Posts Tagged online journalism

Online Crowd Sourcing – getting the public to do our work for us?

Today’s post is based on last week’s Online Journalism lecture, particularly Susan Hetherington’s discussion about “crowd sourcing”.

Robert Niles from the Online Journalism Review says “crowd sourcing”, in a journalism context, is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story.  It’s an old source (2007), but I think the definition is still relevant.

A more recent definition might be this (from this short video) – “Crowd is sourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks to an undefined large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.”

Either way, crowd sourcing involves, from my understanding, recruiting people from, say, the general public, to help provide information on a large scale, or help on a task that may be too overwhelming for a single journalist (or team of journos) to manage on their own.

Susan pointed out that this isn’t a new idea – the video above mentions that the original Oxford dictionary was, in fact, crowd sourced.  “Readers of the English language” were invited to send in words and definitions and they received six million responses.  However, it took 70 years to produce the first edition.

At this point, I had flashbacks to a certain episode of Blackadder III (thanks BBC for putting up a couple of clips).

Nowadays, online crowd sourcing can certainly speed things up.  Former BBC journalist, and now journalism educator, Professor Alfred Hermida, says Web 2.0 technologies (so social media etc) create an “infrastructure that allows geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to connect and collaborate over the Internet without any central coordination.”  He says crowd sourcing allows journalists to “steer the audience by asking for data, analysis or help to cover events or issues.”

What can we crowd source?

Hermida says crowd sourcing can be broken down into three broad layers.  Each of these layers, to me, seems to be an increasing scale of reader involvement in the process of gathering and creating news.

1. General Observation – Hermida says this involves collecting data from people about things     they come across in their daily life and then aggregating the information.  Here, the news organisation is “tapping into the eyes and ears of its audience”.

A very local example which springs to mind is Quest newspaper’s “Magpie Map”.  Readers can tweet the location of dangerous, swooping magpies (#magpiemap) and it’s collated into one large map.  A very basic example of crowd sourcing, but still very handy for those whose journeys to public transport are plagued by swooping birds this time of year.  It also uses Google maps, another handy online journalism tool!

2. Breaking news – audiences are asked to send in their photos, video or eye-witness accounts.  Hermida uses the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the 7/7 London bombings as examples – I think we can update that list with the recent(ish) Queensland floods, Christchurch earthquake or  the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle-East last year.  Any breaking news will work (I think), if a journalist needs to bring various strands of information together (e.g. the ABC’s coverage of the dispute earlier this year over Brisbane’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Musgrave Park).

3. Investigative journalism – readers help to analyse information, “crunch numbers or pore over documents.” Essentially, large amounts of information (that would be too big for a journalist to work with on their own) are turned over to readers and they can go through and highlight anything that seems important.  Journalists then need to collate these (potentially) mountains of crowd-sourced information (probably a big enough task in itself).

Both Hermida and Susan Hetherington used The Guardian’s experiment with crowd sourcing in investigating British MPs’ expenses claims in 2009 (which appears to be ongoing even now).  By all accounts, this use of crowd sourcing seemed pretty successful, with a massive reader response.  Have a look at that last link, from the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Michael Andersen, for some useful hints for a successful crowd sourcing experience (all lessons learned from The Guardian).

On the other hand, other attempts to crowd source have gone horribly wrong for the news organisations in question.  In 2011, a large number of Sarah Palin’s emails were released – the New York Times tried to use crowd sourcing to gather information and determine if there was anything interesting.  The response was not what they had expected.  Here, the way the New York Times went about it landed them some criticism, with readers essentially complaining they were doing the journalists’ work for them.

I think David Zax’s comments (from the link above) are pretty valid, particularly point one – know your audience.  In my opinion, what made The Guardian’s so successful was that they were asking readers to do something they had a semi-personal connection with – going through the expenses of their own elected MPs.  By comparison, I doubt the majority of Times readers had that same connection with Sarah Palin, particularly at a time long after she was in the running for Vice-President.

At the end of the day, I think crowd sourcing has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool.  However, as Susan Hetherington reminded us – crowd sourcing is only as good as the crowd itself.  Journalists will get garbage information or information that has not been independently verified.  We still need to do our own checks and balances, because let’s face it.

For each genius that helps us, we’ll probably get a few Baldricks.



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Live Blogging vs Live Tweeting

Oh dear… I appear to have missed last week’s post.  Curse property law assignments!  However, now that I’m free of leasehold covenants, rent guarantees and indefeasibility for a couple of weeks – on with the blogging!

Today, I thought I’d take a brief look at live blogging compared with live tweeting, and why one might be preferable to the other.

Live blogging

According to Daniel Hurst, from the Brisbane Time, live blogging involves “ditching the normal news structure”.  Journalists instead provide regular, short updates on a continuous news story.  He says they can be used to cover a wide variety of stories, including:

– unfolding political stories, debates and elections

– severe weather events

– sporting matches

– riots and protests.

Essentially, Hurst said live blogs can be used for any topic in which an audience will be interested in ongoing updates.  He also said running live blogs for rapidly unfolding events makes it easier for readers to digest “bite-sized” pieces of information and that it’s easier for journalists to write short, sharp updates.  The Guardian’s Matt Wells makes some similar comments here.

It was also pointed out to us that live blogs can sometimes take a more conversational tone (though I’d assume the context of the news item in particular would determine if this was appropriate).  For example, check out the ABC’s live blog coverage of the Olympics Closing Ceremony – possibly the best example of a “conversational tone” I’ve seen.  Obviously a more “light-hearted” story like the Closing Ceremony could allow you to be personal and less serious, as compared to say, live-blogging a natural disaster.

The other main benefit of live blogging that Hurst discussed was that it developed a two-way conversation with the reader – journalists can include social media (and other interactive media) to show reactions to news, as well as excerpts of analysis and comments from (and links to) other articles (even their competitors!).

However, live blogs don’t necessarily work for every story.  Channel 4’s technology correspondent Benjamin Cohen (quoted in Matt Wells’ piece above) says live blogs need a “lot of content to work” and also only really work if journalists have a big audience to read and share it.  He says they can also be confusing for new readers (because of the amount of content) and thus need continual “signposting” – good curating and management are to prevent a live blog becoming a “mishmash of tweets and comments with context.”  Finally, I find it interesting that Cohen also says, for some breaking stories, it’s actually more interesting to look at the Twitter stream for a breaking story – which leads nicely into my next point.

Live Tweeting?

Many people will be familiar with the idea of live tweeting – follow any journalist or news organisation on Twitter and, when they attend a press conference or breaking news event, you can be sure there’ll be a constant stream of updates letting the reader know exactly what’s going on (as best they can in 140 words).  The Poynter Institute’s Herbert Lowe describes live tweeting as a “standard tool” for breaking news.

However, Daniel Hurst was sceptical about live tweeting press conferences, and another Poynter Institute author, Matt Thompson, has given five (in my opinion) convincing reasons why a live blog might be better.

Firstly, Thompson does admit Twitter has some “key advantages”, namely that the software is easier to use (no live blogging client to try and embed in your site) and that it also allows you to engage with everyone who follows you (not just those visiting your site on a regular basis).

But he also points out that Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it difficult to capture the “flux of a speaker’s argument, or the back-and-forth in a panel discussion.”  It is good for tweeting “applause lines” though.

Of Thompson’s five points, I think the first two that running a live blog forces journalists to pay attention and forces them to write – warrant some discussion.  I’m not 100 per cent sure doing a live blog will force journalists to pay more attention.  I suppose you could argue the increased amount of information needed (or provided?) by a live blog means journalists would pay attention so they can write more (with the flipside being live tweeting journalists only looking/ listening for main points).  However, I think a live tweeting journo would still need to pay attention to all the information, so that he actually knows which pieces are the most important.

Thompson’s second point is something I could agree with entirely.  I’ve already mentioned, in my Speed vs. Accuracy post, that I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  I like the suggestion that the continual pressure of needing to provide longer updates every few minutes stops journalists from fretting over every word and sentence.  Hopefully, doing some live blogging might help break me from this habit.  Conversely, I think trying to live tweet something might make me more pedantic, as I try and condense all my ideas down into 140 concise characters.

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Correcting errors in online journalism

A recent report on the ABC’s Media Watch program about the reporting around Julia Gillard’s latest battles with the media got me thinking about how journalists go about correcting errors they may have made in their stories.

In this instance, the Australian made (in the print versions of their publication) “minor errors with major consequences,” according to Media Watch.  To correct them, they published two online statements acknowledging the mistakes had been made.  However, I notice that the corrections go no further than merely stating that certain claims were “wrong” and “are untrue”.

But in the online world, where the news moves so fast and stories are constantly updated, wouldn’t it be easier (and is there a temptation to) simply delete/ fix errors, sweep them under the carpet and pretend they never happened?

Common errors

While I think all journalists try their best to avoid errors, it’s probably unavoidable that some slip in from time to time.

According to Mallary Tenore, from the Poynter Institute, misspelled names are the most common errors.  For example, of the 56 corrections Poynter had run this year (as of May 12, 2012), 16% were apparently name misspellings.  The article quotes similar statistics for other news sources (e.g.  16% for the New York Times and 14% for the Los Angeles Times)

Corrections also need to be run for any incorrect assertions or misquotes, according to another Poynter Institute writer, Craig Silverman.  Silverman runs the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error page(s), which “tracks accuracy, errors & the craft of verification”.  It’s well worth checking out (and isn’t limited to American news).

At the end of the day, no matter what the error is, I think it’s vital that journalists try to correct them as soon as possible.  Otherwise, how can we claim to be a credible, trustworthy source?

Transparent correction

But what is the best way to correct errors journalists may have made?  Unsurprisingly, deleting errors and pretending they didn’t happen isn’t the best way to go about it.

Rudy Lee, from the Ryerson Review of Journalism, says a good corrections policy starts “with the understanding mistakes are inevitable,” and that transparency is the key.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has outlined some best practices in digital accuracy and correction.  In particular, they have three core principles that I think any online journalist would do well to remember.  I’ll briefly repeat them below:

1. “Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished.  News organisations do not rewrite history or make news disappear.”

2. “Accuracy is the foundation of media credibility…. we should resist unpublishing… we should publish corrections or update online articles as soon as we verify errors.”

3. “Transparency demands that we are clear with audiences about changes that have been made to correct/ amend or update digital content.  We should not “scrub” digital content, that is, simply fix it and hope that no one has noticed.”

The best way (and probably most logical way) to do this is to have a dedicated corrections page for each news organisation.  According to all the sources mentioned so far, this will help maintain credibility as journalists acknowledge their mistakes and, in doing so, assure readers that they are committed to accuracy.

For example, both the BBC and the ABC have their own dedicated corrections pages (both of which can be found by a quick Google search).  A quick glance at the page(s) allows a reader to see a complete history of all corrections that have been made (and importantly, an explanation of what is was wrong, not just “it was incorrect”).

Many news organisations also insert a note into a story, either at the beginning or end, to inform the reader that corrections have been made.

I particularly like the way the Columbia Journalism Review handles their corrections.  Not only do they have a dedicated corrections page, but they also put a strike through the original error, with the correction immediately following.  I quite like this, as I think it makes it very, very clear to the reader exactly what information has been changed (and they can see the changes visually at a glance, without needing to compare an old and new version of the story).  Finally, they also include a “Report an Error” button at the end of every article.  This will make it even easier for news organisations to have errors brought to their attention, as helping reader report errors makes them all into fact checkers (according to the Canadian Association of Journalists).

Unfortunately, not every news organisation seems as open.  I had a look around the Courier Mail’s website and was unable to find a corrections page, or even any clear instructions/ guidance about what to do if a reader finds an error.  If anyone else is able to find such a page, please let me know and I’ll correct this.  Knowing my technological skills, I might have missed it.

In summary, I guess there are three keys things I need to remember:

1. Mistakes happen, but don’t just delete them

2. Be open and transparent about errors and corrections (and try to fix them quickly)

3. Make it easy for readers to find corrections that have been made (and easy for them    to get in touch about mistakes you’ve yet to find)

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The battle between Speed and Accuracy in Online Journalism

In the wake of this week’s “speed vs. accuracy” exam for QUTOJ1 students, I’ve realised one major thing.

…I’m something of a perfectionist…

By this, I mean I probably spend far too much time considering every sentence, trying to ensure each sentence imparts as much information as possible.  I’m also someone who will (usually) try to double check (or even triple check) any facts before I commit them to the page.  In essence, I want to make each sentence as an efficient use of words and page space as possible.

Which is probably, as it turns out, a somewhat inefficient use of my time*

But at least I’ll get good marks for accuracy.  Right?

However, I do understand the need for speedy writing in journalism, particularly in the online sphere.  The news moves so fast nowadays, particularly in the era of 24-hour news channels.  We are constantly being reminded that, in today’s world, “the deadline is now.”

Life in the fast lane

But what exactly is driving this “need for speed”

Kendyl Salcito, from the Centre for Journalism Ethics (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) says the proliferation of news outlets – “bloggers by the millions… but also cable… satellite television” has led to a “multi-media race” to get “the story 24-hours a day.  She notes that the public has an increasing demand to see news “as it happens”, particularly for coverage of natural disasters or other breaking events.

However, Salcito also says that “as the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners,” and that “laziness, lack of rigor and other bad habits” can complicate the ethics of speed and accuracy.

Ironically enough, the public that were hounding journalists for speedy information also expect the news media to create accurate and verified reports.


Former Washington journalist and journalism lecturer, Don Campbell, gives some good examples of errors that have occurred when journalists were too hasty (and perhaps merely repeated internet rumour without verification…).  For instance:

1. Reporting Arizona congresswoman Gabrille Giffords as deceased after being shot in the head.  She in fact survived.

2. Reporting an American governor was facing a federal indictment on tax charges.  However, he didn’t have any evidence to support his claim and Campbell describes this as clear “character assassination”, with the blogger responsible putting “speed ahead of the basic principles of accuracy and verification.”

However, something Campbell found more troubling was that credible news organisations (e.g. The New York Times or Washington Post) ran one of these inaccurate stories on their online sites.  This is the most troubling thing to me – if even these large, respected media organisations are putting speed before accuracy, I do wonder what future there is for someone like me who obsesses over detail?

Fastest fingers in the West?

At the end of the day, I think it’s a fine balancing act I’ll definitely need to learn to walk along (and quickly).  However, I still think my somewhat pedantic attention to detail has a place – just maybe not in an online newsroom.

I think Salcito’s article gives me a good question to ponder:

“How much accuracy is too much, when news must be current?”

Or maybe I should just type faster?

*EDIT: my woeful (i.e. “no”) marks for speed prove this!


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Am I going to get paid for this? Paywalls and Online Journalism

At the moment, the answer seems to be – probably not.

A recent online journalism lecture served as quite a wakeup call for many of my fellow students (and confirmed my own fears) about the current state of the journalism industry.

John Grey, former online editor at the Courier Mail, used a somewhat depressing Titanic analogy to describe the reaction media organisations have had to declining newspaper sales and the move to an “online future”.

“They’re not just rearranging the deckchairs, they’re throwing everything overboard.”

But before we all sink any further into the icy waters of despair, it’s worth noting consumers clearly still want our product.  The following graph, using information from a Ray Morgan poll (and referred to in the Week 2 lecture) shows traffic to online news sources has grown very steadily over the past couple of years.

Source: Online Journalism lecture, week 2; Ray Morgan Research

Further, it could also be said readers still want their news from the same familiar sources, that there remains a certain brand attraction (or loyalty) to specific news outlets.  A 2012 “State of the Media” report by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found searches on (in?) the news outlet itselfwere the “most popular path to the news” (followed by general searching of the web).

However, even though people still want the news, the news organisations themselves are struggling to figure out how to make this pay.  According to John Grey, the current online news model is free content, supplemented with advertising revenue.  While there are many different ways of raising revenue online (charging properly for online advertisements, website registration with demographically targeted ads, metered access to websites), the most common method appears to be the construction of a “paywall”

Why have paywalls?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a paywall is “an arrangement whereby access is restricted to users who have paid to subscribe to a website.”  That little definition was added in 2010.  Many news organisations are now making readers pay for online content – most notably big American newspapers like The New York Times and in Australian, local heavyweights like The Australian and Herald Sun.

For the New York Times, the paywall seems to be working, appearing to be partially offsetting the fall in revenue from their print publications.  Steve Ladurantaye, a media reporter from The Globe and Mail, said the Times was expecting to earn $85 million from its nearly half a million online subscribers this year.

However, it should be noted that the Times paywall allows non-subscribers access to 10 free articles a month.  Ladurantaye also says this “metered” system is becoming the preferred method of online publication.  Carrot, then stick, I guess?  Maybe “bait” is more appropriate.

Online media advocated and associate professor at New York University says the Times metered method has been working because it can target both dedicated and casual readers.

“We will never get a majority or even a sizeable  minority of our readers to pay use directly, but we can design a system in which some of our most passionate, engaged readers pay us directly, and the rest of the readers, the casual readers, we can keep around for the advertising revenue,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

Closer to home, the Australian’s paywall also seems to be working, with around 40,000 subscribers by March 2012.

The other side of the argument

Not everyone is happy with paywalls.

A recent survey suggests only one in four new media professionals believe a paywall increases a company’s revenue.  Maybe more alarming for news organisations, the survey also found more than half of the participants said they immediately left the site when they encountered a paywall.  However, around 40% did say they at least considered a subscription purchase (and 22% said they tried to find some way of cheating the system).

I also find it interesting that even those who are training to be journalists are often turned away by a paywall.  While that article is anecdotal evidence, with a very small sample size, I personally can’t help but feel it’s a good indicator of what might be happening.  I know myself that I will often leave a news site once I’ve hit my free-article limit.  It’s for that reason that I usually visit those organisations that don’t have a paywall (most notably the ABC, for obvious reasons).  So if even journalism students are being turned away by paywalls, I can’t help but wonder how viable they are in the long-term.

And not every news site that erected a paywall has stuck with it.  A large regional daily newspaper in the UK scrapped its paywall earlier this year after only nine months.  However, it did replace it with an iPhone app, which suggest there may be plenty of other ways to get readers to buy content online.

Finally, but of the most concern to me, it’s also been suggested that paywalls will change the way journalists write.  According to journalist Tim Burrowes, the traditional format (pyramid structure, layering of information etc) doesn’t work for “paywall journalism”.  He says that as most paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and first couple of paragraphs, before asking for payment, the traditional model doesn’t prompt people to subscribe (as they’ll have gotten the most important information anyway).  Instead, introductions need to written to intrigue the reader, or be deliberately vague and only get to the point in the 3rd paragraph (which is safely ensconced behind the paywall).

However, Burrowes says this new method of writing is dangerous as it fails to put the reader first and could perhaps drive readers away.

“Each time creates a minor annoyance, until the reader starts to subconsciously associate that with the publication in question,” he said.

For me, this seems the most alarming thing about paywalls.  Asking for payment is one thing – needing to deliberately compromise your writing styles and key journalistic principles seems far worse.

I’m sure there’s a better way to make online journalism pay (but I don’t have any ideas).  I just hope they find it quick.

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