Internet Native News Networks: Imagining a Future of Journalism | MIT Center for Civic Media
Stephen is a junior at MIT majoring in Comparative Media Studies and Computer Science. He joins the Center for Civic Media through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, assisting with graphic and user interface design for the Vojo blogging platform. Previously, he did research with the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and helped run 21CB, a weblog on Asian politics and pop culture.
Stephen was first drawn into the field of internet studies through his interest in remix and copyright. Since coming to MIT, his research interests have broadened; today, his work examines how the new media ecology is facilitating new forms of participatory content creation, dissemination, and mutation. He hopes to further explore this topic by working with data and developing tools and visualizations that make sense of the creative cacophony that is the internet.
Internet Native News Networks: Imagining a Future of Journalism
If we were to start CNN today, it might look more like one of the networks featured in this panel. We take a whirlwind tour of new news networks and new models for reporting and sharing information in our connected age.
- Christina Xu, Awesome Foundation, moderator
- Ivan Sigal, Global Voices
- Charlie Sennott, GlobalPost
- David Wertime, Tea Leaf Nation
- Hong Qu, Upworthy
In about six weeks, Cambridge will host the Awesome Summit, a gathering to rethink philanthropy. Prior to the Awesome Foundation, Christina was the Center’s resident internet native. The central question today is: what is the core of news? What does that look like today, and what will that look like in the future?
Ivan kicks off the discussion by showing us a screenshot of GlobalVoices.org—the site that refuses to give up its domain name to the real Global Voices project. The correct site is GlobalVoicesOnline.org. Global Voices is an online community of online writers originally started at the Berkman Center. The original idea was to systematically analyze, aggregate, and explain global news to create coherent information and knowledge, in order to drive a different set of voices and perspectives into the global media conversation.
Ivan describes it as “a one-half network and one-half organization”, inverting the traditional news editorial structure by giving individual writers autonomy and agency. Global Voices started at the end of 2004 and has since evolved into an active community of volunteers. There’s about 75,000 posts on the site now, and Ivan emphasizes the importance of consistent tagging, metadata, and archiving.
Charlie’s up next—he originally worked at the Boston Globe, doing a lot of coverage in post-9/11 conflict zones. By 2006-2007, those news organizations were facing economic realities that made it difficult to sustain such international coverage. As a result, many American newspapers cut their foreign coverage. Around that time Charlie began to rethink international coverage online, opting for what he calls a “stealth model”, wanting to make use of underutilized foreign correspondents and freelancers. He built Global Post around this community of writers: "We set out to try to recreate an international news organization for the digital age."
Global Post has been recognized with a number of awards this year. They’re looking at AIDS this summer in lead-up to the international AIDS Conference. Looking at Egypt, Global Post has built a team of 16 young correspondents (8 Egyptian, 8 American) to cover the presidential election and related democratic challenges. It was this group that originally broke the “virginity test” story where the Egyptian military was testing women's virginity.
Global Post has three revenue streams - online ads, syndication and membership. According to Ivan, “It’s like crossing the river by feeling the stones.”
David speaks next. A recovering lawyer, he is the co-founder of TeaLeafNation.com, a website that aggregates and analyzes Chinese social media to help Western media make sense of it all. They have 20-25 writers from around the world. Nominally, the site is based in Washington DC but David’s colleagues are based out of Hong Kong. “We basically try and cherry-pick the best stories from the Chinese net,” he says.
David is a former Peace Corps volunteer in China; China’s social web is so huge and is “the closest thing China has for free speech and free debate.” The reason he thinks understanding Chinese people is so important is that these insights should answer America’s foreign policy decisions, providing a window into grassroots opinion in China.
Hong Qu of Upworthy is the last to speak. It’s a relatively new site, started in February by an all-star team including players from MoveOn.org, Facebook and YouTube. The site’s mission is to help people share the news that matters. He shows us a Venn diagram—Upworthy aspires to be at the confluence of meaning, visuals, and awesomeness.
“Our formula for virality: the secret sauce for understanding what becomes a meme is that it has to be so enticing that the headline and the thumbnail is mysterious enough that you will want to click the story. The second half is the content itself. Does it have enough meaningfulness and awesomeness that you will want to click the share button?”
Hong takes us through a quick tour of the site’s layout. He asks the audience if they have seen Upworthy content in their Facebook feeds. A few hands go up. Hong hopes that the site will continue to grow as the place to go to find and share interesting, viral content that matters. Upworthy’s goal is to make the people who share their content look awesome and caring by extension.
Christina kicks off the discussion by saying we should stop talking about “the future” and instead discuss “a future”. What is a future of news as envisioned by these internet native news networks?
Ivan talks about the site being entirely digital. The way readers find Global Voices is always through the network—the site has never pursued alternative growth models.
Charlie contrasts Global Post with traditional newspapers. “It’s not enough to just do the content that matters, or that is awesome. It has to be thought-through, and a new way. We’re constantly trying to pivot, and constantly trying to rethink it.”
David emphasizes the importance of grassroots sentiment. “What we’re trying to do, in some way, is redefine the quote.” Journalism used to be an extractive activity; with social media, people are projecting their sentiments out into the world. It’s actually easier to start a Weibo account from Washington, DC, than it is to start an account in China. By looking at Weibo and other social networks, Tea Leaf Nation is amplifying the voices of Chinese netizens for Western audiences.
Hong describes three internet-native aspects of Upworthy:
- Responsive – from responsive design to cooperation with multiple platforms.
- Fast – trying to forecast the content and how it will be shared, and using data to determine content strategy.
- Focus – looking at how content is shared and emphasize those outlets, adjusting the product on a weekly basis.
Christina notes that all of the panelists have jettisoned something from journalism. She asks what the panelists do not miss about the old model of journalism.
Ivan does not miss the conceit that journalists have some special authority in the broader community and conversation. The people participating on Global Voices have a degree of equality unseen in traditional media. “The earlier process about thinking specifically about a particular audience is less interesting than thinking about how information might move through networks.”
Christina asks "In your case you also have curators - is the journalist now a curator?"
Ivan notes that the term “curator” has a weird meaning in the online space; he thinks of curation as a process of pointing, and is hesitant to throw around the word too casually.
Christina notes that the other panelists have sites that enage in editing process. How do they engage with editing and curation?
Hong thinks of curation as a collective process—everyone curates at different stages of the news creation process. He wants to understand why and how people share and curate—he’s currently studying motivations, incentives, and feedback loops. Upworthy is translating the results of that research into design aspects. Curation happens at every level, and Hong wants to make it as easy as possible.
David believes the editorial process at Tea Leaf Nation is still relatively ad-hoc. “We’re still in a space that—because China is still siloed, culturally, linguistically and technologically, and there’s a lot of inefficiency in Western coverage—we’re in a unique place.” David brings up the concept of language arbitrage, or cultural arbitrage. He doesn’t miss journalists’ monopolies on what will be a big story and feels that one may miss a lot of trending stories this way. He prefers to look at the top searched terms on Baidu, or the trending topics on Weibo—they can only be avoided for so long.
Christina asks how the Global Post deals with its bureaus and employees. Does it give them assignments in a traditional way?
Charlie says the whole idea of Global Post is that the correspondents live in the countries about which they write. “One of the arrogances of the old newspaper world is that we could be parachuted into these places.” He doesn’t miss that arrogance. He also doesn’t miss the ubiquity of the word “no” he experienced in newsrooms. He wants more journalists to stand up against the culture of “no” and decline—he is excited about the online news space because of its brimming creativity and excitement that it’s a time of great tumult and change. He also loves the internet’s spirit of partnership (as opposed to the rivalrous, competitive nature of newspapers).
Christina asks whether Charlie thinks the spirit of news-making changed because of economic realities (there's not that much to fight over)? Or does he think it changed because of the web?
Charlie thinks it’s changed because of the nature of the web and the nature of audiences online. With the internet, news outlets can get away from zip codes and localized news and diversify. He points to diaspora and immigrant communities as an example of how the traditional model of news reach has completely changed.
Christina asks whether "global hyperconnectedness" is part of the Internet native experience.
David says journalism can be exhausting. He recalls talking to a colleague about what it means to break news now. If news breaks on Twitter, it’s only “breaking” for around 10 minutes—it’s an almost instantaneous process. "It's easy to break news when you are sitting back on a bunch of aggregators," he says.
Ivan says that some news outlets still want to be first. He believes that automation and aggregators can take care of this part while people can take a backseat and work at a more human pace. He feels there's an important distinction between breaking news that relies on algorithms and the news that has courage and foresight to put itself in place where news will unfold.
Christina asks—when journalism has such porous borders—what do you consider your organizational structure? How do you account for a wider group of people that are participating in a different way than traditional journalists?
David brings up an interesting case study from a month or two ago. He noticed increased internet activity about a village called Panhe under government control, and was the first Western news outlet to report about it. Reporters who went to Panhe were turned away. Still, David believes there will always be a place for “boots on the ground reporting”, and nothing can replace it. In the case of Chinese netizens, David believes that when they’re posting online, they want to be heard.
Ivan says there’s an important distinction between the commercial and civic functions of journalism. As a civic tool, journalism encourages us to participate in the greater public sphere. One of the things that internet native news networks is aggregating stories and breaking them apart, or putting stories side by side and comparing. There is still a place for long form journalism online, with deep thought and reflection. The complexity is very interesting, as opposed to the “no” that Charlie brings up.
Christina notes that in some ways people refer these models as the future of journalism but they also hearken back to the past when news organizations were not so concentrated.
Hong says that there may have only been one information pipeline in the past, but today there are so many different channels and outlets, resulting in information overload. “What we have to do in the new age is understand distribution. If we don’t do a good job of packaging and distributing content, too few people will look at it.” He believes that, in order to keep online news user-centered, they need to distribute content properly. He defines news as anything new to the user, and wants to make it as easy as possible for users to access new ideas.
Charlie talks about the branding of online news outlets—distribution has to come under a brand known to be reliable and fair. He believes that curation will be a key aspect of Web 3.0, and wants to create a culture that harkens back to the great news organizations of the past. Charlie aspires for Global Post to provide a signal of quality that can pierce through the noise and static of the internet.
Christina asks, "Due to the rise of RSS feeds and ways of distributing content for different devices, are destination news sites are dead? Can you successfully get your brand across embedded in the content rather than in the site itself?"
Charlie asks himself what he would do differently. He says that his content strategy would begin with mobile, and the website would be an afterthought. The way most sites are today, they have it the other way around. He says his team would answer that question unanimously.
Hong supports this sentiment, based on use data Upworthy has collected. The company is now shifting its priorities to mobile users, since it’s the biggest driver of traffic to the site.
Christina asks, "What's Global Voices’ mobile structure?"
Ivan echoes this finding about mobile use, but notes that many users from around the world are not yet in a fast mobile environment.
Christina asks a question related to local news. Global Voices and Global Post take the world as their area of coverage. David works with all of China. Global Post is somewhat more US-centric. These organizations are redefining publics of the news networks. They are no longer limited by physical distribution; Anyone can logon. What happens to local news in this context?
Upworthy does publish national content, but Hong notes that some of the most viral content is locally-based. (E.g., what minimum wage buys locally.) He defines local content as anything that goes through the social graph, but resonates with their daily lives—maybe not geographically local, but tied together by common aspects.
Charlie says the challenge is about getting international news to a local community. Global Post may be US-centric, but it is frequently visited by many immigrants wanting to know what is going on back home. He wants to tap into more of these diasporic communities, build on that patchwork, and find more ways to connect them to local news.
Ivan talks about looking at different localities and seeing how they are same and how they are difference. He believes that the tremendous mobility of the world has changed what it means for content to be local. Increasingly, we are not rooted in physical spaces. Does the older conception of locality, rooted in agriculture, still make sense? For some people, certainly, but there are so many people for whom that’s not the case.
Charlie brings up cricket scores in Pakistan and the Arab Spring—these are local news in Brooklyn or Detroit. Charlie recalls the struggle of working up from local newspapers. He says local stories are hugely important, and doesn’t want to diminish community issues.
Now Christina opens the floor for questions. Jonathan Stray poses the first question: what’s the difference between the panelists’ websites and online wire services? What’s the difference in the model?
Charlie believes Global Post focuses on a form of storytelling that the wires are not attentive to. A great AP writer will be trying to report on how the needle moves in that country. The Global Post looks for great stories that break a complicated country open for readers. Also, even though AP still exists, we need more eyes than the AP. While there is still a place for those traditional media outlets, Global Post wants to look at issues differently, to be that other set of eyes.
Another audience member asks about audiences and users: How do you think about that, who are you trying to reach, and how successful are you?
Hong says Upworthy’s primary strategy is to try and understand users. He takes inspiration from Reddit, which allows any micro-community to develop a sophisticated understanding of an issue. Sometimes the issues that bubble up become real news. At Upworthy, we want to enable our participants to transmit the stories, have conversations, and activate the noise to bring substantive issues into the national conversation.
David says Tea Leaf Nation wants to transform news about China from what is seen as niche content to mainstream news. His site reaches out to people who are already predisposed to that content—academics, researchers, expatriates—but he hopes to broaden that audience in the future.
The Global Post relies on the belief that people are interested in the rest of the world. Charlie hopes that people will come to the site in search of an accidental collision with information about another place. Two-thirds of their audience is American, and the remaining third is global. But the big advertisers want publishers’ audience to be at least two-thirds North American. This constrains them, but it might also offer an opportunity to become self-sustaining and do good work.
Global Voices is somewhat empirical and does keep reader stats. But Ivan is particularly interested in audiences across different languages. They translate about 100 languages into English, and they translate that into 20 languages, with more in beta. The newsroom is now multilingual, and they're constantly adding new language teams. If their whole database is 70,000 articles in English, they just reached 10,000 articles in French. The Spanish team is translating all of the articles, and others are translating 50-60%. The audience gets very interesting when someone in Bangla is able to read something written in Venezuela. If you're reading a Malagasi site, you wouldn't normally have a chance to read something written in Portuguese. And now you do.
Christina asks about funding and ads.
The Global Post is an ad-supported site, but in recent years has taken foundation support. Charlie thinks about how to expand that support while keeping alive that sentiment of wanting to be self-sustaining, and be a commercial venture. There a bunch of ambitious projects that he wants to work on—the AIDS project, reporting on the Arab Spring—that the ad-supported model simply can’t sustain, that requires grants and other foundation funding.
Ivan is entirely foundation funded—although he believes that only a minority of users would be opposed to ads on Global Voices, the site is, at its heart, a community site. Moreover, because the site’s users are from all around the world, it’s hard to find a single ad network that could cater to all of them.
David says that, in its first six months, Tea Leaf Nation has been funded entirely out-of-pocket. He wants to focus on building the site’s reputation first, before seeking out foundation funding.
As an internet startup Upworthy wants to spend money first and raise money later, says Hong, half-jokingly.
Luisa Ortiz points out issues of violence against citizen reporters in Mexico. She asks, what are you doing to ensure people's safety and get people's stories out?
The short answer from Global Post is that ensuring the safety of reporters costs money. That limits what they can do and focuses their efforts. They have also created a field guide for reporters. Charlie talks about Jim Foley, who was detained by Libyan forces, whose colleague was killed, and who spent 45 days in Libyan prisons while they were looking for him. Getting Foley home became part of a broader commons across journalism organisations to protect the safety of people in what has been a very dangerous year for reporters.
Ivan talks about Global Voices Advocacy, a project that focuses on cases of freedom of expression in global citizen media, supported in part by the EFF. There are many aspects of that work that they don’t talk about—some of it is public, and some of it is part of a more subtle process.