Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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23 February 2017

As an media scholar and journalist with an interest in the digital divide, I have long believed that one of the things that media outlets could do a lot better is using their higher profile to give a voice to ‘ordinary people’ who have something to say. I also believe that one of the things that Facebook like other news intermediaries should be trying to do is increase ideological diversity in their feeds. Lastly, I am aware that it is not right to judge what people say online just because it is poorly written technically. And then this happens.

This is my top Facebook recommended story on Facebook’s top trending issue. The story’s summary suggests it is from the Huffington Post, which has some journalistic credibility, but if you visit the story itself and look carefully you will see that it is an un-edited, un-curated self published blog posting.

It is also badly written, bigoted, and dismayingly lacking in concrete, citable facts.

There was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he [Trump] is actually spot on.
It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence

(For a more nuanced view of recent events in Sweden, read this.)

In the end, I think that what this underlines is another of my personal tech policy prescriptions – we need to ensure that when technology companies are doing socially important work like influencing what news we see, they do not offload this role onto an unaccountable algorithm. Instead, they should ensure that the algorithms are overseen adequately by humans and that those humans are in turn accountable to the public for their actions.

18 March 2015

I am used as a journalism professor to suggesting to my students that for any specialist topic – a disease, a hobby, a location – they should seek out the online discussion forums chat rooms or mailing lists that relate to it. These can act as sources of expertise or places where they can seek out opinions or story ideas. Only when I have suggested they do this recently and have gone to look for them myself… I found surprisingly very little. It used to be that searching for “[topic] messageboard” or “[topic] forum” or “[topic] mailing list” would nearly always find something. I didn’t even find a discussion board by and for Canadian post-secondary students akin to the UK’s Student Room.

Back in 2011, Pew Internet found “65% of the internet users who are active in groups say they use their groups’ websites… 24% of these internet users say they contribute material to their groups’ online bulletin boards and discussions.”

Have the problems of troll management killed most of these off as it seems to be doing to media comments sections?  Has Facebook eaten up most of that discussion time? (I am not finding a lot of very active special interest Facebook groups either – at least not proportional in size to what seems to have been lost).

My students seem to see Reddit subreddits as their “go to” source of topic-centred conversation but Reddit is again not big enough to replace all of the little conversation spaces that used to be around (is it?), and ISTR it trends pretty young. Twitter is a) not usually the same as a message board in terms of length, depth and continuity of dialogue and b) my sense is that it is more a discussion tool for elites than for a broader range of participants.

Do you have the sense this is a real trend? Is anyone still tracking discussion board use? (If it isn’t still being tracked that might itself be a sign of something!)

Where else should I be sending my students online to find and solicit citizen views these days?

And with my communication studies hat on, if the internet-using public loses the “habit” of using online discussion forums, would this not undermine one of the important means the internet could function as a potential space of public “sphericules”?

6 March 2013
Filed under:Call for help,journalism,Online media at11:35 am

Much of the discussion about which way the journalism industry is doing suggests that freelancing will increase while staff jobs decline (see for example here and Paulussen 2012) but Felix Salmon at Reuters has just written an interesting piece suggesting most online content will be written by staff writers not freelances because online journalist is just too fast and frequent to make sense as a freelance business. His piece was inspired by Nate Thayer who complained recently about being asked to write for a major US magazine for free (for the exposure). The key paragraphs are here:

The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast — to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.
But there’s something bigger going on at the Atlantic, too. Cohn told me the Atlantic now employs some 50 journalists, just on the digital side of things: that’s more than the Atlantic magazine ever employed, and it’s emblematic of a deep difference between print journalism and digital journalism. In print magazines, the process of reporting and editing and drafting and rewriting and art directing and so on takes months: it’s a major operation. The journalist — the person doing most of the writing — often never even sees the magazine’s offices, where a large amount of work goes into putting the actual product together.
The job putting a website together, by contrast, is much faster and more integrated. Distinctions blur: if you work for theatlantic.com, you’re not going to find yourself in a narrow job like photo editor, or assignment editor, or stylist. Everybody does everything — including writing, and once you start working there, you realize pretty quickly that things go much more easily and much more quickly when pieces are entirely produced in-house than when you outsource the writing part to a freelancer. At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down — as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like.
This is an interesting take on the issue but I am afraid it paints an overoptimistic picture of the future of “digital journalism”. It should be remembered that The Atlantic is one of the most successful and most digitally focused of American publications. Felix suggests that, ” it’s much, much easier to get a job paying $60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together $60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites.” I am very sceptical that any but a few of those who work full-time at the profusion of new digital content enterprises or offshoots of existing products will be earning anything like that sum–there’s just too much competition. I would expect many or most “jack of all trades” full-time or near-full-time digital producers will end up being on some form of precarious contract working from home.
Update: Alexis Madrigal, who oversees the Atlantic’s technology channel, has responded to the Thayer affair with a rather gonzo post about their business model and why it leads to ill-paying or unpaid invitations to blog.
I would be most interested in any more solid evidence in this area whether about the incomes and backgrounds of these new digital journalists or about the casualisation of journalism more generally.

Paulussen, S. (2012). Technology and the Transformation of News Work: Are Labor Conditions in (Online) Journalism Changing? In E. Siapera & A. Veglis (Eds.), The handbook of global online journalism. Chichester: John Wiley

20 December 2012

Given the huge amount of data now available online, I am having great difficulty persuading my journalism students of the value of looking elsewhere (for example a library). One way to do so I thought might be to show them how little of what has been written in the pre and early web era is currently available online. I don’t have a good source of data to hand about this so I just put together this graph pulling figures out of my head– can anyone volunteer a better source of data for this? Someone from Google Books perhaps? [Update – Jerome McDonough came up with a great response which I have pasted below this graph]

If the question is restated as what percentage of standard, published books, newspapers and journals are not available via open-access on the web, the answer is pretty straightforward: an extremely small percentage.  Some points you can provide your students:

* The Google Books Project has digitized about 20 million volumes (as of last March); they estimate the total number of books ever published at about 130 million, so obviously the largest comprehensive scanning operation for print has only handled about 15% of the world’s books by their own admission.

* The large majority of what Google has scanned is still in copyright, since the vast majority of books are still in copyright — the 20th century produced a huge amount of new published material.  An analysis of library holdings in WorldCat in 2008 showed that about 18% of library holdings were pre-1923 (and hence in the public domain).  Assuming similar proportions hold for Google, they can only make full view of texts available for around 3.6 million books.  That’s a healthy number of books, but obviously a small fraction of 130 million, and more importantly, you can’t look at most of the 20th century material, which is going to be the stuff of greatest interest to journalists.  You might look at the analysis of Google Books as a research collection by Ed Jones (http://www.academia.edu/196028/Google_Books_as_a_General_Research_Collection) for more discussion of this.  There’s also an interesting discussion of rights issues around the HathiTrust collection that John Price Wilkin did you might be interested in : http://www.clir.org/pubs/ruminations/01wilkin [I wonder what the situation is like for Amazon’s quite extensive “Look inside the book” programme?]

As for newspapers, I think if you look at the Library of Congress’s information on the National Digital Newspaper Program at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/about/ you’ll see a somewhat different problem. LC is very averse to anything that might smack of copyright violation, so the vast majority of its efforts are focused on digitization of older, out-of-copyright material.  A journalist trying to do an article on news-worthy events of 1905 in the United States is going to find a lot more online than someone trying to find information about 1993.

Now, the above having been said, a lot of material is available *commercially* that you can’t get through Google Books or library digitization programs trying to stay on the right side of fair use law in the U.S.  If you want to pay for access, you can get at more.  But even making that allowance, I suspect there is more that has never been put into digital format than there is available either for free or for pay on the web at this point.  But I have to admit, trying to get solid numbers on that is a pain.

[Thanks again to Jerome, and thanks to Lois Scheidt for passing my query on around her Library Science friends…]

5 October 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media at7:39 pm

When I joined New Scientist in 1995 as Net Editor (and ever since) I wondered why it largely covers the natural sciences not the social sciences. I assumed this was something to do with the ongoing intellectual and ideological struggle between ‘hard’ sciences and ‘soft’ sciences and the related divide between qualitative and quantitative research. Imagine my surprise when thanks to the 3rd October podcast of Thinking Allowed, I discovered that the same people who launched New Scientist had launched New Society as well (50 years ago yesterday), explicitly as a social scientific publication.

I just remember New Society – it was merged with the New Statesman in 1988, a year after I arrived here in the UK (more detailed memories can be found on the podcast and in this recollection in the THES). Wouldn’t it be nice if on the anniversary of New Society’s birth New Scientist might be inspired to broaden its remit and introduce a New Society section? After all there’s no reason to keep off New Society’s patch now…

22 June 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media,research at12:55 pm

I’m writing a book chapter at the moment about the use of “user generated content” by journalists from the traditional media and to justify why I concentrate on the traditional media I thought I’d dig up a statistic or two about how dependent the public remains on traditional media for its news. I went looking for an update of Robert W. McChesney’s “The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants” written in 2000 and found his 2011 updated book The Death and Life of American Journalism. On page 17 I found this striking statement, “Harvard’s Alex S Jones estimates that 85% of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspapers and that he has seen credible sources place that figure closer to 95%”. Thinking this sounded like an interesting study I looked up the source and found Alex Jones’ book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. On page 4 he says, “my own estimate is that 85% of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95%” (emphases mine). In other words either Jones has failed to cite his own research or (more probably) McChesney is reporting second hand and third hand guesswork.

This kind of thing really annoys me particularly when it takes me several minutes to get to the bottom of what turns out to be nothing more than a guess, and particularly when I know that there are a number of studies that discuss the sources of news with a greater deal of rigour. For example, there is How News Happens which argues that in Baltimore in 2009 95% of original news stories came from traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers (although its methodology has come under fire), or Paterson’s fascinating 2007 study showing that the leading online news sources (and to a lesser extent newspapers) are heavily dependent on news agency copy.

5 March 2012

Of course it has a role for easy, quick communication of relatively unimportant information but I fear that its very availability and ease means that like some kind of online kudzu it is expanding and driving out longer-form online discourse – particularly blogs. This is particularly problematic for academics like myself. It used to be that I would string together 500 words and more about an academic subject or something in the news and post it on my academic blog (okay, I admit I was a grad student with a bit more time on my hands) but now I tend to just tweet or Facebook post about it because the blog form implicitly demands more engagement than I feel I can give. It seems to me that possibly for similar reasons gradually nearly all of the blogs I used to read by fellow academics giving me their insights into trends and papers have died away*, replaced by tweets simply directing me to relevant web addresses.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and pass on the kinds of references to papers and to newspaper articles I get–see my twitter feed– but by the time a tweeter tells you who sent them a web address, very briefly summarizes why you might want to click and perhaps provides a hash tag to indicate its subject all that remains to be said is that said document or image is “enjoyable”, “provocative”, scary etc. A blog posting by contrast does not have to be that much longer but allows the writer to provide at least a little more context for the resource that they are talking about or indeed to provide a small but nonetheless useful addition to scholarly knowledge without all the psychic and administrative burden of turning out an academic paper.

Moreover, I have recently realised thanks to the news about Datasift providing companies with access to archives of tweets back to 2010 that although Twitter has kept everything, if I as a user ever did want to find an insightful tweet from even a week ago unless I had favourited it or I had been using third-party programs to archive a particular user or hashtag I would be out of luck. I always supposed that the limitations of search in tools like TweetDeck or Twitter.com itself were just a coding problem not reflective of an underlying technical problem.

* Mind you, this rant which I have been saving for a while now was inspired in part by the excellence of a Nathan Jurgenson blog post which reminded me that academic blog excellence is not yet dead.

The cartoon below (sorry have lost the original source) presents a number of other good reasons I dislike Twitter…

12 January 2012

I’ve just been listening to a segment on TV and TVOD on the BBC’s Media Show and it has reminded me just how far outside the mainstream my media consumption practices are. The average British household apparently ‘watches’ four hours of TV a day – a record high figure. This probably includes ambient sporadically viewed ‘TV on in the corner’ but still how on earth do they find the time? I probably watch an average of an hour of TV a week. X Factor has been an extraordinary success for ITV – I have never watched it (and probably haven’t watched ITV at all in a year). The channel I view programmes from most is probably (you guessed it) BBC4. Even with the proliferation of DVRs, TVoD etc, people still watch 88% of their television ‘live’. I watch or listen to almost nothing in that way any more. By far the bulk of my audiovisual media consumption comes in (audio) podcast form – about 1.5 hours a day – because I can do it while doing other things eg cycling to and from work.
It’s really odd to realise just how far outside of the media consumption mainstream I am (and it’s hard for me to imagine myself into the heads of more typical media consumers).

6 July 2011

It’ll be interesting to see whether the great British public falls in love with this in the same way that Americans seem to have done with the HuffPo on its home turf. I suspect that since we already have a vibrant “opinion sphere” in our National press and (perhaps as a result?) the blogosphere here is rather less influential, it may struggle. I would have hoped that they could produce and highlight a few exciting exclusives for their first day but the page I saw this morning was reliant on the Press Association for several of the top stories, and aesthetically I found the layout much too garish and busy. That said, Tom Zeller’s feature piece on air quality in London was admirably thorough, the article about how you can print your own newspaper was interesting, and the story about the council who paid £100,000 to help schoolchildren get to McDonald’s was entertainingly quirky.

It’s early days–I look forward to seeing what the site comes up with and how its competitors react.

4 February 2011

1) I started my new job as Senior Lecturer in the Division of Journalism and Communication at the University of Bedfordshire this week and have enjoyed meeting my new colleagues (and collecting my new Macbook Pro).
2) I just met my editor at Palgrave and agreed to write a book (my first full-length academic one) provisionally titled “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media” – likely to be delivered in 2013. I plan to blog about it as I write using the “Sharing Our Lives Online” category, so keep an eye on that…
3) On my way back from that meeting I discovered that my wife has also just found a position for when her current one finishes, which given the turbulent situation in the NHS where she works is a big relief.

Of course I would be open to receiving further good news but these three bits of news are certainly enough to be starting with!

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