Monday 29 June 2009

It comes as a shocking realisation that journalists, who have heaped scorn on Facebook, have adopted Twitter as a long-lost familiar. Lisa Pryor in today's Sydney Morning Herald and Sally Jackson in The Australian today show how close journos have got to the Twitterverse, and how comfortable they feel in its noisy, chaotic surrounds.

Jackson's article, 'Journalists take to the Twitterverse', highlights the points of contact and solicits comment from media operators about corporate attitudes and policies. News group editorial director Campbell Reid says that the company is waiting to see if Twitter remains a fad, or whether it develops legs, before instituting a policy.

"It's our belief that journalists who work for us who have news to tell should do so through the vehicles they are employed to supply material for," he says. "We're very uncomfortable with staff tweeting in a professional sense under their own names, for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is legal protection and concern about what is published."

Basically, they're concerned about the company's reputation should its journalists start making a name for themselves in the Twitterverse. Others go even further.

Seven Media's Pacific Magazines has banned staff from logging on to any social media websites at their desks.

"However, access to specific sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, is provided to staff who require use as part of their typical duties," a spokesman says. "All staff also have non-restricted access to computers in the staff canteen."

Fairfax and the ABC are currently developing policies. I wager none of these organisations have official policies to deal with Facebook use in the office.

Iran, Mumbai and other international news events underscored for journalists how important Twitter can be as an unfettered (though unreliable, in some cases) medium. Twitter visits in Australia increased by 518 per cent between August 2007 and January this year. Research firm eMarketer gauges a number around 12 million globally for Twitter by the end of 2009.

This is nowhere near as explosive as Facebook, which added about 50 million users over a period of six months last year to this. Poor press seems not to have damaged take-up by the rival social networking site, while Twitter struggles to get a twentieth of a way to match Facebook's current usage.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Facebook continues to demonstrate the benefits of server-side application hosting with a plan to enable finer control of postings through a new drop-down on a newly-renamed 'Publisher'. Online journal Read Write Web says "the move could lead to some of the most exciting developments we've seen yet from the world of social media" and goes on to raise the alarm over possible public postings of thought-to-be private messages.

Read Write Web's test run of the new interface was inconclusive. In reaction to the article, Facebook contacted the journal to clarify some points, including in its missive the advice that

Your Publisher Privacy will stay at whatever you have set as the default. In addition, the first time you try to share something with the privacy control set to "Everyone," you'll be asked to confirm that this is what you want to do. If it's not what you want to do, you'll be able to change your setting before publishing.

The first time you change the setting on the Publisher control, you'll be asked if you want to make the new setting your default, and you'll be given a chance to do this in-line. You can also change your default at any time by going to the Privacy Settings Page and clicking on Profile. From there, scroll down to "Publisher Control Default" and choose what you would like as your default privacy setting.

If this is the case, there seems to be less reason for alarm than the journal allocates to this new development. Nevertheless, it is clearly an attempt to outfox Twitter, which has been making inroads on Facebook's demographic by positioning itself as a public publisher.

Selecting the name 'publisher' for the 'What's on your mind?' field is canny and alerts us to the real fact that we are now all content creators.

But changes have been happening continuously. It was only a few days ago that Facebook added a set of 'Attach' icons to the publisher to allow you to post different things, such as photos, videos, and links. Previously, these icons appeared when the publisher fields was clicking on.

Read Write Web apologised in an update for raising the alarm but added that it felt more communication is warranted in the present case, as it was in the case of vanity URLs, which was rolled out a couple of weeks ago. The journal's overreaction is probably simply a case of a public vehicle wanting to be seen to go in hard against a powerful entity in the online sphere, for fear of being labelled out of touch. It's hard to blame them, considering the uproar that Facebook's News Feed created when it was introduced in 2006.

Not all comments were uniform in sentiment. Commenter JeanAnn says that she is "happy about Facebook opening up some" as she uses the site in her professional capacity. Angela Hursh asks how the change will affect those, like her, who post using mobile devices.

Presumably Facebook will introduce some sort of new interface element to cater for such cases. However it will be interesting to see if the outcry against this move will be as significant as it has been in the wake of past changes.

Certainly "it's hard to imagine there isn't going to be a backlash" as Read Write Web's Marshall Kirkpatrick writes. But how big? And isn't it time for Facebook to release updated membership figures so we can gauge how Twitter has impacted on its viability.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

The queue of expectant travellers stretched down the entire length of the departure area, almost to the central court where the coffee stand sits. "Anyone going to Sydney?" asked an attendant dressed in fluorescent yellow. We made our way through the line of Melbourne-bound travellers and approached the desk, ticket receipt ready.

Then we had a coffee.

After a few minutes we parted and I left the air terminal into the darkness and rain. Outside, buses had started arriving. They formed a queue against the kerb. A few passengers from the cancelled flight JQ799 were getting on the buses. I assumed that the earlier queue had been for those passengers to collect sleepover vouchers from the airline - Jetstar - in preparation for staying overnight at a local hotel.

I wondered if there were enough vacant rooms locally to accomodate the whole queue of passengers.

The next morning I told mum about the waiting passengers. "Good story," she said. The story did not make the paper, however.

What kind of news can you make in a small town? It's an interesting question, and one I'll be forced to answer in coming months as I set up shop on the Sunshine Coast. If a cancelled flight is no cause for a story, why is a bird on a rock?

A motorist passing through Mooloolabah stops the car and parks, alights, and rushes back with a camera ready to snap shots of an osprey perched on a rock by the water's edge. They're great pictures, but I think a cancelled flight is more interesting. There are many issues. What kind of aircraft was it? Where was the last major service done? The weather - rainy for three days - is also a point of discussion of interest to local readers.

I see a story in The Sunshine Coast Daily - the local paper - about a flooded intersection, with a photo showing a car negotiating the flowing waters. Surely a cancelled flight would be news in a place where a flooded intersection is cause for a 200-word story?

Friday 19 June 2009

All online activities stopped after I arrived in Queensland apart from a regular email check. I got the call while staying at a hotel in Glen Innes. It was from the Nambour General Hospital and I was told that mum had fallen over.

I'm not sure how long I'll stay here but I've made a commitment to relocate north, from Sydney. It's 1000 kilometres and a culture shift away, but I'm determined to proceed with the career change. I want to be a journalist.

The Sunshine Coast is a collection of linked towns situated about 90 minutes north of Brisbane. Until recently, the spot was determinedly rural, but tall towers full of gleaming apartments now dominate the skyline of Maroochydore, where I will live, and are encroaching in other areas. But the area continues to have a small-town feel, despite the influx of temporary visitors from the south.

You are encouraged to say 'hello' when saluted in the street. Shopowners chat easily and will become your friends without long preliminaries. There's a bustling shopping centre anchored by a Myer store and lined on all sides with small outlets selling tourists bric-a-brac and mementoes, tasteful of course. There is an Office Works and a Dick Smiths, strip malls with furniture shops, a courthouse and a capacious McDonalds. The RSL is large and well patronised.

It's close to a river. In fact, the apartment I'm currently living in is on the river and the sun sparkles from the direction of the windows in the early afternoon. It streams in the windows and makes you sleepy. I walk to the newsagents in the morning and buy four papers.

The local paper is a daily tabloid. Brisbane, close by, is represented by News Ltd's The Courier-Mail. I also buy The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. Interstate papers are not hard to find. You can even buy The Age. Southerners love the area.

For the moment, I'm busy looking after mum post-fall. It's the second fall she's had in two weeks, and it happened only a couple of weeks after she finally bit the bullet and put dad in permanent care. His new home was featured in the local paper yesterday morning. But mum's frail and almost 80 years old and needs some looking after. That's my job.

We can expect to see more frequent posts in future. I expect to move my possessions north in late July.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Opinion website The Punch has justified its existence by attracting a comment from Casey Whale, a journalist and resident of Shanghai. "As an Aussie journo living and working in Shanghai I’m used to censorship, but this is ridiculous," Whale says. Whale then points visitors, via a link, to website The Shanghaiist where footage is available to view that shows Chinese police blocking videoing by journalists at Tiananmen Square.

It is truly bizzarre. As the journalists circle around, the police interpose umbrellas between the camera and the journalist, who is trying to put together a few words on-screen in memory of the day. One policeman wears trousers made with cloth that has a pattern that matches the umbrella he is carrying. Bizarre is not the word!

A related video on the website shows that Chinese authorities have blocked several popular online services, including Twitter. This type of influence on the media is rare, the commentator says. The last time it was this bad was during the Tibet crisis of 2008, she says.

The Punch ran several stories on Tiananmen today, 4 June (the 20th anniversary of government suppression of pro-democracy rallies at the famous Beijing tourist locale). The one Whale commented on dealt with ex-prime minister Bob Hawke's silence in the run-up to the day of remembrance, despite repeated requests for an interview.

Robert JL Hawke and Associates has an office in Shanghai and Hawke apparently visits “five or six times a year”. In March Hawke noted improvements in China's methods of dealing with difficult issues.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Google's 'fair use' defense in aggregating news feeds from copyright holders such as News Ltd sites is manifestly inadequate as a defense against action from editorial owners.

Macquarie Equities media analyst Alex Pollak said Google's decision to sell ads on its Google News site in March triggered a new wave of anger from publishers, who are also aware Google paid $US125 million to settle a copyright dispute with book authors.

Journalist Jane Schulze also writes that
Google argues it does not breach copyright rules as it relies on the "fair use" principle where a small amount of original content can be reproduced without payment so long as there is attribution.

However even a cursory glance at the Wikipedia page on 'fair use' shows that Google is stretching the meaning of the term 'fair use', which is "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research", according to the Copyright Act of 1976 (US).

"In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes."

Having placed ads on the news aggregator, Google is clearly in breach of this law.

But even in the absence of advertising, it may be argued that Google is extracting more value from its News site than any claim of 'fair use' can justify.

Aggregation creates value, but the burden of effort lies on the editorial side, in terms of value added. Without editorial, basically, Google News would not exist. There may be a legal argument to describe the type of thing I'm talking about, but my feeling is that Google's aggregating practice, while adding value itself, is not equal to countering the weight supplied by the other side.

Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley "wants a larger slice of the action" writes Schulze.