How can social networking and social media best work with converged media?

The first thought that crossed my mind when asked this question by a professor was – Could  online convergence work without social media? Where would the audience be without the community of web trawling, sharing, re-sharing, reposting, networking, faithful lot.

The first ever Youtube video was posted in April 2005 and since, almost every major media organization with multimedia content has an Youtube account, regardless of the video streaming service utilized on their homepage. The same can be said of Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has become a necessary medium for drawing traffic. A research by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that news sites receive 9 percent of their traffic from social media, a modest figure but one expected to grow. In March 2012, the Guardian discovered Facebook referrals drove 30 percent of its 70 million unique monthly browsers to their website.

Twitter director of content and programming, Chloe Sladden, created a stir when she remarked “Twitter is the new newswire,” at a media conference, to assert her belief that newsrooms should be breaking news on twitter and drawing audiences to their home page for follow up. The relationship between social media and convergent newsrooms is a symbiotic one. In the words of the Chief Executive of Digital First Media, John Patton – “No social media connection. No news organization.”

The present challenge, as the PEJ report presents, is how can this translate to revenue?

N.B: Much of this post is a rough summary of the linked PEJ report. A resourceful read for more on the relationship between social media and online newsrooms.

Converging Skills and an expanding list of Essential Tools

Four years as a Radio Host for a music station, a few months moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV and finally a journalist wielding pen and camera – all these experiences have helped equip me with some essential skills required at a time when multimedia journalism is the industry buzzword.

Easy availability of essential software and clandestine online supply chains for sharing goods has made multi-media tools available to anyone who seeks. The launch of the DSLR with HD video recording spurned the birth of a generation of self-taught filmmakers.  I was among those excited and amazed by the possibilities of the new breed of DSLR cameras. I followed a few film makers and online forums waiting  for the day I  could afford one. By then, despite having sold a few pictures taken by my humble Lumix bridge, I was increasingly aware of its limitations and my brief experience with Press TV made me want to continue creating video stories, minus the conservative editorial dictates. In 2011, I finally got the Canon 5D Mark II – may it forever be remembered in the annals of photography and HD filmmaking – and till today, this continues to be the most important tool for my visual journalism and despite the many other technical acquisitions, the most cherished.  

And let’s not forget the power of Google for research and publishing platforms like Vimeo and WordPress to build an online community for constructive critique, support and inspiration and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to share work and find peers. As for the iPhone as a tool to replace all my heavy expensive reporting tools? I still a sceptic but an open minded one.

A special mention to http://www.dslrnewsshooter.com and its founder Dan Chung, a site without which I may have never made the leap into making visual news.

My main media tools

Canon 5D Mark II, Zoom H4n recorder, Sennheiser ew112 wireless pack, Rhode VideoMic, Preferred lens: Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L, Canon 70-200mm f4.0 L, Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4, Sirui N1204 tripod, Monfrotto 701HDV Pro Fluid Head, A cheap lens hood I hope to soon replace, An unused unwieldy Wondlan shoulder rig with a follow focus that needs some DIY re-designing for run and gun shots, An iPhone for web browsing but little else, A notebook, A Sony dictaphone and a pen. 

Empowering communities to represent themselves but who’s watching?

Video Volunteers started off as a small experiment in community reporting, encouraging members from marginalized communities in India to tell their own stories and report on issues under-covered by mainstream press. IndiaUnheard, is the program that resulted out of the project that provided journalistic training and basic video skills and necessary tools, low-cost HD camcorders in this case, to chosen community correspondents.

There is something raw and moving about hearing stories directly from the people on issues that affect them, on stories they feel needs urgent attention. Be it farmers in Kashmir talking of how climate change is affecting their crops and farming practises with people using more dangerous pesticides and fertilizers or the subject of the widows of victims killed in fake encounters in Manipur, IndiaUnheard has succeeded in bringing out stories that need telling.

But where do these stories fit in mainstream media and reaching an actual audience that can make a difference? In the case of video volunteers, media partnerships with established names including CNN-IBN, Al Gore’s Current TV and MSN India, has helped spread the word. But what, without these strategic and necessary partnerships? Citizen journalism can empower communities to tell their stories, but at the end of the day, sympathetic mainstream mediums will still play a role in taking these stories further.

 

Al Jazeera: A step ahead in a convergent world

In April 2011, Al Jazeera launched a new social media powered program where all content was sourced from social sites like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube and online audiences invited to interact and contribute in real time. What more, all content was gathered and curated using a social media aggregation tool called Storify, then just launched.

The show, called The Stream, was just the latest in social media innovations Al Jazeera had incorporated into their programming and accolades poured in swift from peers and competitors across the globe. The New York Times called it “an indication of where mainstream TV news is heading” while Havard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab hailed its success in  “not only in fully integrating social media into a news operation, but also in embracing the medium as an inherent feature of the new news programming.”

Al Jazeera was one of the first broadcast channel, and still one of the few, to fully embrace the internet to make its programming and unique coverage available to a global online audience. The web enabled the channel to circumvent harassment, censorship and sanctions to aid a revolution, report ground-breaking news and win a global audience. The website’s opinion page has long hosted the lettered arguments of some of the world’s most prolific and well known thinkers and writers and in September 2012, Al Jazeera became a competitor in the digital publishing world with the launch of its monthly magazine. A class example of an integrated newsroom paving the way? Certainly.

 

Bait ’em, hook ’em…bill ’em: Getting readers to pay

Despite rent to pay and money to save for long contemplated travel plans on a salary that barely covered the tabs, the internet bill is one always first accounted for. And why? I decided to forfeit subscription fees of well loved magazines I had grown up with for a virtual word of free and limitless information. So, when former journalist and author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson wrote in an article – “For the Google Generation, the Internet is the land of the free” – I wasn’t about to disagree.

Former Tribune Company President Jack Fuller once said the most stupid thing newspapers and magazines ever did was to give the content away for free online. As a reader, I wasn’t complaining but as a journalist, should I be expected to produce news for free? Oh, the impertinence!

With advertising revenues drying up with the ink of fresh print, the good audience will realize they can’t be subsidized forever. So, while I still love my freebies and will continue to trawl the web for free good stuff, once you do hook me, I’ll tire of these pop-ups (see below) and yes! direct me to subscription page please. Bait them, hook them and get them to pay. A business model born of necessity.

Capture NYT 3

With newspapers tightening their belts readers can only be thankful for the 10 free reads

Screen Capture globe and mail

Missing the postman – convergence is driving audiences online

In Ulaanbaatar, door-step delivery of newspapers is non-existent and the poor quality of local reporting and paucity of English news sources drives most urban news readers and resident foreigners to the internet.

Personally, my web-dependency for news has evolved my browsing habits. I no longer visit  specific websites but  have tailored my social media feeds to provide me the news I like to follow. Twitter, Google News and Facebook provide my daily news stream.

And recent findings have shown I’m not alone. This March, the Guardian discovered Facebook referrals drove 30 percent of its 70 million unique monthly browsers to their website, a case point for news organizations turning to social media to boost traffic. Online sharing is also shaping and indentifying niche audiences, as an interesting study by social researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute have shown  by mapping news-sharing communities on Twitter to identify social structures and shared networks. The study focused only on New York Times readers but identified several common interest clusters within this seemingly uniform demographic.

In short, with growing web-dependency for news, convergence allows for tighter niche following and for the frequent traveler with no-fixed address, the web is the complete media aggregator.

Future-proofed but content loose: Mongolia’s media convergence blues

ImageCommuters preview the day’s headlines at a bus-stop news stand in Ulaanbaatar, where the wide media range is  often overshadowed by unprofessional standards and non-transparent ownership. 

Numerically, post-communist Mongolia’s media is flourishing. In 2011, the Press Institute’s survey counted 430 media outlets – 130 newspapers, 102 magazines, 95 TV stations, 72 radio stations and 31 “active” websites for a population of under three million. But local watchdog, Globe International, reports that non-transparent ownership, persecution of journalists and forced censorship continue to restrict freedom and quality of journalism with many news outlets functioning as propaganda vehicles for their sponsors.

Parallelly, growth in mobile phone and internet subscriptions is driving more users to the internet for news, in turn encouraging independent online news providers. Internet users grew from 30,000 in 2000 to 350,000 within a decade according to the website  internetworldstats.com.  Mobile phone subscriptions stand at 2,750,000 –  over two thirds of the entire population while the country’s largest mobile service provider MobiCom, claims one million of their subscribers own internet enabled devices in a recent article.

The time seems ripe for media convergence in Mongolia but content wise, convergence is still static. Multimedia barely registers on news sites.  Tactical cross-promotional convergence is growing between online news providers. News.mn, which has over 34,556 likes on their Facebook page, shares links to Baabar.mn, another news site and Toimsetguul.mn, a news magazine with active online presence and hosts video snippets from Eagle TV, a news channel. Infomongolia.com, another news site hosts a streaming English news program sponsored by Toim, the news magazine and produced by NTV, a local TV station. Online content is still rudimentary but collaborations like these are paving the way for future digital convergence in Mongolia.

Nomads to Migrants: Ulaanbaatar grapples with rural to urban migration

The contrast between Ulaanbaatar’s ger district sprawl and downtown high-rises serve as a backdrop for a young girl on the roof of the ger she just helped her mother set up.

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A treasured reminder of 75 year old Shagdar Badrach’s  former nomadic life on the great Mongolian steppe hangs from the latticed wooden frame  of the round felt tent Mongolian’s call ger. It’s a shiny metal plaque that proclaims him “Best National Herder of 1986”, a Socialist-era recognition for herders who successfully raised more than a 1000 heads of cattle for the State.

While little has changed inside the ger, when he and his wife step outside they  no longer gaze on endless green steppe. Instead, for miles all they can see are a patchwork of haphazard crooked wooden fences that enclose solitary gers on little plots of land, rustic wood and brick cabins and outhouses.

The population of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city has increased by more than 70 percent in the last 20 years, according to World Bank estimates. Migration from rural areas has seen the population swell from less than 600,000 inhabitants in 1990 to more than 1.2 million today. About 40 percent of the country’s total population of three million now live in Ulaanbaatar. With no space for the new arrivals in the Soviet-era  residential blocks in central Ulaanbaatar, migrants like Badrach simply pitch their traditional dwelling in the suburbs, erect fences and make do with their new homestead.

Over the years, the areas known as the ger districts — named after the homes they brought with them — mushroomed around Ulaanbaatar. “So much so that, what was originally Ulaanbaatar is now only 10 percent of the total area of what the city expanded into,” says Badruun Gardi from the Zorig Foundation, an NGO that helps poor migrant families with documentation necessary to access social services in the city.

For many migrants, Ulaanbaatar rarely offers the relief from poverty they seek. In 2004, a UN survey on poverty and in-migration found that over 34 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s residents  live on less than 2 dollars a day and that poverty was higher among ger district residents and migrants. Poorly skilled and unqualified for most jobs, many migrants take up menial jobs, such as daily wage labourers, if they can find one, says Gardi from Zorig Foundation.

While reasons for moving to Ulaanbaatar abound, many migrants are former herders seeking new livelihoods after a series of winter disasters that Mongolians call dzud, a phenomenon when a summer drought is followed by extreme cold winters that claims the weakened animals. Mongolia’s worst dzud struck in the winters of 1999-2000 when over 14 million animals perished leaving thousands of rural families destitute. “It was after this dzud we saw the dramatic rise in the number of migrants streaming into the city,” recalls Gardi.

Visible impacts of climate change are affecting Mongolia’s nomadic herders who still comprise around 35 percent of the country’s work force. “There is strong scientific evidence that Mongolia is experiencing significant effects of climate change, especially increasing temperatures, decreasing rainfall in some areas, and a corresponding decline in streamflow observed in many areas”, says Maria Fernedez-Gimenez,  a rangeland specialist and associate professor at Colorado State University who has been observing Mongolian pastures since 1994. Based on the national water census, surface water has declined 30 percent over the last 15 years, she adds.

The explosion in the number of livestock from 15 million heads in 1990 to 45 million by 2000 according to government statistics, also spurred the winter disasters and inadvertently urban migration. “The number of animals exceeded carrying capacity of pasturelands  and the dzuds are a way of nature trying to restore the balance in a very harsh way”, says Tselee Enkhe-Amgalan from Mongolian Society for Range Management. She believes adaptation strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change call for better herding practices and management of livestock population and pastureland to help herders continue their traditional lifestyle sustainably.

However these strategies are no longer relevant for former herders now struggling to adapt to the harsh realities of urban poverty. In the winter of 2009-2010, another dzud claimed 12 million animals across the country. Badrach’s animals were among those that perished. Left with less than a 100 animals he decided to sell some and moved to Ulaanbaatar to be closer to two of  his children who found jobs in the city. He chose a plot of land on the last row of houses on a hill engulfed by settlers before him. And while he says support from his children is enough to get by,  he keeps busy tending 30 of his remaining sheep and goats. His main worry now is that  more settlers might move behind his plot and his animals would lose a portion of what is now their grazing ground.

On Canvas: Ulaanbaatar’s Ger District Life

Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling suburbs called the ger districts have been expanding at an incredible rate over the last few years as migrants from smaller towns and the countryside of Mongolia flock to the capital city in search of better lives.

Often brushed off as shanty towns and slums that have to be replaced with apartment complexes to reduce pollution, the ger districts are mostly viewed as an ugly backdrop to Ulaanbaatar that have to be removed.

But there is another aspect to life in the ger areas and in this report we introduce you to Bumandorj and Tugs-Oyun – two Mongolian artists who draw inspiration from Mongolia’s ger districts to create artwork that begs people to look a little deeper into life in the ger districts and to share their opinions about urban Ulaanbaatar and its problems.

Artists Tugs-Oyun next to one of her artworks
Artist Bumandorj next to a ger-district painting of his in his studio

Video: Ger Necessities

Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling ger-districts have given the city the oft-used moniker ‘Nomad City’ or ‘Tent City’ as thousands of Mongolians simply pitch their gers in an urban settings. Life in the ger districts is is far from plush. But for some, it is a far more desirable lifestyle and a choice over living in boxed up apartments. And also, a much more sustainable way of life provided a few adaptations are made.

Begzsuren, who prefers to be called Begz, is a librarian and IT enthusiast and he shares his view on the bare necessities of living in a ger, problems with the ger districts and what’s needed to make the ger the most natural and sustainable way of living for urban Mongolians.

 

Ger Necessities from Pearly Jacob on Vimeo.