Tag Archives: Twitter

Thoughts on cell phone journalism

Clyde Bentley has invited me to his Solving Practical Problems class today. The goal of the class, as the name would suggest, is to tackle a current problem in journalism and solve it through research. This semester’s class is looking at the role of cell phones in journalism. I’m to participate in a focus group/discussion, so the students can see how it works.

Given Clyde’s record as a new media mind, I’m assuming the goal is to be a bit more than just “I use them to get calls from sources.” Although Clyde assures me that no preparation is necessary, just speculation, I’d like to be prepared for what might hit me.

Obviously, phones are a two-way method of communication, so they can both be used to push news to readers and get news from them. Smart phones and Twitter can help with coverage, as we saw in Mumbai and the Hudson plane crash. And The Guardian is among British newspapers that uses cell phone photos in print, as well as on its site.

But most of the population is still using some form of a phone that mostly just texts and makes calls. So the question is, to reach a mass audience, how can we creatively use that technology for news?

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Monday morning link dump

I spent the weekend at the True/False Film Festival here in Columbia. Although my wife and I saw fewer movies than in years past (“only” nine this time around), I still have the strange feeling that I’ve been on vacation for a month and am just now coming back into real life. That’s partly due to the nature of the festival — we saw set in the Congo, Romania, Slovenia, the Amazon, Afghanistan, South Africa, Mongolia and Burma in very quick succession. But the result is that I’m having a hard time sorting out my thoughts this morning. (An incipient cold isn’t helping either.)

Jeremy Littau was also at the festival, and wrote a great post about “Burma VJ.” It’s a film that anyone who cares about journalism should try to see — it follows the work of independent video journalists who smuggle footage out of the country at great personal risk. At a time when journalism is facing substantial change and challenges here in the U.S., it’s a reminder of why news matters. As my wife said, it’s amazing that three of the VJs are facing life in prison for filming demonstrations — we take freedom of speech very much for granted.

I’m also helping out with Jen Reeves’ Twitter presentation today at RJI. You can get a quick preview of it here. I’ve written about Twitter before — I don’t think it’s a magic bullet for journalism, but I think there are some really interesting things journos do with it. If you’re around the J-school today, come by Smith Forum at noon.

And Steve Yelvington has an interesting post about what he’s calling the “Fidler pad.” Having worked with Roger Fidler on the eMprint project, I have some experience in screen facsimile devices and editions. I think that e-readers will eventually catch on — although I’ve enjoyed reading books on my iPod using Stanza. The key for e-readers to work, IMO, is long battery life; easy access to books; and an emphasis on readability/customization. The iPod has good readability settings but not the battery life I’d like for a long trip.

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No, social media isn’t killing you

The New York Times’ Lede blog has an interesting roundup of events in Britain, apparently sparked by a speech in the House of Lords this week by a baroness/neuroscientist. Lady Susan Greenfield apparently feels that spending too much time on Facebook, Bebo and Twitter is “infantilising” childrens’ brains. She goes on to suggest links between ADD and video gaming, among other dire consequences of being plugged in.

Here’s a taste of the Guardian article linked above:

She told the House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.

Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: “If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

That’s nothing that we haven’t already heard in the U.S., but her comments are getting some attention in Britain at least partly because Lady Greenfield is a neuroscientist. But here’s the problem with her argument:

Part of what young people are doing on social-networking sites, blogs, Twitter, etc., is creating a sense of identity. The thing that freaks old people out about the Internet is that anyone can be anything online. Anonymity, while it can be scary, is also empowering — consider the going-to-college experience, satirized brilliantly by the Onion, that many of us engage in. Sure, kids manage their Facebook profiles and tweets to fit in with their group, but I don’t see how that’s different, developmentally, than managing your real-life peer group at school, or the outfits you wear, or the music you aggressively blast out of your car, etc.

Now, let’s be clear: There is some real research that says that being exposed to rapidly changing images changes our expectations of what we’ll see in the future. MTV is a good example — back when it used to play videos, the network had an effect on our perception of videos such that directors started using faster and faster cuts. Whether that represents a developmental change in the brain or a change in expectations, I have no idea. But I’d guess it’s an expectations change.

Moving on to another segment of the Guardian story (I bolded one phrase for later analysis):

She also warned against “a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.

“The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”

Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. “Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that playing computer games gives me a sense of pleasure almost like a high. Otherwise, why would we play them? (Also, I’ve always understood that drugs were addictive precisely because they engage our pleasure centers. And is that high any different, neurochemically, from the one we get from reading a book or hitting a ball or climbing a mountain? I’m not sure it is.)

But I’d vigorously challenge her contention that playing games doesn’t engage us in a narrative. Although there are plenty of games (Pac-Man, solitaire, Tetris, flash games, etc.) that are pretty much devoid of content by their nature, there are plenty of other games that have a strong sense of narrative which is integral to the gameplay — including the Mario series where you rescue the princess. Sure, sometimes the narrative is ham-handed and propped up mainly with “interesting” costumes.

But anyone who’s played the Zelda series, or Resident Evil, or KOTOR, or GTA, or even (God forbid) Halo knows that the narrative is part of the game. Metal Gear Solid has always felt like a movie, to the extent that MGS4 was rumored to have 90-minute cutscenes. (The fact that this was plausible tells you something about the strength of narrative in games).

And let’s not dwell too long on her contention that the point of reading a book is to find out more about the princess herself. Sure, there are some books for which that’s true. There are other books that are more, uh, escapist.

The point is, let’s not decide that the media kids consume has some final defining effect on their futures. If that were true, all we’d need to do is ship underachieving kids en masse to the ballet. Poverty solved!

And not to pile on further, but I’ll let you take a look at Lady Greenwood and decide for yourself.

(As an aside, I’ll say that I always hated newspapers/magazines that make a point of having headlines asking SCARY RHETORICAL QUESTIONS??? when the answer is no. It’s just cheap.)

(As a second aside, that’s a pretty good photo illustration from the Guardian. Beats the heck out of the stereotypical online illos we see from a lot of U.S. newspapers.)

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WIN for the Missourian

Update at Jeremy’s request:

I wasn’t around for the whole Twitter episode he describes, but what I saw went like this: Our assistant city editor on duty this morning came back to the copy desk while I was working on Jake Sherlock’s computer.

She told our staff editors that she had a newsburst ready to go about the controlled burn going on at A.L. Gustin today, and just wanted a quick read on it. One of the editors — either Joy Mayer or Laura Johnston, don’t remember which — suggested she tweet it. (At this point I didn’t know that Jeremy Littau had given us the original news and that Joy had picked up on his tweet.)

The ACE said she didn’t know how, and Jake told her to come get trained. He had her log into the Missourian’s Twitter site and write a sentence about what she knew. She read it back; Maggie Walter, who was passing by, reminded us that it was an “odor” not a “smell,” she corrected that and hit Update.

That’s it — it really is that simple. Now she knows how to tweet, and we got some news out there.

We also did something else I like a lot — put a news burst up and actually took it down after a couple of hours. All too often, we’ll leave one up all day or all night, even if it’s made redundant by other content. We’re starting to think of our Web site more creatively, and more of our editors are buying in all the time. What worked here: There wasn’t a high-level decision or several layers of editing. There was just a quick decision — we got some info, verified it and passed it along.

Original post: Jake Sherlock and some other folks at the Missourian have been on the Twitter bandwagon for a while now. We did something good today. It’s a little thing, but kind of a big thing, because it worked like it was supposed to. I couldn’t say it better, so I’ll link to it.

And if you want to follow the Missourian on Twitter, just go here

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So what’s this about?

Hi there. I’m Rob Weir, the director of digital development at the Columbia Missourian. That’s a fancy way of saying that I’m in charge of all our digital planning, from computer needs to building our new Web site to teaching people how to text message.

Recently, I realized that I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about new media — and especially what we’re up to with our Web site — without necessarily remembering to write down any of my thoughts. So this might serve more as a personal journal than anything else, but at least now I have a spot to jot down some thoughts.

As to who I am — I grew up in a journalism family. My dad’s a longtime newspaper publisher and manager in Missouri and, recently, in Colorado; his dad was a publisher too. So I’ve got ink in my blood. I’ve also worked at a whole lot of newspaper jobs, from the pressroom to the newsroom to the business office. So I have a little bit of experience in a lot of areas.

My current job is meant to be mostly about thinking/talking/planning/dreaming about our digital future at the Missourian, Vox magazine and MyMissourian, as well as our other news outlets. The first part of it was a lot of IT work, but that’s slowed down enough that I can start thinking and planning, and most importantly doing what I was hired to do. So that’s what I’m up to now.

Oh, and I’m also a huge Mizzou football fan. And I follow basketball and other sports too, so on occasion I might delve into that. If I have a sports-only post, I’ll make sure to tag it that way so you can ignore it if you want to.

I’m on Facebook and Twitter. Links in the link area once I get around to editing that some more.

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