Eyjafjallajökull has sent me on an unexpected 1257 km dash against the ash adventure across Germany, the Swiss alps and deep into Italy to attend the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
As expected quite a few international speakers and journalists were unable to attend but I was surprised at the resourcefulness of some participants determined to make it down to Italy. Ande Gregson from Media140 for example drove all the way from London on his R1 Yamaha motorbike (it's red, so it must go fast!), David Sasaki caught one train after another for a day and a half to travel from Austria, while Lisa Zilberpriver changed her original flight Sydney-Bangkok-London-Rome and spent several days flying across the globe via Hong Kong and Doha.
It was a jam-packed five days at the #IJF10 with many interesting insights into the Italian and international media landscape and loads of discussions about the opportunities of new media in our profession.
I'm not a regular conference goer, so I can't give you the pros and cons of this conference versus any other large journalism talk-fest, but I must say I liked the wonderfully organised Italian chaos, the beautiful historic venues spread all throughout the old town, the professional translation, the daily happy hour "Taste of Umbria" and the large jars of Perugian Baci chocolates luring me time and again back into the press centre.
It's impossible to pack the whole five days into a blog post, so here are just a few little "baci" from Perugia that I want to share with you:
A real discovery was the work of David McCandless of Information is Beautiful. Of course visualising data is nothing new, but the presentation David gave at Media140 took the visualisation of information - be it facts, data, ideas, or statistics - to another level. David links information and design to "help us understand the world, cut through BS and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath". Very inspiring! And I added two new professions to my vocabulary: data journalist and information designer.
Along with presentations from David McCandless and Guy Degen the Media140 team who was stuck in the UK produced a great live broadcast from a bunker.
Video and Creative Commons
Al Jazeera was represented by Moeed Ahmad, head of new media, and Laith Mushtaq, one of their brave camera operators working in conflict zones and now a keen blogger. The broadcaster has a pioneering approach to new media and challenges other traditional broadcasters.
Al Jazeera's Creative Commons Repository is particularly interesting. It's the first time a broadcaster has shared its professional video footage on the internet free to be downloaded, shared, remixed, subtitled and eventually rebroadcasted by users and TV stations across the world under the most permissive Creative Commons license, "attribution only".
Dialogues on the Future of News
For me each day at the #IJF10 started with Justin Peters and Megan Garber from the Columbia Journalism Review who hosted very interesting and focused panels entitled Press Forward: Dialogues on the Future of News, based on a series of essays, interviews and case studies published in the bi-monthly publication.
How does the web change news organisations when it comes to communication with its users? How is credibility and trust affected by new media? What happens to traditional narrative techniques in the short-form world of the web? Those were just some of the big questions the CJR panels tried to address.
Outsourcing comment moderation
Josh Young, social media editor of The Huffington Post (who seemed to pop up on every other panel of the #IJF10) shared some very interesting insights on the HuffPost's conversations with its users. The liberal American news website and aggregated blog attracts around 40 million visitors and more than 2 million comments a month. That's a lot and needs to be managed.
Josh stressed the importance to structure online communities and to identify those users who are the most committed. Take the example of Wikipedia: 93% of the entries on the web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopaedia come from 8 % of the authors. So, it's crucial to identify and tap into this commitment. At the Huffington Post the most active and dedicated users have been given extensive rights in moderating comments, including deleting comments they deem inappropriate.
But let's first go back a few steps: Any comment can be flagged as abusive. In the past, a team of moderators checked whether these flags were valid or not. To try to deal with the sheer volume of comments, the HuffPost analysed the way users were flagging content and ultimately decided that those who have a good flagging history could obtain the right to delete. Of course, HuffPost moderators can still double check whether any comment deleted was fair and justified, but this strategy is spreading the burden of moderating, and at the same time raising the profile of the HuffPost's most loyal users.
Users, Josh says, are a positive term, because they do much more than just reading the website. They've also experimented with crowd-sourcing headlines. For example: here's a story - do you have ideas for a headline? But ultimately, Josh admits it takes more time to vet all the suggested headlines, than to write it yourself.
Global Voices also hosted an interesting panel on bridging the gap between different cultures and languages online. While electronic or "machine translation" is improving, for example between French and English or vice versa, that's not the case for say going from Chinese to Bengali, or any other exotic language combination. We still need humans!
And yet if you do want a full picture, languages are still tremendously important. And that's where social translation comes into play. Social unpaid translation is really nothing new, many people translate something they appreciate in one language into another to share for a common good. But the internet as a social web has brought many new possibilities, it makes the process easier and more people are doing it.
Wikipedia is one example of a social translation website, Global Voices another.
Taiwanese blogger Portnoy Zheng recalls how frustrated he was by the media in Taiwan and started translating Global Voices' articles from English into Mandarin and posting them on his blog. Portnoy said he wanted people in Taiwan "to see more of the world" and soon was asked to join the Global Voices team as one of its main contributors. Global Voices officially began translating into Chinese in 2006 and gradually added new languages, today offering 26 - including exotic ones like Malagasy, the language spoken in Madagascar.
David Sasaki from Rising Voices gave numerous examples of the growing trend of social translation, including Ecocn.org - a Chinese version of The Economist produced by volunteers, and Jaqi-Aru - a Bolivian website dedicated to preserving the Aymara language. I highly recommend reading David's blog post on social translation and the news industry. News media companies have a lot to learn from social translation initiatives!
Guy Degen aka @fieldreports recorded an interview with David after the panel.
Search and track
There were also some good points on search engine optimisation and tracking what users are searching for. Adrian Michaels from the Telegraph Media Group said it's important to give people what they want - if they are for example searching for British politician Nick Clegg, you must run something on him.
And don't forget to pay attention to the top left of your story, because that's where the Google robots are looking. On Facebook it's how many click like or comment that will determine your visibility. And if you put a depressing information on a Facebook page, people are not going to click like…
Search and tracking results is something I'm certainly going to explore more.
New business models
Given the crisis in traditional media advertising and the growing importance of online news, media business models are changing - and bound to be discussed at a conference like the #IJF10. Italian blogger Luca Conti hosted a panel with Mark Glaser from Mediashift and two Italian publishing heavy weights. All agreed that in order to charge for news you have to have something very special and unique. The WSJ might get away charging for its content because it offers specialised business news, but general online news has very low added value.
According to Mark's forecast, smaller sites focusing on niche audiences (for example moms) have a better chance of survival as they will be more likely able to charge their audiences or offer very targeted advertising. Non-profit models, such as ProPublica, have so far had much success in the United States, but they were also kick-started with large grants - and it will be interesting to see how they fare in the future.
Spot.Us was another model that was mentioned time and again. David Cohn joined a conversation about new models of investigative journalism with Paul Steiger and Luca De Biase via Skype. With a grant from the Knight Foundation David founded Spot.Us - a fundraising platform which aims to pioneer “community powered reporting.” The public commissions, funds and interacts with journalists to report on important and often overlooked topics. So far, the focus is on local, civic reporting in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. An interesting concept, but would it also work in Europe where there's not a similar fundraising culture?
And talking about viable new business models I should also mention Italian blogger and independent new media publisher and consultant Robin Good who has a lot of experience in earning revenue from advertising on his blog. Ultimately though, he says, he got sick of the lack of transparency of Google Adsense, and decided to start generating income by consulting "students" on how to become successful bloggers and developing niche online content. Thanks Robin for your boldness, humour and business tips!
I was planning to be brief.... but there is just another highlight to mention.
An evening event featuring Al Gore and investigative journalist Roberto Saviano packed Perugia's Teatro Morlacchi…. I just managed to get in.
I've read Saviano's book Gomorrah and to much applause Saviano spoke with passion about fighting the mafia, an issue that Italians must keep talking about. I liked his references to the Jacobin revolution in Naples where the city's constitution enshrines the right of citizens to see the sea and to rebel. While he was not calling for a revolution, Saviano urged Italians to challenge the wrongs in their country and to act upon what they deep down believe is right.
Al Gore strode onto the stage in his cowboy boots and did not disappoint. Gore has positioned his Current TV in Italy as a beacon for independent media. He both played to a local audience by honouring several Italian journalists and at the same time challenging Berlusconi's grip on Italy's media landscape. He called for anyone who can't get his or her story published in Italy to bring it to Current TV Italia.
Judging from the hundreds of young Italian students who didn't make it into the theatre and watched the debate on large screens outside - I wonder if Current TV Italia will put in place a crowd-sourcing mechanism to go through all the incoming pitches.