Copyright: What it is, why it is important

    Advert for my coaching businessOne of the trickiest things in online publishing is the question of copyright – especially with regard to photographs and other kinds of illustrations.

    Collins Dictionary’s learner section has a simple way of defining copyright:

    If someone has copyright on a piece of writing or music, it is illegal to reproduce or perform it without their permission.

    Oxford (a premium version but here is the link) is a bit more complex:

    The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.

    In other words: someone, a real human being or beings, made something. It belongs to them and they have a right to be paid if you use it. Continue reading

    From truth to ego: Effective journalism in the digital age

    I was recently asked to be a presenter at a workshop offered by Safrea (the freelancer’s organisation in South Africa) – and given the topic: Effective Journalism in the Digital Age.

    When I sat down to prepare for the workshop (which mutated in the end into a webinar), I realised that I needed to define what effective journalism means. The term was thought-provoking – probably because journalists themselves don’t often think about what they do in terms of its effectiveness.

    Markers of effectiveness

    The list I came up with ended up having two dimensions: effectiveness for the intended audience, and effectiveness for the journalist him, her or theirself.

    In no particular order, my sense (based on experience and my own observations on this side of the fence) of what readers want is this:

    • Ease of access and readability – readers don’t want to have to work for their information
    • Fairness and accuracy – readers want to know they are getting the more-or-less unvarnished truth (but they will also want it to fit in with their pre-existing biases)
    • Education – people want to learn things (but not be lectured)
    • Entertainment – people want to have fun
    • A story – we are, as Terry Pratchett said, the storytelling chimpanzee, the Pan Narrans. Human beings simply cannot resist stories
    • Useful information (this includes a wide spectrum: from what is happening with the local train service to what is happening to my country, and from a timely recipe to how to get the baby to go to sleep).

    Journalists want to:

    • Find things out, satisfy curiosity (see below about gossip)
    • Allied with that, they love a crusade, the opportunity to uncover a wrong or tell the truth (as long as it fits in with their pre-existing biases). They may even believe they can change the world for the better
    • Have their egos boosted
    • Have fun and be part of a tribe (journos are often misfits of various kinds, so hanging together is a good thing. Plus… they love to gossip)
    • Make some money – they want what they do to be fairly compensated (so journalism needs to get itself a decent business model).

    How does that work in the digital age?

    To satisfy readers (and therefore be effective) journalists need to:

    Maintain all the old basic skills and values: Accuracy, fairness, balance, clear language, telling truth to power, public interest, accountability. Oh and the long hours and bad habits…. (see above about the tribe).

    Tell stories (just in many different ways): Journalists need to master some or all the different platforms on which stories are now told, from video to Instagram stories.

    Keep learning: Journalists need to keep up with trends and tricks, and keep upgrading their skills. This tweet shows how different things are from the days of the picture illustrating this article!

    Keep an eye on the money: In the past: “Magazines and newspapers sold subscriptions to readers, and sold eyeballs to advertisers… we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs, a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. Then the Internet came along, and suddenly, we didn’t own the only pipeline any more.” (Adapted from an article by Megan McArdle, Washington Post).

    Now: To make journalism effective in the digital age, all journalists (from the most elevated editors to the lowliest of interns) need to spend every waking hour working on this problem. They need to research business models, write about them, and understand how analytics and metrics and trends work.

    Keep the ego happy: All journalists are to greater or lesser extent attention seekers. It used to be the byline that kept us going, and now it’s social media. Pick a platform and start talking!

    Above all remember the reader (viewer/listener/audience): The reader is king, queen, prince and princess. In the digital age, there are no captive audiences and no one is willing to read anything just because a journalist thinks it is important. Understand readers. Don’t make them work too hard, think about where they are: on their phones and tablets.

    From text to gif, work on making journalism accessible!

    Some of the topics in this post will be covered in more detail over the coming month – stay tuned! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

    Main picture: CBC journalists in Montreal in 1944. Picture: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (public domain)

     

    Press freedom is all very well, but where’s the business model?

    Advert for my coaching businessIt’s World Press Freedom Day and Twitter (aka the place where journalists talk to each other, while fondly believing they are talking to Their Readers) is busting at the seams with opinion pieces and calls to action.

    I had no intention of adding my voice to the fray, but a piece by Glenda Daniels, Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, collided in my brain with a thread I admired on Twitter recently, and demanded some opining of my own.

    Professor Daniels notes how hard it is to discern the real news from the “fake”, and says that one of the threats to the public’s trust in the media is the decimation of senior staff in newsrooms. She mourns in particular cuts in the ranks of sub-editors, who she says play a key role in fact-checking. She talks about the creation of sub hubs: centralised sub-editing services, where “one sub-editor will end up contracted to two or three or even more titles”. She writes:

    “Many of the sub-editors in these set-ups are not particularly senior, lacking the institutional memory that would allow them to detect factual errors. And those who do remain have no particular loyalty to one title, so feel less pressure to thoroughly, rigorously check facts – a process that takes enormous time, especially when you are editing scores of stories each day. What should replace those full-time, dedicated sub-editors? I believe that fact-checkers could be employed instead.”

    There is nothing to disagree with here. I support the importance of fact-checking and its role in keeping the trust of readers alive, but I think there’s a deeper issue that needs unpacking too. Continue reading

    How the Sunday Times issue shames all of journalism

    Sunday Times apology

    The apology page in the Sunday Times, October 14, 2018.

    This last weekend, the editor of the Sunday Times Bongani Siqoko issued an apology for the reporting done by the newspaper on the Cato Manor death squads and the Zimbabwe rendition saga.

    And two years ago, the same editor apologised for the SARS “rogue unit” reports.

    The latest apology has led to a range of commentary and opinion, and a lot of outrage about the state of South African journalism in general, and about the Sunday Times and its reporters in particular.

    I too am outraged. But not for the same reasons as everyone else. Mine are specific to the traditions of the craft which has been my lifeblood for almost 35 years. Continue reading

    Pragmatic journalism – how to balance quality and speed

    laptop with coffee

    My desk at 6am.

    Every day I get up early and, coffee in hand, report for virtual duty at allAfrica.com*.
    The first order of business is to identify important developments on the African continent that have happened since the end of the last shift the previous evening, find those stories in allAfrica’s network of partners and get them up on the site, with speed.
    This is a variation of an early morning routine I have done for many years – and speed is always part of the equation. There is always some new story, or a development on a running issue, that just has to get “out there” as soon as possible.
    Working at speed in this way is popularly supposed to mean a decline in quality, as expressed succinctly on the Slow Journalism website:

    “Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.”

    Continue reading

    Blogging 101: How to find a free picture that really is free

    If you work on an online news website, or run a blog, or do social media posting for yourself or for your company, you are often going to need a picture (or pictures) to illustrate your work.

    If you are lucky, you may have access to images from your organisation’s photographers, or to an agency service.

    But if you are not in a big organisation, you will need to go elsewhere. Continue reading

    Tips for writing an Internet news poll

    Today – August 8, 2018 – there’s a poll on the News24 website on the topic of breastfeeding. It asks:

    Is breastfeeding in public scandalous?

      Yes, it’s something that should be done in private

      No, but cover yourself

      No, it’s natural and breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure

    The results of a News24 poll on breastfeeding

    The results of the News24 poll.

    The poll is just one way of asking a question about a burning issue – using what I think of as the “putting words in people’s mouths” option.

    On the same day, MSN South Africa is using the same option for the poll choices:

    Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

    Yes, we are well on our way

    No, people are afraid of change

    It’s already too late for us

    Things will never ‘get that bad’

    I’m ready to emigrate

    The results of an MSN South Africa poll on South African politics

    The results of the MSN South Africa poll

    W24 has the other kind of poll, the one where the vote options are narrowed down simple yes/no choices – it is asking:

    Are you attending the #TotalShutdown march?

    Yes

    No

    The results of a Woman24 poll on the Total Shutdown march.

    The results of the Woman24 poll.

    All three are framed in a multiple choice format, and you don’t see the results of the poll until you have voted.

    None of these polls will yield a scientific result, of course – they are really just little bits of Internet fluff, designed to draw readers’ attention to an issue, or drive them to read a story, or perhaps just to generate a few more clicks.

    Yet they are all over the Internet, and if they are part of the furniture, then why not do them well?

    I have a seat-of-the-pants set of guidelines to making polls. Here they are*:

    1. The poll should be topical, based on the site’s understanding of the news of the day – and it should be changed as soon as it becomes outdated (the W24 poll above refers to an event that has already happened… not such a good idea).
    2. The options should be clear and easy for readers to understand. And broadly applicable. I’d argue that the third option in the News24 poll doesn’t reflect a broad consensus. Lots of people probably think breast-feeding is natural – but it’s unclear how many of those would venture the opinion “breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure”. The option is harder to choose when so narrowly framed – so No, it’s natural would probably have done the job.
    3. The options should not overlap – they should be different enough that a genuine choice has to be made. In the MSN poll the options are not clearly different from each other. Yes, we are well on our way, and It’s already too late for us are options on the same continuum. People are afraid of change is hard to understand and people might be ready to emigrate for reasons other than a fear that South Africa is likely to become like Zimbabwe. My options as potential answers might have been a simple Yes/No/Maybe. And if I had to put words in people’s mouths I might have done it like this:

    Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

    It’s a distinct possibility

    No, we are a great country

    We are already the next Zimbabwe!

     

    1. To get nuance right, run your poll past someone else – if they look blank, or bored, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
    2. Above all, put yourself in the reader’s shoes: run the question and options through in your mind as if you were seeing them for the first time. Do they make sense? Do they represent the sort of choices that most people might pick?

     

    * I am doing some critique of the three polls I used as examples – not to show the particular sites up, but rather in a spirit of constructive criticism. I have made many flawed polls in my time!