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Twitter and online journalism – inclusive or exclusive?

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

15 things Twitter does effectively

Alan Rusbrisger’s Guardian article on the value of Twitter to media organisations provides an interesting summary of the uses of the site and its effects on journalism.

The 15 points Rusbridger raises, and the debates they cover, provoke thought about the way media organisations engage with those around them, the great community of internet “users”. His points are not just about Twitter, they are about the whole of the new, amazingly open world of online.

I want to pick up on four of his points about the way users can now engage with media organisations. Although the internet creates an open and level playing field in which people are able to contribute, participate and engage, is there an unintended side-effect of this exciting influence on journalism? Does the impact of these changes start to exclude those who still want nothing more than to read content?

Rusbridger points out the following on how twitter opens up the previously closed, hierarchical model of journalism:

From his point 7 – It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be

It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be As well as reading what you’ve written and spreading the word, people can respond. They can agree or disagree or denounce it. They can blog elsewhere and link to it… With Twitter you get an instant reaction. It’s not transmission, it’s communication.

His point 8 – It’s more diverse

Traditional media allowed a few voices in. Twitter allows anyone.

And point 10 – It’s a level playing field

The energy in Twitter gathers around people who can say things crisply and entertainingly, even though they may be “unknown.” They may speak to a small audience, but if they say interesting things they may well be republished numerous times and the exponential pace of those re-transmissions can, in time, dwarf the audience of the so-called big names. Shock news: sometimes the people formerly known as readers can write snappier headlines and copy than we can.

Major users of the internet as a source of information and opinion love the online world for this egalitarianism. And Rusbridger explains how this in turn has begun to alter journalistic discourse.

his point 9 – It changes the tone of writing

A good conversation involves listening as well as talking. You will want to listen as well as talk. You will want to engage and be entertaining. There is, obviously, more brevity on Twitter. There’s more humour. More mixing of comment with fact. It’s more personal. The elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting is kicked away on Twitter. Journalists are fast learners. They start writing differently.

It is clear that this change does not just apply to Twitter. When Rusbridger talks of the “elevated platform on which journalists sometimes liked to think they were sitting,” he refers to a species of journalism he believes is (or soon will be) extinct. Media organisations are surely the better for embracing developments.

Inclusion or Exclusion?

But at this comparatively early stage, there are still people who don’t read news in order to engage, share, link and discuss. There are, I think, a great many people who have no desire, inclination or motivation to add a comment, like a post or share a link. People for whom news is something they need to read to keep up with the issues of the day. They want to know what’s happening and why.

Even amongst regular internet users, recent CNN research showed that 87 per cent of news links are shared by just 27 per cent of users. A minority of hyperactive users share a large majority of all links shared through social media. Most people – even those who use social media tools – don’t do much at all. Many people are still, to use an unholy word to web 2.0 generation, consumers, not users.

But if the tone of writing and style of journalism is changing to adapt to the interactive new world before us, where does that leave those who don’t want to interact? If those who want to read the news and nothing more are faced with a splurge of icons inviting them to comment, upload data, check us out on twitter, answer Do You Think A or B questionnaires or read the dribblings of the commentariat, they will surely be less well served than before. That’s fine, of course. Things can’t stay the same forever. And in any case, they can just buy a printed newspaper.

But what happens after the print newspaper dies its surely inevitable death? Will everyone, over time, learn to play a part in the modern media landscape? Or will the group of passive readers obtain? Perhaps there is a group of people for whom the march of new media and the explosion of online interactivity and opportunity is actually exlcusive rather than inclusive. Are journalists beginning only to provide for those who want to engage?

Perhaps so. Perhaps it really will be a case of get involved or get out.

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See my joint blog, Social Jigsaw, at socialjigsaw.wordpress.com for more on social media and journalism.

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Attribution and linking in online journalism

November 4, 2010 4 comments

[1] P. Clarke quoted in D. Cannadine, ‘Apocalypse When? British politicians and British “decline” in the twentieth century’ in P. Clarke and C. Trebilcock (eds.), Understanding decline: perceptions and realities of British economic performance, (Cambridge, 1997), 263

Learning transparency and attribution

One of the best, most revolutionary things about the internet as a place to do journalism is of course the ability to link. Linking connects users to other interesting places and people around the world, it makes available a plethora of evidence, information, commentary and conversation, and all at the click of button. As Mitch Joel has argued, content is an organic linking process.

But what it also does is provide an extremely efficient and attractive way of referencing other writers’ material.

At the top of this post is a footnote taken from my undergraduate dissertation. One thing a degree in History teaches you is the importance of referencing other writers’ work whenever you are discussing an idea or quotation gleaned from reading it. Even with primary source material, such as the newspapers from 1899 and 1900 with which I worked, it is necessary to reference the exact example down to the page, even the column.

Doing so justifies your argument and gives the reader the essential opportunity to check what you are saying. Whether the sources you say you have used are correct, and whether the conclusions you have drawn from them are justified. It is the writer being open about their sources and information, saying: “if you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself.”

I gradually learned the importance of this practice in lending work rigour and meaningfulness. Without references, history writing is mere assertion, and of little value to broader debate. So with journalism.

Footnotes v. Links – what can we learn?

The problem with the traditional hard copy history I dealt in (essays were not submitted electronically) is that footnoting can take up a huge amount of space. It also takes more time than normal people want to give to it. In the world of online journalism, footnoting of this kind now looks an absurd and spectacularly inefficient way to conduct attribution. It’s not only that my example above takes up three lines of text in my footnotes. It’s also that actually making use of the information it provides would require the reader to follow the directions, locate a copy of the relevant book or journal in a library, shop, database or other depository, before travelling, paying or searching in order to access it.

Linking online is an ingenious form of attribution.

Linking allows instant access to the referenced material while taking up no extra space in your text. It enables us to bring scholarly levels of transparency into journalism.  It is perhaps our great luck to be part of a generation who can reference sources and direct readers to other interesting and informative places at the twitch of a mouse, making ourselves more useful than ever, and engaging with people more deeply. Internet inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee said of linking: “On the web, to make reference without making a link is possible but ineffective – like speaking but with a paper bag over your head.” By placing our work in this deepened context, we can make our writing more meaningful and more valuable.

Journalism without instant attribution? That, surely, is history.

* * * * *

Check out the Nieman Journalism Lab on linkng (one link to it is already given above) and Jeff Jarvis on the merits that links bring to our work.

It’s also worth making use of Paul Bradshaw’s Delicious page for lots of useful articles on linking.

Anyone got examples of bad non-attribution by major  newspapers online?

Can the significance of linking be overdone, particularly in certain types of journalism?

Perhaps you have had even more cumbersome referencing standards placed on you in your academic experience?

Do journalists and academics need to attribute sources in the same way?

Feel free to post any links to interesting writing about linking.