How can collaboration enable investigative journalism?

Today, we hosted a workshop at the Reuters Institute organized by Richard Sambrook and myself on how collaboration can enable more investigative journalism.


As more traditional sources of funding are under pressure, different kinds of collaborative projects, whether anchored by legacy news media like the Guardian (with collaborations around the NSA/Snowden revelations and many others examples), digital-born players like BuzzFeed (working with, for example, the BBC), or non-profits like the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (of Panama Papers fame, based on documents initially leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung), have shown they can deliver important forms of accountability journalism in new ways.

The topics discussed included where collaboration can work, where not, what enables and what hinders collaboration (competition, habit, practical obstacles), as well as how collaborations can be funded.

The workshop included a diverse group of international participants with considerable experience across investigative journalism, editing, media law, technology, and included both people from private, public service, and non-profit media. It’s just a real privilege to get a chance to learn from all the interesting and important work people are doing.

Participants included Brigitte Alfter (Editor Europe,, Ceri Thomas (Former editor BBC Panorama), Chuck Lewis (Founder, The Center for Public Integrity), Eliot Higgins (Founder, Bellingcat), Gerard Ryle (Director, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), Jan Clements (Media lawyer and editorial consultant), Javier Moreno Barber (Director, El Pais), Mar Cabra (Head of Data & Research Unit, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), Nicolas Kayser Brill (Co-founder and CEO, Journalism++), Rachel Oldroyd (Managing editor, Bureau of Investigative Journalism), Sylke Gruhnwald (Chairwoman of and Reporter) and Tom Warren (Investigations correspondent, Buzzfeed).


New report for the Council of Europe

The Reuters Institute has just published a report that Alessio Cornia, Antonis Kalogeropoulos and I wrote for the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Media and Information Society reviewing challenges and opportunities for news media and journalism in today’s changing media environment.

I presented the report Dec 1 in Strasbourg at the CDMSI Workshop: ‘The Future of News: media and journalism in the age of digital convergence’.


It was a day of interesting discussions with participants from member state governments and the other speakers, including Nabil Wakim (Director of Editorial Innovation, Le Monde), Matt Rogerson (Head of Public Policy of Guardian News & Media), Pierre France, Founder of Rue 89 Strasbourg, Renate Schroeder (Director of the European Federation of Journalists), Wout van Wijk (Executive Director of News Media Europe), Benedicte Autret from Google’s Digital News Initiative, Alexandre Brachet (Founder of Upian), and Gabriele Bertolli (Team Leader – Future of the Media, Media Freedom and Media Pluralism, European Commission).

Key take-aways from the report (pp.6-7)–

The precise nature of change in the media environment varies in important ways from country to country, but there are some clear, high–level commonalities that represent both opportunities and challenges for journalism, media organisations, and public debate. The three most important developments driven by technological and market forces today are—


  1. The move to an increasingly digital, mobile, and social media environment with increasingly intense competition for attention where legacy media like broadcasters and especially newspapers, while remaining very important news producers are becoming relatively less important as distributors of news and are under growing pressure to develop new digital business models as their existing operations decline or stagnate.

  2. The growing importance of a limited number of large technology companies that enable billions of users across the world to navigate and use digital media in easy and attractive ways through services like search, social networking, video sharing, messaging, etc. and who as a consequence play a more and more important role in terms of (a) the distribution of news and (b) digital advertising.

  3. The development of a high–choice media environment where internet users have access to more and more information in convenient formats and often for free, across a range of increasingly sophisticated personal and mobile devices, and in ways that enable new forms of participation—an environment where those most interested in news embrace these new opportunities to get, share, and comment on news, but a larger number of people opt for more casual and passive forms of use.

Medientage München 2016 take-aways

I spoke at Medientage München 2016 (Munich Media Days 2016) in October as part of a day-long program organized by the Media Lab Bayern.

Here I am, looking characteristically serious. (I sometimes smile, photographic evidence to the contrary.)


Foto: Medientage München 2016

It was really interesting, with lots of people from a new generation trying to do new things. There is a good summary (in German) of the day here, more on Twitter under #mtm16.

Three take-aways for me–

  1. Good to see more examples of people combining clear creative vision with data-informed decision-making: try, test, learn, repeat.
  2. As is often the case, professional/industry events tend to involve national speakers+speakers from US and UK. What about EU neighbors? Can’t we learn from each other across a continent with markets much smaller than Global, English-language market?(Looking forward to IJF in Perugia as always.)
  3. Discussion of relation between media companies, government, and large (US-based) technology companies are much more explicit and have a much harder tone in Germany than in the UK, let alone the US.

Is social media use associated with more or less diverse news use?

By Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

In the wake of the US election result in November and earlier in the year the outcome of the UK referendum on the European Union, some have argued that the rise of social media and its increasing role as a source of news have led to a world where people get less and less diverse information.

The terminology varies—echo chambers, filter bubbles, etc.—but the underlying concern is the same: that the rise of social media means that people get less diverse news from a narrower range of sources.

But is that actually the case? At the moment, we know surprisingly little about how people get news via social media, and how social media platforms might shape news consumption. Much of the current discussion is driven more by worry than by evidence.

Data from the 2015 Reuters Institute Digital News Report might shed some light on what is going on. It suggests that social media users in fact use significantly more different sources of news than non-users, thus challenging the filter bubble hypothesis.

While both social media use and social media functionality have evolved since the survey was in the field in 2015, it provides an important pointer as to the implications of social media use, because it helps us distinguish between the news diet of (1) people who intentionally use social media to get news (News users), (2) people who use social media for other purposes and come across news in the process (the Incidentally exposed), and (3) people who never see any news on social media, or do not use it at all (Non-users).

When we compare the number of online news sources (e.g. BBC News, the Mail Online, the New York Times app or website, etc.) each of these three groups said they had used in the last week, and compared them to those who do not use social media, we see that social media use is in fact associated with being exposed to significantly higher number of online news sources.

Importantly, both those social media users who use the platforms for news (News users) and those who use social media for other reasons and in the process come across news (the Incidentally exposed) get news from significantly more different online news sources than non-users.

The data presented in Figure 1 (for the UK) and Figure 2 (US) below clearly show how those who do not use social media (the blue bar of Non-users) on average come across news from significantly fewer different online sources than those who do use social media (the red bar of News users and the yellow bar of the Incidentally exposed). The figure for the incidentally exposed is particularly important because the data suggests that social media users typically receive a ‘boost’ in the number of news sources they use each week, even if they are not actually trying to consume more news.



Furthermore, Figures 1 and 2 also show that the difference between those who intentionally use social media for news and those who are incidentally exposed is quite small; usually smaller than the gap between non-users and the incidentally exposed. In the case of Facebook in the UK, the gap is almost zero.

Put differently, the effect of incidental exposure is in some cases powerful enough to close gaps in news consumption between those who are motivated or interested enough to actively seek it out using social media, and those who use it for other purposes.

The data presented above are raw figures, but the patterns identified remain consistent even when we use regression analysis to control for demographic differences such as age, gender, income and education, as well as people’s level of trust and interest in the news. Social media use is thus associated with more diverse news use.

Of course, in some cases, using more different sources of online news will not in itself guarantee a more diverse news diet. It is possible that all the sources used by some respondents reflect the same basic political or ideological stance. A few respondents may use a high number of different but very similar, very partisan sources of news and thus still live in a filter bubble or echo chamber of sorts. Our data only captures the number of sources respondents say they have used in the past week, not the content they have actually consumed.

Nonetheless, in most cases, using significantly more different sources of online news is likely to result in a more diverse news diet, and social media users—both those who intentionally use social media for news and those who use the platforms for other purposes but come across news while on them—use more different sources of online news than people who do not use social media.

Take-aways from Google’s DNI Berlin

November 17, I attended a Google Digital News Initiative event in Berlin, where a new round of €24 million in grants was announced and developments in media discussed with various publishers from across Europe. (More on the winners here – lot’s of interesting initiatives.)

30 minutes took me from Tegel airport and its abundant offer of local printed newspapers to a conversation focused on the future of media and news.


It was an interesting event with very good group of attendees, lively discussions during the sessions and even more so during the breaks.

My take-aways (check #dniberlin for more discussion)—

Journalism remains challenging and news a tough business, but both are important and I take 3 positive things from what I heard and conversation with various publishers.

  • First, it is great to see a gradual move beyond vague talk of “innovation” to how leaders can encourage it, how everyone in an organization needs to engage for it to succeed, and to how new and more diverse skills are needed. This is in line with what Lucy Kung’s research has found and others working on change and innovation too and it is good to see more publishers embrace these ideas—even as innovation and change in practice remains difficult and the environment continues to change faster than many publishers have been able to change themselves.
  • Second, more and more news media are embracing the idea that you need to try things, test them, evaluate, and repeat to constantly adapt and learn. This is a move away from the tendency to talk about and perhaps in practice focus on big-bang type initiatives that takes months to develop and require lots of resources and often in-fighting and resistance, to a greater focus on all the little things one can do to constantly try to improve and adapt, and how one can both empower decentral teams to try things while also having ways of deciding what to go ahead with and what not.
  • Third, there is obviously competition and even conflict between different actors in the wider ecosystem, but also a real interest in collaboration, in identifying synergies and win-win scenarios. No one can “go it alone”, so news media, technology companies, and other actors including foundations, non-profits, and universities need to find each other and find ways of working together.

News media are frequently criticized for being conservative and slow to change. Many of them are, and the pace of change and the pain of collapsing revenues in itself neither explains nor excuses this.

But it is also important to recognize that, as Alessio Cornia, Annika Sehl and I have found in our research on how private sector media and public service media across Europe are adapting to change that some of them have both (a) invested a lot in digital media and (b) build very significant audiences, produced great journalism, and in some cases found promising business opportunities.

Not everyone is equally conservative. And some of those who have tried more aggressively to change have done demonstrably better. A few media companies seem content to die with their current aging (print/broadcast) audience without fighting to build a digital future, but that is, thankfully, not the general outlook.

On the technology side, Google gave short presentations of various products, including the Accelerated Mobile Pages project, YouTube player for publishers, and various products around monetization.

The two most interesting things gauging from what people were buzzing about during the breaks were—

  • Rudy Galfi (Product Manager for the AMP Project)’s presentation on the development of “Progressive Web Apps” that aim to combine the discoverability (through links, search, social etc.) of the open web with the engagement and good user experience of native apps. As publishers think about scale versus niche, and about building reach and converting people to loyal (and potentially profitable) users, this is an important area.


  • The demo by Behshad Behzadi (Director of Conversational Search) of Google Assistant, an attempt to “build the ultimate assistant” by developing a personal virtual AI assistant that can be controlled by voice and provide highly contextual, personalized, interactive information and services. It is being rolled out initially via the Google Pixel smartphone and the Google Home smart speaker, but will be available across smartphones, wearables and more in the future. As Laurence Kozera (Google Global Product Partnerships) put it, “as news publishers, you should be thinking ‘voice’ right now, and how you can integrate it into assistants”. And from December, developers can build “actions” for Google Assistant. As the content  will be delivered via the assistant, publishers will wonder about the usual issues around distributed content–recognizing the opportunity, but also wonder about editorial control over brand identity, access to data, and opportunities for monetization.


Blavatnik School discussion of 2016 US election


November 16, I was part of a good discussion of the 2016 US elections and its potential implications at the Blavatnik School of Government with Bill Emmott (former editor of the Economist, Visiting Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government), Sohrab Ahmari (columnist, Wall Street Journal), Sarah Churchwell (Professor at the University of London) and Pepper Culpepper (Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government). It was a good debate with lot’s of great questions from the floor. Full video here.

Platforms and publishers – my 2016 ECREA keynote

I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 ECREA conference in Prague. I spoke on the basis of research I am doing with Sarah Ganter on the relationship between news media organizations and digital intermediaries like search engines and social media.

Extended abstract and my slides below.

Publishers and platforms

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, keynote lecture at ECREA 2016 in Prague

What does the continued, global rise of platforms like Google and Facebook mean for public communication in a new digital media environment, and for how we research and understand public communication? That is one of the central questions facing the field of communication research today. In this lecture, I examine the relationship between publishers and platforms as one key part of how the rise of digital intermediaries is playing out, and show how news media—like many others—are becoming simultaneously increasingly empowered by and dependent upon a small number of centrally placed and powerful platforms beyond their control (and with whom they compete for attention and advertising). I develop the notion of “platform power” to begin to capture key aspects of the enabling, generative, and productive power of platforms that set them apart from other actors. As a range of different intermediaries including search engines, social media, and messaging apps become more and more important in terms of how people access and find information online, and in turn restructure the digital media environment itself, communication research is faced with a set of interlocking questions concerning both our intellectual work and our public role. The intellectual questions include the need to understand how people use these platforms to engage with public communication, but also institutional questions including how different platforms engage with other players (like publishers) and how these other players in turn adapt to the rise of platforms, as well as political questions concerning the implications of their rise. The question concerning our public role concerns how existing ways of doing and communicating communication research fits with our ability to understand—and help others understand—an opaque and rapidly-evolving set of processes profoundly reshaping our media environments.