one spot in the rankings, but it's being beaten by a local beauty pagaent which is generating thousands of page views (possibly from proud relatives...)

The phrase 'We Know What They Want' is a kissing cousin to 'If It Bleeds, It Leads'; murders sell papers and a news editor is always going to put the big crime story at the top of the newslist, but... a violent death isn't always the best story of the day, and not all readers appreciate being served up a diet of crime.
They tell us so, in surveys, on forums, in phone calls, comments under articles, and on blogs. We can't risk doing the same thing online - a YouTube video of some TV singer might do wonders for hits but considered retrospectively I'd say it's a false positive and gives a skewed view of what our core audience values.

A slideshow presentation into the US news industry brought home to me the risks that accompany assuming you know your readership well. It details the results of a survey of 2,400 U.S. newspaper executive and was presented to last week's American Press Institute’s Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference by Greg Harmon, of Belden Interactive, and Greg Swanson, of ITZ Publishing.

I discovered it via Steve Outing's blog and I think the slides illustrate how out-of-touch some of the newspaper executives who took partwere. The survey shows the majority incorrectly assumed readers found their content very valuable; they also stated a belief that readers would struggle to find adequate replacements - the reader response was that they wouldn't find it difficult.