Category Archives: Journalism

When storytellers ‘hyperlink’ they still pull you back. Do you?

I had to explain what a hyperlink is to my class last week.

It’s odd to see, through the eyes of a new audience, how the words we take so much for granted, are really a tad arcane. Yet we continue to use words and phrases such as URLs (no-one cares what it stands for), Cloud, hyperlink.

But just to explain hyperlink by focusing on the word link, made me look of how stories used to be constructed in a pre-Internet era, with built-in hyper-links. The storyteller used his craft to send the listener to a place and then craftily pull him back, thereby enriching the story. The whole back-and-forth link-out/link-back process is how we intuitively learn to write. To keep an audience engaged. (for this experiment I am not using any hyperlinks in this post.)

Take Hamlet, for instance. When he speaks to the ghost of his father:

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

That youth and observation copied there;

Shakespeare piles on metaphors of books, records, copying etc, to take the audience –an outbound link– to a place that provides some background to Hamlet’s state of confused state of mind, his ‘distracted globe.’

Now, nearly 400 years later, even as we experiment with ‘media snacking,’ we are increasingly aware that we don’t advance knowledge by reading headlines and summaries.

But while an actor could pull us back, we who abuse the hyperlink (just to show we know more about a topic), inadvertently encourage readers to drift off into some abyss.

Hamlet was, by his own admission,  ‘distracted,’ but he made sure we are not!

What could digital storytellers use to pull an audience back, to enlarge the story?

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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Journalism, Social Media


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Citizens’ voices matter

A few years ago I conducted a series of webinar-style workshops for the U.S. State Department, for content creators, educators, marketers and those in traditional and new media. The workshops were called  “Passport to Digital Citizenship.”

I was convinced that citizen’s voices would be valuable, and –despite technological barriers and people who would try to keep them quiet– they could be heard.

So today, as my book is about to launch, I am thrilled to see this report by CNN on the importance of citizen-driven media.

Journalism has been forever changed — I’d argue for the better — thanks to the fact that people can interact with media organizations and share their opinions, personal stories, and photos and videos of news as it happens. This year’s nominated iReports are prime examples of how participatory storytelling can positively affect the way we cover and understand the news. 

(“36 stories that prove citizen journalism matters.” By Katie Hawkins-Gaar, CNN | Wed April 3, 2013 )

When we talk of  ‘participatory journalism’ we mean that ‘CitJos’ work alongside traditional media. They are not here as a replacement model, but to complement the changing media industry. Of the 100,000 citizen stories submitted to in 2012, they used 10,789 –having vetted them first.

I just interviewed the creator of a leading citizen journalist outfit in South Asia, and he stressed the importance of community guidelines, and careful design.

Citizen journalism, and the power of citizen voices is a big section in my book, Chat Republic.


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Storytelling tips from Lone Ranger

When I teach young people about the  elements of a story, I tend to lean on the trusted models of the Who-What-When-Where-Why-How (or the 5WH) structure. Or the one about having a Beginning, Middle and End. (My version of this, for those writing for the web is to make sure they have a Beginning, a Middle and a Hyperlink.)

So this week I revisited  two stories, separated by several centuries. The Lone Ranger, and Beowulf.  (Yes! There’s a delicious irony of being able to listen to a 1930 radio show of The Lone Ranger via a Kindle app!)

The basics of these stories –one from the radio age, and the other from a different culture and era, entirely – is that they revolve around conflict. It makes good drama. Good vs evil material. But beyond that, it is how carefully  the author, or script writer selects his words.

So here are four things we could take away from Lone Ranger:

1. Grab Your Reader/Listener
Cut short the pre-amble, and get to the point fast.  In Lone Ranger, we are all familiar with how the scene is set: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty “Hi-yo Silver!”  (The previous intro was: “In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. ….Return with us now”)

The ‘search for the truth’ is built around intrigue (masked man) and the promise of action (search for truth, hoofbeats…)

2. Cut to the ‘Chase’
Move quickly to build up the tension. The stereotypical car chase (or horse chase here) can have other variants such as a puzzle that the reader is yearning to solve, the expectation of a confrontation etc.

3.  Build Great Dialogue.
Though the story is told to us by a narrator, it is rich in dialog. Tonto, his foil, despite the author’s use of some clumsy pidgin English, is full of exchanges.

TONTO: “Crooks try rob bank last night”
RANGER: “Have Bogus Brown and his pal Elk been in town?”
TONTO: Umm. “Them the fellers try to rob bank?”

4. Humanize Your Characters
The Lone Ranger, despite his mask, is still human enough for others to be able to relate to him – Sheriff’s, townspeople, crooks.

Too often our modern ‘stories’ –um, press releases, podcasts etc– are full of inside jargon, and layer upon layer of description. It’s almost as if the boss’ requisition stated that the script be stripped of ‘normal’ words, and the sort of everyday, ordinary exchanges. Instead what creeps in a slick, sloganized phrases, put in the mouths of spokespersons who would never talk like that.

Maybe we should make Fran Striker (college dropout, announcer) the little-known writer behind Lone Ranger, essential reading for those writing for an attention-deficit audience.


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Instagram Vs Pinterest explained

Still trying to find the difference between Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest?

Social media sounds more complicated than it is. I like it when someone demystifies it. I like it better when someone uses a ‘dumb screen’ instead of gratuitously holding up some tablet (as do too many TV news reporters today, notice?) to make a point. Thanks to Douglas Ray for this.

This might help!

Speaking of white boards, this feels like an homage to the late Tim Russert (of NBC’s Meet the Press) who was a master of the white board when trying to simplify an idea in  a story.

I sometimes wonder if Tim would have ever clutched at an iPad to make his point as he did here, during the last election.

If you’re interested here’s the video of his explanation to Brian Williams.

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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Journalism, Media, New Media, Social Media


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Trust in media went up. Really?

If you’ve been following the Edelman Trust Barometer over the past few years, you’ve known that this the value of this ingredient has had impossible to predict. The 2012 Trust barometer did, however throw some surprises.

Government is the least trusted institution. What else is new?

Trust in the media actually rose in the past year! (That has to be impressive, considering that two years ago, a Pew Research study found it to be at an all time low, with Americans who were aghast with inaccurate and biased news.). Gains were in India, UK, the US and Italy. Which is counter intuitive, considering how the Murdock scandal tainted much of the British media last year. Not surprisingly, social media, recorded the biggest gains in media trust.

More details here from Edelman Insights
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Posted by on February 6, 2012 in Journalism, Social Media


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Human Microphones thwart heavy-handed bans

I’ve always been tempted to play with IABC‘s tagline, “Be Heard.” Do we business communicators really want to be the noise makers and talking heads? Or do we rather want to be the ‘inside voice’ of business strategy?

That’s why when I first began paying attention to the ‘Occupy” movement (OWS and its franchises  Occupy Oakland, Occupy Denver, Occupy Phoenix etc) I argued that we shouldn’t be too hasty to think of them as a fringe movement craving  just to be heard. Hard to pigeon hole, it was too easy to dismiss them because they didn’t fit the model of activist movements. I was reminded of  something innovators have reminded us from time to time. Disruptive ideas do not stem from existing templates. Marshall McLuhan put it well when he observed “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.”

Watching OWS evolve, it is interesting to see how they are inventing a  new template for being heard. Make that being taken seriously. They may be leaderless, but have found ways to have their own media team, financial system, and trademark bids. And I don’t mean media in the way we tend to think of it -the kind that come with a lens, a ‘like’ button, or segmented followers.

Much of the media we see being used in these movements are crude hand written signs.

When OWS group figured out that since electronic speakers and microphones are banned in public places (or require special permits) they created what’s known as the ‘Human Microphone’ –basically humans, en mass, repeating something a speaker says so that the sentences get carried across vast spaces of crowds. It sounds like a messy echo, but it is richer than the echo-chamber.

They have also begun another remarkable project in amplification: they are printing their own newspaper. Ok, that’s not new media. But it’s old media in a brand new way. (The fact that it is called, provocatively, the ‘Occupy Wall Street Journal’ may be a brilliant stroke of creativity.) But what really interests me is how they could do it with no real editorial hub, no newsroom, heck, no editor! (CORRECTION: See comment from Jen Sacks, below.)

There’s a livestream, of course, and someone who amounts to a news anchor.

How will this change media? Even if you’re not directly working in the media how this movement works with the groundswell will become one of the most lasting tutorials for anyone wanting to be heard.


Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Disruptive, IABC, Journalism, Social Media


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Graphics, info-graphics and flat-out dubious statistics

I thought I loved info-graphics, until they were run over my marketing people.

Seriously. I used to find the art of info-graphics irresistible long before we they grew like weeds, online. The people who wee good at it were illustrators who worked for newspapers. Some complex heist, or a catastrophic event would be nicely compressed into an info-graphic in a newspaper.

Now there are so many info-graphics, I found this infographc about infographics!

But what exactly is an info-graphic?

It is usually used as a synonym of Data Visualization. But is it? The simple definition of DV is that it tells a story using data points. But it need not be a ‘graphic’ per se. It could be a dynamic time line, such as the Time Line produced by the Guardian, London. They created what seems like a nice graphic of the incidents of rioting in London in August. But it contains a slider that allows the reader to move through the days from 6th August onward, as towns from Tottenham to Ealing to… Liverpool reported incidents.

Here’s what it looks like. Click on image to launch visualization.

Contrast this to an Info-graphic, Big Brothers, about satellites that countries from Mexico to Pakistan to Iran have sent up.

To me the best info-graphic does these five things:

  • It summarizes a large volume of data in a snapshot.
  • It tells a story by helping our eye navigate complexity, and move between icons or illustrations that represent events, people, trends, hierarchies.
  • It is great at providing supplemental information on a page, when the publisher does not want to lose the reader who might turn the page, and jump to something else.
  • It provides a sense of scale, through visual tweaks, to explain something that might be difficult to comprehend, even with traditional data we cram into presentations (tables, lists, quotes, price points…) The orbiting satellites info-graphic above does a great job of this.
  • It provides direction, and relationships of where that direction might take you. The simplest info-graphic for me is the compass. I do not need to know the ‘degree’ of the direction, as long as I have the four data points. The best known inf-graphic in this category is the London Underground map.
So what then, is an info-graphic? To Alberto Cairo, an info-graphic specialist, and author of Infographia,  who teaches this stuff,
 “Infographics are difficult to define precisely because of their multiple and flexible nature….an information graphic is an aid to thinking and understanding.
He goes on to say that an info-graphic makes patterns arise, helps readers stumble upon trends, and it does this in a very small space. Because an info-graphic is so easy grab attention, especially in a world where few people have tolerance for long-form content (such as this post; sorry folks!) an info-graphic can be completely distorted and not get too mush scrutiny.

I am working on an article on just this topic. So if you have some examples -the good, the bad, the completely distorted– please leave a comment here or send me a tweet.

I will leave you with a great resource by Aaron Weyenberg. His post, “How to distort data” looks at the dangers that lie here.

Be warned. This is not a short form content, but it does have some cool graphics!

Posted by on September 30, 2011 in Best Practices, Communications, Journalism


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Inconvenient truths about citizen journalism

This article was published by LMD magazine this month.

“This is not good anymore… Once the battery charges, I’m going to download it from the camera and stream it to you live. I mean, I don’t believe this is happening. Seriously, I don’t believe this is happening…”

They were the last words of one of the bravest citizen journalists of our time – Libyan Mohammed Nabbous, killed in Benghazi in March (find the story at

When we talk about citizen journalism, we think of accidental reporters who, in the face of a catastrophic event, grab a cellphone and capture a story that would otherwise never have been recorded.

Many in the West recall the first heartbreaking reports of the 2004 Asian tsunami, captured by citizens in Sri Lanka. Commuters, not trained reporters, provided the first grainy videos when terrorists bombed subways and buses in London in 2005. Likewise, the first images of the dramatic ‘splash landing’ of an US Air­ways flight into the Hudson River in Manhattan were captured by a citizen journalist. But like those in mainstream media who have put themselves in harm’s way (those like Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was killed in 2002; and Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata, in Libya recently), citizen journalists are following in their footsteps.

Now that large media organi­sations have downsized, citizen journalists are often filling the gaps.

Whether we approve of them or not, they are often the first responders, covering a broad range of events – wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, elections, civil un­rest, famines and terrorism – that seem to be taking place with greater frequency these days.

Media Test Kitchen. There are many questions of course, as this ‘accidental profession’ shows signs of turning more professional (‘Pro’) than amateur (‘Am’). How will established news-media organisations deal with this new phenomenon? Or the more pertinent question is, how will governments adapt to this reality?

First to the Pro-Am relationship. In the early years, the Pros were sceptical. Yet, more recently across the world, as mainstream media organisations began cutting back on staff, this gave rise to newsrooms where Pros could be sought after (or outsourced) like Ams. Steve Outing, Direc­tor of the Digital Media Test Kitchen, once observed that “few news organisations have the manpower to cover everything that their readers are interested in, but by tapping the volunteer (or cheap) resour­ces of the citizenry, a news organisation can potentially provide coverage down to the little league team and church-group level, as well as offer better and more diverse coverage of broader issues by bringing in more voices and perspectives”.

In 2006, probably the turning point of citizen journalism, the BBC announced that it would in fact pay Ams for their contributions that could include video footage taken and saved on cellphones. The BBC’s Direc­tor of Global News Richard Sambrook observ­ed how invaluable citizens’ input had been in reporting the London bombings the previous year: “Within six hours, we received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages and 20,000 emails. People were participating in our coverage in a way we had never seen before.” (For a discussion of the struggle between Pros and Ams, listen to the BBC report at 0711)

Sambrook called this new phenomenon ‘open-source journalism’, where there was collaboration between a Pro and his or her readers on a story. In other words, the Pros were working alongside the Ams!

Indeed, citizen journalism has pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism. Just like the BBC, many major news organisations have begun tacking on a citizen-powered news stream, and it is becoming more of a hybrid. And the vast number of events taking place in parts of the world that are hard to access has created the perfect conditions for niche-media outlets.

In Libya, a citizen journalist noted the following: ‘Before the revolution, there was only one newspaper that belonged to the Government. But after the revolution, now there are almost five…” He appeared jubilant that even he could play a small part in making that happen.

His profession – when he isn’t a citizen reporter – is…? A dentist!

Just this June, The New York Times opened up a story for citizen participation in making sense of a trove of email records (24,199 in all) from Sarah Palin, released by the Governor’s Office in Juneau, in Alaska: “We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy emails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the email, and provide a name and email address so we’ll know who should get the credit.”

Likewise, The Washington Post invited readers, saying: “That’s a lot of email for us to review, so we’re looking for some help from Fix readers to analyse, contextualise and research those emails right alongside Post reporters over the days following the release.”

Note the words ‘alongside Post report­ers’. To qualify, people didn’t need to have a degree in journalism… just a computer and an internet connection!

Others have been cooking up different recipes in the test kitchen of citizen participation. Media observers have been calling it ‘non-profit journalism’ and ‘grassroots journalism’.

“Non-profit journalism organisations as well as citizen journalists are producing news that too often is overlooked by traditional media,” observes Jason Stverak, President of the Franklin Center for Govern­ment and Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism organisation.

The distinction between online journalists and those who write in to newspapers and magazines or work in radio or TV are disappearing, and their skill sets are being cross-pollinated. Stverak rightly says that “not all those who write online stories are journalists yet, but the ones who are should get the same access and treatment as those few still employed by newspapers, television and radio”.

For the Ams (who are often videographers, bloggers and podcasters), access and ‘treatment’ are sticky issues. Consider the following. Even when it comes to major events such as the World Economic Forum (where bloggers and YouTubers provide up-to-the-minute and live coverage), press accreditation is reserved for ‘all accredited media’. Three bloggers who called themselves ‘alternative journalists’ sued the New York Police Depart­ment for giving them the cold-shoulder treatment – by denying them press credentials.

In the UK, the Tameside Council (a borough of Manchester) ruled that bloggers could not be permitted to tweet, since they were technically not members of the press corps. The council however permitted the Manchester Evening News and the Tameside Reporter to use Twitter during its meetings. In many instances like this, a person needs to prove that he or she is an ‘accredited representative’ of the press.

Which begs the question: would someone like Nabbous have been considered an accredited member? Probably not!

Jay Rosen, a promoter of the Pro-Am model for many years and a journalism professor at New York University, thinks that the profession has not been making much progress in this area – for the simple reason that the Pros have not been making it easy for citizens.

“The ergonomics of participation in Pro-Am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it,” he says. In order to engage people in this model of reporting, “they need to see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result”.

Then there is the credibility factor. Citizen journalists do not have the built-in reputation of a news organisation, especially if they are working solo. But this has been changing. As the BBC’s Michael Buerk noted while talking to an Egyptian citizen journalist, “it’s not important because of what old-style journalism can’t do, but for what they won’t do”.

There is an upside to all of this, not just for the media but for communities and for democracy. The ‘inconvenient truths’ in a functioning democracy, says Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of citizen-journalism outfit Ground Views, is that with citizen participation “you risk the multiplicity of voices and strengthen media literacy”.

And yes, it is messy… but you end up with an informed citizenry, which isn’t a bad payoff. They, the hoi polloi, decide on which media they will believe – and as has been the case in Iran and Egypt until recently, they often do not believe the official narrative coming from the mainstream media.

Professional Amateurs. Some ex-journalists and entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in this space and begun to create business models, albeit non-profit businesses. One of them, The Uptake (, is a ‘citizen-fuelled news organisation’.

“Online tools will not solve community development,” says The UpTake. It stresses the need for a different type of citizen journalist – the Professional Amateur.

It also explains how one person wearing many hats is not the norm in citizen-fuelled news. Shooting the video, editing the story and publishing it online is more than what a Pro-Am ought to be asked to do.

Uptake recommends three core areas a citizen-fuelled organisation needs to focus on: train, organise and crowd-source. More importantly, it looks at citizen journalism not as a reactive means to cover a story as it breaks.

The co-founder of The UpTake Chuck Olsen calls it “committing an act of journalism” – meaning, going out there and finding the story, not reacting to it. “Most acts of citizen journalism are simply documenting something – a London subway cellphone photo, for example. And that’s very important,” he notes.

But as the model matures and takes on a Pro-Am status, Olsen calls for more: “We want to elevate citizen journalism from being reactive to being proactive. Go out and find stories that interest you, and provide some training on how to capture and tell that story.”


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Tabloid gets tabloid treatment. Oh, what fun!

Working on an article about the media war that broke out with the phone-tapping scandal in Britain –you know, the one that brought down News Of The World.

No one really questions who reads these crappy papers. (Typical front page story in NotW: “F1 boss has sick orgy with hookers.”) So I am sure there are very few who moan the loss of the ‘red tops’ as there are referred to in the industry.

I found a great project (the mock up is his on left) by Adam Westbrook,  a journalism lecturer who asks “If you edited the final News Of The World, what would your front page be?”

The Time cover below, by the way, is real.


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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in Journalism, Media, World Events


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The media are changing. And you?

In 1999 (before we many of us began thinking deeply about the role of the Internet on the media as we know it), USAID foresaw a trend, or rather a need for citizens to be able to “make informed decisions and counter state-controlled media.”

They talked of nurturing ‘alternative media,’ which at that time made many people uncomfortable. Mainstream media journalists, especially, thought that this would be lead to erosion in standards.

USAID may have never dreamt that something called social media would sow up and deliver this ‘alternative’ into our laps. Later, in 2005, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which tracks newspaper reading habits, recorded a curious shift. They observed that people were turning away from traditional news outlets, particularly those “with their decorous, just-the-facts aspirations to objectivity.” And what were they gravitating toward? They were turning toward “noisier hybrid formats that aggressively fuse news with opinion or entertainment, or both.”

News infused with opinion? That sounded like heresy!

Not anymore! Dozens of news organizations have begun using a combination of social networking, citizen journalism and traditional reporting to do just that.

I mentioned Internews. It may not be ‘noisy,’ but it is definitely a hybrid format. Internews is an international ‘media development organization’ that empowers local media worldwide. Meaning it not only becomes a distribution channel for global voices, but it gives people the tools to connect, and thereby be heard.

A similar organization, Global Voices, is a nonprofit foundation comprising an international team of volunteer authors, and others who are active in the blogosphere. In fact, one of its divisions, Lingua plays a sort of the amplifier role. Lingua, it says, “amplifies Global Voices stories in languages other than English with the help of volunteer translators.” They translate content into more than 15 languages.

Pew’s recent State of The News Media Report talks of how media consumption in a world of increasing mobile devices  forces news companies to follow some messy rules (of device makers, for instance) to deliver their content. The news ecology is getting uneven, it says.

This is where hybrid, alternative media has taken root. Let’s get used to it!

A longer version of this is published in LMD magazine.


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