Archive for October, 2009
This blog was first published at PBS MediaShift Idea Lab:
We are on the cusp of something exciting. Thousands of news articles marked up with with hNews, a microformat for news content funded by the Knight Foundation, will soon start populating the Internet.
Last week, hNews became an official draft microformat. Having been proposed as a new data format and then discussed within the microformats community, it is now in draft 0.1 at Microformats.org. This means it has reached a stage where the microformat community believes it is stable enough for widespread adoption. This also reaffirms hNews as an open standard, free for anyone to integrate to their news content, whether they’re from big news agencies like AP, a non-profit like OpenDemocracy.net, or individual journalists blogging on WordPress.
We also learned last week that AOL is adopting hNews. Though AOL has yet to make a formal announcement, hNews is already live on a number of its sites, including AOL News. This article, for example, has hNews embedded in its source code.
Then, this week, TownNews announced it was integrating hNews into its content management system. TownNews provides technology to support the publication of newspaper interactive editions online. By integrating hNews to their CMS, they suddenly make it available to up to 1,500 news sites across the U.S. If these news organizations want to start making their news a lot more machine-readable — or “semantic” — pretty much all they have to do is flick a switch.
This news builds on the adoption of hNews by the Associated Press. AP has not yet made its hNews marked-up content public, but plans to before the end of this year.
Making News Machine Readable
These developments are the culmination of the first stage of our transparency initiative, a non-profit project jointly funded by the Knight Foundation (we won a Knight News Challenge Award in 2008) and the MacArthur Foundation. We have also worked with the AP in the latter stages.
hNews, for those unfamiliar with it, makes some basic, factual information about the provenance of an online news article machine-readable. In other words, it makes distinguishable a lot of information that is currently indistinguishable on the web (e.g. to search engines). [hNews is not the same as web bug, the data tag that Associated Press is attaching to its content to help track its use around the web, and allow it, as I understand it, to create a registry of news usage - who owns it and how you can use it. AP is layering web bug on top of hNews.]
The reason hNews is so useful to anyone producing journalism and to the public is that it helps to differentiate news on the web. At the same time, it should make news easier to find, give greater credit to the author (or help “ascribenation”, as Doc Searls called it on LinuxJournal), link the story to the news principles it adheres to (if any), unlock some of the value of the news archive, and enable untold unintended consequences.
Currently, only some articles published by AOL, and a few hundred published by OpenDemocracy.net, the first adopter of hNews, are marked up. But within a month or so, there will be thousands and then perhaps hundreds of thousands of stories. Once that happens, we will actually be able to truly see how helpful hNews can be. The aim will then be to develop features and tools built on hNews, and begin benefiting from the marked up information. For example, this could be done via searches and APIs.
For us, the Media Standards Trust, the next stage will involve juggling many balls simultaneously. We need to communicate what hNews is and how it works to as many people as possible. This means making sure people realize that hNews is for anyone producing journalism, not just big news organizations. We also need to develop applications based on hNews in order to illustrate what it’s useful for. And we need to keep evolving hNews to include additional (optional) semantic information. At the same time, we’ll have to be flexible enough to cope with the unintended consequences.
We are still a little ways from seeing what impact hNews will have, but now we have the opportunity, over the next few months, to see how it can make news more transparent.
This is a piece I wrote this week for the Guardian’s Comment is Free (published under the title, ‘Between the lawyers and the mob‘):
Last week was a good week for those of us who support press freedom and at the same time believe the press should be made more accountable. But it also raised difficult and rather disturbing questions about free speech and the future of press self-regulation.
The Guardian’s courageous decision to challenge the remit of the Trafigura super-injunction sparked justified outrage in the blogosphere and “Twitterverse” and led to a climbdown by Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck. Meanwhile, Jan Moir’s deeply offensive piece about the death of Stephen Gately, which alleged – with no evidence – that there was “nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” – provoked an even greater response on Twitter. Many of those offended (more than 22,000 of them by Tuesday morning) then complained to the Press Complaints Commission, in part prompted by Stephen Fry, Derren Brown and Charlie Brooker.
The Daily Mail did not apologise, though it changed the title, and removed advertising from around the piece. Moir did not apologise either, but after the unprecedented public reaction released a disgruntled statement suggesting her piece had been misinterpreted and that the public response to it was orchestrated (which raises the question, was the public response to the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode not orchestrated?). The Mail also then published a follow-up piece by Janet Street-Porter that was critical of Moir. The case is now being looked at by the PCC.
Hooray, you say. Two victories in a week – one for press freedom and another for press accountability – what a result. Yet both episodes also raise worrying questions about press freedom, the current state of newspaper accountability, and the threat of mob justice.
In the Trafigura affair, it was striking that almost no newspapers (with the exception of the Guardian) spoke out strongly, despite the danger super-injunctions represent to press freedom. Indeed many newspapers remained strangely silent even after Carter-Ruck relaxed Trafigura’s super-injunction. Nor was there a substantial reaction from formal bodies. The PCC did not say anything, despite in the past promoting itself as a defender of press freedom (even though, unlike its predecessor, it is not constituted to do this). Nor, outside Index on Censorship, were other industry bodies vocal.
The outrage at the Guardian gagging came from individuals, and was remarkably spontaneous and disorganised. Twitter provided the platform for people with common views to come together. This was exciting and tremendously heartening, but showed how few formal institutions there are to protect press freedom despite the significant and growing threats it faces.
The Moir case, on the other hand, illustrates how little accountability there is at some newspapers. If you were offended and wanted to complain, what options did you have? The Daily Mail has no readers’ editor, and no formal complaints process that is publicly accessible in the newspaper or on its website. The only reference to the PCC on Mail Online is not linked to from any other page on the site and is therefore, to all intents and purposes, invisible. This is a newspaper whose editor is the chair of the PCC’s editorial code committee and who sits on the PCC’s appointments and funding body, Pressbof. Yet his newspaper lacks the most basic public accountability mechanisms.
And, if you escalated your complaint to the PCC, as thousands did, you would probably find yourself equally dissatisfied at the outcome. This is not the fault of the PCC’s secretariat, who are diligently working their way through the largest number of complaints over one article in their history. Rather it is due to the rules that artificially limit the complaints they can accept, and the limited sanctions available to them. All 22,000 of these complaints can, according to the rules laid down by the industry, be rejected – since they are considered “third party complaints” (complaints not made by someone directly referenced in the article). In this case, the PCC has said it will consider the complaints and write to the Daily Mail for a response. However, when that response is a small apology tucked inside the paper, many will feel the Daily Mail has got off considerably more lightly than, say, the BBC after the Ross/Brand affair.
This means you are left with the wisdom of the crowd – also known as mob justice. It seem appropriate and proportionate when you happen to agree with it, as in this case, but will seem decidedly unjust if you disagree.
Unless newspapers take more responsibility for their own content, give people the opportunity to complain and respond adequately to those complaints, then they – and their journalists – will come under increasing criticism and attack from the blogosphere, the Twitterverse and other social media. Similarly, unless news organisations protest about the misuse of injunctions, actions such as Trafigura’s will become even more difficult to prevent. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where free speech is constrained by expensive lawyers, nor one where it is dictated by the mob.
Goodness knows what it was like from the editors chair. But from where I sat watching the live twitter feed of #trafigura on Tuesday was utterly compelling. First there was the detective work – people trying to figure out, based on the sparse information in the Guardian’s initial article about the absurdly wide-ranging ‘super-injunction’ – which Parliamentary question the paper had been prevented from talking about. The key was ‘Carter Ruck’. Searching through Parliamentary written and oral questions a few bright sparks alighted on Paul Farrelly’s question:
‘”To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.”
They then tweeted about this to see if other people agreed it must be the question, and within hours confirmed with one another this must be it.
From there twitterers started looking for the Minton Report. Again, thanks to the net this was available on Wikileaks – a site unthreatened by injunctions or super-injunctions because its ‘information is distributed across many jurisdictions, organizations and individuals’. As it claims on the site, ‘Once a document is leaked it is essentially impossible to censor’.
Then social media and the power of the ‘link economy’ kicked in. Hundreds, then thousands, of people started posting 140 character messages on Twitter expressing outrage at the injunction and pointing people to the Parliamentary question, articles about Trafigura, and the Minton Report.
Within hours #trafigura had become the number one trending topic in Twitter. In other words more people were tweeting about #trafigura than about anything else in the world. At one point four of the top five trending topics on Twitter were about this story (the fifth was ‘Google Wave’).
Then, shortly after 1pm, the editor of the Guardian posted a tweet saying Carter Ruck had backed down. They would not try to prolong the injunction, and the Guardian was free to mention the parliamentary question.
Much whooping and cheering on Twitter. Stephen Fry, comedian and uber twitterer, tweeted, “Carter-Ruck caves in! Hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don’t we?”.
But was it Twitter wot won it? And if so, what does this mean for press freedom and the future of injunctions?
Well, if it wasn’t Twitter then one can safely say it was not the other mainstream media outlets. Almost all other newspapers, and the BBC, remained silent during the course of the morning, prevented from publishing by the ‘super injunction’. The Telegraph broke the silence in the late morning but only to report that ‘Trafigura tops list of Twitter trending topics’. There was no mention in the article of the Guardian, Paul Farrelly, or the injunction.
Newspapers are still relatively easy targets for lawyers. They are institutions, they have their own lawyers. They have editors and journalists who can be sent to jail if they break the law.
Twitterers are a far less easy target. They (or rather ‘we’, since I twitter and was twittering on Tuesday morning) are mostly individuals, not institutions or outlets. To stop twitterers Carter Ruck would have to take on thousands of individuals – many of whom are tweeting pseudonymously. To use a military analogy, it’s like an army fighting a guerilla rather than a conventional war.
Yet will these guerilla twitterers have any substantive impact on the law? Well, if they can do another #trafigura with the next injunction then injunctions may be seen to be increasingly ineffective. But this is unlikely given the Guardian took a risk publishing as much information as it did about this super injunction – and probably only got away with it (if indeed it has got away with it) because the injunction appeared to prevent the paper from reporting on Parliament – a privilege held for over 200 years, since John Wilkes’ famous battle in the 18th century (Carter Ruck subsequently denied they tried to gag Parliamentary reporting). Whether or not a Parliamentary gag was intended, one would certainly hope MPs will now put an end to the so-called ‘super-injunction’.
Most injunctions are not about issues that may be debated in Parliament, and therefore do not raise issues of parliamentary privilege. The Guardian perhaps hopes it can use the Trafigura case as a lever to crank open the whole question of injunctions. Maybe. But Private Eye has been making a lot of noise about injunctions for a long while, yet there use appears to be increasing rather than decreasing.
Moreover, there is an understandable public interest in some injunctions. When a media storm grew around the 13 year old ‘baby father’ in February the family court stepped in and issued an injunction to prevent harm to the children involved in the story.
For commercial injunctions, history has shown that people cling most closely to things they are about to lose. So it is likely to be with these injunctions – at least 12 of which have already been served this year against the Guardian (presumably more against other outlets, though we don’t really know, since they are – by law – secret). Over time, and following similar #trafigura incidents, such injunctions should become less and less effective. But the Carter Rucks of this world will keep doggedly serving them up until it costs their clients more than the benefits of buying a temporary silence.
Still, the twitterati should take heart. This was a victory for press freedom, and a victory won by the power of collective voices.
Rupert Murdoch is stepping off a tall building and is asking the rest of us to join him. So said Matt Kelly, Associate Editor of the Daily Mirror, about Murdoch’s commitment to construct paywalls across his sites. Kelly was talking at a panel he and I were on at this week’s 2015 Newsroom conference in Prague. Yet going by what Kelly subsequently said, the Mirror appears to be taking a similar – if perhaps slightly less suicidal – step into the unknown.
Newspapers should stop judging their online success by their number of unique users and by their page rank for stories on Google, Kelly argued. Focusing on these gives a false impression of the importance of their content to the audience. Even though the unique user figures of many papers now resemble financial bailout numbers – slightly under 30 million uniques at the Mail and the Guardian, for example – these figures have not translated into income.
This is because, if you break them down, you see that the vast majority are promiscuous and occasional users. Most people come to the site maybe once or twice a month, stay to look at a couple of stories and then go. The site is only a destination for about a third of its users. Another third come via Google and the final third from referrals.
With this amount of passing traffic it’s no great surprise that it’s difficult to monetize. Advertisers are skeptical enough about whether people take any notice of ads on sites – and if those ads are targeted at a mass, undifferentiated audience then it’s no wonder it’s considered to be of low value.
This is why the Mirror, following part of Jeff Jarvis’ now famous dictum – ‘do what you do best’ – has launched two entirely new sites based on some of the most popular and sticky elements of its content. 3AM.co.uk is a celebrity gossip and fashion website based on the highly successful double page spread in the print paper (though sharing almost no content). MirrorFootball is, as it sounds, a football site based around the Mirror’s extensive archive of stories and pictures (20 million photographs in its archive – 300,000 of which have so far been digitized).
Each of these sites deliberately ignores current measures of success. They are not ‘search engine optimized’ (SEO). They do not, in other words, construct the headlines and first paragraphs such that people searching under specific keywords will find them first. In the case of 3AM the sections are about intriguing readers rather than search engine robots (the tabs are, in order: Ooh…, Gasp!, Grrr!, Phwoar!, TeeHee!).
Kelly argues that these sites will develop a real relationship with their audience. They will not need great SEO because they will be destinations. Already, he says, 90% of the people coming to 3AM come to the site directly, rather than through search or referrals. And, once there, people read an average of seven stories, rather than the traditional one or two. Kelly was reluctant to give out any specific audience figures yet.
This deeper relationship – with a much more focused audience – will, the Mirror believes, create much richer revenue opportunities. It will be easier to sell premium advertising because the Mirror will know more about the audience and their behavior. They will be able to sell unique merchandise – particularly in the case of Mirror Football thanks to the archive. And they can sell tickets to exclusive events.
But will this strategy – to build a destination more analagous to a television channel than a traditional news website – work? I’d say 3AM has a decent chance of success but am much less sure about Mirror Football.
3AM is about access – access to celebrities, to gossip, to parties and to nightclubs. Going to the site is like being part of a club. And interest in one part of the club (Peaches Geldof, say) is not mutually exclusive with interest in another (Mischa Barton). Exclusivity is consistent with this and therefore in its favour. One can see how, if the Mirror’s smart, it can extend the brand into events, fashion and spin-offs.
It will be harder to monetise Mirror Football. Though the Mirror has a tremendous football archive it does not have exclusive access to football clubs, or to footage. For this reason alone it is hard to see why it would be a primary destination above the site of the football club itself. Most football fans will have greater affinity to their club than to news organisations that cover their club.
Then there is the conscious decision not to adopt the second half of Jeff Jarvis’ dictum – ‘and link to the rest’. The Mirror will not, Kelly said, make it a policy to link to lots of other sites, but try to keep them on its own as long as possible. Again, this flies against some conventional wisdom about the link economy.
But both strategies – 3AM and Mirror Football – are consistent with the move towards specialization. For many commercial news organizations this is a natural step. Find what you’re good at, where you have a competitive advantage and where you see a focused audience, and focus on that. It’s a strategy very familiar to the consumer magazine industry.
Of course this further accentuates the bigger question – what happens to the general news? – but that’s for a separate discussion.
Certainly, the Mirror has made a brave decision that ought to be watched carefully by its competitors.
See also Greenslade blog, ‘Mirror’s website supremo: forget unique users and build a loyal audience instead‘