Monday, August 31, 2015

Future of news blog: 5 trends shaping the future of news

Kwami Ahiabenu, II 

In the last in the series of future of news blog, we explore “5 key trends shaping the future of news” In the future, news producers and journalists will have to evolve significantly in order to stay influential, relevant and respected by news consumers. Here are five trends that newsrooms must watch out for as they embark on this exciting journey into the future

Trend 1: Internet of things and net neutrality 

In days gone by, internet access was only possible on computers. The new trend is the internet of things; people, objects and even animals are provided with unique identifiers which enable them to transfer data over a network directly without the need for human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.   A pace maker,  a self-driving car, a T-shirt that can talk to your washing machine, or a farm animal with a tracker to enable its owner monitor its movement especially on a large farm are all slowly but steadily becoming the new normal. The key principle is the ability to transfer data over a network using Internet Protocol(IP) addresses assigned to the natural or man-made object which then makes them smart. Your fridge at home, with this capability can notify your supermarket that you have run out of tomatoes to enable them stock up for your next visit. For newsrooms, it means there can more devices to deliver news to over 100 billion devices which will be connected to private networks or the internet by 2020 ( ).  Also as “things” in the internet of things focus are rapidly changing from machine and system performance to people it will open doors for newsrooms to understand how human lives, societies and economies function in order to produce relevant content for them through analyzing data that is provided by the Internet of things. The power of the internet of things is ability to connect “things” via networks and crunch the rich data which is generated for varied decision making processes.

Another trend which newsrooms must be on the lookout for is net neutrality which describes the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites. The future of news is bound up with the future of the Internet. Therefore any new trend such as net neutrality has impact on journalism. For newsrooms,  if net neutrality is thrown out of the window it will mean internet service providers and telecom companies will decide on where users should go to consume news and what stories can get blocked or buried.

Trend 2: Mobile phones and social media

There are currently over 8 billion users of mobile phones in the world with Ghana having more mobile phones (31,028,253 as at February 2015-National Communication Authority) than its population of 25.9 million (2013). Also more and more users are now accessing internet on their phones and other mobile devices.  Social media is growing in leaps and bounds with more and more users consuming news from Facebook or Twitter.  Combining mobile phones and social media is going to become a very important channel for news production and distribution in the near future. Newsrooms must therefore invest heavily in understanding and making use of mobile technology and social media in order to stay relevant.

Trend 3: The algorithmic newsroom 

An algorithm can be defined as a procedure or formula for solving a problem. When it comes to the world of new digital technologies, it refers to a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. Every user online one way or the other has come across search engines, with google being the most popular. Complex algorithms are the heart of these search engines combing the web to solve the users need for answers to search questions using keywords. Typical newsrooms are manned by editors, these group of persons play a critical role in determining what constitute news, however, the shift is now on how news is produced and consumed rather than on what it is made up of.

Due to the advent of a myriad of digital technology tools, algorithms are now playing a key gate keeping role by providing input to newsroom on a moment-by-moment basis, generating top news leads, story ideas and trending topics. Some argue that in the future, the editors role will be played by algorithms- aided decision making systems on what constitute news.
Another school of thought suggests that algorithms know you better than you know yourself. In relation to news, this means having the news you care about, where you want it and when you want it. A good starting point is for newsrooms to understand that the reader is the best editor-in-chief and using algorithms they can learn more audience needs and deliver news which is important for these audiences.

In direction, the total freedom of choice is brought to the doorstep of news consumers. The newsroom aided by input from semantic engine powered by algorithms can generate and promote the right content to the right audience in a more precise manner. The caveat though is that, algorithms can only go so far. Human filters are still very important to ensure news consumers can have access to news they need to know. Also algorithms are not neutral, they are loaded with biases based on input from engineers who design such systems, so it is important to keep this in mind in relying on them.

Trend 4: Mobile money powered micro-payments 

The future of news driven by new digital technologies is very bright in Ghana, only if monetisation mechanism becomes more available to support development of “always on” news for the insatiable appetite of highly informed news consumers. The solution lies in the ability to take micro-payments; this is to say that instead of charging a couple of Cedis, newsrooms should aim for payment options in which they can charge pesewas for audiences consuming their content. The challenge is, people are not always willing nor able to pay for high quality journalism. Designing a decent micropayment system can make it easy for such users to pay for news content. Given the growth in mobile money platforms on the continent, such micropayment systems should be powered by mobile money.

Trend 5: What Skills Will Newsrooms of the Future Need?

A million Ghana cedi question? What skills are required by journalists or whatever name they will be called in the future?

Three key skills come to mind, being a very good journalists, will require the fundamental ability to tell compelling stories in more than words in order to cope with changes in the news ecosystem. Though one must discard long-form journalistic content generation style and produce content which will not only fit multiple devices but respond intimately to news consumer behavior in the connected age.

Also, beyond basic computer literacy, there is a need to invest in more advanced skills in new digital technologies including programming and systems development. An ability to develop news apps and products is indispensable for survival in the newsroom of the future.  Furthermore, a newsroom’s ability to undertake curation using both humans and automated systems can make a difference to survival in a rapid information overloaded society, where news consumers need newsrooms to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Multitasking, constantly interacting and engaging with audiences is a key prerequisite for survival in the new disruptive news ecosystem. Lastly, journalists must specialise, instead of being "Jacks of all trades”. The journalist who is highly skilled, specialised and highly trained in new digital technologies will not only be highly respected but very valuable for the newsroom of the future.

Future of news - The next chapter

In the future, are we going to have news services without journalists? Journalists and newsrooms are not going to vanish overnight however their characteristics will experience profound changes., Their unique ability to tell truth to power, identify facts, cross check them, verify and provide a balanced analysis will place the new journalist in a timeless position in the eyes of news consumers. More importantly we cannot have democracy without news and without journalists there will be no news as we know it.

In conclusion, news, newsrooms, journalism and the media ecosystem are changing in a very disruptive way, however, the trade of good old journalism is going to stand the test of time.
Watch out for an upcoming book on “future of news”. The conversation continues #futureofnews

Friday, August 28, 2015

Future of News: The View from Accra

I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.

Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.

Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.

First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.

We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.

Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.

The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.

Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.

So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.

Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.

I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.

A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in January of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.

What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?

To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.

Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.

To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

UNDP launches storytelling contest to amplify climate coverage on the run up to Paris summit

Geneva, 27 August 2015 – UNDP has launched today a global storytelling contest, Voices2Paris, to contribute to raising public awareness on the negative impacts of climate change as well as on the opportunities and solutions seen in actions by individuals and governments alike across vulnerable developing countries worldwide. 

“We want to provide young journalists in developing countries a unique opportunity to contribute to the global debate on climate change in the run-up to COP21, while building their capacity and providing recognition for excellence” noted Neil Buhne, UNDP Geneva Director.

UNDP targets journalists 35 years of age and under from developing countries who are already engaged in public writing and want to contribute ­– locally and internationally – towards greater public awareness on climate change.

The best stories will be published every day in the immediate run-up to COP21, carrying messages of struggle, opportunity and hope from the climate change frontlines worldwide. The authors of the top two prize-winning stories will be invited to attend and cover the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris this December.

Stories can be submitted by young journalists from developing countries in English, and in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish with an English translation, on a rolling basis until October 11th, 2015. Guidelines to participate are available on UNDP Geneva website.

A team of senior journalists reporting on climate change from top-tier international media outlets, regional media associations, and representatives from major international organizations, will review the entries and mentor the participants.

“The contest is an excellent initiative to promote investigative and innovative coverage from the young generation of journalists. It is also an opportunity for African journalists to reconfigure state-society relations and contribute to the development of the continent” added Sidi El Moctar Cheiguer, President of the African Network of Environmental Journalists.

Stories, once screened and scored will be published on UNDP’s website and disseminated through partners’ channels to ensure maximum outreach and support the call for an ambitious agenda to be endorsed during the COP21.

APO (The African Press Organization) and Oxfam Hong Kong are special partners of the contest.

We also thank the global network of climate vulnerable countries active in the Climate Vulnerable Forum currently chaired by Philippines for its support.

For more information, please contact:
Sarah Bel – UNDP Communication Specialist
+41 22 917 8544

Social media:
Hashtag #Voices2Paris
For frequent updates follow also Twitter @UNDPGeneva and @TheCVF

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UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crisis, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for everyone. On the ground in more than 170 countries and territories, we offer global perspective and local insight to help empower lives and build resilient nations.