Monday, January 30, 2012

Student reviews of Storify

I've been intrigued by the concept of Storify since I first read about it a few months ago as it was entering its public beta phase. I don't know all that much about it other than what I have gleaned from examining a few presentations on the site and hearing reading what others have to say about using it; I haven't set up an account as of yet to try it for myself.

But from what I do know, it seemed like exploring Storify was a natural for a class I presented recently on the evolution of story narrative. Readings for the class included posts by Mathew Ingram and Jeff Jarvis last summer debating the value of articles, along with thoughts on the changing structure of story narrative from Jonathan Stray and a widely cited post from Nieman Lab's Megan Garber about how Twitter may represent a new paradigm that is a hybrid of spoken and written communication forms.

When I asked if anyone in the room was familiar with Storify no hands went up; in fact out of two classes with a combined 32 students no one had even heard of it. So as an in-class exercise, the students were assigned to go into Storify, examine some presentations and offer some thoughts about what characteristics of it made it effective (or ineffective) as a storytelling tool.

The comments were more positive than negative, but not by an overwhelming margin. One plus that came up repeatedly was that the tool allowed for various sources and types of media (from tweets to photos to video) to be collected all in one place; the ability to include photos and videos easily was seen as a highly positive thing, in fact. The format allowed for a variety of ideas to come across in a single presentation, several students noted. They liked that the story creators could mix in their own ideas as well.

On the negative side, some students questioned the accuracy and credibility of the items that were being collected into the presentations. Some called it too Twitter-centric, and said some of the presentations they examined seemed to be little more than a random collection of entries with no real rhyme, reason or context. Storify bills itself as a way for people to tell their own stories intermixed with social media-generated content from others, but the student critiques seemed to say there was too much of the latter (random content) without enough of the former (narrative to place that content into context).

Even the site layout received mixed reviews, with some students saying it was not very searchable or easily navigable, though others said they like the simple, direct -- boxy -- layout.

Even though not all of the students liked what they saw, in the end I think the exercise served its purpose of helping the students realize that traditional conceptions of "story" are being augmented by new forms that resemble traditional legacy models in some regards but not others. That was the point of the lesson and it seemed to come across pretty well.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Capitalistic journalism

As an entry in this month's Carnival of Journalism, participants are supposed to offer thoughts in reaction to an essay by Michael Rosenblum about whether journalists can be capitalists. (The specific wording from his piece is “Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist? If so, how? Or why not?")

The short answer -- and this is not meant to be flippant -- is they already are. While some non-profit news models are emerging, the vast bulk of U.S. journalism is done by capitalistic enterprises. History records for us the names of people who were effective capitalists and also journalists: Hearst. Pulitzer. Gannett. McCormick. The Chandlers. The Knights. The Ochs-Sulzberger family.

At the heart of Rosenblum's assertions is the assumption that "there is an instinctive aversion to the idea of making money amongst most journalists." He unfolds the argument from that point with a withering attack on some supposed financial sensibilities of journalists, and the negative result that he believes this has on the field.

I don't mean to turn this into an attack on his work, but the essay seems to be conflating the idea of "capitalist" to "person who earns a sufficient level of income" and from there sets up a false divide. In a formal sense, the capitalist is the owner of the means of production; certainly the various press barons mentioned earlier were that. They were also journalists in that as publishers they helped establish -- or flat-out dictated -- the editorial direction for their newspapers. And in filling the dual role they made LOTS of money.

Some journalists still make a lot of money; in a recent column Bill O'Reilly bragged about being a "1 percenter" and network news anchors' contracts come with seven-figure annual salaries. But the reason most journalists don't reach that stratum is not, as Rosenblum contends, because they fear making money or think it would taint them. It's because they are the labor in the capitalist-labor equation, and the returns to labor as wages tend to be lower than the return to capital. What's fair and equitable for each goes back at least to Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and is largely beside the point for this discussion.

That's because the question "Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?" sets out a false dichotomy. There is no natural, philosophical or structural reason the two roles have to conflict. Liebling's adage about the power of the press belonging to those who own one is demonstrably false these days. The low barriers of entry to online publication, in fact, make it ever easier for the journalist as a humble scribe to control (if not own) the means of production, and in that sense be both the capital and the labor in the equation. That's largely what the CUNY program that Rosenblum mentions means to address.

The real question is to what degree the work of journalists can be scaled up to a point that offers substantial earning potential, because scale is the source of big paydays. An author who sells hundreds of thousands or millions of books becomes a wealthy person indeed. But the writers who we think of as journalists tend not to produce at that scale.

Nonetheless, we are in an era where it is possible to distribute high quality content to a vast audience very inexpensively, though the very cheapness of the distribution platform and ubiquity of the content make monetizing it more difficult. We are also in the era of what Chris Anderson has dubbed the Long Tail, meaning finding and profiting from niche audiences is more feasible than ever before.

These factors combine to mean that journalists -- those who report and write the stories -- have more and better opportunities to work independently outside of institutions and make a living at it. Institutional journalism, with the journalists as employees of the enterprises rather than owners of them, will continue. Fewer jobs are found in this milieu now than a generation ago, but that doesn't mean they all are gone. And those working as independent journalists will take up a greater proportional share of the field.

Can we call them capitalists? As long as they manage to be fairly compensated for their work, does it really matter?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The new "walled gardens"

In the early days of life online, the way people got there was through services that were closed to all but registered (and paying) users who were able to interact only with each other. Among these early services were Compuserve, Prodigy and the one that eventually became most ubiquitous, America Online (AOL).

These were popularly known as "walled gardens," a metaphor for their being nice places to visit but with limited territory to explore. Beyond the walls lay the Internet, a vaster but far less organized region of cyberspace.

An interesting article by Justin Peters that I read just today (yes, still catching up on a two-month-old issue of CJR, even though the newer one came in the mail yesterday) says that today's mega-social-media sites -- Facebook, notably -- are trying to become like those original walled-off places.

Peters, however, has a different metaphor that struck me as particularly apt. Facebook, he wrote,

"offered people the cruise-ship version of the Internet—a slick, brightly colored destination for social activities and bonhomie, safely apart from the unfamiliar surrounding waters, a service-oriented environment where you can lean back and enjoy the attentions of your very own information valet. You could leave the ship, but there’s no need to—friends, information, activities, they’re all already there, and if they’re not they’ll be there soon.

"A few caveats apply. You can’t steer the ship. You can’t see how it works. You can’t suggest destinations or routes, and you’re not likely to cruise beyond your comfort zone. You can’t easily meet people who aren’t already like you. If something goes wrong, you’re not allowed to fix it; if you’re displeased with the service, nobody will listen to your complaint."

The problem with this, Peters notes, is that these destination sites seek for people to come to them, and stay with them almost exclusively, as the central feature of their online lives. They endeavor to keep the rest of the Internet -- the part where they can't make any money by collecting user data to be monetized -- outside the realm of user experience.

It's worth a read.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

New media provide path to legacy reporting

This morning I woke to the news that the iconic company Eastman Kodak, which is based in my hometown of Rochester N.Y., was entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy re-organization. I found this news, as I'm finding progressively more of my news, through Twitter.

But more important than where I learned it through is where I learned it from. The first tweet I saw shortly after 6 a.m. was actually a link to a follow-up story to the main news announcement, and came from the local daily, the Gannett-owned Democrat and Chronicle. (Side note: if the paper had been delivered on time, I probably would have learned the news from it in hard copy; I was reading Twitter news on my iPad because of the late delivery. Inability to get my paper on time is an ongoing problem, but I digress.)

Working my way back through the Twitter stream were more posts from legacy organizations linking to coverage on their websites. The local PBS affiliate. A local AM radio news station. The New York Times. The first of them to appear actually came from The Wall Street Journal, conveniently re-tweeted about 1 a.m. EST by a former student who now works for NBC News. Intermixed among these reports were tweets from individual local journalists whom I follow, including an on-Twitter conversation that took place about 3 a.m. between a local news producer and the executive editor of the D&C about getting copies of the paper delivered to the TV newsroom.

It was an interesting into-practice exercise in something I'd been thinking about just 12 hours earlier, when I finally got around to reading an article from the November/December issue of Columbia Journalism Review. The essay by Dean Starkman critiques the popular advocacy of journalism's evolution into a non-institutional, loosely networked form and says that news institutions still have value and are worth preserving. Starkman's essay -- which is subtitled "The limited vision of the news gurus" -- is basically a long take-down of what he calls the "Future of News consensus" (FON for short) and its advocates, notably Dan Gillmor, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. (He's especially critical of Jarvis.)

I actually have been following the work of all four of Starkman's targets for some time. In the past few years I have been to events where I have seen all of them speak, and even was on a panel with Rosen a few years back. And I like a lot of what they say, and use some of their writing and ideas in some of my teaching about the evolution of journalism. I especially like to tell students about Shirky's notion that "everything might" provide the journalism we need -- i.e., that 20 new and innovative ways of creating the news that each provide 5 percent of what the current system does might actually be more valuable than One Big Thing to replace the broken print newspaper model.

I also think Starkman is being a little hyperbolic, and polemical, in the way he presents their views, which he repeatedly summarizes as FON.

But I also think Starkman is essentially on point when he says it's wrong to be dismissive of the value of institutional news organizations and their ability ability to provide valuable public-interest reporting, and when he says that it is naive to think that all of the information we need as a society will organically bubble up from a network in which anyone and everyone can supply information to the whole world. Or that such a news system will have the cohesion and understandability to make it useful to citizens . "Gatekeeping" has become almost a dirty word in the world of networked news prognosticators. But to me, it is just another word for distillation of a chaotic mass of information into a meaningful form that is valuable to the readers.

A couple of years ago, a friend from another institution wrote a blog posting predicting that soon he would get all the news he needs from Twitter. I kind of rolled my eyes at that one.

Now I do find myself getting a lot of news through Twitter. But not, as noted at the top, from Twitter. Even when the tweet is by a friend, or even by a stranger whom I've chosen to follow, there often is a legacy source behind that shortlink that's where the news is really from.

In that, Starkman's self-described neo-institutional model addresses something that matters. He closes his essay with the thought that "rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done." He's right.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Old school way to teach new media

The first lesson in a brand new multimedia presentation course our department is offering was a success, using a very old school form of media. Soon, we'll be getting into blogging, video, social media and all of the other tools and techniques endemic to a course such as this. But for the first exercise on Day One, the students used what was probably the first medium they ever used in a classroom back in pre-school or kindergarten: wax crayons.

I can't claim the lesson was wholly original, as I got the idea from a syllabus from another teacher's multimedia writing course and modified it somewhat. But it was an interesting -- not to mention playful -- way to get some points across.

The lesson started with a discussion of Marshall McLuhan, and his notion that "the medium is the message" (along with his famous cameo with Woody Allen from Annie Hall). The students then wrote answers -- in crayon, on plain paper -- to a question about multimedia presentation.

After that, they were asked to reflect on the impact of the medium on the message: how writing in crayon colored (pun intended) what they produced. And that's when it got interesting.

Several students noted -- correctly, of course -- that a message written in crayon would not be perceived as serious. Others mentioned the practical, logistical limitations of the medium: that they wrote slower, and larger, and therefore used fewer words. One said something I hadn't anticipated -- that the inability to erase affected the final output. Another really good point, especially in the context of being used to writing with word processors that allow immediate deletion of any errors.

Nearly all of them wrote in multiple colors, even though no instruction was given to do so. I pointed out that it would be almost as easy to create a word-processed document in multiple colors with the font-color button -- but people seldom do. This became just another way to illustrate that the medium of crayons affected the presentation of the message.

Overall, a successful first class, and hopefully a good omen for the rest of the course.

Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License, originally posted at