Archives For August 2009

Slate has a great article up about whether quality journalism is the best way to sustain democracy that is in line with some thoughts I’ve been having recently. The following is a collection of thoughts regarding journalism in an age of data abundance. (I’m reworking this into a longer article, feedback, thoughts and corrections are appreciated.)

Journalism and Data Abundance

With the long-needed changes of freedom of information laws in Australia starting to come online, it’s worth thinking about how these changes might affect the way we practice journalism and politics.


Journalism’s base narrative has long been built around Watergate. It’s a highly romantic story, and one that changed politics in America: two plucky young reporters working with a secret informant to reveal dirty tricks by the US President, culminating in the only resignation of a US President in that nation’s history. Its strength still resonates in Western journalism, with Australian journalists regularly referring to minor political scandals as (scandal)-gate.

However, Watergate must be viewed as an artifact of its time. It happened in a period when freedom of information laws and governmental disclosure were far less formed. It happened in a time before widespread computerisation and data analysis, and it happened in a time before the rise of hyper-empowered politics . It also happened in a time when politicians felt beholden to the moral force of public opprobrium. By comparison, look at the way George Bush Jr reacted to worldwide condemnation of the Iraq War when his deceptions in its service were revealed.

The major difference between the 70s and today in journalistic practice – besides ratcheting up institutional pressure to produce large amounts of copy for less cost – is that information has gone from scarce to plentiful. The changes to FOI law in Australia and the widespread adoption of social media platforms promise to turn up the volume even further. How then do we deal with that?

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I’ve just finished up my first week at EngageMedia. I’m quite enjoying it. A big change from Geekdom, but that’s to be expected. I can’t see the Opera House from my desk, but I do get to work on social justice campaigns.

At the moment I’m coordinating the next release of the Plumi codebase, doing bug testing and SEO stuff, and doing some promo work on the Climate Crisis Compilation. Looks like it’s going to be an interesting couple of months….

On a more somber note, I’m reminded that Engage did some work with Pip Starr, an amazing Melbourne based filmmaker who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. I was unable to make it to his funeral, and genuinely regretted not being closer to him. I have some footage of an interview I shot with him not long before his passing, and I’m hoping to be able to share it sometime soon.

I’ve reposted an obit I wrote on my old blog for Pip below the fold.

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Cathie’s given me a little dig in her most recent post, and I thought I might respond….

I’d argue that in the spirit of marketing via social media, clicks are the least important measure of success – offering little or no insight into engagement, reach or virality…..
But while not the key metric, clicks are still a metric, and I would be delighted to be able to help my talented friend fund her next film…

Which is, of course, true, but not the point in this case.

Social media – as with any promotional campaign – will have key metrics that must be achieved. Any other metric may be useful, but they are only important insofar as they contribute to the key achievable metric. Virality is great, but unless it translates to achievement of a key metric, it’s useless. Engagement is good if it’s useful – though you’ve only got to look at Harley-Davidson to see that a passionate, engaged fanbase can be a liability as much as an asset.

In this case, the campaign is designed to achieve 50 000 clicks. Clicks are usually not a good measure of much, except a basic understanding of popularity, but in this case the financial success of the project is tied to that basic metric. Tactics that promote virality, engagement and reach are useful in reaching that goal, but the metrics of those are of secondary importance in this case.

This goes to a consistent misunderstanding that I see in social media promotions. Virality, engagement, reach and the like are all valuable measures, but they are rarely goals in and of themselves. The useful key metrics of a campaign are rarely about the number of clicks on youtube or the volume of online conversation, they are about the increase in car sales, the petitions sent to a politician or the public support of a political change (or an Australian Idol contestant). These things are often hard to measure, and the change may not occur in a helpful timeframe, but that doesn’t mean we can blow off clients with a measure of virality or clickthroughs.

When I was working at WWF-Australia, it was spectacularly irritating when columnists would decry Earth Hour on the basis that the power usage drop during Earth Hour was minimal, or that the city didn’t appear to darken greatly. The fact that the power use drop was never the point, or that Earth Hour was always intended to be a symbolic gesture was lost on them. While the imagery of lights going out is powerful, and was used substantially during the campaign, the reality is that for most cities the overall light level wasn’t going to drop a great deal – and photographic representations of that drop were not a useful metric in any case.

While working on some of the social media stuff, the Earth Hour campaign had some great successes – several videos in the top ten on Youtube, massive numbers of mentions – but the key metric for Earth Hour was people and cities who had signed up with Earth Hour to commit to switching off their lights as a gesture of support for international governmental action on climate change.

Deploying social media, broadcast and print in its service was helpful, and those metrics were of supplemental value in making the case for public support, but the key metric was signups.

The key metric in this competition is clicks. Other metrics are useful, but in this case, they are not key.

So, now, if you’re interested in that bottle of Laphroaig….

New Beginnings

August 23, 2009 — Leave a comment

Off to Melbourne today to start at EngageMedia as technical coordinator / PR manager. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous, but I’m quite excited too. Human rights, independent journalism, video activism, software development… what’s not to like?

Sydney airport

Catch you on the other side….

Short Thoughts: journalism

August 20, 2009 — 2 Comments

It’s easier to teach a statistician to write than to teach a journalist to understand statistics.


August 9, 2009 — Leave a comment


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August 9, 2009 — Leave a comment


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Sydney sunset

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