Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Future of journalism: Uncertain but not hopeless

Posted by Kevin Anderson

As a journalist who I am sure has been (and possibly still is) considered ‘barking mad’ by some of my colleagues in the industry, quite a bit of what Clay Shirky wrote in his post about newspapers thinking the unthinkable resonated with me. I’m still digesting it because I think the main thrust of what he said was that the industry is entering a period of great uncertainty. I saw this day coming in August of 1993 when I saw Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. As I wrote in my first post here on Strange Attractor, I knew that the web would fundamentally change journalism.

It took longer than I thought it would. After I left university and went to Washington DC for my first jobs, it was like taking a step backwards into internet history compared to where the University of Illinois was in 1994. Did I know where it was all headed in 1994? Absolutely not. But I’d say it’s a lot easier to see where the internet is heading now than where we’re heading in journalism.

I’m still digesting what Clay has written, but it seemed to me that he was attempting to move beyond the self-denial that the industry has exhibited for much of the past 15 years.

It isn’t that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. The problem was that newspaper companies and, to be honest, most print journalists tried to adapt the internet to newspapers rather than adapt the news business to the internet. If most (not all by any means) print journalists were honest with ourselves, we would stop trying to lay the blame entirely at the feet of management and avaricious owners and own up to our own resistance to the internet. Too few of us went running boldly to the embrace the future. There’s still time, and it’s better to move towards the future on your own steam than be pushed as many of us are now.

Clay was trying to turn a page and say we’re in the midst of revolution and have been for a while not. Get over it.

The internet is a disruptive technology, not something that politely challenges that existing order. Now that the revolution has met the worst recession in at least 60 years, we’re entering extremely uncertain times.

As Clay wrote:

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.

But let’s not confuse uncertainty with hopelessness. Journalists are not in a hopeless situation. Any journalist can now become a publisher, and from my own experience, regaining your voice is liberating, empowering and also professionally beneficial. Not only is the cost of publishing approaching zero, the cost of experimentation is too. We don’t have to pay for presses. We don’t even have to pay for desk-top publishing. You can do broadcast-quality interviews with a person on the other side of the world for free with Skype. Technology can threaten our business model but it can be liberating for our journalism. We just have to do what we always done, great journalism, and build a great community around it. Honestly, since I started blogging and doing social media journalism five years ago, it’s been some of the most gratifying journalism of my career.

As Steve Yelvington wrote recently, “We don’t have a clue where this is going … and that’s OK.” Steve was writing about the launch of the Guardian’s Open Platform (the Guardian being my job). Steve would love to have the resources we have at the Guardian or those of the BBC or the New York Times to launch a platform, but he doesn’t need them. He’s building his sites on the open-source platform, Drupal, and it’s army of users and developers around the world are constantly working to extend it. You don’t need expensive technology to innovate.

We’re entering a post-industrial era in journalism. It’s scary. It’s uncertain for journalists, but just remember, it’s not hopeless.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

How to run a news organisation in a down economy

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The year has started out with more hand wringing about the predictable (and predicted), but very dire, economic situation of newspapers, particularly in the US. News organisations’ belief that quality will be their saviour is usually the result of projections of their own information consumption patterns and standards for quality on their audience, motivations that their audience may or may not share.

Newspapers are not maintaining the audiences necessary to support their current costs. Steve Yelvington just wrote this post about the bad news for newspapers and rays of hope, which is a comment that he left on Jeff Jarvis’ list of newspaper bad news from 2008:

At the core, it’s not an advertising problem. Local businesses still need to reach potential local customers, and they’re willing (although certainly not eager) to pay for results.

It’s primarily a failure to attract and retain a commercially relevant audience that’s breaking the newspaper business model.

I agree with Steve that multi-platform, multi-revenue stream businesses are necessary to survive, and many publications are in the process of the wrenching change required to achieve that.

But there is another, equally important, way to make the necessary change for news organisations looking to survive in this very challenging economic environment, and that is to disrupt their own costs (and I don’t mean cutting head count even further). While some blame digital technology and the internet for the death of newspapers, I would argue that embracing disruptive digital technology could lead to substantial cost savings.

Off the shelf, pro-sumer gear straddles the line between consumer and professional kit but costs substantially less. Open source software can extend the life of aging computers in the office, can run the servers and handle most CMS functions. Open-source content-management systems might not be ready for the largest sites, but most small- to medium-sized news sites could easily use Drupal or WordPress for their entire site. In the hands of a competent contractor with the occasional tweaking from a third-party vendor, the site will easily cope with moderate traffic.

I even think there is a possible radical model where there is a small office that handles core administrative and sales functions but the journalists are by and large dispersed, tele-commuting as much as possible. They would work as close to the story and their sources as possible and file remotely. They can use Skype or IM to communicate with their managers, and Twitter-like service Yammer to keep in touch with each other and help prevent a sense of isolation. Maybe I’m advocating this because as a journalist who worked in a foreign bureau and often out in the field for several years, this type of working seems natural to me.

A lot of successful digital content businesses already work on this model, and I think that we’ll see more competition in this space from within the industry. In this downturn, digital outcasts made redundant by traditional news organisations will start their own boot-strapped news organisations, potentially pushing many of their former employers to the wall, unless the incumbents radically, not incrementally, remake themselves. It is only a matter of time. The digital disrupters will run very lean, digitally-focused businesses with multiple revenue streams, as Steve suggests.

For a model of the thinking that will drive this type of business, look to this post by Eric Ries HOW TO: Raise Money in a Down Economy on Mashable. He serves as a venture advisor for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and talks about trying to raise money for a venture in 2004, when scepticism remained after the dot.com crash. His advice is:

The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of raising money in a down economy is to build a great company. A great startup is more than just a miniature version of a great large company. All of its process should be focused on innovating and learning. Today, it’s possible to use a combination of free and open source software, community-generated content, and agile software development to bring new products to market with extremely low cost.

Add professionally created and curated content and apply this model for an innovation-led business, and you’ll find a way out of this perfect storm affecting the newspaper industry. It’s eerily similar to the Newspaper Next project recommendations for good reason.

However, I ask those of you toiling in the industry right now. How close is this disruptive way of doing business to the environment at your news organisation?

  • Is your company focused on learning and innovation?
  • To what extent is your company using free and open-source software?
  • Is your company focused on delivering information while cutting costs?
  • Is your company looking for new ways to partner with and build new relationships with your audience?

Cutting costs doesn’t just have to happen through job cuts. Companies need empower their people to work smarter, spend money more wisely, and focus on doing more with less. There are many ways to achieve this, and I think we’ll see experimentation and innovation this year as the economic crisis deepens. Necessity will be the mother of re-invention.

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

“OK open systems beat great closed systems every time”

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The title of this post is a quote, via Steve Yelvington, from Prodigy’s Vice President of marketing around the time that the Web arrived and changed the online game. Usually I just reference links like this in Delicious, but Steve’s post Early to the game but late to learn how to play needs a little more attention.

In the current business climate for newspapers, Steve brings a wealth of experience and history that few folks in the industry have and, as he points out, it is not that newspaper didn’t try to adapt but that they tried to adapt the web to their existing business rather than adapting for the web. Newspapers tried to keep their closed systems as they moved online, locking their content in online services. The web might have arrived ‘pathetic and weak’ but it was ‘open and extensible’, says Steve, and it eventually buried online services like Prodigy, Compuserve and even AOL. He quotes Jack Schafer from a Slate piece titled “How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web:”

From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions.

I’ve long fought against the re-purposing reflex of shovelware, mindlessly slapping content from another medium onto the web. As we move to integrated newsrooms, we’re often still treating the web as just another distribution channel that simply has to be optimised for Google. Here is why it isn’t. To quote Steve:

Many of us who were there at the time knew that human interaction, not newspaper reading, would be the most powerful motivator of online usage. Certainly I knew it; I had run a dialup bulletin board for years as a hobby. But as hundreds of newspapers rushed to “go online,” few even bothered to ask basic questions about content strategy. It was, many declared as of they were saying something wise, “just another edition.”

But it’s not.

If human interaction is the ‘killer app’ of the internet, which I agree with Steve it is, how would this make a news site different? It is only in the so-called Web 2.0 era that we finally started adding social elements into our news web sites. And if human interaction is primary motivator of online usage, can we as journalists fail to interact and still hope to remain relevant? Open systems are not just about a choice of technology. The philosophy of open systems is also about how we use technology. Open is a philosophy that drives us to use technology to bolster human interaction. It is why Steve talks about the mission statement of his news site as being to increase the social capital in the communities Morris serves.

Jay Rosen has been doing a lot of thinking about closed versus open editorial systems, and he characterised this comment as one of his clearest comparisons yet of the two systems:

The strength of a closed system is that it has controls, in same sense that an accounting system puts controls in place. Stories are assigned, reported, edited and checked (copy edited) by a team using a protocol, or newsroom standard. These are the hallmarks of the closed system. The controls create the reliability, right?

Versus:

Open systems take advantage of cheap production tools and the magic distribution system of the Web. This leads to a flood of “cheap” production in the blogosphere, some of which is valuable and worth distributing in wider rings, much of which is not. Thus, a characteristic means of creating value online is what I called the intelligent filter to do that sorting and choosing.

If you look at successful open systems, they don’t try to prevent “bad,” unreliable or low quality stories from being created or published. They don’t try to prevent the scurrilous. But the Los Angeles Times would. Typically, successful sites within open systems “filter the best stuff to the front page.” And this is how they try to become reliable, despite the fact that anyone can sign up and post rants.

That way of creating trust (or reliability) is different than the way a closed system–like the health team at Time magazine–does it. Therefore the ethics will be different.

And he talks about hybrid systems, which is where I think some of the most interesting work is going on. We live in an AND world not an OR world, and I fear sometimes journalists’ tendency to paint the world in black and white infects our approach to our own way of working.

For me, I don’t use technology simply because I’m neophilic. I use it because it helps me do better journalism, in a way that is more useful to people in my network, or as Dan Gillmor says, the people formerly known as the audience. The internet as an open system means that my methods aren’t a fixed destination but an ever evolving, extensible process that adapts as the network changes, whether I conceive of the network in terms of the technology or the people I’m interacting with. Through all this my core journalistic values and ethics haven’t changed. That’s the constant.

I’m feeling a little philosophical at the start of the New Year. I am an online journalist. If the road trip I took for the US elections reminded me of anything, it reminded me of the power of networked journalism, which in terms of both the technology and the human connectedness increases almost constantly. Let’s just look at the expanding reach of mobile phones and data. In 1999, I got my first mobile modem and started to be freed from my desk. It ran at 9600 baud, slow even then. In 2009, I used a DSL-class mobile network card, and when I was on the move, I used a Nokia N82, which like the iPhone and Blackberry, allowed me to continue to use key internet services like Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. The network is not only mobile, it is on my mobile.

Open systems are a huge opportunity for journalists, not a threat to our professional livelihoods. We journalists don’t have to limit ourselves to closed systems, we have a vast range of open systems that can support and improve our work. I know that 2008 ended with a lot of anxiety for many journalists, much of it from a sense that our professional lives were out of our control. But by embracing the network, you can start taking back control of your professional destiny.

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Running a small to mid-size news site? Try this CMS

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Steve Yelvington is one of my heroes. Last summer, we swapped stories over beer in Kuala Lumpur with Peter Ong after talking citizen media at an IFRA Asia workshop. Steve told me how he wrote a newsreader for the Atari ST in 1985 and how he got the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newsroom on the internet in 1993.

Now, Steve should be everyone’s hero. He’s working on a next-generation news site management system, and he and the folks at Morris Digital Works have pledged to release the code under the open-source GPL licence. Steve describes the design ethos of the system:

When we’re done, this will be an innovation platform, not just a content publishing and community platform. …

Open tools and open platforms are great for developers, but what we really want to do is place this kind of power directly in the hands of content producers. They won’t have to know a programming language, or how databases work, or even HTML to create special presentations based on database queries. Need a new XML feed? Point and click.

It’s based on the open-source Drupal platform, and he talks what is possible with the system.

We’re integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the “low frequency” problem that most news sites face.

We’re going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We’ll link heavily to all the sources, including “competitors.”

Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest.

I couldn’t agree with Steve more when he says that internet start-ups have been smart in adopting open-source tools while newspapers have failed to embrace them. That thinking has to change. Steve is looking for collaborators on the project, and I think this is a golden opportunity for news sites to work together to build a platform for their future.