Black Lives Matter logoWords are important, because language shapes our understanding of the world.

Over time, our choice of language can shatter or reinforce preconceptions – creating feedback loops of frustration or moments of radical shifts in perception that in turn can change society itself, for good or ill.

The same is true about our choice of what to talk about – or to ignore. Sometimes, staying silent is as strong a statement as speaking out. Sometimes, speaking out is a risk.

But for those of us – people or organizations – in a position of privileged security or power, sometimes speaking out is a duty.

The question is, what message will you send about what you see as important in the world in the words you use and the things you choose to talk about? And what good could your words do when you do speak out?

  • This piece from NiemanLab shows that the choice of language in covering protests about racial inequality is yet another area in which society is unfair and promotes systemic inequities.
  • This tweet highlights the importance of action as well as words in supporting movements for equality – especially from brands.
  • This TED Talk is an eye-opening, amusing analysis of how the language we use and the way we frame discussions about racial violence can point to the absurdity and insanity of racist norms.
  • This call from my current employers for brands to take action as well as show their support was rather good – and there has been action at my place behind the scenes, not shouted about, that has made me rather proud of my colleagues.

Journalistic quality vs the money men

Useful study on metrics vs journalistic pride, but leaves out a key aspect: the sales guys – because this is how the money is made and the metrics are ultimately determined.

Time was, quality audiences would be worth more to advertisers than quantity. Why hasn’t online ad selling (and buying) caught up yet? Only when it does will there be incentive to move beyond page views and unique users as the key metric. Programmatic ad sales could be the answer, or could worsen the situation further – too early to tell.

Anyway, worth a read:

“Online media is made of clicks.

Readers click from one article to the next. Advertising revenue is based on the number of unique visitors for each site. Editors always keep in mind their traffic targets to secure the survival of their publications. Writers and bloggers interpret clicks as a signal of popularity.

The economic realities underpinning the click-based web are well documented. Yet much work remains to be done on the cultural consequences of the growing importance of Internet metrics.

I conducted two years of ethnographic research (observing newsrooms and interviewing journalists, editors, and bloggers) exploring whether web analytics are changing newsroom cultures. The answer is a qualified yes, but in ways that differ from the ones we might expect.”

A golden age for journalism

Lots to agree with here:

“by some measures, journalism has never been healthier. And there’s every reason to believe that it is actually getting stronger because of the web, not weaker — regardless of what’s happening to print”

Are jobs being lost? Yep. Are publications shutting down? Yep. But are readers getting more of what they want? Yep.

My only worry with this optimistic take on the current situation is that, despite years of worrying about it, and over a decade of confident assertions that hyperlocal “citizen journalism” will fill the void left as uneconomic newspapers shut down, there is still a major risk that many communities will be left without a reliable source of local news coverage.

I’m based in London, so there are any number of hyperlocal Twitter accounts and small blogs covering the area, but none of these are comprehensive, even combined, and few have the skills or abilities to dig deeper into what’s going on in the local council. Local newspapers were never especially economically worthwhile, but they did (well, sometimes) provide a valuable public service in holding local government to account – something they were only really able to do because of the level of access they were afforded by their permanent, professional position.

On a local level, as local papers shut, the most common publication to fill the void isn’t a blogger, it’s an official local government publication – we’re replacing public service for propaganda.

Algorithms and the news agenda

Well worth a read on the Feguson riots, and how different social media sites (notably Twitter vs Facebook) served up news about them:

“Now, we expect documentation, live-feeds, streaming video, real time Tweets… [Ferguson] unfolded in real time on my social media feed which was pretty soon taken over by the topic…

And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.

Nada, zip, nada.

This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now?—?seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.

But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

Would we even have a chance to see her?

This isn’t about Facebook per se—maybe it will do a good job, maybe not—but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.”

It’s a continual worry – how to ensure we see what’s important? Though, of course, the concept is nothing new – the algorithm is just an editor or an editorial policy in a different form. It’s something I’ve written about before when it relates to the EU, focusing on a BBC editorial policy that fails to cover EU affairs in mainstream news most of the time, and then serves up extremes.

This kind of human editorial determination of the appropriate news agenda based on perceived audience interests is arguably no massive degree different from a Facebook algorithm determining what is important based on how it interprets user interests. If anything, there’s a strong argument to be made that Facebook knows its audience better than any editor on any publication or TV show ever, due to the sheer quantities of data it possesses on its userbase.

But then what of *importance* – who determines this? Who overrides the algorithmic or standard editorial policy assumption? Is there a chance that an important story will get buried because a bit of code doesn’t see it as significant? Yes. But the same is true of any number of important news stories that human editors don’t pick up on, or choose to bury on page 23 because they don’t think their readers will be that interested.

As so often, the web may be a bit different, but there’s nothing that *new* here.

Want to see the future of journalism? Look to the past

Obvious, but worth stating – and highlighted in an arguably overly-critical piece on the new Los Angeles Times website redesign (which, bar the lack of swipe navigation on the “browse visually” section, I like well enough – my only complaint with the look of the thing being their terrible, boring choice of photo on nearly every story):

“much of the innovation touted here has the publication playing catch up. Everyone, it seems, particularly web-only news outlets, has been treating each story as a hook to come into their sites. And nearly everyone seriously in the game is mobile-first…

“The Times is on board with best practices as the online journalism world knows them today. It’s just that the winners in this fast-moving game will be moving the ball forward and taking risks with payoffs that can’t be foreseen but that will seem obvious in the future.

“The redesign is formulaic. If you took a class on digital journalism last year, the professor would have told you this layout is what works.

The obvious retort to which is a) “so what if it’s not a whole new thing?” and b) “who says that the pioneers win?”

The future of journalism / publishing doesn’t need to be radically different from what’s gone before. We shouldn’t need shiny bells and whistles to attract attention if the quality of the content is good enough and meets the needs of the audience.

There have arguably been only a few radical shifts in journalistic presentation over the centuries, and all have been technological: the printing press, the steam-powered printing press, radio, film, television, the Internet. These required radical shifts in thought – all else is just presentation. Don’t get me wrong: presentation matters. But it’s not the starting point.

The challenge with all journalism in all ages is in a) identifying your audience and b) providing your journalism in a format that meets the balance between cost effectiveness and convenience for both you and your audience.

Mobile first websites make sense not just because the web audience in most developed markets is moving mobile, but also because it reduces costs – no more double development for big screens and small, mouse and touch, as has been the case for the last decade or so. Potentially, if done right (as with Quartz) you can even do away with a separate app – a potentially vastly expensive undertaking that ties you into seemingly endless development cycles to catch up with each new update to iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or whatever the next big thing is.

The advent of mobile first design thinking over the last couple of years could finally give Internet journalism space to start working out the more important questions about funding and distribution. The tools could stop being the problem for the first time in twenty years of the web.

As with early print, the ink and the paper part has been more or less decided (database-driven back end, HTML/CSS front end). What’s not been worked out is the ideal size of the paper, or the ideal font / layout. And as with print, the ideal will vary depending on the purpose. A newspaper is not a novel or a photography magazine.

Early printing was constrained for decades by old ways of thinking – book sizes based on old hand-written manuscripts that were themselves based on the amount of useable vellum you could get out of a calf skin (a “quarto” manuscript being the size of a quarter calf skin), with fonts that were based on gothic scripts designed by monks for spectacle and constrained by how they could cut the feather quills they used for writing, not ease of reading. Later, the industry persisted with the broadsheet format – always impractical for readers – because it was cheaper to produce, because their machines had been built that way – because centuries after Guttenberg the printing press had barely evolved.

Even in this post-Guttenberg Internet age, what matters is maximising access to our content while minimising the cost of production, same as it always has been. That content may look a little different, with interactive infographics and HTML5 video and so on – but at its heart it’s not changed either. It’s still all just words and pictures, the same today as it was in the pre-Guttenberg days of monks lined up in candle-lit rooms, copying out vastly expensive manuscripts for the tiny minority who could afford them.

Meanwhile, the assumption that the pioneers win is a nonsense. The pioneers make the mistakes that those who follow after can learn from. Only a very few of the earliest settlers succeed – the Oregon Trail led to many more deaths than happy new prosperous lives.

Short version: the real debate of the future of journalism isn’t about style, it’s about technology and economics, same as it always has been.

We need to accept this – because constraints can be useful. Without constraints, the Internet is a blank canvas – but Mankind has always preferred to know where the boundaries lie.

A combination of money and tech can help us set those boundaries. Some will continue to push them outwards, but few ordinary people are interested in living on the frontiers. They prefer safe and familiar. The pioneers of new techniques and technologies should be lauded, but it is the settlers who come after that will make the new land liveable and viable in the long run.