Investigative journalism in the digital age

It’s good to see journalism school books and primers finally being updated to reflect the new challenges and opportunities of our age.

A good example of this is a book which arrived in my mail box just before Christmas:

Gravejournalistikk

Now, it must be said that it arrived in my mail box because I provided some input on the chapter on social media a few years back,  and one of its editors is a former editor of mine.

Still, the book has gone through many revisions since I read that one chapter on social media, and the result looks very promising. I’ve yet to find time to actually read the book, but skimming through some of the content on social media and new digital tools it looks like it offers a very comprehensive and up-to-date guide.  

I’m especially looking forward to reading Rune Ytreberg’s chapter on the new digital tools of the trade properly. Ytreberg is also due to give a talk on this for The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA), the organisation I co-founded, used to run and am a still a board member of, towards the end of this month.

From skimming through it I see that one of the plethora of sources he credits is Journalism.co.uk’s Colin Meek who NONA brought over from Scotland to Oslo talk about advanced online research techniques in April 2010.

Incidentally that was the previously mentioned, and much covered, trip where Meek almost got stranded in Oslo due to the ash cloud crisis. Only VG’s brilliant editorial innovation, the Hitchhiker’s central, and me convincing a friend to drive stranded travellers, including Meek, from Oslo to Dover (and then back again with another load of stranded travellers) prevented that.

In either case, it’s great to see some of NONA’s work bear fruit in this way as in the book, and hopefully inspiring both better teaching and better practice when it comes to utilising today’s digital tools as efficiently as possible to create good, and perhaps even innovative, investigative journalism both in terms of uncovering worthwhile stories and connections, and finding new ways to convey these stories.  


Happy New Year!

Here's wishing you all a wonderful 2013!

I think I made this card for new year 2009, as the world economy was in a complete mess after the 2008 bank crisis etc, then I didn't post it as I thought it would come across as a bit too pessimistic for a new year card. And yet I also think the photo rather beatiful, perhaps implying that even in the darkest of times there is always a lighter horizon and rescue ahead for those who choose it - or how every cloud has a sliver lining. Or perhaps that's reading way too much into a photo (which is one I snapped at Stavern harbour, Norway).

For my own part the future looks very far from bleak, I've just been too busy and preoccupied to blog much as of late.

2012 has in many ways been a turbulent and trying year for me, but it has also held wonderful professional opportunies - including joining the editorial board of a small publishing house, and learning so many invaluable things in the process, and starting a new job working with online development, social media and science communication at The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (more on that job here, in Norwegian) Oh, and working with some wonderful stories and book projects and moving out of a house I only realised after moving out made me ill to live in (due to major dampness issues I now suspect).

So everything is set for 2013 becoming a much better year for me than 2012.

Maybe, and I really hope it will be the case, I'll even find more time to blog in 2013. It's not that I've lost interest in blogging or the issues I blog about, it's just that life has been too demanding, I write for 3-4 different blogs and earned most of my living writing until September - and I've found myself becoming a much more passive consumer of social media this year than previously. I've still used social media a lot, but I've found myself listening more than sharing or participating actively in 2012.

In either case, I hope 2013 will be a stellar year for us all - and perhaps even for blogging:

HappyNewYear

 


Montgomery praises Norwegian media

"You don't often hear the chairman of a new British newspaper publisher begin his launch press conference by saying how inspirational things are in Norway," Peter Preston writes in today's Observer.

He's writing about former Mecom-boss David Montgomery's newest media venture, regional newspaper group Local World, and it must be said it's far from the first time Montgomery has praised online developement in the Norwegian media market.

And rightly so, while Montgomery was in charge of Mecom, the company's Norwegian arm, Edda Media, was top of the class within the pan-European company both in terms of online product development and of earning money online.

My recent visit to the US for the Online News Association (ONA's) annual conference also brought home to me to how well Norwegian media (Schibsted, Edda, A-pressen etc) measure up, even compared to international media, when it comes to online journalism and innovation. But then it must also be said that as the founder and former president of the Norwegian Online News Association (NONA), where I'm still on the board, I may of course be somewhat biased.

A more interesting question is perhaps how well the ideas Montgomery bring with him from his time in Mecom, so controversial among Norwegian journalists, will go down with UK journalists. 

Preston describes the gist of it as re-modelling local newspapers as "a one-stop shop for content and commerce".

That sounds very much like something along the line of what Montgomery described more in detail in this debate arranged by the Norwegian Union of Journalists (NJ) here (see the text below the subtitle "Newspapers to sell lingerie and wine). Or are we past that debate about knocking down the walls separating editorial and advertisement by now?

In either case, here's a few perspectives on Local World I found in my newsreader (amazingly my Icerocket search on Mecom still works, I'm so used to useful free online services being bought up or shut down by now):

 


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".

Roadblocks

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.

 


The modern newsagent

Modern newsagents are diversifying as quickly as they can it seems. I just came across this fascinating photo I snapped last year because I was stunned by how many different services and goods this London newsagent sold. Is there a parallel here to the media industry? Should there be more of a parallel than there is? In either case, I find it a fascinating photo to contemplate:  

Diversification


22/7: The frontpages commemorating last year's twin terror attacks on Oslo and Utøya

Last year Norway experienced the worst peacetime massacre in modern Norwegian history, these are some of the frontpages the country woke up to today - one year later to the day.

I kind of think the more minimalistic ones are the strongest ones, I especially like Aftenposten and VG's.

These were the frontpages Norway woke up to on 23 July 2011, the morning after the shocking twin terror attacks on Oslo and Utöya 22 July had left 77 people dead and others severely wounded.

 

Aftenposten: "You will never be forgotten"


220712AP

 

VG: "Hope"


220712VG

 

Dagsavisen: "Back from the darkness"


220712Dagsavisen

 

VG: "Hope", Dagbladet: "Dad's grief"


220712VGDB




Norway's first constitution day celebrations after 22/7

I must admit celebrating 17 May has at times felt as too much hassle due to all the preparations involved. But against the backdrop of the devastating twin terror attacks on 22 July last year, and the current, painful trial against mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, I found this week's 17 May parade incredibly moving.

Even to the point that I berated myself for letting myself become blind to the beauty of it in previous years, for allowing myself to take such a unique and joyful celebration of independence and democracy for granted.

Apparently I'm not alone in this, according to a survey conducted by Norstat for NRK ahead of the day, three of ten said 17 May would mean more to them this year. Here a snap from the 17 May parade in Drammen:

DrammenBarnetog1000


Norwegian farmers take action against regional for "insufficient" coverage

Dismayed with the local coverage of their recent bread blockade, Norwegian farmers tried to block regional Sunnmörsposten from distributing today's newspaper.

Around 3am this morning farmers tried to block the entrances to Sunnmörsposten's printing plant with their tractors.

"We are blocking the newspaper distribution to get a mouthpiece towards consumers in regard to how the farming industry is in need of much better conditions if we are to be able to continue producing food in Norway," Odd Einar Fjörtoft, a spokesman for the local group of farmers told NRK. Fjörtoft said they were very disappointed the newspaper did not cover their big demonstration on Tuesday (a claim Sunnmörsposten's editor-in-chief contests). 

The Local describes Tuesday's national farmer's strike thus:

Norwegian farmers went on strike on Tuesday morning, as they sought to keep bread off supermarket shelves by blocking entrances to mills across the country in protest against the collapse of agricultural policy negotiations at the weekend.

However, The National Farmer's Association said they had neither been informed of, nor supported, the local newspaper blockade against Sunnmörsposten.

Understandably, the latter blockade has been met with much derision and ridicule - and has been yet another reminder that not all PR is good PR.


Regional goes digital first behind paywall

As of next week you have to subscribe to the print version of Schibsted Norway's regional Faedrelandsvennen if you want to read the full online version. 

The good news is that print subscribers get full access to all content regardless of the platform, and all content will be available for them online first.

The bad news is that you need to subscribe to the print paper to be able to access anything but a limited selection of news online. Oh, and ads will feature both on paid for and free online news, though the newspaper promises more "local and relevant ads" behind the paywall.

The backdrop is dwindling print subscriptions and an increase in non-paying online readership - as for so many other newspapers. So can forcing those who want full online access to subscribe to the print paper put the genie back into the bottle?

Personally I very much doubt it, though it has to be said I'm not your average media consumer. I consume a lot of media daily, but most of it online or on a mobile device such as iPad or smartphone.

I love nothing better than to huddle up with with all the print papers on a lazy weekend or on a long train journey, but I've normally got little time for print on weekdays - it will just end up cluttering my home, and I'd rather read the iPad version when time is an issue (this is also related to me mostly working from home - so no commute most days, and I kind of prefer mobile news for short commutes anyway).

As a result, bundling print with the online and iPad versions is the opposite of a sales argument for me.

This is why I won't subscribe to the iPad version of Schibsted-owned Aftenposten which bundles it with the print newspaper. I grew to like Aftenposten on iPad while testing it, but getting the print paper every day is just too much paper - and the bundled package too expensive.

Perhaps it's a good deal for a family fighting between each other to read the newspaper every morning, but for me it's a no go. So me, I'm sticking to my daily routine of skimming through VG's iPad version and Flipboard (with Google reader, Media Guardian, Journalism.co.uk, all my favourite tweeps and other favourites) first thing every morning.

I might get a few more news and media apps too, even paid ones, but no more print papers on weekdays.

It will be very interesting to see how Faedrelandsvennen's experiment plays out though. More on the experiment here (in Norwegian)

For the record, VG has been my main client for the last year and a half+, but I'd like to think this is irrelevant to this topic as the argument here is to do with pricing and bundling various platforms only


Controversy over covering Anders Behring Breivk trial divides Norway

The Breivik-trial has taken live-coverage to a new level, but Norwegians are divided on whether it is a scandal or a blessing the testimony and examination of the mass mass murderer cannot be broadcasted.

In the internet age, don’t we have a right to go to directly to the source, to see for ourselves, to make up our own minds ?

Especially when the evidence in question is that of the man responsible for the worst peace time massacre in modern Norwegian history? If society is deprived of this opportunity, are we not running the risk of interpretations and claims of biased reporting taking the place of facts?

Or is it the other way around: are we running a greater risk of creating copy cats if this bit of the trial is broadcasted, and are we not just providing him with a stage to spread his gospel of hate?

These and similar questions are at the centre of a big controversy surrounding the coverage of the trial against Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for slaying 77 people in the twin terror attacks on Norwegian government headquarters in Oslo and a Labour Party youth camp on Utöya 22 July 2011.

Even now, as the trial is about to enter its fourth week, the heated debate has not abated.

In its first week, Journalism.co.uk had a good round-up of many of the ethical issues for journalists covering the trial, in which I’m interviewed. The story outlines some of the biggest legal issues involved. But this story poses so many interesting and troubling questions that I thought it interesting to delve more into some of the arguments.

One of those who is frustrated by not being able to see the examination of Breivik for himself, with his own eyes, is Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjörnsen.

In his VG column after the first week of the trial he describes how he travelled to Norway from his home in Berlin especially to see the court room examination. But, he writes (my unofficial translation):

"I’m not allowed to hear him. I’m not allowed to see him explain his actions. What I’m served is reports and impressions from the inner circle of Breivik-initiateds, from guests especially invited to see this grotesque drama. People who tell us how terrible he is, and how happy we can be that we can still live in a kind of world of innocence."

Ambjörnsen feels it is important to see for himself how the mass murderer comes across so he "can forget him".

Another Norwegian author, Karl Over Knausgaard, echoes this sentiment in a piece for New York Times: "…to get an impression of the nature of a person, one has to see him in motion. So much is contained in the posture of the body, the position of the hands, the movement of the eyes."

"The image of journalists and different experts commenting a running (and censored) text on the left the image, is a shame we cannot live with. It’s a historical error," Ambjörnsen concludes.

Here Ambjörnsen is referring to a major innovation in how Norwegian online newspapers are covering the trial. Several have developed their own "live windows" with a mix of features.

VG’s live window (screengrabs below) - whose coverage I’ve followed most closely and found myself totally captivated by - features a word by word transcript of what’s being said, a moderated Twitter-feed and live video - frequently of interviews with experts commenting on what’s happening inside the court room as little of the proceedings can be broadcasted.

From the first day:

VGLiveVindu

Now:

Vglivevindu2

It is this latter aspect, the massive use of experts by all media – both on live-tv and in other formats such as in op-eds, on radio and tv and in print – which has left many people feeling uncomfortable.

The Norwegian Editor’s Association has campaigned to be able to broadcast the trial, and at the start of the trial VG.no’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, said:

"I think everyone should get a chance to hear and see what is happening in court. We who are present in the court room get at a very different impression of how Breivik is exposed in court. To me, he appears pathetic, you don’t get the same impression when you are only reading a text."

The editor of the trade journal for Norwegian journalists, Helge Ögrim, has taken the contrarian view, arguing that those arguing against the broadcasting ban, fail to pay heed to the counterarguments. Among those:

  • Psychologists have argued that those under the age of 16 run a great risk of getting psychological reactions and traumas from watching the trial, something broadcasting the trial would increase the risk of.
  • Broadcasting would place the next of kin and those directly effected by the terror attacks under a heavier load.
  • It would be ethically dubious to broadcast the testimony of someone who two of the main court psychiatrists on the case thinks is a paranoid schizophrenic.
  • Broadcasting his testimony would give Breivik a dubious platform to spread his gospel of hate.  

However, are we really served with only getting this trial against a man who created a national trauma with the atrocities he committed last summer through the eyes of a league of experts?

In an op-ed published in Aftenposten a communication advisor, Stefan Brunvatne, who was present at the start of the trial, wrote:

"While the commentators are crawling over each other in their efforts to paint a picture of an incoherent man who is sitting there, giving us insight into evil incarnated, and 'experts' make critical comments on everything from his body language to his historical facts, Anders Behring Breivik is sitting there in the eye of the storm appearing surprisingly calm and collected.

"For someone who has been present at two of the key days during Breivik’s testimony, Friday 20 April and Monday 23 April, the shocking thing is not Breivik’s behaviour but the discrepancy between it and the monster image painted by the media."

Part of the challenge here is how difficult the trial is to cover. Norwegian war correspondent Aasne Seierstad has said it is much more difficult to cover a case she herself feels so affected by, like the Breivik-trial, than being a war correspondent. "Unfortunately it seems easier to work with stories you have a journalistic distance to," Seierstad, who is writing a book about the trial, told VG.

As Breivik told the court how he regretted not having killed more people, and described his plan to decapitate a former Norwegian prime minister, in the first week of the trial, even foreign correspondents present at the trial expressed their horror on Twitter at what they had just heard .

Daniel Bennett has written an interesting post on the dilemmas of allowing live-coverage via Twitter while banning broadcasting.

Could it be that Norwegian commentators and journalists are too affected by the trial to be objective? Or is the very idea of trying to be objective in case like this ludicruos in itself? So many questions, so few ready answers.

Max Fisher has argued in The Atlantic that Norway does what the US didn’t dare to do with Khaleid Sheikh Mohammed, the assumed mastermind behind 9/11. The Breivik-trial can teach Americans that transparancy hurts terrorism (via @svelle, no direct link available).

Many Norwegians will argue that the trial is still not transparent enough.

However, according to NRK, those desperate to see the trial with their own eyes, may get to see parts of Breivik’s testimony by taking a trip to The National Archieves a year after the trial finishes to see the parts of the video records that are not deemed too sensitive (people may e.g. get to see the parts where Breivik talks about his political and ideological motives).


WWW inventor warns against call for comment sections to be placed under Data Rentention Act

- Don’t let Anders Behring Breivik become an excuse to encroach on human rights, said Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Since the twin terror attacks on Utöya and Oslo 22/7 last year, Norway has seen demands to censor and monitor web communications grow stronger as people have looked for ways to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.

The man who committed the atrocities has been portrayed as a terrorist who would have been unable to create the destruction he did without the internet – as he copy-pasted so much of his manifesto and strategy from web sources and committed his crimes with the explicit hope of making his manifesto a viral hit.

"If only someone had monitored the comment sections on far right-wing news sites and blogs better, could he have been stopped before he managed to slay 77 people?," is a question that has been asked repeatedly in many forms since 22/7.

Recently, The Norwegian Police Service (PST) even asked to have the comment sections of news sites and debate forums governed by the Data Retention Act in order to "better investigate hateful comments and threats towards people in authority." 

So obtaining a short interview with Berners-Lee when he was in Oslo speaking at Gulltaggen, a Nordic digital marketing conference, last week I asked him how he thought society should respond to the likes of Breivik, who relied heavily on the web to organise his campaign and to espouse his ideas.

"I think we have to be very careful with fundamental human rights. Here we have two different levels. On the first level, police should go to these sites were people are discussing hate crimes and infiltrate these," he said.

But he also warned that the authorities do not need extra powers to automatically monitor everyone on the planet.

"A normal person must be able to go the web to research a sensitive issue, such as a medical condition, safe in the knowledge that this will remain between him an the website," he said.

Berners-Lee  said he was concerned about how increased demands for monitoring the web, both from governments looking for greater powers to track down terrorists and companies looking to trade our personal web data for commercial purposes, threatens the very infrastructure of the web.

He described his worry that people in the end will no longer trust and use the web for e.g. researching sensitive things like depression if they fear everything they do online is being monitored.

On the Data Retention Act and similar initiatives, he had the following comment:

"If you collect a lot of personal data in once place this can easily become dynamite. You have a lot of sensitive information sitting there in a database, becoming a very attractive target for cyber criminals or rough states using hackers to attack other countries’ infrastructure where it is most vulnerable," he said, referring to how cyber crime and cyber terrorism is on the increase.

Talking to Norwegian intelligence sources when I interviewed Misha Glenny in connection with his new book ”DarkMarket: CyberThieves, Cybercops and You” in November, they confirmed cyber crime and cyber attacks on national infrastructure was also on the rise in Norway.

As for that Tim Berners-Lee interview: I’m used to opinions being strongly divided in the comment section on technology stories for VG, Norway’s biggest news site, but on this story every single commenter applauded Berners-Lee's comments.


How to transition from legacy media culture to the digital world

The short answer? Be agile and well-managed. Here’s how.

Of course, I don’t have all the answers. Not by far. But this month’s report by Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism on the efforts and failings of newspapers to grow their digital businesses had me thinking about some insights I’ve had while working for Schibsted-owned VG.no.

"It’s not a revenue problem, it’s a culture problem," Matthew Ingram and others concluded from reading the Pew report. Incidentally, cultural inertia – and the explanations for its presence or absence – has always fascinated me (see e.g. previous posts here, here, here and here).

So it was with great fascination I went from writing about Verdens Gang (VG), a media company much acclaimed for its innovative approach and profitable digital operations, as a media journalist,  to writing for it about a year and a half ago.

It is, as Frédéric Filloux argued last week, easy to lecture on how to solve the cultural challenges of legacy media from afar (though it could just as well be argued that you easily can become so entrenched in this legacy culture you struggle to see it from the outside).

And while it is true that I’ve co-founded and been the driving force behind building up Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) and a few other start-ups and projects,  I’m not going to claim any major management experience –especially not when it comes to legacy media (where I have zero).

However, I’m a keen observer, have a special interest in organisational culture and have worked for a wide range of different media companies over the last decade+

What’s especially struck me about VG.no is how the company combines a well-run, professional organisation with a structure that allows it to mimic some of the key features of small, nimbler start-ups.

A few key characteristics:

  • Short way from idea to execution
  • Programmers in the newsroom
    This is one reason why that way from idea to execution can be short. Also, the company has few walls between IT and the newsroom. In particular, VG.no has a designer and a journalist-programmer who are 100% dedicated to news related innovation, they’re not just on loan when IT doesn’t need them, and they each have that 20 per cent innovation time Google is famous for baked into their job descriptions.
  • Helping readers help each other
    One of the best examples of the value of having programmers in the newsroom was during the ash cloud crisis, when someone had the genius idea for the Hitchhiker’s Central  - and it only took 6-7 hours to program and get up and running. The site certainly saved my day, and that of Journalism.co.uk contributing editor Colin Meek, as I explained in a blog post at the time. I’m particularly fond of this notion of VG using its position as Norway’s most read news site to design solutions to help readers help each other (there are numerous other examples) as a form of service journalism (as described in this column).
  • Speed
    Some of the most successful of the company’s editorial innovations are made on the basis of the idea that you have to move fast, it doesn’t have to be perfect – just get it out there, then improve as you go along.
  • A Goolesque-attitude to trying out new things
  • Kill things before they die a slow and painful death
    It goes with the territory: Trying sometimes means failing, and even a massive success can have a limited time span and may need to be abandoned before it becomes a liability. Social network Nettby is a good example. At one stage it was by far the biggest social network in Norway, and it was profitable (as I described in this post for Journalism.co.uk), but it was eventually eclipsed by Facebook – and killed off towards the end of 2010.
  • A willingness to cannibalise your own products.
    Okay, I read this, in a very interesting American report on Schibsted which is quite old by now, but it rings true and is still worth reading. How will this be affected when VG now is merging its print and online operations? I don’t know, but there’s lots of food for thought in that report.  
  • Good management,  good routines (on everything from press ethics to payment) and  clear leadership.

The last bullet point is especially important.

If you’re a two-three person start-up it’s easy to play by ear, be flexible etc – too much structure might even get in the way. But on the road to success most start-ups reach a stage where they need to get those routines in place in order to operate efficiently. In some respects, it’s the price of success.

And in a big organisation good routines make all the difference – in a creative one, it frees you up to be creative.

I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I’ve seen it in so many (media) companies:

A well-run organisation facilitates a good, consistently creative and innovative work environment in ways a badly run one, or one where management is absent or erratic, simply cannot match. The contribution of good PAs, accountants, administrators are highly undervalued, and clear leadership makes a huge difference,

I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant here as well: just as it’s easier for an individual who’s very existence is not constantly under threat, who’s got all his or her basic needs covered, to be creative and innovative, it’s easier to be so if you don’t constantly worry about getting paid on time, what to expect of the management next or whether or not you have a job tomorrow.

At a news:rewired-event in January 2009 professor and head of journalism at City University, George Brock, said that his title shouldn’t be professor of journalism, but professor of chaos history.

Most journalists have become very adapt at living with daily (news and production) chaos, but dealing with it creatively becomes easier when you don’t have to deal with it at management level too. I’ve previously put together some musings on how this affects innovation here.

Now, in the above, I’ve mostly described my impressions of how VG.no deals with editorial innovation. I have no direct experiences of how this works on the commercial side of the business, but my impression is that the culture is much the same in that department too.

The big question is how this culture will fare when the company’s print and digital operations now are merged.  I don’t know enough  of that process to answer, but given all of the above I think it has decent chances of surviving intact.

I may of course be a bit biased here, and none of those things I describe take away the very real management challenges that Filloux describe in his post on newspaper culture.

But I do think that what I describe show that there are ways, even for a very old newspaper such as VG, to break away from the legacy culture - although I have no illusions about it being easy.  Also, there are bound to be other newspaper organisations combining some or most of the above, VG just happens to be a company I’ve been privileged to gain more insight into.

Update 30.03.2012: VG.no's Lucas Weldeghebriel explained more in detail how the news site has created an organisational structure to facilitate editorial innovation at a recent NONA-meeting. Read the headlines from his talk here (in Norwegian).


Seriously, I need a job

The bad thing about changing deeply set habits and patterns of reactions? It may make you realise how unsustainable your lifestyle  has been.

In 2011, I chose one of the hardest new year resolutions ever – to change deeply set  patterns of behaviour and reactions – and for the most part I succeeded.

I can’t begin to tell you what a monumentous achievement that was, and how hard it was to get there.

The only problem is, it made me realise how totally unsustainable my life has been for the last 18 years or so.

See, in all those years I never had a permanent job.

I’ve either been working as a freelancer, temp or been on short term contracts.

In the UK, at the start of my career, I somehow made it work, even though I was temping in London inner city school and taking shifts in the local pub to make ends meet.

But in Norway the tax burden is just too crazy. If I was to pay both tax and all the insurances to come close to equalling the benefits a salaried worker takes for granted , I’d be left with 40 per cent of my earnings. That’s 60% tax and insurance on a modest salary – which is insane.  But just as bad is how you end up working around the clock all the time and feeling guilty whenever you take even just a day off.

The short an easy answer to why I’ve put up with this for so long is that I love my work.

I love my work to the extent that I often used to forget about such things as sleeping or eating, keeping regular business hour and not working around the clock. Sometimes I’ve even forgotten to agree any kind of payment terms before I’ve taken on an assignment – not the best starting point for a freelancer.

The more complex answer, one I’m more reluctant to admit publicly and only recently realised was an important factor, is that I’ve become much too good at living in a state of constant emergency and war, which brings me back to how I’ve changed those deeply set habits and patterns of reaction.

If I’m totally honest with myself, until a year or two back, my life has pretty much been a constant state of emergency since I was told that my life might be over after a serious hit-and-run accident at 17.

Those were of course not the doctors’ exact words, but they told me I might have sustained very serious injuries which, had their worst case scenarios played out, my life as I had envisioned it would indeed have been over. 

As it was, I refused to accept those worst case scenarios, and set about proving to myself and the world around me that the doctors were wrong – bending, breaking or overstepping most real and perceived limitations in the process.

As most people around me feared the doctors were right it felt like I was caught in this giant, existential battle: It was me against the world, and in the process I became a master of abusing myself for the greater purpose.

«You have a mind that decides where it wants to go, and then you have this immense willpower which pushes your body where your mind wants to go no matter the consequences,» a wise woman told me when I was 20.

Doesn’t sound like the most sustainable kind of lifestyle, does it?

Well, I burned out at 20 – and got to know myself and my limitations a whole lot better in the process.

Keeping those painful lessons in mind, in my new incarnation I became a master of balancing at the edge – at least looking after myself well enough to never burn out like that again.

And over the years I accomplished a lot with that strategy.

Much too much to mention here, although it was never enough  to defeat the irrational fear that whenever I didn’t live up to my own superhuman expectations, such as working 24/7 seven days a week, it was because the doctors were right (even though they said they would know within three years of the accident if their worst predictions were warranted, and I’ve taken every measure to disprove it myself).

But for roughly the last year and a half I’ve had a really good and steady client who’s provided me with a more stable income than I’ve ever had (and great work for top-notch, super professional editors).

That has also rewarded me with the peace and room to contemplate my life so far, even though – weirdly enough - getting off that path of constant worrying and getting used to regular pay was hard at first and took some getting used to.

Of all things, this process reminds me of something Dr John Marks told me when I was doing a piece on the so-called «Liverpool project», which involved prescribing heroin to drug addicts.

He talked about how addicts, when no longer governed by the constant worry of where to get their next fix, finally had time to look themselves in the mirror and reflect over what they had done with their lives.

Now, I don’t want to get into the debate about prescribing heroin or providing drugs substitution therapy here, it’s a complex one, but, for me, regular pay has been like Dr Mark’s described.

It was a bit like, without the constant worry about finding enough work to pay my bills hanging over me, I finally had time to look in the mirror and see how totally unsustainable my life was.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I’ve realised that my lifestyle was unsustainable for many years, but regular pay gave me room to do something about it – to put what I’ve dubbed “project sustainable living” into practice:

I’ve worked really hard to give myself semi-regular business hours, get enough sleep, eat regularly, take regular breaks, exercise regularly, schedule time for down time and spare time, and all the other things normal people do.

I’ve put in pretty substantial effort to take unnecessary stress out of my daily schedule, get out of the constant flight or fright mode and, in short: take better care of myself.

To other people who take such things for granted, this might seem insane or just weird, but for me not constantly putting work before everything else has been a damn hard, and steep, learning curve.

If you’re used to living in a constant state of emergency, normality doesn’t come easy, nor, regardless of how you live your life, does changing deeply set patterns of reactions.

But it is very rewarding, not at least because taking better care of myself has made me a lot more effective. This year I’ve even been able to ease my reliance on stress crutches such as caffeine, even go without for days and weeks.

The downside is I feel I just can’t go on with my freelancing ways, not for even a day more.

Of course, I still do some work on and off for clients as I do have bills to pay.

I still love my work, that hasn’t changed in any way.

But I really struggle to find the energy for pitching as it feels like I’m just perpetuating the lifestyle I know I need to leave behind by doing so.

In short, I need that permanent job - preferably tomorrow.

Oh, and my LinkedIn profile is here (and until that permanent job comes along, I still take on freelance work).

For the record, I am of course applying and interviewing for jobs as well, loads of them, but I have great faith in the internet's ability to connect me with opportunities and people I might not otherwise have come across.


The Icelandic soap opera continues

 In December 2008, angry protesters branded both Geir Haarde, Iceland’s then prime minister, and David  Oddsson, then head of the country’s central bank, as «Iceland’s bin Laden» - blaming them in equal parts for the country’s complete financial meltdown (see my photos below).

Now, the former could face criminal charges for the global financial meltdown, while the latter is one of two joint editors of Iceland’s newspaper of record, Morgunbladid.

How surreal is that?

According to The Daily Mail earlier this week:

Pall Hreinsson, the supreme court judge appointed to head the Special Investigation Commission that issued a government-commissioned report detailing the litany of mistakes made in the lead-up to the bank meltdown, singled out seven former officials including Mr Haarde and central bank chief David Oddsson for particular criticism.

No other officials besides Mr Haarde were referred for prosecution to the court.

Now, I was just going to dip into this story briefly.

I was fascinated by how things had turned out when I read the news about Haarde this week since I covered the Icelandic freesheet market extensively from 2006 – 2009/10 (media cross ownership being a particularly colourful story in the country, closely linked to the financial meltdown), and reported extensively from the dire situation in Icelandic media following the financial meltdown.  

But the twists and turns of this story are just too incredible.

 

DavidBinLaden

 

DavidBinLaden

I noticed that Olafur Stephensen, who was editor of Morgunbladid, considered to be the newspaper closest the conservative Independence party which Haarde and Oddsson both represent, had now become editor of Frettabladid. That is, Frettabladid the legendary freesheet so closely linked to Baugur. Just how close those links once were becomes obvious for all when reading this story on why Frettabladid’s former editor, Jon Kaldal, was fired.

For the record, I should say that I conducted long interviews with both Kaldal, then editor of Frettabladid, and Stephensen, then editor of Morgunbladid, when I was in Reykjavik working on my story on the crisis in Icelandic media in December 2008.

Both cast an interesting light on the many events leading up to the crisis.

At the time, Stephensen had not received his monthly salary and could only pray someone would rescue Morgunbladid so his salary would be paid before Christmas. 

But it is perhaps no wonder that the country’s newspaper economy, with its close links to major companies and banks, was struggling at the time seeing that the entire country was on the verge of financial collapse. 

(Media cross interests and cross ownership on Iceland was so extensive at the time that it still makes my head spin, but an Icelandic tabloid editor I spoke to explained it in clear terms thus: ” You know, the sugar daddy behind DV and Fréttablaðið was Baugur, but the sugar daddy behind Morgunbladid was Björgólfur Guðmundsson? … Now everyone is on his or her own because our sugar daddies are dead” )

According to Gylfi Magnússon, a University of Iceland economist who gave witness to the Landsdómur trial of former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde on Friday, the Central Bank of Iceland effectively went bankrupt in October 2008 when its board decided to loan Kaupþing Bank EUR 500 million in an effort to save the latter.

He explained that although the Central Bank said at the time that the loan represented only a fifth of its foreign capital reserves, in reality most of that money was not readily accessible.

Gylfi was drafted in to the minority government from February 2009, after Geir Haarde resigned, as an un-elected expert commerce and trade minister (Icenews has more on this latter story)

Okay, I’ll stop there. I could easily see myself moving temporarily to Reykjavik to write a book on all this, but I expect those books already have or are being written.


Schibsted looks to Apple for new payment solution

If paying would be as easy as across various devices as with iTunes, would readers feel more inclined to pay for editorial content and classifieds?

Apple has introduced a new standard for paying for content, which makes most other payment solutions look unnecessarily complicated in comparison.

The media’s dream of making a fortune on the back of that, on devices such as iPhone and iPad, has not turned out to quite as quick and easy to implement as many hoped, but what if media could emulate Apple’s pay-with-a-click revolution with their own similar solutions?

These days Schibsted, according to Kampanje.com, is rolling out an Apple-inspired payment solution, named SPiD, for all its many digital platforms. SPiD will be set up to remember you if, say you first log in on Schibsted’s Norwegian tabloid VG to read something and then go to Schibsted’s classifieds site Finn.no to advertise something for sale.

In January, Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet became the first Schibsted-paper to start using the service, VG is to start using it this month and the company’s other media houses and classified sites are due to follow.

- The idea is that it will work as simply as iTunes with a «click here» to pay, Sverre  Munck, Schibsted’s executive vice president of strategy and international editorial, told Kampanje.

That sounds good to me.

Apple’s «pay-with-a-click» has certainly made me buy quite a bit of stuff, mostly eBooks via Kindle, I might not have otherwise bought. It’s now much easier to buy a book than a chocolate on a whim, not entirely a good thing for a booklover such as myself (or at least not for my budget).

But the price and content for sale must be right. Schibsted has had success with the paid-for section of Aftonbladet.no, Aftonbladet Pluss though, and I think its pricing strategy for e.g. the tablet edition of VG has been pretty spot on too. They’ve kept the price low (about £5 a month) and not been tempted to bundle it with print as several other Norwegian media companies have.

Maybe it’s a different picture for families, but I can’t see the point of subscribing to both the iPad and print editions, as I only read the latter properly during weekends. But then again, I might also be biased (for the record: Schibsted-owned VG has been my main client for the last year and a half).


How to avoid the app trap: Path, iOS and protecting your sources

Amid a flurry of privacy breaches and proposed spy laws, has storing your contact book in a digital format simply become untenable if you have sources you desperatly need to protect?

This question has been on my mind repeatedly over the last two weeks, following news about new spy laws and how various apps steal all the contacts you have stored on your smartphone.

For my part, I wasn't too surprised about the "revelations" about apps such as Path stealing your contact book. Testing new apps has been a regular part of my job for the last year and half, and I always check what access demands they make (and they tend to be extensive).

As a result, I've found myself using my old-school contact book more and more in that period. It's pretty standard for an app to ask or demand access to the contacts stored in your phone and in various apps you have on your phone (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook etc), your location etc so journalists need to think through what apps they use, what contacts they store in their smartphones or both very carefully.

I'm reminded of Charles Arthur's excellent article "They've got your number" from a few years back, which admittedly looked at how new legislation might affect journalists' ability to protect their sources - but the challenges are many of the same as with the new app trap.

I've written more extensively on this topic in Norwegian following the Path-revelation here, but here's a collection of recent links I've come across since writing that post: 

I must admit I feel a kind of cynical resignation over all this, what's your take?