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August 2012
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November 2012

How to make the newsroom embrace data journalism

Struggling to get your entire news organisation enthusiastic about the possibilities inherent in big data sets? Texas Tribune has the answer.

I can’t recall just how many times the terms "data journalism" or "computer assisted reporting (CAR)" have elicited big yawns from other journalists.

It is certainly nothing which will draw journalists to an event, unless you focus on the most spectacular stories this kind of journalism has made possible. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Texas Tribune’s recipe for success is both simple and daunting:

Just do it, and the enthusiasm will follow from the results.

"Data accounts for 66% of our traffic. I don’t think all the journalists saw the light instantly, but as they saw really interesting stories come out of the data and traffic started to pick up, everybody got interested," said Rodney Gibbs, Chief Innovation Officer for Texas Tribune at Online News Association's annual conference last weekend, ONA12.

He was on the panel together with Stephen Engelberg, Managing Editor of ProPublica and Meghan Farnsworth, Senior Manager Distribution and Online Engagement at the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR) for a session called "The Business of Collaboration".

Engelberg said they saw immense potential in sharing big data sets with different news organisations who each focus on their own regional angle, and that ProPublica’s collaborative data sets are now so distributed he discovers partnerships via Google Alerts.

"It is really important to figure out if there are tools out there which will help you distribute your content better," said Farnsworth, and spoke of Publish2 as an incredible tool (which sort of reminded me I haven’t used Publish2 for ages, better try to check in and have look around again soon).

"We certainly view everyone at ProPublica as journalists: it’s just that some of them write words and others write code – that is the future of journalism," said Engelberg.

Twitter promises better curation tools for journalists

Emily Bell interviewing Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was one of the highlights of ONA12 – and the session also revealed some good news in store.

Twitter is working to create better event curation tools for journalists; Costolo promised we will be able to download all our tweets within the end of the year and a Twitter-version of Google Analytics is underway.

Those, to my mind, was some of the good news from this keynote session at Online News Association’s annual conference, ONA12, which I attended in San Fransisco last weekend.   

But that is playing down the entertainment (or should that be infotainment?) value of the interview.

Here are a few tidbits:

- I’d like to thank Costolo for ruining my attention span… In my journalistic lifetime Twitter has probably been the tool that has had the biggest impact on our professional lives in terms of how we do the job, said Bell at the start of the session.

- You are dictating the biorhythm of free speech for an increasing number of people all over the world.. How does it feel to be in charge of free press in 21st Century?

- It’s important for us to help our users protect their freedom of speech… We were put between the rock and a hard place when we were told to hand over information before the court of appeal was held, said Costolo, referring to the Malcolm Harris-case. The Guardian’s Matt Wells has written more in detail on that here.

Costolo agreed that this kind of judicial challenge is just going be a more entrenched problem for Twitter in the times ahead.

As for the recent crackdown on third party apps, Costolo said, among other things that this was "to make sure all our users got all our new features and fixes immediately". Techcrunch has more on this story, but Costolo also answered a question by Jeff Jarvis related to this by saying: - If you mean that are there anything more we will restrict or restrain in the near future? Then no.

- Is the area of openness over?, asked Bell. - No. We’ll continue to spend a ridiculous amount of money to keep our API open, said Costolo

Bell: -When is instant translation coming? Costolo: - Not soon. Bell: - When can we download all our tweets? Costolo: - Before the end of the year. But you got to take into account it’s the CEO saying this, not the engineer building it. It is a priority we actually want to have out by the end of the year.

Bell: - Twitter analytics like Google analytics, when can we have that? Costolo: - We have the function, but have to improve it before rolling it out. Bell: - Can we have it by the end of the year? Costolo: - No, I’m only going to over-commit from stage once. Bell: - So end of next year (no protest from Costolo there).

Two other interesting points:

Costelo said Twitter would like to migrate to a world where the 140 limit can serve as a caption for further content. In general, he said Twitter is not about being a destination. - I’m a huge believer in syndication and in that true platform companies always outflanks products, he concluded.

(Oh, and I just realised I’ve used the standard Norwegian way to write up quotes – and not " ...", but it goes better with my very quick write-up of my notes)

EU funds European platform for media accountability

Given all the different European press codes and national challenges, what should a European website for recording media transgressions focus on to be most useful?

That was the question at a media bloggers’ seminar  in Bristol, organised by the EU-funded Media Act project, I was privileged to attend some weeks back.

Should such a website just feature a collation of RSS-feeds from different European journalist union sites and media bloggers, or should it do regular features to highlight interesting cases? Or something else all together? And could there possible be pan-European interest for media challenges that are unique to England, Hungary or Norway? Can we share best practices, and how could we do that in the most useful way?

Those were some of the questions raised at the meeting.

For my own part, I’m a big fan of sharing both challenges and best practices. Not at least I think it’s very useful to share stories about how we handle various challenges.

A case to the point is the twin terror attacks in Oslo and on Utöya 22/7 and the aftermath.

This was a very challenging and resource-intensive story to cover, 60 complaints have been lodged to the Press Complains Commission of which 49 were unique (some complaints concerned the same issues), 40 have been evaluated and six media organisations have been deemed in breach of the industry’s agreed code of ehics. But also, there’s something about the scope and impact of this story, and the many online innovations created to best cover the trial against the perpetrator.

As VG’s Anders Giaever wrote in one of his many brilliant comment pieces from the trial (my translation): ”Tears are shed at the judge’s table. The defence attorney looks downs and rubs his eyes. Several of the defendant’s attorneys are fighting to gain control over their voices. Journalists are crying. The audience is crying. And of course the next of kin, the families of the victims and the survivors are crying.”

That of course is one kind of story, raising all sorts of ethical issues and conundrums. A very different kind are the kind of cases mentioned by Mediawise’s Mike Jempson where the media perpetuates something blatantly untrue or so twisted it comes close to a lie which could be so hard to live with it results in suicide or other terrible consequences.

There are the ethical issues we all struggle to grasp with in the best possible way, while sometimes failing due to their complexity or because we don’t properly see all the ramifications of our decisions, and those cases which seems like a deliberate obfuscation or plain lie. There are cases of blatant government censorship and laws that seems invented only to obstruct journalists from telling the truth – be it about companies or politicians. Sometimes the ethical challenges are universal, sometimes they are entirely unique to the country in question.

Could there possibly be international interest in a website that focuses on the whole breadth of such challenges? I actually think there would be, seeing how the journalistic community, and that of media academics, tend to be very interested in ethical issues pertaining to journalism in general.

I’m not entirely certain about the best form a website dedicated to such a project should take, and how it best should be achieved in terms of organisation, but I do think a combination of original, case-based, content and RSS-feeds + tool kits could work very well. In either case, it will be interesting to follow the MediaAct-project to see how it evolves.

NB: I'm a bit late blogging about this as I picked up a strep infection at the airport on the way back from Bristol, and went straight from two weeks of strep-induced downtime to moving etc.

Food for thought: networked individuality, Wikipedia, doctors of doom and roadblocks

Here's a few links I've been thinking about recently (and had open in my web browser for ages).

Obviously I need to find a new bookmarking site to my liking, after Delicious got all pearshaped I've been unable to make up my mind about which service I should use to replace it (any ideas?).

Networked individualism (via Sambrook)

"The networked individualism operating system creates new efficiencies and affordances in the ways people solve problems and meet their social needs. Whereas in the past, it was not easy for people to get real-time information to help navigate a place, now it could hardly be easier with instantly available maps, augmented reality mobile apps that give people helpful information about their surroundings, and crowdsourced input about the environs."

Journalism and Wikipedia

Journalism, as a field, should be concerned with adding to the record that is Wikipedia, argues Doc Searls in a post which spurs a really interesting discussion in the comment section.

Doctors of doom

Few things makes me as angry as reading about doctors who take it upon themselves to make uninformed, blanket judgements about how an injury may cripple you for life. I really don't understand why some of them find it necessary to dole out what are effectively life sentences, when they simply do not know for sure.

It makes me angry because I myself was told my life was probably over after a serious car accident at 17, so when I read this gripping story about a girl who defied doctors who told her she would never walk again that's the thought that hit me: why? I'm not so sure about the article's conclusion - Mind over Science - I think it's more of a question of doctors making unscientific judgements, or judgements based on too little or inclonclusive evicence. I wonder if one reason for this may be found in this study on blind spots, or biases: "Why smart people are stupid".


Interesting article on following unconventional routes to success (via Jackie Danicki). It reminded me of some hard-learned insights I've had myself about sometimes missing out on key opportunities when being too obsessed about where you're going, and how detours can turn out to be more valuable than planned careers moves.