Crowdsourcing journalism: The Guardian way

From the Nieman Journalism Lab by Michael Andersen:

Four crowdsourcing lessons from the Guardian’s (spectacular) expenses-scandal experiment

Okay, question time: Imagine you’re a major national newspaper whose crosstown archrival has somehow obtained two million pages of explosive documents that outed your country’s biggest political scandal of the decade. They’ve had a team of professional journalists on the job for a month, slamming out a string of blockbuster stories as they find them in their huge stack of secrets.

How do you catch up?

If you’re the Guardian of London, you wait for the associated public-records dump, shovel it all on your Web site next to a simple feedback interface and enlist more than 20,000 volunteers to help you find the needles in the haystack.

Your cost for the operation? One full week from a software developer, a few days’ help from others in his department, and £50 to rent temporary servers.

Journalism has been crowdsourced before, but it’s the scale of the Guardian’s project — 170,000 documents reviewed in the first 80 hours, thanks to a visitor participation rate of 56 percent — that’s breathtaking. We wanted the details, so I rang up the developer, Simon Willison, for his tips about deadline-driven software, the future of public records requests, and how a well-placed mugshot can make a blacked-out PDF feel like a detective story.

He actually offered SIX lessons. Here they are in a gist:

1. MAKE IT FUN. Willison lured the readers by making it feel like a game. The Guardian’s four-panel interface — “interesting,” “not interesting,” “interesting but known,” and “investigate this!” made categorization easy. And the progress bar on the project’s front page, immediately giving the community a goal to share. He added the Guardian’s mugshots of each MP to their pages in the database, which gave a personal element. “You’ve got this big smiling face looking at you while you’re digging through their expenses.”

2. MAKE IT COMPETITIVE. Willison posted lists of the top-performing volunteers. “Any time that you’re trying to get people to give you stuff, to do stuff for you, the most important thing is that people know that what they’re doing is having an effect. It’s kind of a fundamental tenet of social software. … If you’re not giving people the ‘I rock’ vibe, you’re not getting people to stick around.”

3. LAUNCH IMMEDIATELY. Before Parliament released its records Thursday, Willison’s team thought they might be able to postpone their launch to Friday if necessary. When they saw Thursday’s newsbroadcasts, they realized they’d been wrong. The country’s imagination was caught. “It became quickly clear on Thursday that it was a huge story, and if we failed to get it out on Thursday, we’d lose a lot of momentum.”

4. USE A FRAMEWORK. Willison’s project was built on Django, the custom Web framework “for perfectionists with deadlines” that he and Adrian Holovaty created for the Lawrence Journal-World. Other frameworks and languages would have worked, too. “You absolutely could build this in Ruby on Rails or in PHP,” Willison said, but “as far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely Django’s sweet spot. This is absolutely what Django is designed to do. Once I had a designer and a client-side engineer working on the project, I could really just hand it over to them and I didn’t have to worry about the front-end code any more.”

5. HAVE SERVERS READY. As well as the Guardian’s first Django joint, this was its first project with EC2, the Amazon contract-hosting service beloved by startups for its low capital costs. Willison’s team knew they would get a huge burst of attention followed by a long, fading tail, so it wouldn’t make sense to prepare the Guardian’s own servers for the task. In any case, there wasn’t time. With EC2, the Guardian could order server time as needed, rapidly scaling it up for the launch date and down again afterward. Thanks to EC2, Willison guessed the Guardian’s full out-of-pocket cost for the whole project will be around £50.

6. SAVE COSTS. Willison used open-source, freely available software that anyone else who might want to imitate them could use.


Twitter rules for journalists

Julie Posetti has posted a set of guidelines for journalists when using Twitter.

You will find some of these obvious and others contradictory and meaningless (be human, be honest but don’t bitch about your workplace), but kudos for trying to frame Twitter in a context that some journalists can understand — or choose to ignore.

Top 20 Take Away Tips for Tweeting Journos

1) Think before you tweet — you can’t delete an indiscreet tweet! (Well, you can, but it will survive in Twitter search for three months and it’s likely live on as cached copy somewhere.)
2) Think carefully about what you’re re-tweeting and acknowledge if it’s unsubstantiated.
3) Be an active twit: tweet daily if you want your followers to stick.
4) Determine your Twitter identity.
5) Be human; be honest; be open; be active.
6) Don’t lock your account if you want to use Twitter for reporting purposes — this fosters distrust.
7) Twitter is a community, not just a one-way conversation or broadcast channel — actively engage.
8) Check if your employer has a social media policy.
9) Be cautious when tweeting about your employer/workplace/colleagues.
10) Be a judicious follower — don’t be stingy but avoid following everyone as your list grows to avoid tweet bombardment.
11) If you quote a tweet, attribute it.
12) Expect your competitors to steal your leads if you tweet about them.
13) Don’t tweet while angry or drunk.
14) Avoid racist, sexist, bigoted and otherwise offensive tweets and never abuse a follower.
15) Scrutinize crowdsourced stories closely.
16) Find people to follow. Foster followers by pilfering the lists of other twits.
17) Twitter is a ‘time vampire’ (via @anne_brand) — you don’t need to keep track of all tweets, so dip in and out through the day.
18) Prevent information overload by using an application such as Tweetdeck.
19) Add applications to your Internet-enabled mobile device to allow live-tweeting on the road.
20) Add value to your tweets with links, Twitpic and other applications for audio and video.


How to create a social media strategy

David Griner has outlined a simple strategy to kick off a social media initiative in this presentation.

R.O.I of social media

Some interesting thoughts from a social media panel at New England Xpo for Business at Boston by Beth Perdue, the editor of the New England Business Bulletin:

1. TRANSPARENCY: The marketing mentality is shifting to one that emphasizes authenticity and transparency, creates two-way conversations, and looks to build assets in relationships including those with influential bloggers and Twitter followers.

“I used to talk about manipulation,” said Bob Cargill, creative director for Nowspeed Marketing. “Now I preach the truth and nothing but the truth. That’s a big shift.”

2. CONTENT MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER: Part of that shift is because, with a Web-based presence, content becomes more important than ever. Hubspot vice president of inbound marketing Mike Volpe, said companies should be thinking more like publishers than salesmen.

Each part of a business’ Internet presence becomes one piece of its content, he said, rattling off a list that includes blogs, video and sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“Promoting this content in social media helps attract more people to it, which in turn makes it more likely you will get links. Links are what power SEO, so more links will attract more people to your content, which can contribute more followers and friends in social media,” he said in a blog posting that followed the panel discussion.

3. CUSTOMERS ARE IN CONTROL OF YOUR BRAND: One idea raised by the panel that companies may need to adjust to is that with social media, a company’s well-crafted message gets picked up by customers who reshape and comment on it. In other words, companies no longer control their own message.

“Your consumer is taking that message … they are co-creating with that message and the content that you developed,” said Marc Fireman, vice president for Fleishman-Hillard’s Digital Group.

Where marketing used to be done by getting your message out to millions of people and expecting a small percentage to connect back, today the message gets sent and resent, bouncing around to friends, bloggers, and others, potentially growing from an initial 500 top influencers to 5,000 then to 5 million, Fireman said.

“You need people to be the voice of your brand,” he said.

4. R.O.I. IS LONGTERM: When considering what content to provide, Fireman said it should provide relevance and benefit to consumers. Content, he said, can’t just be about getting your message out.

“You have to think outside the ‘I have to make a sale today,’ (box),” he said.

The hard truth, the group said, is that creating content is an investment in time and the ROI you receive may be long term.

But it exists, panelists said. In fact, Volpe said that for Internet marketing software start-up Hubspot, “social media is one of our top five sources of leads.”

Volpe stressed that building followers today is comparable to how companies have traditionally invested in physical assets – like building a new manufacturing plant.

“These are assets — these aren’t things that go away,” he said.

5. DIVE IN NOW: For those still on the fence, Fireman suggests just starting.

John Kranz, author of “Writing Copy for Dummies,” agreed. Just watch and read, he suggested.

“Don’t feel like you have to immediately say something,” he said.

Volpe suggested your company may already be the subject of online conversation and you’re better off knowing that — whether the news is good or bad.

To find out, he said, go to Twitter Search and type in your company name.

“You might as well be there to hear and respond,” he said, adding, “You cannot hide.”

Wall Street Journal’s silly rules on social media

[via Editor & Publisher]

Just to show you how far removed and laughable the supposedly “smartest people in the room on journalism” are, here are the recent rules introduced by WSJ for its staff’s social media activities:

* Don’t recruit friends or family to promote or defend your work.
* Consult your editor before “connecting” to or “friending” any reporting contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly “friending” sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.
* Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.
* Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.
* Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors or aggressively promote your coverage.
* Don’t engage in any impolite dialogue with those who may challenge your work — no matter how rude or provocative they may seem.
* Avoid giving highly-tailored, specific advice to any individual on Dow Jones sites. Phrases such as “Travel agents are saying the best deals are X and Y…” are acceptable while counseling a reader “You should choose X…” is not. Giving generalized advice is the best approach.
* All postings on Dow Jones sites that may be controversial or that deal with sensitive subjects need to be cleared with your editor before posting.
* Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter. Common sense should prevail, but if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending.


The Future of Journalism: Emily Bell

Emily Bell‘s speech of the Future of Journalism is worth reading in its entirety or get the gist from this blog.

Some highlights:

Recently Clay (Shirky) kicked off a terrible noisy feedback loop of chatter about the future of journalism when he talked about it in the context of the introduction of the printing press and pointed out that everyone talked about the revolution without acknowledging what happens in the wake of great revolutions and how this was informing the collapsing nature of our business.

This is his quote:

“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

The old stuff has broken before the new stuff is ready. Old stuff is certainly broken, many of our old media brands: ITV, The Independent, The Scotsman, Five Channel 4….in fact, outside the very deep pockets of News Corporation, the family commitment of Associated Newspapers, the unusual funding structures of The BBC -and the Guardian for that matter – just about everywhere the economy and broadband delivery are breaking bits of the media at an alarming pace….

Just to really cheer you up so far this year, and remember companies also cut jobs last year, 900 jobs have gone from newspaper groups, a similar amount from TV stations, a couple of hundred from magazines and radio – but this doesn’t include the many more casual contracts that have been terminated or the contributor budgets that have been cut.

All of this is very sad, but much of it is inevitable, and, more than that, once the pain has gone away and countless titles and brands have closed, which I still believe they will, there will be a new order of journalists and organisations, many of them shaping a future in a way which it is difficult for pre-revolutionary businesses to even imagine and whilst it might seem unsympathetic to say so we will look back in a few years time and wonder at why it took us so long to change.

We can carry on describing the problems journalism and news organisations face until the cows come home, or indeed are shipped off for slaughter in the wake of foot and mouth…

If there is not a cast iron solution, already, still in the depth of recession there are many clues, and clues are useful because cluelessness is one of the media’s key problems at the moment.

CLUE ONE – any communication organisation needs an audience. So find one. If you build it they won’t come because they are busy elsewhere. So go where the audiences is.

The idea that we can shepherd viewers or readers or listeners into one place at one time is gone – we all consume our news comment and analysis through many, many different sources.

If your audience is declining as it is for primetime analogue tv, newspapers, and radio stations, but reading, watching, listening is growing, as it really is, then go where the growth is, be on all platforms. Use Twitter, Facebook, mobile, youtube, podcasts, email and sms. Don’t be afraid to let your content go – what’s the worst that could happen.

Do not just do more of the same – Einstein’s definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

CLUE TWO – networks work better than silos. Rules of networks are that if you are a hub not a destination your traffic will be higher….the same is true of media outlets, the same is true of individual journalists or stories – if you are at the centre of your community not on the periphery, many people will go through you.

CLUE THREE – utility and reliability never go out of fashion and trustworthiness and transparency are crucial. When people know you will tell them something useful they will seek you out, when they know you are trustworthy they will tell you things so you can tell others. And journalism means journalists – trust is placed in people as well as brands.

Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor is an exponent of this – he is a tall poppy who has gathered a following which gives him 1m hits on every blog post – people want to find the good stuff and to have a personal relationship with a trusted source.

The internet allows that. But Robert Peston has a following because he is very well informed by his sources and can tell you things which, on the whole, other people can’t. He is a classic example of where the BBC, the country’s largest journalistic employer, is moving from a bulletin led model to a correspondent led model. They pay Peston to spend time understanding complex stories and cultivating sources… This is basic stuff but oh so important, and there can be no better use of a news organisation’s resource than allowing its journalists that space and time.

CLUE FOUR – Wikipedia is often a better historical source on news stories than news organisations themselves. There are two lessons here – one is that the news business is struggling to understand the language of the web, the second is that tools plus users equals content, both are key to the future of journalism.

Matt Waite is 32 and he has just won a Pulitzer Prize for his Politifact website for the St Petersburg Times in the US. It checks facts around what people in Washington put in their speeches. Matt is now a news technologist, but WAS an investigative reporter – he’s a brilliant example of how you can reinvent a strand of journalism in line with the way the web works..The site is based on DATA – and allows the user to study that data – it tells a story, not in the conventional way, but in a way more powerful on the web.

CLUE FIVE – not really a clue more a statement of the obvious, as Dan Gilmour, the famous media journalist said in his seminal book “we the media” “there’s always someone closer to the story than you”, or as my mum said, at the kitchen table, “whenever I read or see something I know anything about I’m always struck by how wrong it is”.

It amounts to the same thing – your readers and audience know and see more than you ever could. Find ways to let them add their knowledge.


Can a hospital use social media?

Ed Bennett’s presentation on social media adoption at University of Maryland Medical System:

Tweeting a live orchestral performance

What role has social media in promoting orchestras?

Canadian blogger Rob Cooper (pic above), a “former fat guy”, answers that question when he was recently invited to live-tweet a performance by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO).

We stumbled upon him after searching for a related case study for our participants at a recent Corporate Social Media training workshop.

Rob was kind enough to respond via Facebook:

Q1. Were you invited randomly or did the ESO have some contact with you before?

Rob: My fiance had been invited to blog the ESO symphony back in spring of 2008. I went as her guest and helped her with the technical issues. Bloggers at that time had to sit in a room where we could see the orchestra, but heard piped in sound.

The same bloggers were invited back to live blog the “symphony in the park”, an outdoors venue in one of our parks here. William Tell’s 1812 overture was featured along with our Canadian military shooting the guns at the finale.

I was not asked to, but chose to tweet the event. When we left, I spoke with the fellow who had invited my fiance and told him that I had tweeted it. He was not aware of twitter at the time. This was the summer of 2008.

Then, yes, we were both asked to come back, to blog and to live tweet this specific ESO performance once again. Now Twitter was more mainstream and the media relations guy for the ESO was making his public move into the twittersphere.

Q2. What did you use to live-tweet – a Blackberry?

Rob: Live tweeted with my Blackberry Bold

Q3. Were the live-tweeters seated together – and was your presence and activity during the performance obtrusive to the others in your seating area?

Rob: We were seated together at the very back of one section with a wall behind us. The level above us had a bit of a balcony, so we were under it. Our screens and keypad clicking did not bother anyone. Bloggers were NOT allowed to blog within the chamber, but tweeters could use their phones. I asked a blogger who was in front of me (taking notes by pen and paper) if my keypad clicks bothered him. He did not hear them at all.

Photographs from within the building are not possible. Cameras are not allowed. However, I turned off the flash on my Blackberry and snapped a shot because the twittersphere was asking for a photo. I uploaded it to Twitpic with the disclaimer that I might not be asked back.

I’m pretty sure the no photo rule is because of disruptions. I did everything I could do so that the photo from my cellphone would not cause a disruption.

Q4. Orchestral halls here have strict policies barring all forms of recording equipment and photography. Do you think in future, like the ESO, they need to change this policy, or be more flexible towards reaching out to bloggers, tweeters and other social media enthusiasts?

Rob: I think there could be a change allowing for a section of tweeters, but no need to allow phones or cameras throughout the orchestral hall. I think that the changes should be gradual.

To mix technology with the arts has to introduced slowly. There are hardliners who want their rules so they can appreciate the music. I think they “think” there will be disruptions when there clearly was not.

So… flexibility. Give some space where the tweeters can tweet. Computers are another issue all together. Big, bulky and the screens throw off a lot of light so no to the computers.

Q5.How else can ESO and other orchestras engage bloggers and tweeters?

Rob: How can they engage us? Don’t really have an answer. Tweeting is quickly becoming mainstream. I think nothing of popping open my phone and sending off a tweet as I think about it. They’re random thoughts or tweets that I simply want to share. It’s the same as sending a text message, so it seems perfectly normal to open up the Blackberry while in the orchestral hall. One has to be respectful of the space we’re in as well.

Other than that, I’m not quite sure I understand or have an answer for this question.

The whole tweeting thing would be confusing to someone not aware of what it is or how it works. That does not mean they should stop it, that’s for sure. One can “know” about Facebook, not be involved, but still appreciate the power it has to connect. Same for text messaging, tweeting and the like.

When it comes right down to it, the orchestral hall is a place to be respectful of the other patrons there to enjoy the arts. I for one respect that. If you’re “at” the symphony, my guess is that you’re educated enough to understand how reverend it is.

Below is a video of the bloggers and tweeters invited by the ESO:

NOTE: Review Rob’s tweets here and check out Rob’s fiance Darlene Hildebrandt’s blog post of event here. (She’s a photographer and has just released a book entitled “Visions of Peru” to raise money for the children of Peru.)

NOTE2: Mack D Male also live-tweeted at the ESO, along with others, earlier. Look at his blogpost here.

NOTE3: The ESO has a blog, Youtube channel, Facebook page and of course is on Twitter too.

ESO Music Director William Eddins has his own blog at Sticks and Drones.

How the Zappos CEO made my day

I was planning to share a case study on online retailer Zappos with the participants in the Corporate Social Media workshop we’re conducting tomorrow.

In my research, found an interview of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Loic Le Meur in a bathroom, in which he says he would be happy to send a free copy of the Zappos Culture Book to anyone upon request.

Wrote to Tony late Wednesday night and received this reply from one Dylan Morris:

“Hello Julian,

“Thank you for contacting Tony with your feedback! He reads every email he receives and asked me to respond on his behalf so you could receive a timely response. Tony receives over 2,000 emails each day, and has handpicked a small team to help him address some of them. He would have responded directly, but he doesn’t have the hands necessary to type up 2,000 responses at the same time. We are currently working on replacing Tony’s body with one from an octopus, so look for more Tony responses in the near future!

“We would be happy to send you a Culture Book! We’ve loaded one up in our Zappos mailing cannon and blasted one off to you.”

Dylan provided other helpful info and even invited me to Las Vegas for a tour of their HQ. Very cool.

Today’s Monday and the UPS guy showed up at my door with a package. Yes, it is the Zappos Culture Book 2008 – flown over 14,000kms in about 96 hours from the time I first sent the email. (It would usually take a two weeks to a month for such a delivery from USA to Malaysia.)

Thanks Tony and Dylan. You made my day. Now, I know why you make US$1b in annual sales.

Related links:
Tony Hsieh at Web 2.0 Summit
Zappos on ABC’s Nightline
What Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Could Teach Ford CEO About Twitter

Lee Aase and Mayo Clinic

Was quoted in an article by Chen May Yee of on Lee Aase, who does an amazing job at Mayo Clinic with social media.

“Mayo turns to social media to reach out to potential patients”


A few years ago, Lee Aase was just another flack for the Mayo Clinic, issuing press releases on cue and calling news conferences for doctors to present carefully scripted messages.

These days, Aase is a walking, talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, YouTubing force who’s blasting Mayo into the social networking world faster than you can say “Mayo Brothers.”

Corporations across the country, from Starbucks to Dell, are using social media — free online sites where users connect with thousands of others — to reach customers. But hospitals have always been conservative in marketing to patients. And Mayo, more than 100 years old, may be the most conservative of all.

Yet out of Mayo has come Aase. Officially Mayo’s manager for syndication and social media, he has emerged a rock star in that space where social media and health care marketing overlap.

A grandfather from Austin, Minn., Aase now travels the country to speak at conferences and runs his own virtual Social Media University, Global (SMUG), a website with courses such as Blogging101. Allina Hospitals and Clinics in the Twin Cities invited him in to show them how it’s done. He was interviewed by Shel Israel, a Silicon Valley media guru, for the upcoming book “Twitterville.”


By the way, site really suffers for failing to link out to the websites it mentions and not providing the Read Article In A Single-Page button.

Here is my original response:

I stumbled on Lee Aase’s presentation on Patient/Provider partnerships at while researching on a two-day customized training for media relations and marketing staff of a private hospital in Malacca.

Lee was very helpful and sent me his slides. He is an amazing guy. I think as a social media evangelist he is doing great stuff for Mayo.

The only way to “push” for social media adoption is to do extensive training, training and training and his idea to set up S.M.U.G was a stroke of genius.

By promoting the myriad free resources on the net that hospitals can leverage on to connect and engage with patients; with interns planning stints in Rochester; with doctors having to learn “webside manners” online – he is fishing where the fish are.

Branding and marketing has moved online in a big way. And it cuts across all industries.

In 2009, here are the facts: If you want to connect with people – your prospects, your future customers/patients, your future medical personnel, the media (that’s us) – you need to go where the people are and start conversations and engage with them on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, ie. via social networks, blogs, podcasts, photo- and video-sharing sites and patient-led support groups and forums. You need to be found by the Great Reputation Management Machine: Google search. and and the whole medical tourism phenomenon are examples of Healthcare 2.0 that could not have happened without the net.

We really are in the middle of a revolution and Aase “gets it”. Unfortunately, some people in our profession — journalism — saw it coming but just ignored it. Tech journalism got commoditized very quickly. I was there. I saw it happen. The websites I wrote for blinked off the radar.

Medical care, to use Friedman’s overused word, is being flattened. Private hospitals know it. They can run from it or embrace it. On our end of the world, I found Bumrungrad in Thailand was another great example of medical tourism that is competing on a global scale. Look at all the coverage they are getting

That’s the future? It’s already here — right on our backdoor!

Hope this is helpful.


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