The Reporting Crisis: Validation


“As language barriers break down and cell towers rise, there will be no end to the number of new voices, potential sources, citizen journalists and amateur photographers looking to contribute. This is good… The effect of having so many new actors involved, connected through a range of online platforms into the great, diffuse media system, is that major media outlets will report less and validate more… The role of the mainstream media will become primarily one of an aggregator, custodian and verifier, a credibility filter…” — Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen in The New Digital Age (John Murray)


Will video games give documentary photography a shot in the arm?

Very interesting to read about some new video games being developed (and there’s the thing: this is still at development stage and we have not seen the market response) that tell important stories using real documentary footage.

In ‘Are Video Games the Future of Storytelling’, Meghan Ahearn references Marcus Bleasdale and his work to create a video game about the impact of mining conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bleasdale cites his teenage niece and nephew, and the realization that they would likely never see the work he shot on assignment, because it’s placed in media that don’t reach them. “If we [want] to educate them and get them to understand places like DRC, we have to take the issues that we are concerned about to them on the platforms they want to engage in.”
Bleasdale’s video game, called Blood Minerals Congo, highlights an irony to me: some of the very minerals that are being mined in DRC are intended for the gaming devices, tablets  and computers that will keep teenagers and the pre-30-something market away from the original means of reaching them with photojournalism: newspapers.
What a potent way to tell the important stories of the day. To bring good old-fashioned photo journ across the technological divide and into the hands, hearts and minds of the generation who will feel its impact most, and can make the most change.
Ahearn’s article also highlighted a Dutch cowboy outfit, Butch & Sundance, who are using NGO funding primarily, by the looks of it, to develop other games and some really innovative storytelling techniques. I’m interested in one particularly: “The Web-based On the Ground Reporter games are told from the viewpoint of a journalist covering a conflict area; Uganda, Sudan and Afghanistan have already been used as locations in the series. The games exist in a purely photographic world: the images and videos shot on location are used to show the people and places the player interacts with. The games’ stories are based on research or ‘the journalistic stories of others,’ Hekman explains, citing as an example On the Ground Reporter: Uganda, which was based ‘partly on the stories of Josh Kron of The New York Times‘.”
Launch dates are unclear and English availability is not looking like an option but, based on what I’ve seen, saying I am impressed is an understatement. (And yes, yes, naysayers, I know: it’s seriously costly and labour intensive. But so was putting journalists on ships and planes and sending them to war zones in the pre-email days.)
Let’s see where the future goes with this.
Bottom line: #journalismisnotdead!

What price quality?


The Washington Post, one of the most influential publications in the world with a track record of quality journalism and 47 Pulitzer Prizes, is worth $250 million. Tumblr, the microblogging site on which users republish other people’s mildly amusing pictures and vast amounts of pornography, went for $1.1 billion. Price is not the same as value.

Simon Allison in his Daily Maverick ‘First Thing‘ newsletter.

On Stoicism and Journalism

Stoicism. Journalists need more of it. That was my Pop Idols epiphany last week. (Thanks to Derek Sivers and his great reading list that catalyzed my further exploration of this subject.)

Let me backtrack and explain.

The Pop Idols: 
On Saturday I was part of a four-person jury evaluating the final project submissions of 11 Asian students completing a Diploma in Multimedia Journalism at Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Working journalists all, from as far afield as Tibet, Japan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, who had tackled the course in modules over the past year while continuing their day jobs. (Great kudos to them. And to  the ACFJ, which is providing such a much-needed course.) Each person would introduce their project in person, presented on some sort of digital page with text, audio, video, illustrations, etc. Then they would sit upfront nervously while we jury members each pulled on our headphones and explored their stories on our individual laptops, before returning our focus to them for somewhat of a cross-examination. It was brutal from the outset, and it rarely wavered from that critical tone. The focus was always on how each could be improved, with (in retrospect) far too little commendation on what was good. (I need to learn from the Toastmasters’ evaluation methodology to improve my own performance in this regard.)

The Stoicism: 
We tend to think of stoic calm. I’d always imagined this meant suppressing the emotions. Being less of a fully rounded human being. I certainly would not have thought it applied to somebody who was adept at Maslowian self-actualisation. But the Stoics of old regarded passion in a different light to that of today. As I am beginning to understand it now, they weren’t against feelings; it was simply the destructive emotions that result from errors in judgement that they wanted to be free of. (No more “abandoning ourselves to the lure and pull of ‘externals’, over which we have no control, held to ransom by feelings and emotions that the world at large stirs up in us,” explains Dr Keith Seddon in his summary Stoics on the Passions.

We too want our journalists to be free of those destructive emotions. But we also want journalists who actually give a shit. There were (fortunately only) one or two on Saturday who really seemed to have done the least work they could to get by. Their stories were thin, and they didn’t seem that concerned. No embarrassment. More of an arrogance: they just obviously didn’t feel that this was that important. I felt galled by this attitude. (Now there’s my passion getting in the way again!)

Grit, on the other hand. Now there’s a thing. (In her TED Talk last month, Angela Duckworth pointed to this as a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ, family income, or pretty much any other variable.) It was inspiring on Saturday to see so many journalists who had thrown heart and soul into their projects. We were shown beautiful, bold, courageous and surprising stories, angles and treatments. There were certainly more positively passionate storytellers in evidence than slackers.

But the passion… When the (to my mind) most brilliant person on the day received criticism from our jury, he seemed to crack. I felt for him. I took his side. But I worry. We need stoic journalists. Those who will invest a great deal of work and enthusiasm in a story, and then will not give up too easily, or be too overcome by anger and frustration when it’s not immediately appreciated or they’re not given the credit they think they deserve. Journalists with self-control and fortitude.

That journalist was telling an important story. And telling it beautifully, lyrically, and with complexity. There are so many stories in the future that require his delicate, detailed and nuanced touch. His emotional approach must be sustainable.

THE KEY CONCEPTS. The drums I kept on beating. 
The concepts I found myself coming back to over and over again in these 11 assessments all pertained to Stoicism. To rationality. To logic. To determination.

1. Ask the hard questions. I saw a delightful and much-needed enthusiasm for telling the untold stories. Many of the projects focussed on little-known people groups. But invariably I got the impression that the journalist had become so enamoured with the interviewees and so compassionate about their situations, that they had lost any sense of objectivity. I suspect that many had used outward forms of friendship to get their subjects to relax and to speak, but were then reluctant to compromise that new-found ‘friendship’ by asking the difficult questions or those that might seem impolite.

2. What is the context? Individual stories need to be put into context, often with facts and figures for substantiation. Is this one interviewee or people group representative of broader political, religious or economic issues? Are they typical or are they outliers? How? Why?

3. Are we so focussed on storytelling that we’ve lost the essence of journalism?  The “five Ws” often seemed in short supply, both at micro and macro levels. Often an entire story didn’t answer two or more of these important questions. But little things like missing photo captions could also mean that more questions were left unanswered. Why is this picture here? Why is it relevant? 

4. Does the form fit? Some stories were necessarily told in linear fashion. A scrolling format is perfect for this. With the New York Times gravitating towards more of its Snow Fall design, this was the preferred mode of presentation. But it was not always appropriate. Some stories simply are web-like, and need to be presented in that type of format. Or at least have lateral links that allow one to have access to further information on a subject, without losing the overall story.

To my mind, only THEN, after all of the above, do we get to issues of technical quality. (Of which more really deserves to be said. It is impressive that this course and these students have achieved the levels of mastery that they have in such a short time. Much respect.)

It’s form and function all over again.

Multimedia: The State of the Industry

The short answer: all change.

The short term: no money.

Key insight: Good journalism has always been subsidized.

That’s my quick-and-dirty summary of a report into the state of the multimedia and visual storytelling industry recently released. But don’t let that put you off. What’s also clear is that there is some hope for the visual storyteller. The way ahead might be murky, but some will find a route through it.

In his hour-long presentation to a World Press Photo gathering in April, report author Dr David Cambell summarized the key findings. Listening to the podcast of that presentation, I found Campbell’s clear, measured presentation of the information primarily pragmatic, yet imbued with elements of hope — both for the future of journalism and for the ability of news gatherers and individual practitioners to earn a living from their craft.

Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post Industrial Journalism: download the full research report.


Interesting vs Important

Journalists and editors should opt for the former rather than the latter, suggests Reg Rumney.

In his column for The Media Online, Rumney recounts his days at the Weekly Mail in the 1990s and tells of the big question they grappled with then. I think it’s one that is not being grappled with sufficiently these days in SA, and which makes me turn to online media such as the Guardian and New York Times, rather than our own local media.

‘We had loyal readers, but the circulation wasn’t growing, and there was an air of stagnation about the newspaper, despite some sterling efforts, especially in arts coverage. The formula that had worked so well during apartheid for the alternative press was stale. Our pages often looked grim and glum and boring, though the spirit of the newspaper, the general behaviour of the journalists, inspired by the arrival of democracy, was anything but.

A representative of the Guardian, which had invested money in the newspaper, summed it up when referring to the photographs we routinely ran. He used to use his wife as a way of expressing criticism indirectly. I thought it very British. “My wife has commented,” he said, “after reading the Weekly Mail, that one’s chances of one’s picture being run in the paper are considerably enhanced if one is dead, preferably dismembered.

The newspaper had been created to bring important news to people, specifically bad news. It was news that the country was burning and that grave injustices were being done daily to defenceless people. But once that was over, how do you make “important news” interesting. David Beresford, the Guardian‘s local correspondent, had his offices at the Weekly Mail. His contribution to this debate was down-to-earth and perceptive, I thought. The Guardian had gone through a similar process of self-questioning. Journalists at this redoubtable newspaper had concluded that they should focus on what was interesting not what was important. The target market of the Guardian was intelligent, thoughtful people, so what was interesting to them was likely to be important a lot of the time.’

Hear, hear.

“It’s Euro-sports, not politics, that’s shaking up Africa,” says Daily Nation’s Charles Onyango-Obbo

I appreciated the boldness and honesty of Onyango-Obbo’s blog on Kenya’s Daily Nation site. The article – read it in full below – was shared with me by one of the Twenty Ten Allstar journalists with whom I’m working, and it certainly does go a long way to articulating why our coverage of this World Cup is quite so important: by focusing on such a significant sporting event, rather than the usual fare of African political or environmental catastrophe, Twenty Ten invests a positive energy into this continent’s journalism and thereby, I believe, its democracy.

There were sniggers in Africa about last week’s elections in Britain. In some places, election officials were overwhelmed by long queues and some voters ended up not casting their ballots. However, on Tuesday evening, we were treated to a dramatic example of how ruthlessly efficient an old democracy can be. In less than three hours, Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a press conference to announce he was resigning as Labour Party leader, and to say he expected that Conservative Partly leader David Cameron would be invited by the Queen to be the next prime minister. He then went to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation, left without police outriders clearing traffic for his motorcade since he was now an ordinary citizen, and indeed, got caught in a traffic jam. In the meantime, his personal possessions were being moved out of No. 10 Downing Street. As he spoke at the Labour Party headquarters to bid the staff farewell, Cameron made his way to Buckingham Palace to see the queen. The pictures of the queen receiving him were available to the world. Another 15 minutes later, he was out and in 10 Downing Street — which probably still had the whiff of Mrs Brown’s perfume in the air — as new prime minister. Say what you will, that was impressive stuff.

The discussion on BBC’s Focus Africa on Wednesday morning was about what a Cameron leadership meant for Africa. There was a strong view that because he is, compared to Brown, a hardliner on immigration, fewer Africans might get political asylum, and probably quite a number already there illegally could be deported. It is embarrassing to hear Africans worrying about their inability to get asylum and emigrate to the West. Nevertheless, because of the reality of the large African Diaspora and the fact that their remittances are the largest source of foreign exchange for some countries (like Eritrea), it is a big issue. For this reason, my sense is that elections in the West today mean more for Africans — especially the millions who depend on remittances from relatives — than our own national elections. Our elections will not change lives for many, but if 10,000 Kenyans or Ugandans were expelled from the UK, the consequences back home would be devastating.

In the long term, though, it is not the politics of the West that will most affect Africa. It is the non-political things like sports. The dozens of African players like Chelsea’s Didier Drogba have turned European leagues into a near-cult cross-border phenomenon in Africa. Daily, the media have stories about the goals African footballers scored in the English Premier League, for example.

Every week, we are treated to Ethiopians and Kenyans winning marathon after marathon in European and American races. This sporting success has created the one class of wealthy Africans whom, you can confidently say, has grown rich without being corrupt. The global success and stardom of these African sporting figures is possibly the single largest force influencing what poor and working class children on the continent want to be. From Maputo to Algiers, dozens of boys have taken to football, often playing with crudely made balls, in the hope they will become the next Samuel Eto’o. Across countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, thousands of young boys and girls daily take to the hills at dawn to run, hoping that one day they will find the fame and fortune of Sammy Korir or Haile Gebrselassie.

There are no things that Africans experience collectively like the ups and downs of their sportsmen and women in Europe. They are having a homogenisation effect whose consequences could be very visible in another five to 10 years. But if the homogenisation of Africa were happening only from these Diaspora and sporting sources, they would not be far-reaching.

However there is another force that is “flattening” Africa together dramatically — Nigerian films (Nollywood). Other than the pride in Nelson Mandela, the books of Chinua Achebe, and the music of Hugh Masekela, I cannot imagine an African product that has been as pervasive as Nollywood. In turn, Nollywood has helped touch off a new infatuation with things African. In countries like Sierra Leone, there are now FM stations that play only African music. Many African TV stations, like Kenya’s Citizen, now have an all-African programmes schedule, a large chunk of them locally produced. If you went into hibernation in 1990 and woke up today, it is in the field of sports stars and cultural consumption of Africa today that would most strike you as being very different. Its politics, well, is little changed.

The state of journalism in the soundbite age

“… they highlight slam dunks and fancy passes,” says White House comms guy Dan Pfeiffer in March 15 Time mag. “The current media culture doesn’t reward getting things done in government. It rewards saying the most outlandish things.”
Ouch! What an indictment, but sadly so true, I reckon.
Time mag’s writer describes the news cycle as having mutated into “a more ferocious beast” which, in a case of mixed metaphors, he calls “the news cyclone, a massive force without beginning or end that churns constantly and seems impervious to management.”
That might be so; it might seem scary to old-timer journos and the entrenched establishment, but this scary beast is also a good ride: I read that Time mag on the loo this morning and am now blogging the good old-fashioned print journalism from my iPhone while I make coffee.
Long live journalism! Long live solid commentary that helps us make sense of wild times! I don’t want us to tame the beast. I merely want to be able to hop on for a ride at my whim.

African Journalists Fight to Tell their Stories

A recent article in the Washington Informer looks at that difficult issue of journalism vs advocacy in Africa. This was an issue I found myself debating with some of the Reuters Foundation tutors at the Twenty Ten journalism training programme I was involved with a few weeks ago in Burkina Faso.

The debate of course is the extent to which journalists should inform and expose, and then leave the advocacy groups and general society to chase up the issues and hold politicians and the powers-that-be to account. My belief is that they should focus on the reporting of the facts and the background, giving the full story. Then, if advocacy groups don’t take the matter forward, pursuing justice, they should then be asking questions around that and reporting those facts to the public.

The Washington Informer article presents a different view, using  the Kivu Women’s Media Association, based in the Congo, as an example. Radio journalist Chouchou Namabe Nabintu feels that journalism and advocacy can not be separated in war-torn countries: “The question I receive every day is how we can disassociate our work as journalists and activists. We can’t because of the war context in our country. We have to find a way to help voiceless women because we have the power of media and we use it to make that fight.”