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Jon Bernstein: What MPs’ expenses tells us about the clash between new and old media

June 26th, 2009 | 5 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Online Journalism

The narrative is familiar to anyone who has followed the broader technology industry for any length of time – new triumphs over old.

The reality, inevitably, is more complex, more layered, more textured.

Certainly change is disruptive, but old technology rarely disappears completely. Rather it coexists with the new.

Just look around your office if you want proof of that.

You may not use the fax machine but someone does, and you’ve certainly sent a letter or made a call on the land line. Communication is not all mobiles, email and instant messaging.

As it is with technology, so it is with media.

And nothing demonstrates the laziness of the ‘winners and losers’ legend more than the domestic news story of the year – MPs’ expenses. Here we have seen the best of old and new media, one feeding off the other.

Let’s retrace our steps:

What was meant to be a public domain story, put there by a hard-fought freedom of information request, turned into an old-fashioned scoop.

The Daily Telegraph acquired the data and did a first class job poring over the numbers and putting in place an editorial diary for the drip-drip of expenses-related stories.

The first fruits of this were splashed across the front of the paper on Friday May 8 and, by my count, the story set – and led – the news agenda for the next 23 days.

To this point it was only a new media story in the sense that the Telegraph was enjoying an uplift in traffic – one in every 756 expenses-related searches led to the site.

But what the paper was offering was fairly conventional fare. It took others to do some really interesting things with it.

A fine example was work done by Lib Dem activist Mark Thompson who spotted a correlation between the safeness of an MP’s seat and the likelihood that they are involved in an expenses scandal.

Elsewhere, there were mash-ups, heat maps and the rest.

And then the deluge. Parliament released its data – albeit in redacted form – and for the first time the Daily Telegraph was in danger of losing ownership of the story to another newspaper.

True to type the Guardian offered the most interactive experience inviting readers to: “Investigate Your MPs expenses.”

Wired journalist Jeff Howe, the man credited with coining the phrase crowdsourcing, will nod approvingly at this development.

According to one definition Howe uses, crowdsourcing is ‘the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open cal’l.

In this instance the Guardian was taking a task traditionally performed by its journalists (designated agents) and outsourcing it to its readers.

Where the Telegraph did its own number-crunching, the Guardian farmed much of it to a third party, us.

So has the Guardian’s crowdsourcing experiment been a success?

On Sunday the paper boasted that almost 20,000 people had taken part, helping it to scour nearly 160,000 documents. So far so great. But by Wednesday, the number of documents examined by the army of volunteers was still 160,000.

With some 700,000+ receipts and other assorted papers to classify could it be that the Guardian’s efforts were running out of steam?

If they were, this didn’t stop its rival from following the lead.

One Telegraph correspondent may have dismissed those engaged in this kind of ‘collaborative investigative journalism’ as ‘Kool-Aid slurping Wikipedians’, but his paper seemed to take a different view.

By the middle of the week, the Telegraph was offering its far-less redacted expenses documents in PDF form and all its data in a Google spreadsheet, while simultaneously asking readers directly: “What have you spotted?”

Both papers – and the wider media come to that – have enriched our understanding of a complex and sprawling story. What started as a proprietorial scoop is now in the hands of the crowd.

Old media and new coexisting.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is the first in a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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Online Journalism China: There’s an expanding array of tools to supply uncensored news – but how many are prepared to listen?

April 15th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Citizen journalism, Online Journalism

To add to our burgeoning hoard of international bloggers, Journalism.co.uk has recruited China Daily’s Dave Green to write about online journalism in China.

I recently fell into conversation with a Beijing taxi driver regarding his opinion on the situation in Tibet. His view was that he really had no idea who to believe, as he felt the government-controlled news sources could not be relied upon to provide a truthful account of what was really happening, and, even if he could read English, he would be reluctant to trust Western news sources either.

As an employee of China Daily I encounter on a daily basis the worst of China’s state-peddled misinformation and propaganda.

While it is true that Chinese language newspapers are sometimes prepared to go against the grain and report the truth, the reality is that all traditional media sources are state controlled, and those who wish to dig deeper must do so on China’s burgeoning blogosphere.

The cautionary tale of Zhou Shuguang illustrates the dangers Chinese bloggers face when attempting to bring the truth to light.

Zhou gained a measure of fame early last year for documenting the plight of a homeowner in Chongqing who refused to give in to the demands of a property developer and allow his home to be demolished.

Under the pen name Zola, Zhou publicized the case on his blog and provided up to date coverage with video and still images as the dispute progressed.

The publicity Zhou generated eventually led to the authorities reaching an agreement with the homeowner, inspiring Zhou to continue exposing similar cases.

However, his work, which was funded by a mixture of interview payments and donations, came to an abrupt end in November last year after he travelled to the city of Shenyang in northeast China.

There, he met with a number of defrauded investors who had been promised a 30 per cent return for providing for an aphrodisiac powder. The scheme was, of course, (ant) pie-in-the-sky and resulted in an army of angry investors demanding compensation and government action.

On his way to an interview, Zhou was picked up by Chinese police and told in no uncertain terms to get on a plane home and cease his activities.

He has since returned to his native home to open a business selling vegetables.

Zhou’s short-lived crusade raises a number of interesting issues, not least how he managed to keep his blog open.

Unsurprisingly, Zhou Shuguang’s Golden Age blog was added to the list of blacklisted websites soon after he began work, which prevented it being accessed in China.

However, Chinese netizens, led by blogger Isaac Mao are now increasingly hosting their blogs on servers outside the Chinese mainland.

While this still requires viewers to circumnavigate China’s firewall via the use of proxy servers, it does mean they are safe from being totally shut down by the authorities.

As John Kennedy documents on his excellent Global Voices China blog, the work of AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia has inspired an increasingly net-savvy population to continue using the highly-encrypted services offered by Skype and Gmail to communicate.

Skype drew criticism in 2006 for partnering with TOM Online, a mobile internet company based in China, to restrict Chinese netizens to downloading a modified version of the software that incorporates a sensitive word filter.

However, for those who intend to seriously pursue citizen journalism in China, obtaining original Skype software is not a problem, and Zhou Shuguang used it extensively to interview people regarding the sensitive topics that he covered.

Those who choose to try and provide uncensored and accurate news in China have an expanding array of tools to help them win the battle with the censors, there are also tools to help read and watch their material behind the firewall.

However, as James Fallows says, the wider question remains how many Chinese will be prepared to listen and watch.

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