Monday, 30 January 2012

Online footprints, digital identities and life after Leveson

Pic: Derek Backen via Flickr
A few years ago I gave a talk to FACT Liverpool's Art of Digital conference called Identity 2.0 considering how we try to comport ourselves online (professionally and otherwise) compared with our true selves; how, sometimes, the divisions become blurred, and this sends  mixed-messages about who and what we are. 

I remembered that talk again after taking a telephone call from a reader pointing out an inaccuracy in a print article uploaded to WalesOnline website, and asking what could be done. 
I outlined the options - I could update the article, showing where and what update had occurred, add a clarification and link to our Corrections and Clarifications page, and pass on details to the print title so it could also correct the inaccuracy in its clarifications column too. 
The caller's response was so unexpected, and so on-the-money, that I ended up tweeting it:

140 characters is a little restrictive but that is word for word what was said; it doesn't, however, convey the amused snort that met my suggestion the caller might want the record setting straight in print as well.
He was genuinely not bothered that a story might have been read in print or discussed by perhaps 35,000 people (taking reader reach into account) whereas the online article was read by 232 people on the day it was published, and 366 people in total to date; the concern was around its online lifespan and, I suspect, its portability. 
After all, 35,000 people in Wales reading (or at least having the page in front of their eyes, which is a different thing) and then discarding the product it came packed in is somewhat different to the CEO of a potential investor in the City, for example, finding it during an online search of the company or individual's name.

Here's an example that happened very recently; a student who stripped off - among other things - in a Cardiff nightclub fountain and was videoed by just about everyone who saw her.
She's been discussed on Twitter as #oceanasket over the weekend...

... and was toughing it out and responding via Twitter but that account has closed now. The incident was reported locally in the South Wales Echo and on WalesOnline (it was decided not to name her), and also made international news although it's the video that will haunt her down the years. If you plan on searching for it, it's NOT sfw.

I've had several concerned people on the phone or in my inbox recently asking for online stories to be removed; it's a legal and ethical minefield.
To consider court cases for a moment, specifically the matter of spent convictions: when several cases were uploaded daily back in the dim and distant days of 2001 who knows if they were set to unpublish automatically after the conviction was spent?
Do you wait for the former defendant to come forward and ask for an obscure case, out of thousands of other cases in your database, to be removed, or organise a  pre-emptive archive sweep of all content?  
Obviously every newsroom has the bottomless resource of people, time and patience to do the latter. Oh, wait. Uh...

But, court cases (and #oceanasket) aside, increasingly people seem to be more concerned and aware about the online footprints they leave - Facebook's new Timeline is already helping  up the Daily Mail's scare quota - but I'm getting more queries from people who want an online story removed because it's just not how they want to be seen any more.
I don't mean court cases; I mean people who spoke to their local paper a few years ago to raise an issue - my recent conversations have spanned everything from lack of council bin facilities to UFO sightings - and who now realise that their story lives on still; their names come up in searches, and they are visible to the whole world explaining why they don't recycle, or how the glowing lights in the sky couldn't have been weather balloons.

It definitely feels as though, post-phone hacking and with the Leveson Inquiry in full swing, people are far more aware of their right to call out their local paper if they have an issue with something.
Personally I've handled more PCC requests for information in the past eight months than in my entire career, and that's not a stat that's skewed because I'm an editor now and these things only go to editors -  complaints, PCC and otherwise, always wind up with newsdesk for input at some point.
The change is, I think, being driven by several factors, but the key points for me are: 
* Far more visibility of what action you can take if you're unhappy with your local media
* The fallibility of the press has never been more public, more discussed and more entrenched in people's minds
* Greater searchability and longevity of potentially contentious content as search engines become more sophisticated and aggregators spread content further
It's not scientific, just some conclusions based on my experience, but other long-serving journalists I've spoken to have remarked on the same thing. 
Leveson demonstrates publicly how and why the Press makes mistakes, and there's little distinction, for most people between national and regional; phone hacking arrests and court actions drive the message home as well.
Every week something happens that makes me realise regional journalism is changing, fundamentally, but for once it has nothing to do with the internet - it's driven by the perceptions of users and non-users.

It's easier to be more agile and adaptive online - mistake can be corrected, articles updated as a story progresses, ill-advised comments removed or functionality switched off ... it's not perfect but being transparent, and that familiar teaching instruction Show Your Work are effective ways to move forward. It's a sort of Tina principle; we either get better, be less defensive, get more honest, show we're accountable, or the erosion of trust continues. 
Meanwhile, as more people realise their online footprints haven't been erased by the sands of time, I foresee busy, and complicated, times ahead. 

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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A print-centric view of engagement and interaction?

I spent most of today with the Leveson inquiry livestream playing in one of my tabs, listening if not watching, as the regional editors gave evidence. 
These were the ones I was really interested in hearing from - the Dacres and Hardings may make better copy but regional media is where I play and I wanted to know what these editors (two of whom I've worked for and admire) had to say. 
The first thing that struck me was the way eight senior editors, heard from in two groups, were forced to scrunch themselves around a small table as though they were playing musical chairs - poor John McLellan obviously lost that particular round.

The other aspect that became apparent as the day went on just what different beasts the regionals are from the nationals; so much so that it seemed, at times, as though interlocutors were a little lost as to where to take their questioning next. 
The witness statements from today are all here and make lengthy but worthwhile reading (although everyone was terribly eager to please and there is an excruciating bit of joyless banter involving Yorkshire/Lancashire rivalry). 

But - and I don't get to follow Leveson much due to the fact that there are websites and papers to edit and meetings (so many meetings) to attend so if I'm wrong please tell me - what I mostly took away from today's immersion in the hearing was that it seems very print-centric. Reader letters/emails are obviously one way to gauge reaction, and editors active in their communities will get some face-to-face feedback.

But I was surprised that the discussions about interaction and perception failed to touch on the online engagements and interactions each paper experiences, no doubt almost constantly, throughout the day; the comments posted under stories, replies to tweets, postings on Facebook walls, shared/recommended metrics and more.

When Wales on Sunday publishes I obsessively actively check Facebook and especially Twitter throughout the day (for both its @WalesonSunday mentions and for a Wales on Sunday saved search) to see what people are saying. 
Sometimes it's good, sometimes less so - but 99% of the time the chatter around the paper that I see focuses on different positives and negatives than the ones I have, or would expect to people to pick up on. That's probably because I have ingrained perceptions from being imeshed in producing a paper.
Newsrooms now have constant, rolling feedback from former audiences who are now able to insert themselves into the narrative. 
Reporters, digital teams, newsdesks, know faster (and sometimes more viscerally) how their work has been received than ever; the mood around the tone of a story can be assessed within a few interactions - or  could actually be influenced in advance of publication with a few judicious inquiries using social networks.
Online, it's easy to move with this flow and update, expand, amend or just cease (I recall The Guardian starting and then halting a live blog due to unfavourable feedback - a perfect example of listening to your readers, in my view); you can have a conversation that may well diffuse those who are perplexed or angry (the use of Swansea's 'Hitler House' photos being a case in point - we asked, got the ok and were fine, the Mail didn't, and got quite a bit of online flak.) 

Leveson was asking editors if they were listening to their audiences; they answered that they were - but the reality is that they probably don't realise just how closely their newsrooms really are listening, reacting and adapting; that was, for me, the big question the inquiry missed asking or learning about today. 

(Photo credit: The Guardian)

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Saturday, 14 January 2012

CoveritLive gets hacked

So this morning brought a "We've been hacked!" email from CoveritLive with the assurance " We regret any inconvenience that this password change process may cause you". Frankly, an enforced password change is a small price to pay... hopefully that's the full extent of it.

From: CoveritLive Date: 14 January 2012 01:22
Subject: Important CoveritLive Password Notification

CoveritLive recently discovered that certain proprietary data files were accessed without authorization starting on or about January 7, 2012. We have not yet determined if, or to what extent, CoveritLive account information (i.e., user names, email addresses and/or passwords) was accessed. We do know, however, that no financial account information has been compromised.
Our investigation is ongoing, and, as a precautionary measure, we will implement required password resets for all active CoveritLive accounts. We plan for this process to begin Saturday January 14, 2012 at 12 AM EDT (5 AM GMT). The next time you log in after the process has begun, you will be asked to change your password before you will be allowed into your account. NOTE: we do not anticipate that you will experience a disruption in your event if you are using CoveritLive while the change is invoked.
Your password and all account passwords are encrypted as a standard CoveritLive information security practice, and we have no evidence that an unauthorized individual has actually retrieved, or is using such data. However, out of an abundance of caution we recommend that if you registered for CoveritLive using an email address and password combination that you use for other online accounts, you should immediately create unique passwords or new login credentials for those other sites and accounts.
We take this matter very seriously and will continue to work to ensure that all appropriate measures are taken to protect your personal information from unauthorized access. We also would like to take this moment to remind you of a couple of tips that should always be followed:
  • Do not open emails from senders you do not know. Be especially cautious of "phishing" emails, where the sender tries to trick the recipient into disclosing confidential or personal information.
  • Do not share personal or sensitive information via email. Legitimate companies will not attempt to collect personal information outside of a secure website.
We regret any inconvenience that this password change process may cause you. Please do not hesitate to contact us at if you have any questions.
CoveritLive Team

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Are users jumping through hoops to comment on your stories?

Dolphins at Loro Parque.
Image via Wikipedia
Jon Mitchell has had a rant here on ReadWriteWeb about Google+ and its many (in his view) shortcomings. 
I still don't find Google+ compelling enough to be able to engage in that debate, but I was interested to see one poster's view in the comments included this salvo:
As for jumping through hoops, having to come to this site, after seeing the article on G+ was a pain. The entire article could have been posted to G+, where I was already logged in and could then share or comment. Instead I have to load this site, wait for all of the ridiculous ads and recommended stories to load, read the full post, which is interrupted with an ad right in the middle of the story, scroll past 20 comments, write my comment, then look forward to the no-doubt idiotic login process.
Anyone who has ever tried to comment your average newspaper website will no doubt join in on the chorus (and is probably still trying to work out how they subscribed for 20 e-newsletters while registering to comment).
We don't half make things complicated sometimes. 

Which is why I found myself agreeing (and, in line with my New Year Resolution, leaving a comment on) this post  by Dave Burdick who suggests maybe shifting debates from main news sites to social networks, specificaly Twitter. 
Interesting idea isn't it? Although debates shift wherever the participants want them to, imo, and the more we try to control them the more likely we are to lose out. 

I suspect that as time goes on we will get less concerned about making people jump through hoops to comment on our site, and just seek out interaction, wherever it may be. 
I hope we do, anyway - the 'log in to comment on this story' is just another facet of the Media As Gatekeeper approach we're all trying to move away from. 

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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Disruption isn't an inconvenience, it's a lifebuoy

Life Preserver

From a link tweeted by Kevin Anderson this morning I wound up at a new-to-me blog by John L Robinson called Media, Disrupted.

Sometimes it feels like I work in Sesame Street - Journalism today is brought to you by the letters D and C... Disruption, Data, Distribution, and Curation, Collaboration, Content - so a blog with a title like that had appeal before I even started.
Anyway, I read the post and it didn't so much ring a bell with me as clang one of Poe's 'loud alarum bells'; I mused on it for most of the morning. 
In fact, it made me think so much that I tweeted Kevin to say, well, just that, and he replied with another clanging phrase - that "local journalism isn't just about speaking to power but also about communities speaking to themselves".

I can't say it anywhere near as well as John L Robinson does; he hits the nail right on the head pretty much with this paragraph:
Newspapers hurt themselves. They began charging for obituaries. (The paper wants to make money from a death in my family? Who does that? Not a friend) Newspapers developed attitude. Snark was in; folksy was out...That’s not how you talk to family.
I understand the point he makes as what I had with various communities, at different points in my career, was intimacy with the readership.
When I worked on the Western Telegraph I knew my readers (not their social demography, I mean I literally knew most of them because I saw them. If I didn't know people to say hello to, I knew them from court, council, from them putting in adverts at the front counter, or because they worked in W. H. Smiths or Woolworths).

When I moved to the Gloucester Citizen, even though I had a news patch and I knew a little more about my paper's reader demography, I didn't have that same connection and I suspect that even if I had lived in the heart of my patch it wouldn't have happened. Because the Telegraph was 'our paper' or, just as interestingly, 'THE paper' but the Citizen was 'The Local Rag'.
I genuinely heard it called that on a number of occasions, and bear in mind this was just at the time Fred and Rose West's horrifying secrets were being revealed; the Citizen's sales figures were at an all-time high, so it was being bought - it just wasn't respected or (I suspect) particularly liked.
There was no intimacy between paper and reader. The old Grade II listed St John St offices didn't even have - and were unable to install - a disabled access, so if you were in a wheelchair or unable to mount steps, an advertising rep or reporter would have to come and talk to you in the street - how's that for looking after your customer?

Other papers I've worked on had the same issues - the Southern Daily Echo didn't have the same feeling of connectivity with its readers as the The News, Portsmouth - just 15 miles down the M27 - while Liverpool felt connected (there was even a Foning The Echo Facebook group, set up to celebrate that landmark moment in a consumer's life when, while complaining about shoddy goods/services, the local paper is invoked).

Maybe sometimes the physical barriers contribute to that loss of intimacy too - when you close a district office, move from that expensive city centre address to a more remote industrial site, when you shift to automated switchboards or - as Johnson says - start charging for things people would expect to get for free.

However far we've shifted, I think the opportunities for reconnecting (or connecting with new people) are vast, thanks to online tools and social media, and it comes back to those letters D and C.
By disrupting old ways of working - whether it's the full-on change to digital first, or taking the decision to more transparent, or by - we open up new channels to reach people. By distributing work across 3rd party platforms (from Twitter to Scribd, Flickr to What Do They Know? or collaborating with others (blogging an unfolding story, or simply hashtagging a breaking news story), acknowledging that content does not begin and end with a 400 word story and side panel but is maps, spreadsheets, pdfs, photos, timelines, graphics, adverts puzzles, horoscopes... and then there's data and curation, which don't just allow us to do all of the above, they demand we do all of the above (as does Hyperlocal, I guess).

Newspapers have lost their audiences; evening titles managed to balance things somewhat by publishing earlier in the day, and some have shifted to become weekly publications but I wonder how and whether they are reconnecting with people.

As part of my Journalism Leaders Course studies I've been reading papers examining at how businesses cope with change. This paragraph...
Some individuals will be able to change and to adapt to even the most difficult circumstances whereas others will not. This is true for organizations as well. Some organizations are slow to react to a challenging environment whereas others are able to do so more easily
... from How Flexibility Facilitates Innovation and Ways To Manage It In Organizations  sums up the challenge anyone bringing disruption to a regional media business faces. Individuals might change, departments might change, but it's wholesale business change - disruption - that's key.
Disruption makes for uncertain and occasionally worrying times, but it also clears the way for the new. So I'll say it again: Disruption isn't an inconvenience, it's a lifebuoy.

Sesame Street
Image via Wikipedia
* Flickr photograph by cncphotos
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