What exactly is DIY journalism?

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I spoke in a panel discussion called “Freelance: by choice or by necessity?“, together with some colleagues of different background and experience. There were a war correspondent, a tech journalist from Berlin and an investigative journalist based in Cairo.

We mainly talked about being a freelancer (you don’t *work* as a freelancer, you are one). Aside from discussing the appalling condition of the job market in Italy, we spent some thoughts on what makes a good, marketable freelancer in Italy and abroad.

I often mention the idea of ‘Do It Yourself journalism’, generally known as the ability to manage the whole process of news production from pitching a story to editing a video or taking pictures.

So I think it’s good to tell a bit more about what I mean by DIY in journalism, which is in fact something different from its conventional definition.

When I started my career and my new life as a multimedia reporter in the UK, I knew very little about multimedia, I wasn’t very organised and I handled multitasking quite badly. To say the least. Over time I improved my skills, I became more confident with my English and learnt how to produce a multimedia news package independently. I now have a few pieces of equipment as well, a reflex camera with a couple of lenses, a zoom recorder, tripod.

I have always liked to think I am a DIY journalist, but I’ve never really thought about what is exactly that identifies me as such.

So one obvious answer could be that if you have a very good equipment and know how to use it, you are probably in a good position to be a self sufficient producer. Does that mean that a DIY journalist is some sort of techy geek with a lot of money to spend upfront? Certainly not.

I believe that all the fuss around the multimedia, multitasking and multi skilled modern journalist can be boiled down to one simple idea. The DIY journalist needs to be a good storyteller. But since the dominion of the words in journalism has come to an end more than a few years ago, the storytelling we need to master is a non-linear one.

A beautiful feature still is and probably will remain an appealing way to tell stories, but as an example look at the feature How Malaria Defeats our Drugs by Ed Yong. It’s a great piece of writing, enriched by some non linear elements (photos, extras) that somehow break the flow and open new patterns for the users to build their own story.

A non-linear narrative is like a web, dotted with junctions generating multiple paths. It is not a path you have to follow from A to B and from B to C, but a story that you build yourself navigating the content. It’s much more similar to how human interaction works in real life than any other form of storytelling.

Ed Yong’s feature is just one example, but you will find traces of non linear narratives basically everywhere. Social media handles are pivotal points within non linear plots, but even the juxtaposition of images and text triggers a different experience from the sum of visual and written part.

A journalist who understands how to combine a variety of materials to create a narrative that opens up multiple user experiences doesn’t need expensive equipment. I daresay he(she) doesn’t even need outstanding writing skills. A good storytelling stands alone.

On the African media revolution

So, I decided to take a break.

I needed a holiday and since I gave up my big travel to Cape Town I opted for a short trip to Perugia, in Italy, to attend of my favourite events, the International Journalism Festival.
For those who have never heard of it, the event takes place in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and features a variety of very interesting panel discussions around journalism and the future of the industry. This year I was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of sessions addressing the issue of media and innovation in the Global South.

The talk I attended was called The Future of African Media, and hosted five experts and media entrepreneurs who use innovative strategies and simple technologies in Africa.

In my job, I read tons of stories on global development and I think that by now I have a decent grasp of the economic landscape of the continent, at least in its main features. For example, I know that Africa’s economy is growing fast and its population is exceptionally young. A very fertile environment for innovation, especially in technology.

But yesterday I learnt how this somehow theoretical idea is actually a solid reality and it can also teach something to the rich North.

For example, check Code for Africa, an innovative journalism project that would stand out even in the high tech environment of many Western countries. The idea is to stop using journalism, data and technology to educate citizens about stuff they are supposed to care about, and start listening to their needs instead.

So the Code for Africa collective produces “news tools” such as data visualisations, mobile apps and data sets manually scraped and uploaded onto the internet. These are not only beautiful and playful, but also truly useful. People aren’t supposed to be interested for the sake of it, but will use the information as a service to improve their everyday life.

There is a tool that helps people register for the elections and vote and another one to keep track of medicines’ prices. Journalists who want to take part are taught how to scrape and use data and how to code, so they eventually will be able to build their own tools to display and add value to their investigation.

I imagine that when it comes to Africa it may be easy to identify practical needs of people, as in many countries there are economic and political problems that make it difficult to deal with simple things. But the idea could work in the Global North as well, it’s really just a matter of identifying what services are lacking in a certain community. And this makes the initiatives naturally very marketable.

If you want to know more about Code for Africa and other similar initiatives, you can check my audio interview to Justin Arenstein, which will be published on SciDev.Net shortly

Small chat about Africa and optimism

ridkid

The other day I interviewed my colleague Jon Spaull about his recent trip to South Africa, where he visited the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The telescope is still under construction but once completed, in 2028, it will enable astronomers to “monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.”

You will learn more about the project in the next SciDev podcast, or you can watch Jon’s film here.

While talking about the young researchers working at SKA, I realised that the strongest impression I got from I daresay all of my African friends and in general the African people I met, regardless social background, gender or age, is of a strong optimism.

Born and raised in a country where people know that the best is behind and the future is something from which one should protect oneself instead of embrace it, optimism always strikes me.

I drew a secret map of what people said me, the reasons why they want and believe they can make an impact in the respective countries. They look with trust at their political leaders or at the scientific progress of their nations. Sometimes they just believe that change will come from civil society. Having worked for a little while with African partners and having eagerly listened to the stories of those who travelled and lived in the continent, I came to think there is an element of truth in this positive narrative.

Of course once you detach yourself from the success stories you hear and report on, and look at solid data on poverty, governance, transparency or energy access the situation looks very different, and it makes you feel a bit of a fool.

But I think that optimism is a mandatory first step in a drive for change. That’s what’s lacking in my homecountry. People want a change, but nobody really believes it’s going to happen, or it’s even possible.

Here’s a soundbite of me and Jon that I randomly grabbed during our interview.

On Africa, energy and what’s next

aeepgroup

Looking back to my feelings about my first trip to Africa, I remember thinking – should I hate it (after having written so much about it) would I have to quit my job?

Now that was a joke, but in truth I didn’t know what to expect and I was rather nervous at the idea of catching strange diseases of parasites. Someone told me you can get maggots that grow under your skin. No joke he still has tiny scars on his forearm.

Anyway at the end of the two weeks I spent in Ethiopia I was struck by the difference between my Europe and what felt like another world, and I decided to go back to Africa as soon as possible. So South Africa is waiting for me in May, this time for holiday and I will probably be offline for a while.

Addis will linger in my memory as city of contrast, with mothers and babies sitting on the side of dusty roads while businessmen and diplomats eat expensive meals in the restaurant of a luxury hotel just a few meters away.

A room in an average hotel costs about 175 US$ per night, equivalent to 3380 birrs, the local currency. The average monthly salary of a chef or an experienced waiter is around 2000 birrs.

My two weeks were spent working on two very different tasks. For the first week I’ve been covering a conference of the African EU Energy Partnership. It was a very interesting meeting where I had the chance to meet awesome people from different countries, had a lot of fun and tested my skills with some data journalism.

The partners from Africa and the EU gathered for the first time in 2010, in Vienna, to set goals for energy progress in Africa to be met by 2020.The goal involved different fields, the most important of which were energy security, to be achieved through increased energy production from a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, and energy access for additional 100 million Africans by the end of the decade.

But the first status report, published during the conference, unveiled a rather upsetting situation. None of the target is likely to be met and a serious lack of planning leaves little room for hope. You can read a blog I wrote on the topic here, and the full report here.

Among other things, here’s an infographic I produced with Piktochart (here the interactive version). It shows how long would it take to meet the targets at the present rate of increase. Pretty striking figures: wind energy would meet the goals set for 2020 in… 2117.

That of course raises questions about the baseline used to set the goals, and about the data collection capacity underlying it. You will hear more on that in my next podcast, to be published in a few days.

Africa energy performance

 

See you soon, London

With one post a months I am really pioneering a new era of senseless slow blogging. You’ll know who to vote for the next Lazy Blogger of the Month awards.

Next on my schedule a trip to Ethiopia, where I will attend the second high level meeting of the African European Energy Partnership as part of the comm team.

I promise pictures, sounds and other frolics in ten days time.

 

In memory of a freedom fighter

aaron-swartz

I am not a programmer, and I don’t know much about the inception and evolution of the open access movement. But I spend a great part of my day on the internet.

The internet gave me a job, reshaped my social life and my ethics.

Today I discovered that exactly one year ago an internet activist, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide after being charged with illegally accessing a computer network at the MIT. He was just 2 years younger than me.

It makes me proud to know that in my new life, which I gained at the price of my homecountry, I have the power to act, the freedom to speak and the means to learn from people like Aaron Swartz.

Journalists aren’t so different from internet activists after all. We all fight for justice, we take up the same battle.

Aaron Swartz won’t be forgotten by the hacker community, but we should remember him as well.

Don’t do it for journalism

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Do we really need to learn how to code? As journalists, I mean. Do journalists really stand out if they know how to code?

I’ve always liked the idea of learning how to code, as I like the idea of doing a million of other things. Though today I came across two divergent opinions  on journalism and coding that made me reconsider my stance.

The first column won me with a classic line:

“Every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

Scott Klein imagines a generation of brave new programmer journalists freshly graduated ready to steal your best stories and eventually your job. Unless you learn to code, I guess, even though they are younger and faster etc. The piece includes a list of highly cool data investigations that “any of us would have been proud to have written.” All of them are great stories, underpinned by programming.

But admittedly, most of them are the result of the joint effort of programmers AND journalists. Only one story displays the individual byline of Joanna S. Kao, interactive developer and reporter. And I wonder if Joanna actually works full time in a newsroom or gets most of her salary working at the digital desk.

It’s just on this question that the second voice stroke me with a simple, straight answer.

Coding may be useful for a very narrow category of journalists, but definitely not for all of them. Not even for multimedia people like me. Yes, my job requires a fair amount of technical skills. But not coding. Sadly and simply because I will never be as good as a professional developer and I am paid to be an editor, a reporter and a producer and my boss wants me to do my job.

Most of the big and medium size companies can afford to outsource this kind of specialised services, and if you want to be the coding guy you probably won’t be as sharp as a reporter, not having the time to practice your writing/reporting skills. I can see that in my job, when sometimes I struggle to combine editorial and technical tasks, while trying to also produce my own stuff.

I hate to admit it, but some super cool skills aren’t really useful in real life. If you want to play with computer, learn video and audio editing, maybe Illustrator, or After Effects, to create animations (I am lusting over it, it’s one of my new year’s resolutions). These are things that can be combined with journalism. Or better, with a JOB in journalism.

And beware, data journalism is not just for coders. Though it’s an obvious point, the author of the “pro” column seems to forget it.

It’s definitely true that “data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

But to be a data guy you don’t need to know how to code. Really, you don’t. Familiarity with spreadsheets and huge patience to scrape them are a very good starting point. You probably need to know how to design and write a FOIA request. Then you can build on that, and the internet is packed with free tools to visualise data and make them interactive. But unless you are a professional developer you will never match stuff like that.

I think it’s still good to learn coding. But I want to do it for a good reason, because it’s important to be ITC literate, because it may be fun if you are a bit of a nerd and because it’s cool to know stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about.

For once in my life, I won’t do it for journalism.

News from Poland

cop

Disclaimer – this post was written on Friday.

The first two months of my new job at SciDev.Net have been great, more than I dared to expect. The first day ended up boozing at an Italian restaurant, and after a brief research trip to France I am now blogging from Warsaw, in Poland, where I’ve been following the climate negotiations of the UNFCCC (COP19).

I know I’ll miss the vibe of these two weeks, but I can’t stay away from London for long without being homesick. So my flight back will be bittersweet, and Sunday will mark the first day of a reflection on the profession, on my personal goals and on international politics.

For now, I want to record an interesting discussion that took place yesterday over an oversize Polish beer and a plate of salmon. During the day, the EU spokesperson showed up at the media center to brief the journalists off-the-record. Counterintuitively, I recorded the conversation, though for my own use.

Then, discussing with my new friends it turns out that one of us is firmly against the off-the-record as well as the politics of embargo on press releases. Interestingly, he maintains that the embargo is a way for PR of controlling the journalist. He also thinks that the off-the-record shouldn’t exist as if a piece of information matters it should be immediately made public.

I appreciate the beauty of the ideal, radical transparency, but I don’t really think it can work in the long term. Some information needs to remain in the background, or it could not only be damaging for the subjects involved, source and journalists, but also be ultimately misleading.

That said, of course one needs to judge case by case depending on what’s at stake, but try to think about an ugly beast such as the climate negotiations. It’s an issue that looks pretty tangled and I promise, seen from inside it is even worse. Would it be of any good to disclose every word that you hear from a politician? I think it wouldn’t improve your reporting nor the public understanding of what’s really going on.

Giving to politicians and NGOs representatives the possibility of talking freely provides you with perspective and enables you to ask critical questions.

Though skilled sources will try to feed to you the questions they want you to ask their opponents, I think that a good journalist may take advange of off-the-record information more often than not.

What do you think?

New beginnings

Wow, it’s been more than a month since my last post. In my defense, I can say that much has happened and I was pretty busy, apart from a week of totally needed and deserved holiday in Italy.

Part of the last month has been spent preparing (and worrying about) the job application for multimedia producer at SciDev.Net. It was a quite long process, but I am happy to say that I got the job and I will start tomorrow.

Here’s the showreel I produced for the application.

So from tomorrow on my life’s gonna change and as I was told by my friends I am now a “proper Londoner”.

On top of it I also opened a blog in Italian, Penne in Panne, to support Italian journalists who want to move to the UK to study or work. I hope the project will bring together an active community in the next months. The crisis-chocked Italian industry is leaving too many young people unemployed and hopeless, thus moving to another country is for many the last chance to have a decent career. And I think that looking for better learning opportunities is also a good investment for the future. Should we see an Italian renaissance in a decade or so, there will be need of well trained brains that at the moment don’t seem to be welcome in Italy.

Other more cheerful resolutions for the coming year include learning French and improving at coding. Maybe I will build a robot at a point. Who knows, life’s full of surprises around here.

robot_david

Why Raspberry Pi

Last week I went to Cambridge to meet a group of engineers and computer scientists who are working with US$30 Raspberry Pi computers. Few of them were undergraduate students, very young yet impressively competent and passionate about their work.

I left the campus with a mixed feeling of enthusiasm and embarrassment, recalling my early twenties when I was still merrily wasting my time with a degree in Communication, while these boy-geniuses are developing solutions to save the world.

Of course, a place like Cambridge is ideal for great minds to thrive. They have funds, infrastructures and the best of the world’s research in many fields. I have been in Oxford as well but I liked Cambridge better, I found a more friendly and open-minded community. And they were building robots.

Robots!

A robot!!

A robot. Not sure what’s for… but hey how cool.

Needless to say, they won my heart.

Before visiting the lab, I had the opportunity to discuss with one of my interviewees the issues of education and open source, currently crucial within the IT community. The Raspberry Pi’s concept is interesting not because of its technology, which is really simple, but because it’s been designed to encourage people to take part and learn how to build computers and write softwares.

In the age of the internet our life is becoming more and more dependent on information technology, yet very few people are familiar with it. For example, not having a clue of what happens behind my screen when I work with a particular software or I look for information online makes me feel uncomfortable.

It’s true that we don’t need to know how everything works in our everyday life to use it properly and safely. For example, not all car drivers are mechanics. But a car is based on a stable technology that doesn’t require any major adaptation from the user. I can manage my granpa’s old banger or the last BMW with the same driving competences.

Things are different when it comes to computers. The internet is a dynamic environment and the technology underpinning it is in constant change. Of course computer science is not all about the web, but I dare to say that the way humans are now able to interact with machines is probably the major breakthrough in the whole history of information technology.

However, according to researchers a further step is needed. At the moment people know how to use internet and computers, but they don’t know how to build machines in order to perform original tasks.

The world is facing unprecedented challenges and innovation is more important than ever. Bringing people into computer science and engineering is crucial to develop solutions to new problems.

Knowing how to use a CMS or a search engine is not enough. These are tools designed for responding to relatively limited needs such as blogging or searching in the web. Only by creating adequate tools to perform brand new tasks we will get ready to respond to the needs of a changing world.

Open source technology and cheap computers like Arduino or Rasberry Pi are designed for this purpose. Enabling more people to participate in the improvement of technology is not only an act of democracy. It will also bring better results.