The Beauty of Data

Cardiff Media Blogs

The word ‘data’ may not conjure the image of a Madonna and Child, but with a bit of manipulation, numbers and facts can be made into something beautiful.

Although numbers, formula, tables and graphs may sound uninspiring, we don’t live in a world of colourless information.

We all use data, and people are not colourless.

Politicians, monitoring bodies, health organisations, charities, businesses, the media and individuals alike, we all use data in some shape or form, often to inform us of trends and to make decisions.

Data can be used creatively to explain, enlighten, educate and improve. It is as vital to journalism as it is to business.

Data is powerful. It can be used to encrypt secretive information, it can open up access to people and reveal the practices and decisions of those in power. CD’s with data can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds and can bring down politicians, just as in the expenses scandal in 2009.

This is a typical example of how the Guardian visualises data in its newspaper – in this case showing the MP expenses dataset.

But with the expansion of the internet, the uncontrolled influx of data can often be overwhelming. It can present a great challenge to journalists, as their primary task is being shifted from obtaining data to dressing it up for the consumer. The task of the journalist becomes as much about aesthetics as it is about raw data, as more people have access to information, we should bear in mind that the audience wants to be entertained as well as informed.

Online tools like Wordle can help in this process. This tool can dress up the Wikipedia entry for ‘data’ making it more aesthetically appealing, while it informs the audience of the nature of data.

Wordle: data

But let’s take a more recent example: the wikileaks revelation of various US diplomatic cables known as ‘cablegate.’

The guardian website has an interactive guide to the leaks. The information presented up in an accessible and interactive way, allowing the user to search through the data in an interactive map, allowing us to navigate to the information we want.

As data becomes more widely available, surely there will be a greater need for data specific journalism. Data presentation skills will become more important than ever and with it the apt use of online tools such as Wordle, Many Eyes, Facutal, Swivel, Socrata, Verifiable.com, Google Fusion Tables, Widgenie, iCharts, Chart Tool, Open Heat Maps, Fusion Charts, Excel, Google Docs and Yahoo pipes.

Of course data can be manipulated and it is the job of the journalist to identify where PR wallpaper is covering the cracks in any political system.

Data is the journalist’s companion, together they can inform, educate, warn and criticise.

It may just take a while for a new relationship to flourish in the new online environment.

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Serving the people

Cardiff Media Blogs

Journalists may enjoy the thrill of racing the clock to break a story, rising to the challenge to be creative in the space of a few inches of newspaper, breathing life into the mundane or even attracting people’s attention with pictures.

But is that what journalism is really all about?

Is it not about serving people?

Joanna Geary a social media guru at the Times challenged trainee journalists at Cardiff University to write down their reasons for chosing journalism as a career, providing an uneasy moment for those whose job is to ask questions rather than answer them.

“It’s not about us getting the story,” says Geary, it’s about the audience.

In fact, its not about getting your name in print, or attracting any sort of reader, but meeting their needs of people. Newspapers who look down on their readers can have no hope of ever succeeding as a business.

As the internet is changing the news-scape, users now have more control than ever before. Audiences can challenge journalists and pitch their own ideas. A community forms and people that care about an issue are forged together, forming a niche area where people can collaborate.

So as and where communities form, journalists must interact with them. These audiences have news ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. And now, thanks to the internet, they can communicate directly with the content provider to express their appetite for news. Anyone reading this, for example, can leave a comment or write to me on twitter.

But if editorial staff play to the ‘wants’ of people to attract more views could, however, lead to myopic news values. Will news shrink entirely to the tune of its readership?

Have a look and see what the most popular stories are now on the BBC’s counter. The most popular videos on youtube contain Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – an indicator of what people want. Let’s hope newspapers don’t give in to online peer pressure as revenues crumble.

Obviously there is a necessity to attract an audience, as audiences bring revenue. But as there is so much choice on the internet, does it mean news sites becomes more about a brand than news per se?

Let’s take a hypothetical situation:

I am a businessman and so I am interested in business news, changes in government policy and anything that might affect my business. I could go to any number of outlets or news sites. But I will decide to go to one that I am familiar with. I will go to a source that I can trust and with whom I share news and/or political values. I choose the Times online.

I used to enjoy this source for free. But unfortunately now I have to pay for it because of a paywall.

The leads me to a crucial question:

Is the Times business news so unique and useful that I will not go anywhere else to find out what is happening in the business world? Do I trust the journalists and enjoy their writing style, find their analysis helpful and understand the way they present data? This is what you might call added-value journalism.

News in the future could well be based on brand, reliability, but also about online relationships. I am much more likely to read a news site that listens, interacts and cares about my business needs.

A news outlet will need to have a pre-defined model, niche strategy and brand. For if it does not, I will simply take my business elsewhere.

It poses a great challenge to journalists: be informed, inform, be reliable and accurate, be trustworthy, listen, serve your audience and interact.

Is it possible to be and do all these things?

With a smart use of technology, a solid grasp of social networking, such as the use of Twitter for tip offs but still hold onto the fundamental skills of journalism of robust tradecraft, strategy, good contacts and accuracy it is still humanly possible do all of these.

It’s about building a personal brand and serving people.

A Labour of Love

Cardiff Media Blogs

Writing is a labour of love.

Many of us would love to write, think and create – and journalists are in a privileged position that allows them to get paid to do so.

But Journalism is also a business.

Adam Tinworth, a business journalist, reminded JOMEC students of this fact, and posed some challenging questions to the room, most of whom have paid to enter into an industry where passion is paramount to success.

But is the business really crumbling as a media panic suggests? And if so, what are we going to do about it?

First there are a couple of myths to bust.

“No one makes any money online.”

This is not true.

There is what Mr Tinworth described as “The triple”

1) Data – Selling information that helps people to do their day job better
2) Events – including interaction with readers online
3) Advertising – online revenue created through targeted advertising

Money is made at Reed Business Information, the company where Mr Tinworth is head of Blog development, by implementing a paywall for their data set as he says a paywall for journalistic pieces is unworkable.

His argument is that people will find free, trusted blogs about their subjects rather than pay for journalistic pieces, but data is sacred.

It prompts the question – is there an equivalent of “data” in the news industry?

Perhaps a trusted brand, or news sense is what people would be prepared to pay for – or a platform where they can engage and be recognised.

Surely anyone with a successful blog and a passion for their subject could start such a following. So that’s it, it’s about the passion, the love for a topic or a subject that will not only ensure that content is entertaining, but useful and beating everyone else in the race to publish. Such blogs, should be essential for anyone in the industry so much so that it becomes a “home page”.

There is a second myth.

“Blogging is all about opinion.”

Again, not true.

Blogging is about conversation. As everyone can publish the characteristics of publishing can change.

According to Mr Tinworth Blogging can be about sharing interesting stuff with other people. It is also about interaction people will want to talk about that interesting topic.

Then there is the aspect of accuracy. As people are now able to “talk back” the journalist, there is less room for error.

If this is achieved, the blog becomes an attracting force for forms of revenue. An audeince forms, and the basic technique of maintaining a beat holds for the blogosphere. But for the basics, a blogger has to be inquisitive, honest, communicative, enthusiastic and informed.

So what about journalists and newspapers? Do they have a future?

The future of journalism is tied to its business model.

Making as many useful products that are invaluable to other people and businesses is the key. As data is sacred, Newspapers could try and find their own version of a dataset. That could be in the form of reliable news, exclusive interviews and pictures, even paywall certain sections of online content. It seems, however, that online advertising holds the key. But is online advertising effective? Here are some stats.

If we work out a viable business model journalists can continue to labour in love.

Machine vs Man

Cardiff Media Blogs

‘Plan for the Machine, write for the human.’

Journalism is changing. News is being diverted from printed pages to screens and devices.

News consumers no longer sit on the bus or on the couch at home scouring pages for fresh stories. They now sit behind desks, are on the move and always connected.

This change towards online media has seen the evolution of the blog. And blogging, which can include other aspects of online communication such as tweeting or microblogging, has always been directed at an audience.

But nowadays it seems bloggers and journalists are not only writing for an audience, but also for the machine, that is, the internet.

Glyn Mottershead at Cardiff University stressed the importance of being able to be ‘found’ online by an audeince as news organisations battle it out.

But where do audiences come from?

According to infographic labs internet users turn to google as a first port of call:

Google = 84.73% market share
Yahoo! = 6.35% market share
Baidu = 3.31% market share
Bing = 3.30% market share
Ask = 0.71% market share
AOL = 0.40% market share
Other = 0.20% market share

Similarly, research shows 93% of consumers worldwide use search engines to find and access websites, including news. Meanwhile, 75% of users never scroll past the first page of results, it is essential to know the Google’s machine language to get on the first page of results.

So in order to reach an audience, bloggers and journalists will have to become Search Engine Optimisation or (SEO) savvy.

It will involve developing a method of writing headlines and intros for the internet, using accurate keywords, categories, meta descriptions and tags to optimise one’s chances in being found by search engines such as Google.

There may be one downside (or upside) depending on one’s sense of humour but SEO means there is little room for ‘puntastic’ headlines in news stories: The days of award winning headlines such as ‘Super Cally Go Ballstic, As Celtic Are Atrocious’ will be relegated to the pages of history.

What is clear from these changes is that the job of the journalist has become more complex: writing for the machine with the human in mind.

To find out what keywords people are searching for in Google vist Google Ads

Social Media and the future of journalism

Cardiff Media Blogs

Labour Politician Harold Wilson once said: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay.”

BBC social media trainer, Dr Claire Wardle (@cward1e), told JOMEC post-grads at Cardiff University last week about some of the changes facing Journalism. It certainly seems that if Journalism (especially print journalism) does not change soon, it will begin to decay.

Social media is changing ‘news’ as we know it, bringing a new level of immediacy to the consumer while new technology has blown the traditional economic model of news to shreds.

It allows companies and famous personalities to leap-frog the traditional methods of news transmission. Just take the rise of Youtube, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook and other online phenomena that have allowed news seekers to obtain what they want to know about directly. I can think of at least one example this week when Dmitri Medvedev and Arnold Schwarzenegger broadcast humorous exchanges on twitter about working out. http://twitpic.com/2wpsuz

Eighty-five per cent of people in the UK have access to the Internet, and have free, unlimited and direct access to news that they want: they can follow their favourite celebrity on twitter or check the stock exchange on an iphone application. As the number of people reading newspapers falls, so does income, and subsequently advertising. The economic model of print media is crumbling.

But does this mean social media eradicates the need for a journalist to interpret what is going on in the world?

Traditionally, the journalist has written stories in a particular house style, often in narrative form, having obtained news from public, official and private sources.

But now, with so many alternative generators of news such as hyperlocal blogs and tweets, one could argue that the modern journalist is just another Internet user, presenting lists of facts wrapped in prose. Some might say the only distinguishing features of journalists are that they write in a prescribed news style for a particular organisation and get paid to do so.

Yet there is still a need for professional journalism.

For a start the internet is chaotic.

Social media does not construct news in an authoritative or organised structure. It is unstructured, unchecked and often unreliable.

Secondly, the immediacy of social media means that people miss out the ‘big picture’ of news if they are not up to date with what has been happening previously.

In a blog about the future of media, Media Consultant Michelle McLellan had this to say:

“Journalists would be better suited by developing skills to fill the information gaps, offering broader perspective and context on the information, and fostering conversation around it.”

Thirdly, social and online media can equip the modern journalist with some extremely powerful tools to educate and involve communities.

In fact, Dr Claire Wardle said that the powers of social media will not drive journalists out of the news production process. Instead, social media can make their jobs easier for connecting people, collating sources and developing interactive news.

So perhaps the most important function of the contemporary journalist is to involve communities in a bigger picture; one that is polyphonic and constantly changing. Journalists can use facebook to find case studies, twitter to collect statements from celebrities or political figures and quote blogs for local news. It involves the same roles as traditional journalism: only now there are more sources available and there is more transparency.

While there are many positives to bring out from the changes in journalism one fundamental question remains:

How can journalists develop profitable models for on-line media to ensure the survival of professional, balanced and transparent news?

What is Social Media? http://slidesha.re/bb1ydV

Vadim Lavrusik on The future of Journalism, Michelle McLellan: http://mashable.com/2010/09/13/future-social-media-journalism/

Claire Wardle http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/skills/citizen-journalism/citizen-journalism-guide/social-media-tools.shtml