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Saturday, 10 October 2009 10:10

Exploring Google Wave - how could it transform journalism and publishing?

It seems Google Wave is going to force many content producers to reassess the role of collaboration in news gathering and the creative process. It will also force publishers to reassess how they make money from their content.

If there's one thing journalists love to analyse and dissect, it's the nature of journalism. The definition of journalism, the future of journalism, the death of journalism - if it's about journalism we'll happily talk/write/blog about it all day. Oh, and don't even start us on blogging and whether bloggers are journalists.

So naturally when Google Wave came along, journalists realised it posed yet another challenge to their profession - and another great excuse to talk/write/blog about the nature of journalism.

Mark Milian over at the LA Times wrote a great blog post recently How Google Wave could transform journalism. He dropped his blog post into Google Wave, to see what would happen, and some interesting conversations have sprung up around it. That's where I met Jacob Chapel - a freelancer web developer, aspiring game developer and "lover of all things tech" from Washington State. Jacob and I had an interesting conversation about the future of Google Wave which, which Jacob's blessing, I published as a blog post. I think it gives an interesting insight into the nature of Google Wave and where it's future might lie.

Jacob and I also struck up a conversation about Google Wave's potential to transform journalism. It was kicked off by Niels, a journalist from Denmark who had already left comments dispersed throughout our previous conversation (again, the limits of a static blog post means you didn't get to see them). Once again it's a long conversation, but I think it's a very relevant one for anyone who creates or publishes content.

[The conversation below has expanded considerably in Google Wave, with threads dispersed throughout from many contributors. This is difficult to reproduce and might also require the permission of each contributor. As such, I've just reproduced my original conversation with Jacob - spread across three hours.]


Well, how DO you guys feel google wave could transform journalism?

For one thing I think the "editable article" becomes one step closer to being a possibility. At least it becomes easier for editing (cooperating) journalists to edit an online article on the go, hit Done, and then it's uploaded to the web - or  to the printing room :-)

9:31 pm
It sounds like the citizen journalism concept - which trained journalists don't like because it implies anyone can do their job (and the journo's years of experience and training count for nothing). You never hear of a citizen doctor, lawyer or pilot.

That aside, I think it's more practical to let people annotate a news story than actually edit it. What's to stop people adding the bias and inaccuracies that journalists strive to avoid? What's to stop people throwing in defamatory comments and straight out lies?

A Wave would make an interesting researching and drafting/workshop tool - I'd happily open up a wave as part of writing a story, assuming it wasn't a scoop that I didn't want someone else to steal (I'm a freelancer, and I'm also not sure how an editor would feel about a story being published on Wave before it runs in the magazine). I might use Wave during the writing stage, but then I think the final version deserves to retain its integrity. You don't see people demanding to change the words on a U2 album, or re-write the ending of a John Grisham book, and then push this change onto everyone. I think a well-crafted news story or feature article deserves the same respect. That's why I doubt Wave will take off as a publishing medium until editing restrictions are introduced.

9:34 pm
Jacob Chapel:
You mean choosy editing?

I agree that for a professional piece of writing, there are certain things that a writer needs to feel that their work is being respected, at least when it comes to including others into the process. I think one way to benefit the writer/journalist but not remove any power over his craft would be a sort of submission style editing. Where as someone could 'edit' a story but the change would not be in public view. It would be sent or shown to the owner of the piece and they could choose to publish it or not.

9:36 pm
Exactly - choosy editing - great line that. Submission style editing sounds perfect, but only some journos would be prepared to expose their work in Wave before it runs. For example, sports writers and political writers would avoid it because they're in cut-throat fields. My focus is digital entertainment - I'd happily accept submission style editing on a large feature about the introduction of digital television.


9:47 pm
Jacob Chapel:
I think that another aspect of this we are overlooking is that a core group you decide upon, either from one server or many could be included to collaboratively write whatever was at hand. Although a wiki has a lot of the same functions, some more in fact, you cannot discredit the speed at which ideas and communication happens in Wave. With even a few active participants, you could easily share your ideas even faster than talking on the phone, or being in person. They all have a certain barrier to work, usually related to the time it takes to make each others ideas gel. With Wave you can all work at the same time, sharing ideas actively almost like rapid prototyping in the programming world.

10:29 pm
It's also overlooking another key issue. Journalism is not just about reporting, it's about writing. Good writing is a craft that takes time and experience to learn. It's not just about the ability to string a few words together, or to be concise, it's about creating text that's interesting and that flows smoothly. You can write the most amazing story about the most interesting topic, but there's little point if everyone tunes out after the second paragraph and turns the page. This is even more important with a feature article that doesn't follow the standard inverted pyramid news formula; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_pyramid

Even with a standard news story, the hardest bit is often crafting a great intro that covers the most important issue/s and is interesting enough to keep people reading. This is even harder with a feature because there's no obvious intro, you have to think of an interesting angle to ease people into the story.

Case in point, I'm probably going to write a few features about "What is google wave" aimed at a consumer tech audience. I've already done a few radio interviews on the topic and written a few blog posts. Can you imagine what would happen if I sent a message out to everyone on Google Wave saying - "I'm writing a feature story on "what is Google Wave", help me". It would be a nightmare. What you'd end up with, assuming people actually cooperated, would be a Wikipedia entry. Factually accurate and informative, but boring and overly complicated.

The trick to writing about a complicated topic is to knowing how to explain complicated concepts in a way that non-technical people can grasp and find interesting. A big part of that is knowing what to leave out - which would seem counterproductive to many people. It's why academics and techies often don't make good writers, they get too bogged down in the detail and forget they're telling a story. Fine if you're writing an academic paper or a computer program, not good if you're writing a magazine feature.

Good writing is all about painting a picture with words. No amount of crowdsourcing is going to make that work. Imagine if van Gogh had 100,000 people telling him where to place each brush stroke - it just wouldn't work, like most things designed by a committee. I'd be happy to use a Wave to research, plan and fact check a feature article - but when it comes to the actual writing and polishing, that's where my craft comes in. Once it's done, I don't need experts in the field picking apart every sentence because they don't like the wording, or they feel small details have been left out. They can do that in the comments or annotation system, but my crafted words should stay intact.

Everything I've just written is straight from first year journalism, but I don't think most people appreciate it. The deceptive thing about well-crafted writing is that it looks easy. That's why journalists don't like the term Citizen Journalism - it implies there's no craft involved in what we do. Walk up to any trained professional, tell them you reckon any guy you plucked off the street could do their job (or a thousand monkeys), and see how they react.

11:05 pm
Jacob Chapel:
I think being able to see that anyone can potentially do your job is liberating, knowing that you aren't special in the grand scope of things. That doesn't mean what you create isn't special, or that you aren't good at what you do. What it helps you do is focus on continually making your craft better. The moment you feel special, or that you are the only one that can do something, is the moment you let your guard down figuratively and allow your skills to wane. It doesn't matter how many years, how many words you have written, it always comes down to always honing your craft because it will get dull and sometimes that blade will jump right back at you when you try to cut something.

I agree for the most part a group writing effort for most public facing journalistic pieces are better left to one person's focus and vision, that doesn't mean we couldn't shift to a new type of writing that is still meant for general public consumption but is more collaborative. A lot of online news sites have shifted from single writer pieces to multi-writer pieces. Now the specifics on who has done what really is in the wash, the fact is we are in a time where what we knew and what we will know are changing. We are in an unprecedented era, if you will, where the technology and innovation are far outpacing our ideas to encapsulate them and utilize them fully. I say instead of fighting it, embrace it for what it is, who knows what is right on our doorsteps.

11:17 pm
Journalists can be too precious about their "craft", my previous rant is a good example of that. I'm more of a feature/colour/opinion writer than a hard news man. There are different skills involved, even though the share a subset of core journalistic skills. When it comes to "news" I think journalists have to face the fact that it's become a bit of a commodity. They also have to face the fact that they might not be the authoritative source on the subject and others might know better or at least be able to contribute in a meaningful way. I still think the process needs to reach the point where the text is locked from general editing and left in the hands of a journalist/writer (or a team) to craft something that reads well - otherwise you'll lose people after the second paragraph and it will have all been for nothing.

People talk about journalism being a conversation with readers and I don't have a problem with that, but it doesn't mean I have to be comfortable with the idea of people changing the words that are coming out of my mouth.

11:22 pm
Jacob Chapel:
That is the beauty of choosy editing, or however you want to put it. When (I hope it isn't an if) Google implements the features for access control and moderation of your own individual blips and hopefully a whole wave, that will be the time where Wave really shines. You will feel more liberated as far as being willing to put your ideas out there knowing that you have more control over how they are changed, because we all don't want to have our words twisted into something we never intended. Though anything can be taken and used elsewhere with little protection in any medium, it is just a little too easy in Wave at the moment.

It will be interesting to see if journalism, at least technology based journalism, adapts to this new medium, and gives users a new way to communicate with the journalists and the community. On that note, anyone can tell a joke, but only a fool makes a joke of himself. (wow thats bad)


11:25 pm
I have no doubt that technology journalists will be the first to embrace Wave. They find ways to make it work as a means of communication. Making it work as a business model is a whole different question. As a journalist what they kind of Google Wave's potential and then ask their publisher. I'm sure you'll get very different answers. MSM publishers have already been bitten by the web (they refer to the fact newspapers started giving away content for free as "the original sin"). They're going to be far more careful this time.

11:31 pm
Jacob Chapel:
I am one of those people that feel most if not all information should be free. If it can be spoken, heard, seen, read, or otherwise consumed by a passive sense or perception, then there is no reason it should be charged for in most cases. The only real exemptions come from performances, since those are more an art of their own. When it comes to digital copies of information, we are paying literally for nothing. There are people that fight that idea vehemently, and I understand where they are coming from, but we are coming to a point where striking it rich isn't as important as spreading knowledge.

There are a lot of holes in my side, but the same could be said for any argument. It is all a matter of point of view, and opinion cannot be argued.

11:37 pm
I agree that information should be free, but not content. There's a big difference. Information is like a single bit of information. "Obama elected president" - that's a bit of information and it should be free. But when someone writes a 1000 word analysis piece on what Obama's presidency means for the United States, that's content. Someone spent hours writing that, someone who has to pay for food and shelter at the end of the day. When you say "When it comes to digital copies, we are literally paying for nothing" you're kind of saying that what I do is nothing. Content can't exist unless there is some kind of business model that puts food on the table of the person who creates it.

11:44 pm
Jacob Chapel:
I think the phrasing is more correct said, "Content can't exist unless there is someone sharing it, most people do not share content unless there is a business model that puts food on the table for them."

I say most people because there are plenty of people creating content for free. Right now I am creating content for free, who says that this sentence is not worth a million dollars? Well the fact that I am writing it and it is on a public (very open) forum such as Google Wave is me giving it away. You write for a living, but do you charge for your content? Do the companies that you freelance for charge for the content? Really they use the content as a way to lure people into viewing and interacting with their advertisements. I am not condemning the industry as it stands, but once you create content and put it online, regardless if you intend it to be free or not, it is basically worth nothing. Anyone can see it, interact with it, manipulate it, and so on, regardless of your wishes or the company you work for. They can push for legal protections, but again, it seems the internets breadth and spread can trump even the law at times.

So I do agree that paying people for their work involved with content is important, the scope at which you get paid and how much is what is changing. The time when you could get paid thousands of dollars for a well written cover story is fading fast. I do not pretend to know what the future holds for content, I do know that a change is on the horizon and a part of it will include me being able to consume your content at no cost to myself.

11:55 pm
Most people creating content for free have day jobs to pay the bills, but creating content is my day job. The companies that pay me thousands of dollars for a well-written cover story mostly charge for their content in some way, but the bulk of the money comes from advertising. I'm lucky in that I write for a few of Australia's largest media companies, so they have money to spend and should be around for a while ;-) I don't necessarily expect you as the end consumer to be the one providing the money that pays for my dinner, I expect the publisher to provide that money. In turn, the publisher needs an environment in which they can make money using my content (preferably more money than they paid me for it). Publishers are now looking at new business models, which is a good thing, but someone, somewhere has to pay. The tricky thing about Google Wave will be creating an environment in which publishers can use my content to make money. When it's locked away in Google Wave they lose control over the page and the advertising. Perhaps they could place ads within the story. I mean between the paragraphs, but unfortunately for some publishers this means writing the ad into the story (that's another argument). Of course ads between the paragraphs won't work if people can delete them. If Google creates an environment where publishers can monitise content within Google Wave - rather than just handing eyeballs over to Google - then it could be a powerful publishing platform. Once they do that the publisher has money to pay me for more content and I'm happy. I don't care if my articles are "free", as Iong as someone pays me to produce them. Of course generally I get a flat rate, not royalties. If I was getting paid royalties then I might care more about who copies what.  

12:24 pm
Jacob Chapel:
I guess what comes from this discussion from my side is that maybe content should move from a main craft into a side craft. That is what happens when you take something like an art and spread it so thinly that it is just used as an attractive jelly for a piece of bread where the advertising is the bag the bread came in. More and more people are creating content as a hobby, if you will, doing it more for the passion and less for the money. I am not discrediting your job or the effort you put into it, but the value is definitely lost this day and age. Maybe that is the key, that instead of content being the star attraction that people focus on, the industry should die and from the ashes a new fertile industry takes its place where content creators are doing it for the love of the work and not the fame or fortune.

I guess my point, the one I am trying to get at, is that the money for content business is failing and only people that have other means of income will be able to keep creating content. Is that such a bad thing? Well for you it may be, sorry. :)

FURTHER READING: Exploring Google Wave - will it be collaborative but choosy?


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