Sunday, 30 August 2009

Why the RSS river of news drowns Facebook and Google Reader

My Facebook page has had a serious clear out. I junked my Twitter feed, Friendfeed and Mento links (along with a host of other stuff that I never liked or really wanted but which I acquired every time a friend sent me something).
The reason was simple: whenever I logged on I was faced with an overdose of my tweets, Friendfeed rss, bookmarks, notes and more.

As an individual user, I don't much like Facebook. I don't want to be sent kittens, issued with challenges or quizzed, and I prefer sites where I don't have to decide whether to fend off Zombie attacks. I like FB status updates, but that's about it. I use, as opposed to visit, Twitter, Plurk, Flickr and Delicious, all the time. Wired Journalists, Dipity,, Spotify and Blip, and Good Reads are coming up on the rails.

So, on a personal level, Facebook as an aggregator is a turn-off for me but it's not alone; my Google Reader has also undergone a wholesale clearout. I realised the best way I found new blogs and websites was through Twitter - I sometimes subscribe to hashtag themes in my Reader so I can follow a debate, but Friendfeed works just as well. And it's a lot less time-consuming to dip in and out of a hashtag search than see there are 1200 unread items in my reader. Mashable, for example, has been binned and replaced with an rss of @Mashable's tweets - faster to skim through, no adverts - and it saves me clogging my Twitter feed.

I talked at TEDx Liverpool about journalists now having a river of information available to them through social media; I later learned the River of News analogy was well-established in regards to RSS . Google has also been thinking about this RSS news river and the need for more social opportunities in our Reader, I guess, because it's now added 'comments' and 'power reader' recommends to its options (click to enlarge the image):

I'm not really interested in the comments (they tend to be of the 'great post, Jon!' variety) and although I click on the '1 person liked this' links sometimes - I found this interesting post on the subject through six degrees of separation from the 'like' option - I don't want to know what's in a power user's Reader.
If I'm not following them on Twitter or Friendfeed someone who does will no doubt be retweeting them or linking to a post. And if they don't, does it really matter? It's not like I need to know everything that's new or news. And what I think is important might be trivia to someone else.

* River photo by talaakso

Saturday, 22 August 2009

A (very unscientific) test between the N97 and iPhone, With added dinosaurs...

Two titans went up against each other in a desperate battle for supremacy this week, at the Walking With Dinosaurs show in the Echo Arena.
Yes, amid earth-shaking, smoke machines and screaming children, I pitted an iPhone 3Gs and a Nokia N97 against each other to see which came out top.

Actually, it wasn't quite as organised as that. The truth is, my N95 8GB has died and I was torn between replacing it with a sleek, sexy iPhone and a practical and workmanlike N86. And while I procrastinated, unable to decide, work stepped in, took away my N96 and replaced it with an N97. And I happened to be sitting next to the owner of a swish new iPhone at the WWD spectacular. Well, he was my husband...

The new iPhone has a much-vaunted camera and video facility, but no flash. The N97 has a 5 megapixel camera, Carl Zeiss lens and touchscreen facilities. It also has a flash, but because WWD asked people not to use flash photography, I switched it off for the photos and the video, which made it a more fair contest. (Also, you can see on the videos how distracting it is when people took photos using flash.)
We also forgot to charge our phones before we went in - the Nokia had 3 bars left, the iPhone a quarter charge showing.

So, photos:

N97 (camera settings on automatic, minimal zoom)

iPhone (autofocus)

I think the iPhone won that - it's much crisper and has handled the low light better - and I think the zoom function compromised the N97 focus.

N97 (florescent white balance; no zoom)

iPhone (autofocus)

The N97 image is sharper but the iPhone definitely makes better use of the available light. The Allosaurus is barely visible in the Nokia image.
Finally for the photos:


and iPhone

I think the N97 took the better shot although perhaps I was lucky that Mama Rex and tot stopped moving for a nanosecond as I shot this one. Both the Nokia and iPhone images look much sharper when viewed smaller, it's only when they are used larger that they start to degrade.
(Those dinosaur models move rather quickly by the way; it was difficult getting a steady shot without any blur on either phone.)




In terms of video I was really impressed with the iPhone; the sound and image quality is good. The N97 was capturing action on the far side of the stage, and picked up in terms of clarity when it shifted nearer my seat, but I still thought it would beat the iPhone, and I don't think it did, on comparable settings. If I'd adjusted the set-up it probably would have performed better but - using it as a news-gathering tool, you're not always going to have the luxury of time to do that. Of course, a Flip would have blown both iPhone and Nokia away in this test, but you couldn't exactly use it to then mobile upload your videos. Or ring the story through to your newsdesk.

On sundries, the N97 battery lasted about 20 minutes longer than the iPhone. Sound quality on all the videos we took came out better on the N97, but I suspect that was because it's so easy to accidentally muffle the Apple microphone with your hand when you're recording. So which phone won, in my view?
Reader, I went out the very next day and bought... an N86.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Talking social journalism at TEDx Liverpool

I was asked if I'd be one of the speakers at TEDx Liverpool - the first of several TEDx North events taking place over the next few months - and it turned out be be a memorable day.
Based around the mind-stretching theme of Creativity, I got hear presentations by from Microsoft's Steve Clayton and's Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino among others, I met some Twitter friends in real life, and got covered in bubbles by Bubblino.

The theme of my 15-minute talk was Social Journalism - I wanted to explain my thoughts on how journalists who engage communities and interact on social networks can tell stories and gather news more completely, and with better results - and it featured as an example the July crane collapse in Liverpool, as I'd blogged around the subject then and thought about it a lot since.

There was some powerpointage which I've now put on (without the original punctuation errors - it's amazing what you miss until it's up on a damn great screen in front of an audience!) and hopefully it was of interest to TEDx-ers, although I guess the tech crowd must have wished for 15 minutes more of the Microsoft Surface.

The questions at the end were challenging - I think a lot of people outside newspapers must find the crisis facing the industry fascinating. There were a few Post&Echo people in the audience and it must have been a bit weird for them to listen to me discussing the future of journalism in fairly frank terms. As I said at TEDx, my views are my own, not those of my employers. I don't keep them to myself particulalry, but neither do I accost co-workers in corridors and urge them to join Twitter. Perhaps I should.

I wonder, for instance, what my colleagues made of me saying journalists needed to take themselves out of the story, and stop trying to shape and influence it? That journalism wasn't the sole preserve of those paid to do it? That in the future there would be journalists - just maybe not so many, and perhaps they would be working for several employers across different types of media.

The thing is, journalism is changing, the way news reporters operate has to change, and the way we interact and seek out our audiences has certainly got to change. Answering questions on public social networks like Twitter doesn't lessen the importance of a piece of information - it strengthens it, makes it easier to share, and for more people to apply their knowledge. The facts of a crane collapse - the Hows, Wheres and Whys - become really compelling when you add in the Whos: Who was involved; who saw what; who got hurt/had a miracle escape/rescued a neighbour. And you find out Who by reaching out - talking to witnesses, listening to their stories - both in the real world (by going to the scene) and online (by engaging on social media).

Anyway, that's how I see it. For more on TEDx Liverpool have a look at this blog post by The Guardian's Sarah Hartley - and if you're thinking of going to any of the others I'd act now; tickets for Manchester have already gone.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Reporting breaking news using an N95 and social media

I went back to reporting today; there was a fire in Stanley St, Liverpool, and I found myself (quite by accident) on the scene before the road was cordoned off.
Fire engines were parked the length of Victoria Street - there must have been at least 15 there, not to mention police cars and ambulances - and around the junction with Stanley Street were sprawls of rescue teams.

I had a chat with a couple of firefighters while they grabbed a quick glug of tea - both had soot-smudged features and looked very tired - but they were unfailingly cheerful and in full teasing mode. I think it's a requirement of the job that you have to be able to gently mock reporters; in any case, my experience has tended to be that fire crews are the most genial of the blue light services and usually up for a bit of banter.

I had no kit other than my N95 - not even a pen - but I actually didn't need anything else. I shot a bit of video to post to YouTube...


... and then wangled a quick interview with one of the fire service managers, who was not at all fazed when I explained I had no notebook and could he please read out his statement so I could film it. Not cutting edge journalism (my poor, dying N95 collapsed at one point and needed open-back surgery in the back of the fire van) but it worked fine.

There was some drama in how to share the video; I couldn't get them to upload to YouTube via Shozu for ages due to O2 flakiness. (Another consequence of this was that livestreaming via Bambuser was pointless).
Finally the Post & Echo's head of web, Kevin Matthews (not having the gentle return from holidays he was hoping for, I suspect) was able to access them and get them into the online news article, along with photos from fellow digital team member (and nearby resident, Jo Kelly).

What this little reporting interlude made me appreciate was how reliant I have become on social networks and my mobile phone to share information. I didn't need a notebook, laptop or camera - just Twitter, Twitpic and Youtube, and the other users in my network to help me share it. If only I could have remembered my Ipadio password (I was very cross with myself) I would have posted a podcast report of what was happening too. It was fairly simple, and would have been an absolute breeze if it hadn't been for O2.

It was a real case of putting my money where my mouth was; the previous day I'd given a talk at TEDx Liverpool on Social Journalism, and the use of news networks to share stories. I want to blog on TEDx when I've got my thoughts together a bit more, but it was interesting and fun to have to practise what I'd been preaching so soon afterwards. And it was a lot more fun than writing strategy documents...

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Can The Observer succeed where The Rocky Mountain News failed?

I'm not a regular reader of The Observer but I'm following the news and views around its potential future (or lack of) with interest.
There's a Facebook page (4,300-plus people have joined, a Twitter account , a Twitter hashtag (#savetheobserver), innumerable blog posts - even Newsnight has come out in support. There is a very real feeling of affection being stated for the world's oldest Sunday newspaper.

Butit strikes me that what people are saying about The Observer is strangely familiar.
Anyone who watched the compelling (and desperately sad) video of the last day of the Rocky Mountain News will probably remember that film featured a series of talking heads from reader.
The interviews start around 8.40 minutes in to the video, and the comments that your average Joe Reader comes back with follow a common theme:
"It's what keeps me in touch"
"You won't miss it til it's gone"
and even
"An uninformed society breeds a lot of social evils"
These are people talking about their local paper before it closed but after its closure became an inevitability.
They are good quotes, and they have impact, but do they tell the whole story? Is the other side of the coin the ones who would have said:
"I don't buy it"
"I won't miss it"
"It's not relevant to me"
Economic pressures and the newspaper industry crisis has been blamed for the demise of Colorado's oldest newspaper but the phrase "Denver can't support two newspapers" crops up in both the video and print accounts of its closure.

Interestingly, in recent weeks a new daily online news magazine has sprung up - the Rocky Mountain Independent - created by some of the writers and editors who previously worked for the RMN. It's a free site, and I'd like to think it can succeed.

In the same spirit, I wish The Observer, its staff and those who are trying to save it all the luck in the world. They are certainly doing their best - the latest report is that a radically-slimmed down Sunday paper is being proposed.
I hope there's a positive outcome to this story, and I'll be buying The Observer this Sunday to show my support. But, in all honesty, I think the best that can be expected in this instance is a stay of execution.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The journalist marketplace

I've been having an online amble around Journalism Shop and wondering how long before something similar opens in the UK.

This is what the founders have to say about themselves:

Over the past couple of years the Los Angeles Times and its corporate owner, Tribune, have undergone an epic financial crunch which has led to the jettisoning of hundreds of veteran journalists. We are some of them. Our ranks include veteran political journalists, fashion writers, award-winning investigative journalists and a wide raft of the invisible folks of newspapers - line editors, copy editors, page designers and researchers. We are mainly based in Southern California but have members scattered widely -- Washington, D.C., Illinois, Virginia, Arizona and even Taiwan.

The Los Angeles Times' loss can be your gain. Our interests range from freelance magazine journalism to book writing, deep project research to report design and writing. We encourage you to tap into our vast reservoir of experience and skill to bring to your own projects the caliber of journalism that helped make the Los Angeles Times one of the nation's top newspapers.

I'm interested to see how this develops; I wonder sometimes if the future of journalism will be made up of freelancers who support themselves by selling articles, but who are in turn hired in by media companies to work on specific stories.
After all, the on-costs would be minimal and companies would save huge amounts in recruitment and retention, and pensions, not to mention in the training of staff (of course, news companies could even could start running - and charging - training courses).
On the flip side, what price do you put on loyalty, commitment, quality of employees with know abilities?

I suppose there would be an element of practicality in purchasing the time of a specifically-skilled journalist for a specific story. A specialist health journalist, for example, could find themselves booked to work on upcoming hospital league table figures, with a brief to invesgitate and return two days worth of copy (and I'm guessing associated graphics, images, podcasts or video reporting too).
Such a team would have to suppliment a small core of retained writers - but what would those writers be working for? A publishing company in the broadest sense of the word I'd imagine - print and website, books, video...

Journalism Shop, Spot.Us, Help Me Investigate - they all come back to a common theme - reporters reporting issues that people really are interesteted in, not following other agendas.
There's a lesson here.