Hi I’m Gilad

I love data, analysis and visualization. Chief data scientist at beteaworks.

Big Questions in Journalism 2.0

Had the pleasure to participate in the Hackers/Hack meetup at the Boston Globe last night, where we continued the never-ending Journalism 2.0 discussion. I’m so used to being surrounded by folks from the tech world, that this meetup was quite refreshing as it had mostly non-tech journalists as participants. The meetup began with a presentation by the #TNGG (The Next Great Gen) crew. They ended the preso with a number of pertinent questions which then led to an active discussion. I didn’t take detailed notes, but will try to summarize the important points.

Personal vs. Professional

Its becoming harder to draw a clear line between personal opinions and the professional “stance”. The ease and expectation of publishing at all time leaves journalists grappling with the blurring boundaries between reporting personal experiences versus the formal “news”. At the core of this lies the question of objectivity (or should I say the myth?). News *should* come from a formal, trustworthy source that (supposedly) is unbiased and reports events from an objective viewpoint. With the advent of social media, journalists are expected to be constantly posting snippets of information as they become available, and not wait for the long form story to be published. Being first is valuable in an ecosystem where the ability to find information is frictionless. Having a personality on top of it, is becoming an invaluable asset. And whats a personality without an opinion?

Whats the right level of publicness that a journalist should seek? Can a journalist stay objective when reporting on an event from such a personal angle? The decision to mention one aspect of the evolving story versus another, the choice of the angle a photo is taken, all contribute to a personal, subjective view of an event. We all recognize how important it is to contribute this type of content and how engaging it is, drawing new types of audiences to follow the news. Additionally, the context that a journalist can add to information as a story evolves is incredibly valuable. Yet it all chips away at the ideal that news can be unbiased and objective. What are some best practices that journalists can keep in mind when adjusting to this new level of publicness?

Groups vs.  Networks

Your networks are your power. The game is no longer about maintaining a group of subscribers, but rather building up networks of folks who are interested in your content, and will vouch for your brand to their peers. One of the journalists at the meetup suggested that various niche publications have perfectly fine subscription rates, with a set group of folks who pay yearly for their magazine. She claimed that for these types of publications, social media might not be useful, as they have a small following, and are wholly focused on a specific niche (think: The Journal of Biological Chemistry).

Very wrong. While some journals and magazines still maintain solid subscription levels, the average age of those subscribers is on the rise. Someone at the meetup asked – wouldn’t you like to double the size of your subscription base? Social media can help expand audiences based on networks of interest, making it possible to reach folks you coud never reach otherwise. Information and recommendations flow through people, subscriptions are made based on relationship or interest. In an interest-based network such as Twitter, people self-organize around topics – you follow someone who interests you, track a hashtag of an event that you care about. By making sure your articles reach the right type of users on Twitter, building up the right type of network over time will do wonders for your publication.

Then came the question of ownership: who do these networks of followers belong to? They’re acquired while a journalist is employed by a media entity, yet the Twitter account belongs to the journalist. Some journalists in the room stated that their account specifically has their employer as a part of the name (e.g. ‘CNN_dave’) drawing a clear connection to their affiliation. Yet user names can be changed, and when someone leaves a media company for another, it is not too difficult to take that account while changing the affiliation. The younger crowd agreed that folks should be checking their employment contracts to make sure they have full ownership of social media accounts. It is a source of empowerment, tipping the scale towards the employee (this is not only happening in media, but across all industries).

Someone else suggested that its in the company’s best interest to have its employees active in social media and owning their accounts. When folks leave the company, hopefully on good terms, they will continue to link back to their previous employer. He believes that letting employees grow their audiences and letting them leave in good terms, will be net positive in aggregate over time, as they will be driving visibility and attention back to you.

Cons

There are obviously many issues we must overcome w/r/t social media. One commonly discussed is verification of truth – how do you know the information you’re pointing to is valid. Main suggestion here was – don’t be stupid! Just like one would verify sources when writing a story, the same should be done using social media sources. Some said that they ping folks and make sure to host a Skype call before they use content coming from an anonymous or pseudonymous source. I suggested that especially with rapid services such as Twitter, the network tends to figure it out very fast. People will call you out on a false piece of information. What tends to spread and be sensationalized is the story about the misinformation, not the actual piece of false information (Chuck Tanowitz tweeted me below):

Additionally, as much as the media world has gone ga-ga over Twitter, its important to recognize its biases, for two main reasons:

  1. Not everyone’s on Twitter. While it is becoming more mainstream, the service is still heavily used by certain types of power users. Facebook is a much more representational sample of the population. As Twitter is rapidly becoming the default service journalists and media entities use to lookup and publish information, it is important to remember the population that’s using the service (and whose left behind).
  2. Homophily /Filter Bubble – online (as offline) we tend to organize within our familiar neighborhoods. We choose to follow or friend others based on interest, professional circles, friendship or status. Social spaces feed off these networks, and recommend content that our friends tend to like. Its a feedback loop that keeps us from jumping outside our safe, familiar context.

An then there’s the ego-boost. Indeed getting attention in social media spaces does a great job at feeding our ego.

Be humble. No need to brag.

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