This article was originally published by the European Journalism Centre. It is reposted here with permission.
The 2010 conference of the Online News Association (ONA) pushed further the debate on how technology is shaping the future of journalism in the evolving web media landscape. The event was held in Washington DC, the US capital, between the 28-30 October, 2010.
Founded in 1999, ONA now has more than 1,600 professional members, both American and international, who are active in the business of gathering, producing and disseminating news through the Internet.
Since its first edition in 2004, the association’s annual conference has been the premier global arena bringing together highly engaged digital journalists, multimedia producers, content editors, technologists, programmers, designers and newsroom decision-makers from major media markets, independent websites and leading academic institutions.
Also this year hundreds of participants converged from all around the world to meet and learn about the latest software and hardware tools for content management, search and distribution platforms, to discuss advancements and challenges in the industry and to network face-to-face in order to share best practices.
After the official inauguration on 28 October, the following two days featured an intensive marathon of thematic sessions where prestigious speakers reviewed the current state of art in all aspects of online journalism.
APIs and social networks: The revolution of news distribution
Day 1 took off with the latest fashion of technology-driven collaborative journalism: ‘Contents-Sharing through APIs’. This was the title of the panel with Delyn Simons, director of platform strategies at Mashery.com, leading provider of customised platforms through which online media can enable third parties to re-use and present their contents in all kinds of new ways, thus expanding visibility and users.
Delyn outlined case-studies of news organisations using Mashery services, such as the New York Times, USA Today and, in particular, the Guardian which has just launched its Open Platform Webfeed. By logging in with a personal API key anybody can access and organise data from the British news daily, and possibly remix them with her/his own data, in order to create original online products for either a personal web platform or the Guardian’s website.
The parallel session ‘Rethinking Online Commenting’, moderated by Alicia Shepard, ombudsman at National Public Radio site NPR.org, discussed newsrooms’ policies for users’ engagement. The same topic was covered in a more technical detail at the panel ‘Social Media Storytelling’ where Zach Seward, social media editor at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), unveiled the secrets for a successful use of Twitter and Facebook when reporting a story.
“One of the first steps we take is trying to identify what the potential community or audience is. Usually that is as simple as me asking a reporter about groups and existing communities around his or her subject area”, Zachs says, “Then it’s figuring out how to get in front of and be a part of that community. That’s doesn’t mean you have to have Facebook, Twitter or a Digg account for every project or reporter”.
Zachs made the concrete case of the Facebook page created by the WSJ to document a Haitian-American’s mission to rescue his family in Port-au-Prince soon after the earthquake. “Our foreign editor had an idea to tell the story in real time. We thought of the best way to make that happen, and a Facebook page with its status updates seemed to be particularly useful”.
How to preserve news quality in the online environment
Besides enhancing contents distribution, technology can also help improving contents production. One of the most powerful examples is ContentCloud.org, a new open-source semantic-web platform which makes primary source materials easier to scour, annotate and share.
At the panel named after his own company, Jeremy Ashkenas, lead developer at DocumentCloud, showcased a number of investigations conducted by news outlets across the US through using DocumentCloud as a workspace where reporters upload documents, share them with their team and do structured searches and analyses based on extracted entities: The people, places, and organizations mentioned in the text of the documents.
In-depth journalism was also the theme of the panel ‘The New Investigative Journalism Ecosystem’ where Charles Lewis and Kevin Davies, respectively founder and CEO of the new InvestigativeNewsNetwork (INN) explained how the number of global non-profit reporting organizations (many of them INN members) has exploded, from three in 1990 to more than 30 today, and how they use web tools and platforms to collaborate and make public interest journalism available to an increasing number of online users.
But how accurate reporting can survive at a time where journalists can use more and more online sources which are not always reliable? An attempt to answer this challenging question was made by Solana Larsen, managing editor at GlobalVoices, at the panel ‘Tools for Crisis Reporting’.
According to Solana, journalists often belong to two opposite and extreme categories: On the one hand, you have those who rely too heavily on social networks without doing any background checks or speaking with real people; on the other hand, you have those who rely on official sources only and don’t look for unreported local voices scattered across the web.
GlobalVoices platform intends to fill this gap through helping journalists use alternative sources of information in an appropriate way. How? “Unless you talk to somebody who knows well enough the blogosphere of a given country you cannot understand if what is published on a specific blog is representative of a general trend or not”, Solana says, “GlobalVoices aggregates comments on each issue from all local blogs in order to provide a more accurate and diversified picture”.
More HiTech, more news
Day 2 was marked by the panel ‘Ten Tech Trends in ’10’ where Amy Webb, CEO at her own consultancy company Webbmedia Group, highlighted the latest digital tools and their application to online journalism.
Let’s start with what is called Geofencing. “Network mobile applications can now literally locate people in a defined space”, Amy says, “That implies a radical change for hyperlocal journalism. Today people go to a website, type a zip code and get local news. Tomorrow, with Geofence, people can run a mobile app which allows their phone to be identified in a given space and receive automatically news updates related to that specific location. Users will no longer follow the news. The news will follow them anywhere they go”.
Locating people is also possible through Sensor Technology. “Just put sensors in cloths and coffee cups to keep track of everything people are doing”, Amy says, “There are a lot of opportunities for reporting, but also a lot of privacy concerns. Data can be uploaded on the web where reporters can look for them and use them to write their stories”.
Once you have got the information you were looking for, the next step is delivering it to your users according to their specific needs. “Flipboard.com is a dynamic content generation platform which allows users to select twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and other web sources on their favourite topics and creates automatically paginated online magazines displaying updates on such topics”, Amy says.
The last sessions focused on news apps, including those which help make public data available in a more users-friendly way, tools for data visualization and techniques for video-shooting, which completed the hyper-tech-gallery which already included web design and search engines during Day 1.
Stefano Valentino is an Italian journalist based in Brussels. Since 2008 he has been operating his own EU online customised information service EuroReporter.eu. In 2008 he founded the no profit association Reporters for an Interactive, Cooperative and Specialzied Information (Ricsi).