Technology is media’s overwhelming context

Very smart piece on Buzzfeed today from Charlie Warzel, who writes off the back of Ezra Klein’s new venture:

media reporting today is, for better or for worse, inextricable from technology reporting. Tech — the internet, CMSes, distribution and production — is not just a factor for media companies, but an overwhelming context.

This goes deeper than simply CMS issues, though they’ve long been the biggest bugbears of those in the industry dominated by print requirements as they moved onto the web. Journalism and the technology used to distribute it have long been so deeply enmeshed that separating them would be meaningless. You can see that in the launch of things like Inside, which is aiming to aggregate content in short, fact-filled bursts designed for mobile reading but not for grammatical sense.

You can also see the context-blindness that Warzel mentions in the launch of the Saturday Paper, a new Australian print weekly which is relying on entirely different technology to Klein or Inside. The conversations around it have mostly been about editorial quality, with the CEO coming out swinging at the print incumbents. What’s missing from that analysis is any kind of conversation about the technology used, the difficulties of expanding a print model through rural Australia, and the issues of attention competition. Like Inside, like any news organisation on any medium, the Saturday Paper has to compete not just with other attractions using its own tech and distribution method, but also all those using other methods too. Print is no more a monolith than the internet, but the media reports around this new print product aren’t (yet) about innovations in design or in production, editorial strategy (beyond ‘be better than the others’, which is a little nebulous) or how the content will fit the form.

It’s that last part that matters most. Journalism, in whatever form it’s in, is symbiotic with the technology it’s using, in ways that go far beyond 140-characters for Twitter reports or design parameters for print. Increasingly, journalism online is shaped to match or to work with algorithms, tapping into what works to trigger broader pickup on different networks. Snappy front pages sell newspapers because of the technology and affordances of the newsstand; Upworthy headlines get links shared because of the technology and affordances of Facebook; Inside is betting that the technology and affordances of mobile readership will bring it similar success. The content strategy can’t be sensibly separated from the technologies involved.

Adaptation is continuous. It isn’t going to stop

EvolutionWe live in the future. The pace of change is astonishingly fast, and it’s accelerating. We’re living through not one but at least two huge technological advances – hardware in the form of computers and mobiles and tablets, and the network itself. We’re just starting to see the social changes that come as a result of those things: interlinked networks, technologically enabled, doing new stuff like Wikipedia and Wookiepedia and breaking the entire news industry by publishing stuff immediately and talking to each other directly.

Of course, children born today have no idea what a rotary telephone is, or a vinyl record. That’s not a hard thing to understand. What’s startling is realising that most 12-year-olds now have no idea what the save icon in Microsoft Word is meant to look like. Floppy disks are gone. We’ve gone through so much tech so fast.

But we’re not done with those changes. Not even the network changes are over, never mind the hardware and the social effects from those things. We have got so many more years of this to come – magical devices emerging from big conferences that change the way your whole life works; new ways of having conversations and sharing things and spreading information virally that come out of tiny startups with no cash. Things we can’t imagine yet, but that will seem inevitable as soon as they exist.

We don’t get to stop yet. In fact, we probably aren’t going to stop in my lifetime. I’ve made my peace with the idea that every solution I work on, every innovation I’m part of and every exciting development I eagerly enjoy is a step on the way somewhere else. Everything we are currently doing is temporary.

It’s pointless trying to adapt to survive the current conditions and then stopping. By the time you’ve adapted the current conditions will be old news. In three years’ time your nice, completed adaptation will be obsolete.

That doesn’t mean we get to stop doing it. It means that – in the news business especially – we need to get a move on doing it now. We need buckets of innovation now, in chunks that we can test and deploy and iterate on and learn from, so that in six months’ time we can be doing the next thing. And then the thing after that. And then the next thing. Because standing still would be monumentally, suicidally stupid.

This post was brought to you by @currybet on innovation, @adders on disruption, and @yelvington on Kodak.

#playful11: you don’t need a flying car

Last Friday was Playful 2011, an awesome conference about games and toys and, well, being playful. It was at Conway Hall. It was lovely in that way that you don’t always agree with, but that makes you think and gives you a different slant on the world. I enjoyed it immensely.

Running through the day were several threads that I want to come back to at some point – most notably for me the blurrings of boundaries between art and technology, between physical and digital things, and between creation and consumption. But the dominating theme was nostalgia – nostalgia for a vision of the future that was born in the 1970s with big-budget sci-fi epics, and that simply doesn’t exist now.

To put it another way: where’s my fucking jetpack?

It’ll come as no surprise, if you saw me live tweeting, that this future-past nostalgia doesn’t resonate with me. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one personal and one much more general and more interesting.

First up: the personal. The touchstones of the nostalgic middle-aged man don’t reflect me. This isn’t just an age thing – I watched Logan’s Run and Star Wars, albeit a few years late – it’s a gender and a sexuality thing too. My present, as a not-entirely-straight woman, is a hell of a lot more interesting and self-controlled and autonomous than any 1970s sci-fi vision of that life (Alien dutifully excepted). I could be an astronaut, or a prime minister. I can control my fertility (isn’t it weird how few people who talk about humans as cyborgs ever mention that?) and I don’t have to sleep with everyone I meet as a result. I am the star of my own movie, not a sidekick. It’s not perfect, and others have it worse – this future like all others is unevenly distributed – but it’s getting better.

So I like this future, where I don’t have a jetpack but also I don’t have to wear a silver breastplate or high-legged leotard or gold bikini. Nostalgia for those images makes no sense to me.

The other thing – and this is the less personal one – is that trends in technology aren’t actually about the tech. Trends in anything aren’t about what’s technically possible so much as they’re about what matters to people. Trends are about us, about humans and what we want and need from our world. This is true for toys and games and news and jetpacks and flying cars. So one big reason we don’t have flying cars is that the desire for flying cars was never actually a need for flying cars. It was a problem (get places fast, avoiding congestion) that could be solved by flying cars, but also in other ways. Like telecommuting.

It’s the internet’s fault that you don’t have a flying car.

We don’t always think of the web as bridging physical space problems, but it does – so smoothly that we don’t notice. I have my work colleagues in my pocket and a window to my work space in my bag. Now, why do I need a flying car?

(Yes, there are also technological and logistical reasons why flying cars are difficult. The internet isn’t a perfect solution to the problem. But it’s not bad, for an unevenly distributed future. And if it didn’t solve the problem pretty well, I reckon we’d find a way to make flying cars work. We’re clever little monkeys, and we’re good at solving problems.)

What else is in my pocket? I have the biggest encyclopaedia there has ever been, and a satellite view of the entire globe, and a personally curated collection of interesting writing by clever people that expands every day beyond my ability to read and absorb it. I have a direct, fast, simple line out to millions of people, and tools I can use to collaborate with them on any number of exciting projects or toys or games. Oh, and the news, too. All of it.

Something else that ran through many of the Playful talks was a focus on play as an event that happens between an individual and a machine. It struck a peculiar note for me, operating in a space with Zombie where all play is collaborative between humans, and a space at the Guardian where news gathering and consumption are going the same way.

The risk here is that by focusing on the toy at the expense of the needs of the player – the shiny tech, the jetpack, the iPad (it’s the future of news, you know) – we lose sight of what’s actually happening. New toys are solving old problems. We are collaborating more and more, in incredible ways. We are capable of incredible endeavours, playful and serious, because we are connected. The key vision of the next generation isn’t a baby playing with a magazine as though it’s an iPad. It’s social networking on Moshi Monsters and multi-player collaborative world-building in Minecraft.

Sci-fi has always been good at identifying problems and imagining solutions – but usually it’s much better at predicting the needs than the resolutions. Jetpacks, incidentally, have been around since about the 1940s. They didn’t really solve much.

Nostalgia for the promise of a different future doesn’t make sense to me in a world where I can already see the solutions to those problems in the flesh. Why get misty-eyed over the promise of a flying car or newspapers with moving pictures, when we can see the whole world from the sky on Google Earth and join in with news happening at the tips of our fingers on Twitter and live blogs and YouTube?

I would rather get on with playing.

Digitally divided

This is the second of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there; the third and fourth will tackle major issues raised. This one is about the divide between digital haves and have-nots, and what the future looks like for connectivity.

Back in Norwich, the newspapers where I used to work have just launched a campaign to back a bid for better broadband. Areas of rural Norfolk suffer badly from a lack of coverage – businesses relying on connectivity to function, to process payments or to do work, find themselves crippled by slow or unusable broadband access. Mobile coverage can be patchy. 3G is a luxury. There is an ongoing fight for change.

It can be very, very easy to forget that not everyone is online. When everyone around you is eyeballs-deep in social media and those without smartphones are a rarity, the statistics on digital inclusion are startling. According to the ONS [pdf], 27% of UK households have no access to the internet at home, and 9.2m adults have never used the internet.

Those figures are likely to fall. But they’re likely to fall faster in areas where broadband speeds are high, where there is free internet access for those who can’t afford a home connection, and within certain demographics – people who can afford smartphones even if a home broadband connection is out of reach, for instance, or young people in house shares who can split the costs of connection if not of hardware.

For some rural communities, fast broadband is unlikely to come from the telephone companies. Despite promises to the contrary, a fair few Norfolk businesspeople are bitterly aware that telecoms giants go where the profit is – and that means not laying cables and updating infrastructure in areas where the usage wouldn’t pay for the work to be done.

And that profit motive has other unpleasant effects. The fight for net neutrality is being fought much more loudly on the other side of the Atlantic – but it’s a growing issue in the UK too. The introduction of a tiered system in which those who can pay get their websites served faster than those who can’t threatens the free proliferation of information across the net, and threatens to limit access still further for those who can’t pay. The internet has democratised processes of creation and dissemination; any move towards a tiered web will move us away from open access; and the future for net neutrality in the UK remains unclear.

Already there are communities everywhere taking matters into their own hands. The Open Rights Group is one of several organisations fighting to protect net neutrality and working to protect other digital rights. Remote Cumbrian villages are raising money and building their own broadband networks. And it is technically and technologically possible to share your wifi connection with your neighbours – and to drop free wifi networks over wide areas, like the (now sadly defunct) network that blanketed Norwich with free connectivity a few years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Any project tackling social change – like the ones rising out of Powerful Voices – has to consider the implications of the digital divide, whether they’re trying to solve the problems it creates (by replacing lost library services with online access, for instance) or trying to use digital methods to influence issues that also affect those who find it difficult to get online (like volunteer schemes for the unemployed, or community projects looking for professionals).

It was fascinating and eye-opening that the suggestions that struck home with the Powerful Voices crowd were not so much the online ideas – they already knew they needed to be where their communities are, use whichever social networks they already use, and fragment their work across multiple platforms to reach people. It was the offline thoughts that got a big response. One idea, that if your community hangs out in a coffee shop then you should go put some flyers there for your project, prompted a discussion about how difficult it is sometimes to remember that there are offline ways of connecting with people, too.

There are still ways of reaching and empowering people in remote communities who aren’t online. And local newspapers are still one of those ways. The physical, newsprint paper finds its way into houses where the internet does not; its distribution networks, though they are under threat, already work to put it in the hands of physically and socially isolated people. It’s a symbol, a mark of social belonging, and a link to the wider world. Local papers can and do campaign for their communities, using their established clout and power to fight for what’s right for them.

That means, sometimes, a newspaper fighting for something that could threaten its bottom line – when what matters to its readers is something that could indirectly mean the print paper’s circulation falls. Better broadband and connectivity isn’t going to mean an immediate sales drop – but as more and more remote communities come fully online, the need for the newspaper as a wider community champion link will decrease.

Facing the future

I spent a very interesting evening at the Frontline Club for the launch of Face The Future on Tuesday. Judith Townend, Kevin Marsh, Laura Oliver (who’s moved to the Guardian recently) and chair Raymond Snoddy discussed a pretty wide-ranging selection of subjects related to the future of journalism and the tools we’re using to create it.

The evening was an interesting reminder, for me, that those of us who tweet constantly and feel on top of new tech are still, overwhelmingly, the minority. It’s easy to forget, if you spend time learning about social media and talking about new tools for the future of journalism and generally being digitally disruptive, that that’s not the reality for most journalists.The fact that I was the only person tweeting for most of the evening was one small reminder; the demographics of the audience was another; Raymond Snoddy admitting he just about felt like he was on top of the technology until someone mentioned Quora was another.

And there was a timely reminder from Kevin Marsh that in the middle East, where so much information is coming via Twitter at the moment, the same holds true. It’s a specialised tool, and journalists in particular do specialised things with it – it’s relevant and timely and a great way to source stories, but it doesn’t open up access the same way that being there in person does.

But that was another major theme of the evening – that despite major news teams being capable of sending journalists around the world, the pressures of filing to half a dozen places can make it impossible for journalists to do their jobs well. Kevin gave examples from his knowledge of the BBC – journalists doing live broadcasts for the rolling news channels, recorded spots for lunchtime and evening news and possibly breakfast too, tweeting, perhaps doing radio, and blogging too. Where’s the time for journalists to leave their hotels and investigate, go out on the streets and find sources?

Closer to home, too, the debate touched on the problems for domestic reporters – Raymond Snoddy spoke of newsrooms where no-one leaves, not even for lunch, and characterised the reporters as working on “computerised treadmills”, churning out copy to feed the ravenous information machine.

The conclusion was – this type of reporting is not lazy journalism. The journalists involved are working harder than they ever have before, producing more copy, more broadcasts, more information. But the trade-off is in time spent in the field, investigating, asking questions, finding sources, doing the hard work behind the scenes that makes for good journalism. And that’s something I can identify with, too – even in my short career I’ve experienced a newsroom merge and a round of redundancies, and I can vouch for the fact that fewer staff, cutting costs and increasing numbers of platforms for your reporting mean more time at the desk or the phone and less time on your patch or with your sources, no matter how good your intentions.

The panel also agreed that what’s important is support, from editors and from news executives, for the core skills and values of journalism. What’s important isn’t just that reporters want to get out and report – what’s needed is a newsroom structure that supports and encourages that, and a business model that puts this core area of journalism at its heart and gives it everything it needs to thrive.

The discussion wove together issues of verifying information when breaking news is breaking faster than ever before, with the tricky problems of regaining readers’ trust in a world where the phone hacking inquiry is ongoing, with questions of how journalism itself is defined. And in the end, though both Laura and Judith made the point that new forms of information management and presentation have value – that aggregation is important and curation and filtering are vital, in a world where the same sources we use are also open to the audience – it was Kevin’s argument that stuck with me. He said that we have forgotten what journalism is, and in so doing we have allowed it to become devalued.

Kevin’s list of what journalism is and how it works was not exhaustive or scientific. He talked of journalistic values – accuracy, balance, ethics – and of reporters’ traits – curiosity, ability to speak truth to power, perseverance. He talked about a sort of journalism stamp – something that would signal strongly to readers that they were reading something professional, something that adhered to the central values of journalism – a hard task, in a world where no one trusts the PCC and we have no better accreditation. His definition of journalism would cheerfully include a huge raft of bloggers, freelancers and, yes, curators, while excluding half the Daily Mail and all of the Daily Star.

But what wasn’t clear was how we pay for that. One audience member asked, in so many words: where’s the money? And though the response was robust – if the BBC and Sky can’t pay for good journalism out of their enormous budgets, the problem is with the management not the journalism – it was not enough to leave me with any real ideas about how we reach this world where Kevin’s “j-stamp” both exists widely and can be trusted.

Newsroom support, rebuilding readers’ trust, and a journalistic practice that prioritises those core ethics before eyeballs or speed of filing is a lofty aim. There are hundreds of bloggers who are beating “professional” journalists at these things, day in, day out, because they believe it matters. Whether it’s a future that mainstream journalism can hope to achieve  is an open question.

On location

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front the last month or so. Lots of reasons – a big move to the big smoke, living in the cloud while waiting for broadband and wifi internet to be installed at home, and most of all a job where instead of writing about all the awesome things we should be doing online, I’m getting to actually make them happen.

It’s an exceptionally good feeling, and at the end of most days I’m all idea-ed out – I’ve been throwing myself into getting to know what we’ve got at Citywire, and finding ways to start improving some of the most obvious things. New share buttons have started appearing on part of our site; our journalists are starting to tweet under their own names while I take over our group account, and we have the very lean and early beginnings of a Facebook page. On top of that there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes, nitty gritty nuts and bolts to bring us better data on how well what we’re doing works.

Getting to know London, especially in the absence of a broadband connection, has changed my media and browsing habits enormously. For more than three weeks we didn’t have a TV aerial at home, so there was no TV news for me – and I didn’t miss it, thanks to Twitter. I didn’t go to any one site in particular for my news – the things I was interested in have found me. Perfect.

Newspapers are free here, as long as you commute. I read more papers voluntarily than I ever have – the morning Metro and the Evening Standard, cover to cover, on the train and the Tube. That fills ms in on anything Twitter hasn’t told me – they’re not my main source of news, but they fill in the gaps, and if they’re not there I don’t miss them. I see hundreds of people reading these papers every day – far more than I ever did in Norwich. The free model works, so long as you have your distribution sorted.

I use apps more than browsers, especially Twitter and Reeder. I still use mobile more than static, because much of the time I don’t know where I am or what’s near me. And that’s been a big surprise for me. Location based services have been a godsend.

I know, I know. Foursquare has a problem with checkin fatigue and meaningless badges that reward grind and a game mechanic that isn’t really a game. Gowalla is a loot quest at best, and even with trips and items its fundamental mechanic isn’t entirely satisfying. Facebook Places is stuffed with privacy issues. There’s a study out that shows the number of Americans using location services is small – 4%, and dropping. And until I moved cities, I was one of those who tried for a while and then stopped bothering.

But then I moved, and suddenly instead of knowing my home city inside out and backward, I didn’t know where anything was, or who anyone was, or where to go for a pint of decent ale or a good cup of coffee. It’s an incredible, dislocating feeling, moving to a new city and especially London, and I’m lucky to have my husband with me through the upheaval. But now there’s a layer of information on top of the city streets that just wasn’t there six years ago, the last time I made a move like this. And that, for me, has value.

So being able to find a decent restaurant or a pub from my phone is not only good, but helps me feel a little more welcome, a little more embedded in my new community. What’s better is the added layers of information that some social networks are building on top of location data. Untappd tells me where I can get a well-kept pint of London Pride. The Foodspotting community is perhaps a little richer than me – I’ve looked at some pictures of incredible food but not yet used it to eat – but a service like Rate My Takeaway (complete with hygiene scores and a price list) would be useful regularly.

For that matter, location based classifieds would be pretty handy too. A system of virtual newsagents’ windows where I might be able to pick up a second-hand sofa locally, for instance. So would a deal-finder that would let the local supermarkets – and corner shops, and grocers, and butchers, and so on – compete for my weekly shop by telling me what was on offer today. Not online deals, but real ones. And I could use a “what’s happening” app that tells me, right now, what’s happening at the places I’ve scoped out that might get me mixing and mingling – not reviews afterwards, but upcoming and current events. (I’ve just downloaded the Time Out app – we’ll see if that does the trick.) Not games, but services – not fun, but useful.

Digital people talk about how newspapers missed the boat on digitising classified ads. I don’t know whether location is another space where traditional media is missing the boat – given the low take-up numbers it’s possible there isn’t a boat to miss. But I wonder if the numbers are down to the fact that location services, Foursquare in particular, are still creating an ecosystem, laying the foundations for a whole world of mobile information layers that could, in the end, be a profitable and useful space.

JEEcamp thoughts on data journalism

Information VisualizationI spent some time talking to Martin Belam (@currybet) about data journalism and the importance (or otherwise) of journalists learning to code.

He said, as he’s said before, that it’s more important for journalists to know whether something is or isn’t possible than for us to necessarily be able to do it ourselves.

And for working journalists whose day to day job doesn’t carry a coding requirement already – and particularly those of us who are lucky enough to be in a workplace where there are developers or programmers who can take our ideas and make them flesh (ie. not me), he’s almost certainly right.

Those skills are becoming more and more important. With the birth of and the increasingly open approach to information that the new coalition government is likely to take, sifting and analysing data to find the stories is going to be a vital skill for a lot of journalists.

We need to know our way around a spreadsheet. We need to be able to spot patterns in data and understand not only what they mean but also how we can use them to reveal stories that are not only relevant but useful.

We need to know where our skills can get us. We need to know our capabilities and our limits – and, crucially, we must be aware of what we don’t know. That’s not just knowing that there are holes in our knowledge, but knowing the shape of those holes so that we can try to get our problems a little closer to a solution.

Journalism is about asking the right questions. We research stories before we interview subjects so that we can ask pertinent questions whose answers will illuminate the subject. We need to be able to do the same thing with our data – we need to know what questions to ask and how, so that even if we can’t make the tools ourselves we can hand over the task to someone else without asking the impossible or wasting their time.

But most of the time, certainly for journalists on regional papers and I would wager for many in other areas, those people who know how to make the tools just don’t exist. I have friends who code, but I can’t ask them for a favour every time I want to create a news app, or diff two versions of a stack of documents, or visualise a complex dataset, or tell the story of 100 people’s losses from an investment fund going bust in a way that conveys both the scale and the humanity of the problem.

Regional journalists work on hundreds of stories that could be made vastly easier or more beautiful or more accessible through a touch of computer work (spreadsheets, maps, things that aren’t quite coding but sort of almost are and look like it to the untrained eye). A few of us can create those additions; the rest just write the story, and our papers and websites are poorer for it.

We work on a few stories – and the number is increasing – that are perfect for news apps, web coding, multimedia packages or other more complex solutions that very, very few of us can create. But no one else will do it for us.

On top of that many of us struggle with inflexible content management systems that penalise or make it literally impossible to display data-driven work online. Faced with that problem, some budding computer-assisted-reporters give up before they’ve even started.

So I’m not going to stop learning Python. It’s not a complete solution to the problem – for that we need real, systemic change so that the businesses we work for all value data work, understand its increasing relevance, reflect on current practice and support training journalists to do an evolving job.

But for me, it means that in the future I might be able to create better stories, automate processes within series or campaigns or multiple follow-up stories, make my job easier and make a better experience for the reader all at the same time.

At least, until we all have newsroom developers.

Eulogy: old friend Xbox

Today I am in mourning for my xbox 360. After 4 years of long service it finally red ringed last night while I was trying to play my first proper sidequest on Mass Effect 2.

I feel a need to mark its passing somehow. I bought it way back in spring 2006 if memory serves – it was a first generation machine, obnoxiously noisy, occasionally buggy, and lacking an HDMI port.

While other people swapped broken consoles constantly thanks to Microsoft’s poor performance – I have friends who went through 4 360s in a year thanks to the dreaded red ring – mine soldiered on quite cheerfully. It survived 6 house moves – including going from Newcastle to Norwich wrapped in T-shirts in a suitcase on the train. It saw me through relationships ending, through graduation and a career change and my NCTJ prelims. It saw me married.

When thinking about major time periods in my life, I can link them still to the games I was playing at the time. All, or almost all, Xbox. Second year of university, wrapped up in work and writing constantly – Oblivion. Applying for jobs after uni – Guitar Hero 2. Breaking up with a long-term partner – Assassin’s Creed. NCTJ course – Portal, Braid, Fallout 3.

And looking back it’s striking how often I played out the conflicts and themes in meatspace life through gaming. In periods of intense factual learning I gravitated towards puzzle games with neat solutions; when I felt I couldn’t get anything right I retreated to conquerable, affirming rhythm games; at times of uncertainty and doubt I repeatedly threw myself off tall buildings.

Gaming has been self-care and healing, escapism, social interaction, fun, exploration, achievement and space where achievement no longer matters. It won’t end here – I have every intention of going out today to pick up a replacement. But this does feel very much like the end of an era. The next one won’t be the same.

I wonder if this is how I’ll feel if my iPhone ever dies.