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April 25, 2011, 1 p.m.

A web community with a TV show: Inside The Stream’s efforts to turn broadcasting into a social medium

Al Jazeera English debuted the online edition of its show The Stream before an energized crowd last week at an Online News Association meetup in Washington, DC. A hybrid of high-velocity online conversation and TV analysis, The Stream’s TV component will broadcast out of the Newseum, starting in May, four days a week. And it will be complemented by a continuous online operation that will mine the social media ecosystem for stories of global importance.

Billing itself as an “aggregator of online sources and discussion, seeking out unheard voices, new perspectives from people on the ground and untold angles related to the most compelling stories of the day,” The Stream looks to be a distillation of Al Jazeera’s signature global coverage with an eye towards the social media reporting whose significance proved itself yet again during this spring’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since The Stream’s online launch, stories have included the use of the hashtag #estadofallido (“failed state”) by Mexican Twitter users to address escalating drug violence; an Internet blackout in Nepal; Twitter’s capacity to save a dying language; and a Syrian revolt in (yes) Orange County, California. The Stream’s web operation is powered by Storify, the relatively new tool that allows you to curate social elements from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere around the web. Everything from posts from a blogger in Yemen to snapshots of anti-Arab American graffiti in the OC are woven together into a evocative multimedia narratives.

A web community with its own TV show

“The Stream is reporting on and taking part in a global conversation,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, a senior producer for The Stream. “Our stories are about conversations being had online. When we talk about one of these stories on the show, we want to add to those conversations.” Derrick Ashong, The Stream’s charismatic host (and the subject of a viral video during the 2008 presidential campaign), explained to the assembled crowd that the program was “curating the kind of conversation that lots of us are having all the time.” Or, as he told Fast Company last week: “The concept of The Stream is actually a web community that has its own daily television show on AJ.”

The Stream seems like a logical next step given Al Jazeera’s newfound online clout. The network experienced massive digital growth during the Arab Spring, with web traffic exploding by 2,500 percent at the beginning of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as global audiences turned to Al Jazeera English for insight into the turmoil. When the network streamed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, traffic jumped from 50,000 visitors to 135,371, with 71 percent of the increase coming from social media.

Overnight, Al Jazeera English became an essential online read for global affairs. (Its coverage was so widely praised that Hillary Clinton dubbed it “real news” — this despite its former status as network non grata in America during the Iraq War, when it fell into disfavor with the Bush administration over critical coverage of the war effort.)

Now, a whole class of young and tech-savvy American journalists has been reintroduced to the network through Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. At The Huffington Post, Michael Calderone rightly speculates that buzz surrounding The Stream’s online game will serve as a vehicle for Al Jazeera English’s adoption into the American cable market — via, in particular, a generation of younger, hipper news consumers.

Voice to the voiceless

Regardless of The Stream’s place in Al Jazeera’s larger strategy, however, the network’s English-speaking operatives have other reasons to celebrate the launch of the innovative new program. With The Stream, Al Jazeera may succeed where the majority of American media organizations have fallen short: 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.

“Social media has the power to break down the centralized control of what constitutes news. If enough people are talking about something on the Internet it IS news. Communities thus have the power to define their OWN news,” notes consultant editor and executive producer Stephen Phelps, who has worked as a producer for the BBC for the past several decades, in an email. “Our job is to find those communities who are saying something which fits the Al Jazeera vision of giving voice to the voiceless and looking at the world from every angle and every side. And to do this on a broad basis through empowering our own community to crowd-source the news. The network’s opportunities to fulfill that goal are greatly enhanced by a program which taps social media.”

In practice, the actual manifestations of the idea of “social news” in Western media outlets have been lacking, generally less focused on utilizing the latest tools for reporting and storytelling and more intent on widespread distribution of branded content. For many media organizations, Facebook and Twitter appear to be first and foremost infrastructure companies: They provide highly efficient channels for spreading content or expanding an outlet’s audience. And until recently, they’ve been treated as such: Virtually every media outlet, from your small-town paper to The New York Times, has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and (increasingly) Tumblr for promoting their latest stories and soliciting feedback from readers. But very few make the content of social networks a feature of regular news packages. Andy Carvin’s frenetic Twitter curation of the Middle East uprisings has been the de facto example of social media’s newsgathering power; but it’s also notable for being exceptional — in every sense. When stories based on happenings in the social space are published by major news outlets, the outlets seem fixated on a narrow scope of “what’s viral” rather than “what’s vital.”

Social + broadcast

“This is not a show simply about the hottest viral videos or trending stories on the Internet. #8millionBeliebers and #TeamSheen will not figure on The Stream,” proclaims The Stream. “Instead, our goal is to connect with unique, less-covered online communities around the world and share their stories and viewpoints on the news of the day.”

For American cable news providers like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, the underlying incentive to deploy social media in the service of marketing and traffic goals rather than as an all-encompassing editorial tool may be out of necessity; where cable news used to be the growth sector of the American media industry, it is now on the decline. CNN fared worst in 2010, losing 37 percent of its primetime viewers, while Fox News shed 11 percent and MSNBC 5 percent. The organizations that do try to embrace social do it with the hope of bringing in (or retaining) viewers than developing a new form of storytelling.

In contrast to the shrinking U.S. cable market, Al Jazeera’s sudden growth makes it the perfect network to be creative and innovative in social journalism as a legitimate accompaniment to its regular online and broadcast programming. It should be noted that this is only partially due to the network’s recent online coup: Planning for The Stream started in November, well before protests broke out in Tunisia. “It was generated from the realization within the channel that social media was fast becoming a really important element of global information exchange,” says Phelps. “The revolutions only served to convince us we were on the right track.”

Operationally, the focus of The Stream is “purely editorial,” Phelps says. “The program comes under the over-arching banner of Al Jazeera’s model, which is about offering a different global voice. We are not constrained by the necessity to generate advertising revenue.”

“We’d certainly like to see a lot of web traffic — but engagement is for us an important part of our editorial process,” added Fitzgerald via email. “The Stream is meant to be a participatory online newsgathering community — the measure of our success in engagement will be how good the stories we cover are.”

A “truly global perspective”

While the program intends on being digital (and social) first, The Stream’s online component will certainly benefit from the global audience that Al Jazeera English already enjoys. The entire Al Jazeera network broadcasts to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries worldwide, compared to the BBC World Service and BBC World News’ combined 241 million viewers in 2010 (BBC World Service projected a loss of 30 million listeners in 2011 due to budget constraints). Long-term plans for The Stream involve incorporating more social tools and a vast range of voices in conjunction with multiple daily broadcasts. “In a year or two I’d like the network to be doing four episodes a day, seven days a week, from two broadcast centers — in DC and Doha,” Phelps tells me. “And that our community is driving much of the editorial. Social media is about community. We must build one, and listen to it.”

“Like the rest of the network, our programme is meant to reflect the truly global perspective of a truly global network,” adds Fitzgerald. “That said, we think you’ll find the stories we cover and the tone in which we cover them might skew a bit younger than the rest of the network.”

The only limitations for The Stream’s television programming lie in the limited blocks of airtime and, as Phelps says, “in the ‘linear’ nature of TV (as opposed to the ‘distributed/randomized’ nature of information on the Internet).” The source of stories, he explains, “are now almost infinite. We are no longer constrained by our ability to get reporters/crews/satellites somewhere in order to cover it in a media-rich way.” The Stream’s format and focus are entirely flexible, to the extent that most of the technical challenges have involved translating the sleek curation of Storify into a broadcast setting. “Our guests are live via Skype; we’re showing Twitter on screen, highlighting short clips of YouTube videos played online,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s a very true experience to the web, actually. It just happens to be occurring on TV.”

POSTED     April 25, 2011, 1 p.m.
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