New journalism means knowing your social media

July 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a debate in journalism training about shorthand. Is this a skill that is still relevant to new journalists joining the news media? The reality is that shorthand is headed for extinction unless there’s some major industry intervention. But, while old school editors and journalism tutors may deplore the death of shorthand, the rest of the industry is much too preoccupied with survival in a Force 10 digital storm.

And let’s face it, shorthand will not be missed because technology offers so many alternatives that are proving to be as good as if not better. There are miniaturised video and audio recorders and ubiquitous smart phones that can record virtually anything. An iPad application called SoundNote records interviews as you type. Even badly type written notes can guide you to the points in an interview that you might need to transcribe for a quote.

While debate rages over whether technology improves journalism, the fallout over the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the UK shows how technology also enables where journalistic ethics fail.

One guarantee is the way journalists tell their stories has to change under the crushing weight of technological innovation. The future of news content is destined to be immersive, interactive and multi-faceted.

It follows that multi-media versatility is going to be an essential part of a journalist’s skill set and we are starting to see journalism schools increasingly incorporating this dimension into their curricula.

From a social media perspective, we’re seeing more media organisations embracing ways to share their content across the social web. But it’s also a safe observation to make that many journalists and media organisations are uncomfortable or ambivalent about using social media platforms.  You could say many journalists still profoundly misunderstand the web and are baffled why a collaborative, amateur built resource like Wikipedia works!

But those that do understand how the social web works see opportunity and recognise the game changing nature of platforms like Twitter and Facebook as an increasingly important information ecosystem existing within the digital revolution.

For the journalists that do get the mobile/social/digital shift – and even those that are watching on the side-lines – I recommend two brilliant resources that help media professionals target and locate content on Twitter and Facebook as part of the process of news gathering.

Twitter for Newsrooms is an important starting point for journalists who are new to Twitter and those who think they know it all. There are tips on using Twitter’s advanced search form to get narrow and defined results to help with any story. It is so useful for scanning breaking content when the Twitter stream is a flood of spontaneity that is being throttled on your Tweetdeck.

For finding older tweets, there’s Topsy which allows journalists to go back in time to view Twitter traffic in a given time frame.  Also incredibly useful is information on how to link directly to an individual tweet. If you’ve had sleepless nights trying to figure how this is done, here’s how.

There are also a number of Twitter partners that provide ways for news organisation to visualise or curate Twitter data about particular news stories – a terrific way to demonstrate the impact of a story on Twitter and by extension on internet traffic. I started with Mass Relevance, a tweet curatorial service, and there are many others out there.

Facebook searches are another way to find public content. Searches can be carried out in group, page, event or people categories and also in posts by people, friends and groups. People’s privacy settings determine what is in the public domain and is means Facebook lacks the capability to really amplify content the way Twitter does. But Facebook users can message others even if they are not friends and this is a useful information circuit breaker.

Twitter and Facebook searches and techniques are becoming an essential part of a journalist’s skillset. Journalists will also need to pay attention to emerging social media platforms like Google+ and there are other platforms like Quora and HARO (which is an acronym for Help A Reporter Out) that help journalists find answers from potential sources. I have used HARO and I can see its value (although it can be hit or miss) as a regular way to source opinions or comment on issues from a global pool of social web savvy respondents.

Every journalist needs to understand that Twitter is not a passing fad and Facebook is not just a way of talking privately among your friends. The accumulated online babble might be deafening but by skilful manipulation of search criteria, social media platforms are essential, information-rich resources. Journalism might be losing the struggle to keep shorthand but the profession has no choice but to join the rest of us on the social media street.

The empire can’t strike back and Rupert Murdoch is not Luke’s father

July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Journalists are never highly regarded at the best of times. They’re not in the same league as nurses, fire fighters and tree surgeons and sometimes not even held in the same esteem as lawyers, used car sales people and real estate agents, depending on which rankings you see.

The truth is the profession has good journalists and bad apples like any other and a decisive factor is ethics – an issue that appears never to have entered the minds of the News of the World editors who gave their journalists free rein to go on phone hacking missions.

This complete disregard for the law and people’s right privacy at the flagship Rupert Murdoch-controlled tabloid newspaper can only be described as an utter failure of journalistic ethics and a betrayal of the privilege of media freedom.

The seriousness and scale of what’s alleged means the abuses committed by NOTW journalists were systemic and must have been sanctioned by very senior news executives – one reason why the current fallout is having such deep and wide ranging repercussions.

What set in at the NOTW news room was a culture of law breaking – the hacking into the information of people’s private lives to uncover scandal.  For the past five years, allegations of phone hacking by the newspaper’s journalists have been simmering. There was a police investigation that led to two convictions and revelations that News International, NOTW’s parent company, paid two important phone hacking victims for their silence. But the nature of NOTW’s usual targets – celebrities, politicians and members of the Royal Family – had failed to elicit much sympathy from the public. This all changed this month.

The hunger for exclusive content haunts weekly tabloids like the News of the World to a greater extent than their daily counterparts like The Sun because they only get one shot a week to break a story and set the news agenda for all its competitors. Forget the website, the hard copy Sunday print version is what really matters.

In its reckless pursuit of exclusive stories, News International, by dint of being NOTW’s owners, is culpable and stands accused of breaking British law – to be precise, the interception of communications, contrary to Section1(1) Criminal Law Act 1977 and bribing police, contrary to Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906.

The game changer was a bolt from the blue. The Guardian revealed News of the World journalists had hacked the voice mail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002 while the search was on to find her. She was later found to have been murdered.  It was also revealed a NOTW journalist or journalists deleted voice messages to make room for new messages from the girl’s worried friends and family members.

The reaction to the story has been one of universal disgust. NOTW had sunk journalism to a new and ultra-despicable low and heads are now rolling at News International. What’s also been laid bare is the company’s carefully managed and strategic relationships with key British politicians and even senior members of the police which has helped to protect the company like Teflon protects a non stick pan.

The founder of the News Corp empire that owns News International, Rupert Murdoch, has now personally apologised to the Dowler family and to the British public. In other developments, the NOTW has been closed down, journalists and former news executives are being arrested, Britain’s top policeman has resigned, an eight billion euro deal to buy satellite network BSkyB has been abandoned and Murdoch and his son James have been summonsed to appear before a parliamentary select committee. Meanwhile the threat of more criminal charges hangs on both sides of the Atlantic.

There are now other troubling allegations – that NOTW journalists hacked the phone accounts of the victims of the 2005 London tube and bus bombings. The US government will be carrying out its own investigations, including a probe on whether victims of 9/11 were also targeted by Murdoch journalists.

The blowback goes all the way to New York-based mother ship, News Corp, and what started with NOTW has become a defining crisis in Rupert Murdoch’s 50-year career as arguably the single most powerful man in news who has ever lived.

How then did News International get it so wrong? Here are four decisive factors.

Firstly, it seems certain that fierce competition for sales and profits in what is ostensibly a sunset industry was a fatally corrosive factor. The drive to scoop the opposition is the lifeblood of journalism and especially so for a Sunday tabloid. Tabloid newspapers are not called scandal sheets for nothing.

Secondly, NOTW was used as a career stepping stone by two ambitious young editors. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson cultivated a very aggressive, risk taking news room that regularly got the stories the competition wished it had. Both were later rewarded with spectacular career advancement but given what we know now, there can be no greater failure of leadership than what went on under their stewardship. Brooks has since resigned as chief executive of News International and both she and Coulson have been arrested.

Next, a strategy of short termism was everything. What happened at NOTW happened against a backdrop of gloom because newspapers are dying. The hugely profitable and intensely competitive world of Britain’s tabloid market is only sustainable for another decade or so. The digital time bomb is destroying the hard copy tabloid and desperation has infected the industry. It’s simply a matter of trying to buy as much time as possible in the hope that a digital way of profitably delivering mass media tabloid content is created and soon!

One last critical factor in the News International debacle is the impact on privacy that has been caused by the internet, mobile and surveillance technology, as well as social media.  New complex multi-dimensional issues have sprung up that are changing our concepts of privacy and the enforcement and passing of new privacy legislation has failed to keep pace. Definitions of privacy and what is an invasion or breach of privacy are challenged on a daily basis by the news media. Newspapers like NOTW have knowingly exploited the confusion to push at the boundaries of privacy and in this case to fatefully cross them.

There you have it. The declining years of newsprint, ruthless editors, a reckless and exploitative news room culture, confusion over privacy issues, the onslaught of the internet, new enabling technologies and a corporate culture of hubris and arrogance have conspired to create one of the biggest media stories ever.

Now there will be a reckoning. The news media in Britain faces the prospect of greater regulation and there will be a rebalancing of privacy and media freedom. Media freedom is vital to transparency and democracy and to show truth to the powerful. But that freedom takes a mortal blow when society’s self-appointed watchdogs indulge in behaviour as corrupt as some of those they watch.

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