crowdsourcing

The hype(r) local digital journalism

Everybody wants to go local. Internet-wise, it sounds like the new flavor of the month week. Going local is a digital and idealistic version of Mao Zedong’s “hundred flowers blossom”. (The Chinese dictator did actually encourage the expression of dissenting opinions; this turned out to have unpleasant consequences for those who took Dear Leader to his word). So, fine. Let’s see thousands of European and US cities generate a flurry of local websites covering city councils, local controversies, urban planning, etc. Every committed citizen will be able to monitor the community’s pulse just by clicking on a URL; it will be easy and efficient to launch (or to join) grassroots campaigns against the construction of an ugly overpass or for the clean-up a hazardous landfill. All of this is real.

As I write this, I listen to NYU professor Clair Shirky’s lecture delivered last September at the Harvard University Shorentsein Center (transcript and Video here). Always brilliant and convincing, Shirky revisited the 1992 pedophile priests scandal in Boston, one that was heavily covered by the Boston Globe, but died out due to a lack of resonance in the public. Evidently, today, things would have reverberated very differently.  So, yes, there is a useful future for local digital media.

Having said this, allow me to express a slightly skeptical view.

First, people tend to celebrate the hyperlocal web for the wrong reasons, that is the depletion of local coverage by traditional media. Last Thursday, I was at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) for its 12th Digital Editors Network. There, the British news agency Press Association presented a “Public Service Reporting” project. The PA would recruit legions of citizen journalists, they would be asked to comply with the agency’s ethics standards as they report on local issues. As for now, the PA is building several pilots and is looking for funding. Tony Johnston, The PA’s training chief who presented the case, stated its ambition: a network of 500 to 800 journalists costing £15m to £18m a year (€17-20m, $24-29m). In a preamble, he explained that the British newspapers’ shrinking local coverage paved the way to such an initiative (details in Journalism.co.uk here).

Well. There are two ways of considering such move. One is to say: Great, community members take over the coverage that matters to them, they use all available tools: social network, live blogging, Flip-camera produced videos, to give local stuff the exposure it needs.
Another view is this: Doing local journalism is as complicated as any other kind of reporting. Poring over local financial records requires the same amount of time, dedication and expertise as digging into a national political party’s finances. Yes, citizen-like journalists will do fine reporting on “lighter” issues such as the state of schools or of the sewage system. But uncovering and preventing what really matters, such as the misuse of public funding, rigged bidding procedures for large projects and so on is a very different story.

More broadly, a professional journalist is required to avoid take sides in doing his or her job. Leaving such coverage to self-appointed journalists is opening the pandora’s box to all kinds of agenda-driven reporting. More

The News Cycle Heartbeat

How do mainstream media and blogs interact? How do they feed each other ? Everyone in the newsmedia would love to get a better view of the mating dance. A few weeks ago, scientists at the Cornell University unveiled a thorough analysis of the relationship between the two universes. Borrowing from genomics techniques, they dug into a huge corpus of politically-related sentences and tracked their bounces between mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere.

Their dataset:

  • About 90 million documents (blog posts and news sites articles) collected between August 1 and October 31, 2008, i.e. at the height of the last US Presidential race.
  • 1.65 million blogs scanned.
  • 20,000 media sites reviewed, marked as mainstream because they are part of GoogleNews.
  • From this dataset, researchers extracted 112 million quotes leading to 47 million phrases, out of which 22 million were deemed “distinct”. These phrases were important enough to be considered as news.
  • The phrases where political statements or sound bytes pertaining to the political race  and uttered by the two candidates, their running mates or their staff.
  • Processing these 390GB of data took about nine hours of computer time (using a complex set of algorithms, involving “markers”, as in genetics).

The findings, in a nutshell:

  1. Mainstream media lead the news cycle. They are the first to report a quote, the story behind it, the context, etc.
  2. The 20,000 MSM sites generate 30% of the documents in the entire dataset and 44% of  the documents that contained frequent phrases.
  3. It takes about 2.5 hours for a phrase to reverberates through the blogosphere.
  4. The phrases that propagate in the opposite way (from blogs to MSM) amounts to a mere 3.5%.
  5. A news piece decays faster on the MSM than on the blogosphere.

The comparative curve looks like this :

For those who want the complete analysis, the full report is available here.

As expected, this research triggered controversy. More

The news flow: Dealing with the fire hose

In the Seventies, Peter Herford, CBS bureau chief in Saigon, used to send his stories the physical way: rolls of 16 mm film, usually shot with an Eclair (a French camera) and sound tapes (recorded on a Swiss Nagra recorder, a jewel of those analog times) were shipped to HongKong, courtesy the US Air Force, and then transfered to a regular US-bound flight, with a stop in Hawaii or Okinawa. “The CBS Evening News was hosted by Walter Cronkite who wanted half of its newscast filled with Vietnam stories”, Herford told me. Hence the daily routine. But once the stories were sent, Herford and his staff had time for reflexion, for working their sources and for thinking about the next stories. No satellite link, no cell phones. “Today, I would be stuck doing live reports all the time.” Hereford is in no way nostalgic about this totally analog era. As he was in Paris for a conference, a couple weeks ago, he was constantly taking pictures with a professional Canon camera. Today, he teaches journalism at the Shantou University in China and still exudes unabated enthusiasm for journalism.

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam (Feb. 1968) -- National Archives

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam (Feb. 1968) -- National Archives

Revisited with today’s journalistic tools, coverage of the Vietnam war would be different, in many ways. Live would be de rigueur.  Think about it. We would have had:
- a TV correspondent doing a standup (or rather a duck-down) right in the midst of the Khe-Sanh siege
- the Tet offensive twittered or live-blogged
- a retired general bashing the “delicate” tactics of carpet-bombing on his blog
- a heavily linked-to chemist-blogger, for his expert depiction of the horrendous effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant spread for ten years over the jungle (400,000 deaths, 500,000 birth defects). We can be sure it would have triggered a national outrage in the US, forcing the Kennedy/Johnson administration to stop
- the My Lay Massacre inevitably leaked, thanks to a disgusted soldier posting a video on YouTube soon after the the fateful day of March 16, 1968. Instead, we had to wait 18 months for a reporter for the Saint-Louis Post Dispatch to break the story; his name was Seymour Hersh, he was to become an iconic investigative reporter, bound to reveal the 2004 Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq;
- for good measure, North Vietnamese bloggers would give the world a different perspective on the war as, on the other side, US soldiers-bloggers would have lifted the veil on the low morale, drug abuses among the troops, and their acceptance of inevitable defeat;
- in the end, the April 30th, 1975 evacuation of Saigon would have been reported live using citizens and evacuees cell phones and twitters. More