New Zealand Rugby through Photoshop

March 8, 2010

Rugby players in New Zealand

Photo credit US Embassy New Zealand


Crowdsourcing and the BBC

March 5, 2010

Last June, BBC Radio’s Today show undertook a crowdsourcing project in order to learn from members of the health industry how Britain’s National Health Service could save money. At the time, the government was considering cutting the NHS workforce by 10 percent. At the bottom of an article on the issue, a separate box states “We Need Your Help” and asks readers to e-mail “practical ideas as to how the NHS can save money from people with first hand experience of the health service.” The BBC’s request especially targeted NHS employees, and promised responders that their e-mails would be kept in confidence. It also assured workers that they would be contacted before any identifying information was published.

Several other Web sites picked up the BBC’s efforts – Jon Bernstein, the deputy editor of the New Statesman, posted about the crowdsourcing project on his blog. The Healthcare Governance Review blog also mentioned it, and the “Look After Our NHS” site urged readers to “Share your ideas with the BBC.”  The sites all linked back to the original BBC article on the project, meaning the BBC could then gain access to their readers as well.

In early September, BBC News posted an article on how the government had decided against the workforce cuts, quoting some of the health care workers who responded. One pull quote titled “Health Workers Speak” quoted a worker – presumably found through the project – and identified him by only his first name and city. A separate piece provided the text of 10 especially enlightening e-mails the project had received.

The same question on how to cut the NHS budget was asked under the main BBC Web site’s Have Your Say section in September, with links to the two articles produced from the earlier project. This time commenters posted directly on the Web site, with their words in full view. The page received hundreds of comments in only a couple days, and the topic is now listed as closed.

By asking health care workers to e-mail the news organization directly, the original project was able to fully control any information actually published on BBC programs. E-mail also means the BBC now has a way to directly contact these sources again. The second, rather more informal query – it wasn’t specifically looking for inside information on the NHS system, more general reactions and experiences – had far less control, but it appears it still required names and locations for commenters. Each comment also has an “Alert the Moderator” link next to it for readers to quickly flag inappropriate posts.

Thanks to crowdsourcing, the BBC managed to produce not only an informed article on a complicated issue, but I can only assume it’s now gathered an excellent group of sources it can tap into for any future news on NHS.


BBC Correspondent Mark Mardell on Twitter: Not Entirely Successful

February 25, 2010

BBC journalists were recently ordered to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook by BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks. It’s an excellent idea, but simply telling reporters to start tweeting doesn’t mean they can pick it up right away.

North America Editor Mark Mardell (@MarkMardell) started posting on Twitter in September 2009. It appears that Mardell views his account as an extension of his BBC news blog, Mark Mardell’s America – every single update links back to his blog, with a brief descriptive phrase on a new entry.

This is great; reporters should always provide links back to their work. What’s not so great is that nearly every link merely goes to the blog homepage, and not the specific entry Mardell mentions in the tweet. Someone searching Mardell’s Twitter updates months later – as I was last night – has to troll through a considerable archive of blog posts to find the entry he referenced.

As of Feb. 24, 2010, Mardell had only 32 tweets. But his blog had been updated 127 times since he began writing it in August 2009, and is updated very frequently – at least every couple days and occasionally even multiple times on the same day. I am curious as to why, if his Twitter account is used only to announce new blog entries, not every entry is tweeted – and how he chooses which entries to tweet. Mardell posted 23 blog entries in November 2009, but tweeted about only one: a Veterans Day post for Nov. 11 discussing Obama’s words on Vietnam. His blog is very popular – entries can rack up hundreds of comments – and it does include a link to an RSS feed (but not his Twitter account), so perhaps Mardell feels that regular blog readers are already receiving adequate notification. For February, he has used Twitter significantly more, tweeting 13 of 16 blog entries (again as of Feb. 24).

Except for a couple of occasions, Mardell doesn’t use shortened URLs – each link is written out in full: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markmardell/. That’s 52 characters. Mardell doesn’t necessarily need those characters, but when Twitter gives you only 140 characters to start with, it’s a bit of a waste. He also makes no use of hashtags and there’s no evidence of his ever retweeting another post or replying to another Twitter user, although he has 74 followers and is following 62 people. This is most definitely not making efficient use of the “social” part of Twitter’s social network.

I was rather surprised to find multiple spelling errors and typos in Mardell’s tweets. A tweet from Sept. 2 asks “Bipartisanship laive and well : ? Consaervative’s against Obama’s war. have your say”. On Sept. 6, he writes “should i speak ameican ?”. More startling are his multiple misspellings of Obama’s name. A tweet from Sept. 14 uses “Omama;” one from Feb. 16 has “Obbama.”

These are clearly typos. But Mardell is the BBC’s North America editor. He’s based in Washington DC and primarily covers American government and politics. Why is he misspelling the U.S. president’s name in his public writing anywhere?

None of these errors can be found in the blog posts that the tweets reference. Mardell takes care in his blog writing – why not in his tweets? (Assuming that an assistant isn’t tweeting for him, which I don’t think is the case.)

Twitter is indeed a rather informal method of communication, and the 140 character limit by its nature requires some creative abbreviations and occasional text speak. But it’s not so informal that users – and journalists especially – should shrug and think that spelling and grammar don’t matter. Journalists’ Twitter accounts are still examples of their professional work. And Twitter itself has its own mini spell check, underlining in red words it sees as incorrect.

I attempted to contact Mardell through his Twitter account, but I haven’t received a reply at this time. (As far as I can tell, there’s no other way to directly contact correspondents through the BBC website.) I do hope I’m able to speak with him eventually, for I’d love to learn what he actually thinks of Twitter. The BBC may order its reporters to use it, but they don’t have to like it.


The BBC on Facebook

February 19, 2010

For such a large, world-famous news organization, the BBC surprisingly isn’t using Facebook, currently the world’s most popular social networking site, to its greatest potential. The BBC does have various fan pages for its outlets; its main page for its television news coverage appears to be BBC World News.

The page only notes just over 8,000 fans, and a glance over its wall postings isn’t very inspiring. Most of the posts are merely paragraph-long previews for upcoming newscasts, with a photo of the broadcaster. Of course it’s always good to give viewers a heads up for stories they might be interested in, but there doesn’t appear to be any followup after the newscasts have aired. Furthermore, there aren’t any links to video clips or articles discussing the issues raised in the previews. This seems to be a ridiculous oversight to me. Why mention a story you’ve covered without linking to it?

The World News fan page links to three “favorite pages”: BBC World News America, with over 3,800 fans; BBC World Have Your Say, with just over 3,000 fans; and BBC Newsnight, with only about 620 fans. These pages all make a much better use of their walls – virtually every post directly links to a story that followers can easily access. As could be expected, Have Your Say receives quite thoughtful comments from fans. Even better, the page managers occasionally directly encourage their audience. A wall post from Feb. 13 said “Thank you for all your comments, some of which were read out live on air during the debate!” Talk about an incentive for fans to leave excellent comments.

Have Your Say links back to the World News page, but Newsnight doesn’t note any favorite pages at all. World News America links to five favorite pages, including pages for BBC Business, Science, and Technology News, as well as BBC America, which has almost 68,000 fans. Its wall posts largely appear to announce what programs are going to air on the BBC’s American channel, but even they include links to interviews and video clips associated with the TV shows, unlike the World News page.

The BBC is certainly doing well to create multiple Facebook fan pages for the various elements of its organization. People can easily follow which topics interest them. More puzzling is why each of these pages doesn’t link to all of the others, and why the BBC’s main website makes no mention of its Facebook fan pages. The news homepage has no handy “Follow us on Facebook” link, and a cursory search through the rest of the site, especially the Contact Us section, didn’t turn up any links to Facebook, either.

The BBC is on the right track with its use of Facebook fan pages, but it needs far, far better cross-referencing to strengthen its online presence.


Journalists’ Endless Online Responsibilities

February 19, 2010

Orlando Sentinel Online Content Manager John Cutter recently spoke to my Online Journalism class at the University of Maryland. The major lesson I took away from his talk was how many more responsibilities journalists are now expected to juggle.

It’s not enough to report and write a story and get it in before deadline. Now, according to Cutter, journalists must frequently update their stories throughout the day, help write the best searchable headlines and add tags, be prepared to jump both behind and in front of a camera even if they’re primarily writers, and interact with their readers to a much higher degree than ever before. Newsrooms have always been a hotbed activity, but at least there was a certain point in the evening when most people went home. Online news runs 24/7. I wonder if publications will eventually do without the idea of deadlines entirely and just constantly post new stories as they come in – kind of like a rolling admissions process, perhaps.

I find the current focus on audience participation fascinating. “I like to think of Twitter as our two-way communication with readers,” Cutter said, adding that he thinks it’s too passive of journalists and news organizations if they don’t respond. The whole phenomenon is a monumental shift in how reporters deal with their readers. Of course news outlets have always cared about their audience, but they never heard from them besides the relatively few people who bothered to write a letter to the editor or actually call the news organization with their feedback. Reporters just about never directly responded to readers; that was left to editors to note corrections or clarifications on a story. Columnists frequently addressed reader comments, but that was used as fodder for their next column and wouldn’t be published until the next deadline rolled around.

Now, as I wrote previously, news blogs can make any reporter into a columnist, with an even greater expectation of reader response. News organizations themselves are incredibly eager to hear from commenters. The BBC’s Contact Us page has a separate box titled “Do you want to comment?” and asking readers to “Let us know what you think” with links to the BBC blogs, message boards, and news debates. And it’s now a near-requirement that journalists join and participate in multiple social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

There’s no question that more people directly engaging with news is great, and it undoubtedly is now providing news outlets with a vast resource of information they never could have accessed before. But some of these news blogs or articles can receive hundreds, even thousands, of comments. (And as is the rule of the Internet, the majority will simply be saying something pointless or offensive.) Whose job is it to read them all? Are reporters/bloggers expected to respond to every reader concern that arises?

Journalists already work in an incredibly demanding profession. I worry a bit how we’re going to manage answering e-mail, checking Facebook, updating Twitter, reading and responding to reader comments, working with any multimedia, and revising and re-posting previously published stories all day, every day. When will there be time to report and write new stories?


The BBC & Search Engine Optimization

February 6, 2010

When people search for information online, they don’t search in puns and clever turns of phrase. They’re direct and to the point – which means that news articles should have straightforward headlines as well.

On the BBC’s news homepage, they appear to largely adhere to this standard. The current top news story (as of Feb. 6) is titled “Iran says nuclear deal is ‘close’.” The important search terms are there – Iran, nuclear deal, close. When only “Iran nuclear deal” is put into Google, the BBC’s article appears as result #6 on the first page; with “Iran nuclear deal close,” it appears as #2.

What I find interesting is the subtle change in how articles are identified throughout the site. One story is titled “Pakistan bombings: PM urges calm” on the BBC main page; originally “PM urges calm after Pakistan bombings” and now “Calm urged after Karachi bombs” after following the More Top Stories link on the main page; and “Pakistan PM urges calm after deadly Karachi bombings” for the actual article headline. The headline writers have come up with their keywords, clearly – Pakistan, bombings, PM, Karachi, urges calm – and now they merely need to be reshuffled as space allows.

Many abbreviated headlines, especially on the main page, include partial quotes – “Turkish girl was ‘buried alive’;” “Jackson’s doctor ‘to be charged’;” “Ill Nigeria leader ‘to step back’,” whose full headline becomes “Sick Nigerian President Yar’Adua to ‘hand over power‘.” I’m not sure that it’s the most efficient use of keywords.

The full headline of the Nigeria story is indeed a vast improvement over its preview version, including the name and proper title of its subject instead of the vague “Nigeria leader.” And the lede – “Nigeria’s ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua will write a letter handing power over to his vice-president, his adviser has told the BBC” – also does a great job in expanding yet repeating the headline keywords. But unless someone has already read the story or knows what it’s about, would they really think to search for “step back” or “hand over power”?

I would suggest “Sick Nigerian President Yar’Adua to step down for Vice President Jonathan.” A quick Google search shows that “Yar’Adua to step back” netted only 19,500 results, while “Yar’Adua to step down” got 32,900. It’s simply more intuitive to talk about a leader stepping down instead of stepping back. Including the vice president’s name not only answers a crucial question – who would take power if the president does step down – it also catches people who may be searching for information about the vice president as well.

For the most part, however, the BBC’s news articles use primarily straightforward headlines. The news blogs, particularly Blether with Brian, maintained by BBC Scotland’s political editor Brian Taylor, can be dreadful. Taylor has a knack for choosing the blandest, most generic phrases to title his blog entries. Some of his recent headlines are “Give us a clue,” “You had to be there,” and “Out and in.” At least “Budget Movement” and “Budget Latest“make a paltry effort to mention their subjects. But no one searching any one of these phrases would ever stumble across Taylor’s blog. The solutions are so simple, too: “Out and in” can become “Griffiths and McFall out of Parliament, Jamieson in.” All Taylor needs to do is include a few more specifics about what his entries actually discuss.

The naturally more informal nature of blogs no doubt makes writers want to abandon direct, hard-news headlines. But it’s precisely those types of headlines that are going to help readers find them.


BBC Blogs: Nick Bryant’s Australia

January 26, 2010

Journalists’ blogs are perhaps my favorite thing to read on any news site. I read objective news articles for the straight facts, but I really enjoy the the personality and color provided by a writer’s unique perspective of an event or issue. It’s no different from the way I always loved reading the Opinion and Life sections of the newspaper. Blogs essentially allow any journalist to become a published columnist – meaning they can emerge from behind their bylines as real people with thoughts and opinions worth sharing, and debating, with their readers.

The BBC News website hosts 40 separate blogs; some of them with several joint contributors, most of them maintained by individual writers. The journalists largely stick to their areas of expertise: political reporters and business reporters blog about politics and business; foreign correspondents blog about the countries they’re posted in. Having recently visited Australia for the first time in May and June of 2009, I was drawn to Nick Bryant’s Australia, maintained by the BBC’s Australia correspondent.

Based in Sydney, Bryant weighs in on such topics as the Australian flag, the country’s proud claims of an egalitarian society, and Prince William’s visit. As with most news blogs, Bryant writes in an approachable, first-person style that focuses on his own experiences with the topic at hand but also draws in numerous other examples to illustrate his points and and raise questions for further discussion.

Bryant doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, however: he writes about the continuing struggle for Aboriginal equality as well as incidents of Australian racism against immigrants. In “Multi-racial Melbourne suffers blow to reputation,” posted January 10, 2010, Bryant discusses two recent attacks on Indians in the city that led to India issuing a travel advisory for its citizens against Melbourne. “The irony is that a persuasive case could be made that Melbourne is Australia’s most successfully multi-racial city,” Bryant writes, citing demographic statistics. He then brings in his personal experiences visiting Melbourne and living in India, saying that he understands the concerns of both sides.

Many of Bryant’s posts average 50-80 comments from Australians, Britons, Americans, and others. This post received 140. Most of the commenters responded with their own observations about race in Australia, while some sharply chided Bryant directly.

Commenter Sushant wrote, “I am disappointed by Nick’s article. This falls very short of the level of analysis expected from the BBC. Racism should be deplored and condemned where ever it exists (be it India or Australia) . . . BBC’s newsreader[s] are expected to be more forthright and have depth – this article falls in both count[s].”

It’s interesting that Sushant identifies Bryant’s blog post as a news article that should be held up to strict standards of reporting and analysis. It’s especially curious given that the BBC has three separate traditional, straightforward articles about the attacks and their continuing fallout on its website, from which Bryant most likely drew the information for his blog post. It raises the question for me: how much reporting and pure objectivity is still expected from a journalist’s news blog? Can a hard news reporter really make the leap to columnist in the eyes of his or her audience? The success of many journalist bloggers suggests that they can – but some readers may still expect in-depth investigations behind every musing blog entry.