5 things I learned at The Next Web conference

I was lucky enough to attend The Next Web conference in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I share quite a few @TheNextWeb links as it’s one of the sites I follow via RSS. (Here are other sites I follow.)

Here are a few of the things I learned at the conference. Most of these nuggets are not related to digital journalism directly but it’s good to learn lessons from beyond the industry.

1. 15% of the world’s population have helped digitise books

You know those (often annoying) Captcha codes you have to answer in order to make a secure transaction online? There’s a valuable byproduct aside from security.

The two random words displayed are actually words from a scanned book. Computers are not good at reading the words and require help from humans. By typing the words you are making sense of the books. The process is effectively data entry by the crowd two words at a time.

So far 1.1 billion people – or 15% of the world’s population – have helped digitise books in this way, Luis von Ahn, who invented Captcha codes, said.

2. People learning English as a foreign language will be able to take a standardised test via a mobile phone for just $20

Duolingo came to my attention as the site where language learners translate Buzzfeed articles.

It works like this: advanced learners translate Buzzfeed and CNN articles with several people working on the same article collaboratively. The learner gets a real rather than fictional article to translate; Duolingo brings in revenue by the service it provides which enables free language learning for anyone with a web connection.

Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo (and also inventor of Captcha codes), said:

"In a sense, CNN sponsoring language education." 

The free-to-learn site is now branching out and making standardised English testing affordable and possible via mobile.

A learner maybe in Brazil or Burkina Faso but will be able to use a Skype-like video conference option either on a desktop or mobile phone to take the test. Some smart checks are done to ensure the learner is not cheating, with the user showing the examiner all corners of the room, for example.

My colleague at WSJ Lisa Fleisher has written about the new test. It is due to launch tomorrow.

3. People spend just six minutes browsing a retail website

One of the sessions was on the future of shopping.

John Lunn, global senior director at Paypal, said the average teenager spends just six seconds looking at a website and the over 60s only go up to four pages deep into a website.

Lunn said:

"You have to help people make their decisions before they come to you." 

These are important lessons for news organisations. Not only do we need to find ways to ensure those who want to pay for our digital subscriptions make a decision before they come to us, we also need to think about the attention span people have when presented with an article page or homepage.

4. Audiences have their own audiences

That might seem obvious in the days of selfies, memes, YouTube and Twitter. But ‘the guy with the hair’ David Shing – who has the title of 'digital prophet' for AOL – provided a good summary of how brands are now storytellers.

I particularly enjoyed lines such as:

"We must start talking about mobile as the first screen not the second. Nobody walked into this room with a TV.”

This talk also discussed media overload and the fight for attention. And as digital publishers we should keep that oft-used abbreviation of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) to mind.

But while there’s a drive to be brief, Shingy laid out an argument for longer reads. We’ve moved from the age of information to the age of social to the age of interest, he said. People want authenticity, and slow journalism is part of that.

5. Social scientists are studying social media connections

One of the tools social scientists have created is called NodeXL. It is open source and can be downloaded so anyone can turn Excel into a social media network browser, allowing you to display connections around hashtags, topics or people.

Social scientist Marc A. Smith said:

"We are interested in revealing the shape of the crowd." 

Here’s the social network analysis of #TNWeurope.

One week in social media at The Wall Street Journal

I was part of a panel discussion that considered a world ‘without social media' at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia on Friday.

I decided to illustrate this by talking about what The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have done last week in a social media-less world. 

Saturday, 26 April

On Saturday, Sam Dagher, our Syria correspondent, would not have shared images of Aleppo. Sam had been to the city the previous week but did not share tweets and images while he was there due to safety concerns.

He tweeted once we was back in Damascus and we packaged his photos into this slideshow.

Sunday, 27 April

On Sunday, Giada Zampano and Liam Moloney would not have been sharing tweets and pictures from the Vatican on the occasion of the canonization of two popes.

We would not have pulled together social media posts from people in the crowds using RebelMouse.

Monday, 28 April

On Monday, we would not have gained Instagram insight into Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, who was shot and injured. This colourful character has more than 63,000 Instagram followers, with whom he has shared pictures of himself cycling, playing sport and with his pets.

Kernes is now recovering in Israel and yesterday shared a photo from his hospital bed.

Tuesday, 29 April

On Tuesday, we would not have used user-generated content in a video. Storyful verified and licensed the footage from Ukraine and we were able to use it in a video package.

Wednesday, 30 April

On Wednesday, Matt Bradley would not have shared WorldStream clips of the Iraq elections. WorldStream, social videos that are up to 45 seconds in length, provide colour, insight and a snapshot of a story.

imageThursday, 1 May

On May Day, the day of protests in Turkey, our Istanbul bureau chief Joe Parkinson would not have re-shared this photo.

In a non-social world, Patrick McGroaty would not have shared this 13-second clip of Mugabe arriving at an election rally in Harare, Zimbabwe.

And Heidi Vogt, our east Africa correspondent, would not have been following John Kerry and sharing tweets and images.

In a world without social media, The Wall Street Journal would not have used Facebook video and an Instagram image to tell this story of an oil train crash in Lynchburg. Both the video and image were verified and licensed by Storyful.


Friday, 2 May

On Friday, Matina Stevis, who is based in Brussels, would not have been tweeting on behalf of a journalist in Ukraine and would not have got a safety message out, warning journalists not to go to Slovyansk.

Bojan Pancevski, who is a Sunday Times reporter, found he couldn’t tweet. He therefore asked Matina, a friend, to share the message on his behalf. Matina tried logging into his Twitter account but could not get access so pushed out the message from her own account to her 35,000 followers.

Matina told me that other news organisations called her to find out more information and she was able to share what she knew.

In a world without social media Bojan would probably have sent a text message to Matina and a few others, but the warning message would not have been amplified.

My slides from the talk are here:

2 tips for using Facebook Follow as a journalist

I’m guessing that a major reason deterring journalists from activating Facebook Follow is a concern for keeping their personal and professional lives separate.

Once activated, Facebook Follow, (which used to be called Facebook Subscribe), allows other Facebook users to follow a person’s public updates. It is a one-way, Twitter-like follow without the need for a two-way reciprocal relationship of Facebook friendship.

Here are two tips:

1. Change your privacy settings so people who are not ‘friends of friends’ only get the option to ‘follow’, not add you as a friend.

I was recently at Facebook HQ in London with a colleague who is usually based in the Middle East. My colleague was saying that he gets Facebook requests from people he doesn’t know and wanted to encourage follows instead of friend requests. By hiding the friend request option, he does not have to decline requests.

2. Don’t let followers see the photos other people post on your timeline

Perhaps you don’t want your subscribers to see pictures of you added by a friend. For my Middle East-based colleague, this could avoid the potential embarrassment caused by a friend posting a picture of him drinking a beer on a night out.

Visual journalism and web video at BBC News

Last Wednesday I heard Angus Foster, world editor, BBC News online, speak at the Global Editors Network and Gazeta Wyborcza event in Poland. 

Angus explained how the BBC has increasingly shifted to visually-led storytelling and demonstrated this by showing what a BBC News web story would have looked like a few years ago, and how they would treat the same story today. The 2014 approach is one of including not one but a number of photos.

One thing that is particularly interesting is how BBC News uses analytics to look at the point on the average article page when people click away from a story. BBC News has responded by keeping readers on the page by including images.

Angus also shared examples of new experiments in video. Traditionally a broadcaster shooting for TV, BBC News is now thinking of formats that are best suited to web audiences.

Example 1: Ukraine crisis: BBC on board blockaded Ukrainian ship

Here reporter Christian Fraser takes you on a VICE-style tour, with shots including him transporting the camera equipment.

imageThe style is more informal than a shot-for-TV package.

Example 2: Five ways Crimea is becoming Russian

Example 3: Europe Explained: How the EU budget is decided


Angus said the informal style is “informing but not didactic” and “rough at the edges and authentic”.

Angus Foster also showed an important slide regarding mobile and traffic growth:

Tools for social storytelling and curation

Last week I gave a presentation at a Global Editors Network and Gazeta Wyborcza conference in Warsaw, Poland.

I talked about tools we use at the Wall Street Journal for live storytelling and how we curate these conversations on site.

I chose to share social tools that are free and open to all. Some of the curation tools are proprietary.

Tool 1. Twitter lists

We curate lists and share them so people can connect directly with journalists, whether reporting on elections in Afghanistan, Turkey or on the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

Tool 2: RT

The RT is simple yet so powerful. By retweeting updates and images shared on Twitter by reporters on the ground, followers of @WSJ get reports in real-time.

I blogged about the power of real-time reporting from Ukraine, Turkey and Syria so won’t repeat here.


We display some of the photos shared by our reporters on social media on WSJ using an in-house social slideshow tool. Here’s an example of a slideshow on Crimea.


A new in-house tool we have for curating social media and web content is the streaming story (built by my colleague Joe Kendall). The back end feels a lot like Storify and you can automate or manually pull in tweets, Instagram photos and more.

This example, which pulled in stories and tweets from our Syria correspondent Sam Dagher, was done as a test, but it demonstrates the idea. And the new streaming story looks great on mobile.

Tool 3: Reddit AMA

A Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) is a great way to introduce our reporters to new audiences. Pre-arranged at a set time (there is a request an AMA button here), the Reddit community can then ask questions to the host reporter.

Paul Sonne, our Russia correspondent who has been in Crimea, and Joe Parkinson, our Istanbul bureau chief, have recently hosted AMAs.


Reddit AMA highlights can then be curated and posted on site by pulling parts of the conversation into a Storify, a tool for telling stories using social media content.

Tool 4: Google Hangout

Google Hangout video chats are a great way of hosting a conversation with up to 10 people and broadcasting it live on YouTube.

We have done four in the last month or so, including on funding for startups in the Middle East, new routes for Emirates Airlines, inside our coverage of the Malaysia Airlines story, and just yesterday our Gerard Baker, our editor-in-chief, interviewed Alex Salmond, which was broadcast via a Hangout.

Tool 5: Tout

Tout is an Android and iPhone app for recording and sharing microvideo. WSJ reporters use it to film from the scene of breaking news events and to provide behind-the-scenes views of stories they are covering.


We curate these Tout clips using WorldStream, an area of our site dedicated to these social videos. I reported on the launch of WorldStream (by Mark Scheffler and Liz Heron) when in my former life at Journalism.co.uk.

Another way to use these short video clips is within a story. I embedded 30-second WorldStream clips shot and shared by Sam Dagher when he was reporting on the evacuation of Yarmouk, an area of Damascus. Here’s the blog post.

Here are my slides from the presentation.

How to search for Twitter lists if you can’t yet see the option in Twitter

Last week I posted to say Twitter is rolling out functionality to allow you to search for Twitter lists.

If you cannot yet see the option within Twitter, here’s the fix:

Great spot, Rob. And the even better news:

Hurrah! You can now search for Twitter lists

This is the best tweet I’ve seen all week. Or possibly the best Twitter-related news of the year:

I’ve been wanting to search for Twitter lists for yonks and recently blogged about this workaround, a Google site search: 


Update: Actually, I have been corrected:

As a journalist it is so useful to be able to find and follow other people’s lists and get access to a curated collection of sources on a given news event.

I’m not yet seeing the list search on my Twitter account and understand it is a gradual roll out for both desktop and mobile. This is what it will look like:


Hurrah for @gilad and the other folk at Twitter search. Now should I just follow the people named in the above tweet or set up a Twitter list?

Real-time transparency at WSJ

I gave a short talk at the Polis Journalism Conference on Friday as part of a panel discussing ‘innovation in transparency’.

I joined Luke Lewis, editor of BuzzFeed UK, Will Moy from Full Fact, and Eric Newton from the Knight Foundation, who were also presenting. The panel was chaired by Samantha Barry, social media producer at BBC World News.

In my 10-minute talk I went through three major news events from the region I am responsible for in terms of social media at the Wall Street Journal.


I was speaking the day after the YouTube ban was imposed, and two days before the elections.

The WSJ has a Turkish-language news site, plus a team providing news from Turkey for the global English-language site.

The focus of my talk was how audiences can follow our journalists reporting in real-time on Twitter, explaining how we retweet reporters from the various WSJ accounts, including @WSJ account, which has 4.2m followers.

One way we help readers find our journalists is by creating Twitter lists. Here’s a list of the nine reporters WSJ has in Turkey.

Earlier this week, following the Twitter ban in Turkey, Joe Parkinson, the Wall Street Journal’s Istanbul bureau chief, hosted a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), allowing the Reddit community to directly connect with Joe.

Ukraine / Crimea / Russia

I shared this tweet from Paul Sonne, one of the first we saw being shared on social media of the flag change in Crimea.

A couple of hours later he tweeted the following.

Alan Cullison shared this tweet. I chose this example as I think it embodies what the WSJ has been doing for 125 years. Alan gives the facts but does not speculate or offer conjecture as to who the military trucks belong to.

Paul Sonne also hosted a Reddit AMA, answering questions on Russia, Ukraine, Crimea and Putin. The AMA had 50,000 views and connected potential new audiences with one of our expert reporters.

Syria: Tweeting a war

I then introduced Sam Dagher, the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in Syria.

I could have chosen any number of examples of Sam tweeting the war, but focused on the week-long evacuation of Homs, when people were slowly brought out of an area that had been cut off for 18 months.

The UN reached a deal with the Syrian regime on the Thursday night and Sam took the road from Damascus, heading north to Homs and tweeting to take readers with him on the journey.

Sam’s tweets explain the facts.

I chose this tweet for a talk headlined ‘innovation in transparency’ as I like the fact that Sam didn’t try to push a view that he was the only reporter there. By the Monday Sam was one of only two western journalists there (a Norwegian TV journalist being the other).

Sam uses traditional reporting skills, attributing the facts to a source.

And he tells us what he doesn’t know.

Sam throws forward to his next article online, which will contain some of the facts he has not had time to share on Twitter.

And Sam adds a human voice, giving snippets of information in real-time, arguably something Twitter is able to do better than any other platform.

I particularly like this tweet and feel this was such a valuable part of the story to share with readers.

Sam answered questions, dispelling myth and rumour when necessary.

'A day in hell'

The next tweet was sent 10 minutes before the ceasefire was due to end on the Saturday, a day which one UN official described as “a day in hell”.

When I spoke to Sam on the Monday he said that he could hear one of the rebel leaders saying his men were getting “antsy” as they hadn’t fired a gun all day. Sam said he was hungry at this point as he hadn’t eaten all day and he was aware anything could happen; the UN officials were inside the area under siege and the situation was extremely volatile.

But despite the uncertainty, Sam was still tweeting, sharing what was happing with readers.

And in addition to tweeting, Sam was taking pictures and shooting video on his iPhone. And of course he was writing a story for the website that would become a page-one story on the print edition of the Wall Street Journal that would be on breakfast tables all over America the Monday morning.

I ended the presentation with this tweet, another example of the colour Sam shares in his tweets, giving Wall Street Journal readers and a wider network of Twitter followers the story in real-time.

Here are my slides from the talk, most of which are included above.


Here’s a list of our winning projects from the 2014 SND Best of Digital Design Awards:

An Education in School Choice in New Orleans


Single-Story Project Award of Excellence

Borderlands: Explore lives upended by a year of conflict…

Tags: wsj graphics

The future of digital journalism (part 4)

This is the fourth and final blog post in this series, which is based on a talk I gave at the Ohlin Institute, a liberal think tank in Sweden.

I clearly don’t have all the answers and it is important to note that these are personal views, not the views of the Wall Street Journal.

In the first post I looked at some of the devices where readers may consume news in the future and in the second post suggested that we should think of stories as data.

The third post focused on what publishers can learn from tech companies and outlined the benefits of an API (an application programme interface that gives developers access to our data).

If a greater number of news organisations had an API, smart developers may end up creating new reading experiences and repackage our stories in interesting ways, possibly coming up with a ‘Netflix for news’ or a ‘Spotify for news’, with content from different news brands made available in one place.

Readers could be offered bundles of articles, and buy access via an easy iTunes-like payment method. Such a development would provide news outlets with a new revenue stream.

In response to the last post in which I presented these ideas, my colleague Elliot Bentley tweeted me with a particularly interesting suggestion:

This final post is on how to get ready for the future.

What we can do to prepare for the future

Being ready for the future means having an API and the data ready to tackle any challenge.

The core piece of technology at the heart of the newsroom is the content management system (CMS). But what does a future-ready CMS look like?

The current CMS could be problematic if we start thinking about content as data, and how it can be presented on new surfaces, such as screens, fridges, glasses and contact lenses. 

Most CMSs mix data with presentation, in the form of HTML. We might not want to send the same messages for how the data is displayed to new surfaces, such as instructions for bold text or a hyperlink.

Perhaps it would help us future proof content if the presentation was in a separate layer from the the words, pictures or other data. I have no solution here but see a potential problem with the current way of working in CMSs.

As good web citizens, and whether we are the person responsible for buying a CMS or a journalist entering words and HTML into a CMS, we should consider the future ramifications of the way we create data.

Analysing the results

Most news sites currently track the popularity of posts by looking at ‘pageviews’. In a future with new and diverse display methods, an article may be consumed passively, rather than as the result of a web page click.

What metric would we use to determine the number of times an article has been viewed as it is pushed to the fridge or a wearable? We could simply look at ‘views’ measured by calls to the API.

More questions than answers

I’m not saying the model I have laid out is easy or perfect and I’ve not addressed how ads fit in to the mix. But it is worth thinking like the innovators on the fringes of an industry; moving away from the daily problems and seeing further ahead.

Just this week I was interested to note the first major step in paid-content strategy at the Washington Post since Jeff Bezos bought the title. The move means that subscribers to some local US newspapers will also get access to the Washington Post. The Financial Times reported that no money is to change hands, but readers will get access to news created by more than one publication. 

Companies such as Flipboard, Facebook Paper and Yahoo News Digest which don’t create content but do offer interesting reading experiences with articles from different publications will continue to do great things with our news stories, so I suggest that we smooth the way and nurture our data.


Stories will probably be read on new surfaces, on new platforms, and no doubt they will still be read in print. But let’s liberate our data and let people beyond our news organisations create great things.