Hanson Hosein on Twitter, Tom Brokaw and new journalism

by John Cook, TechFlash

An independent filmmaker and former war correspondent for NBC News, Hanson Hosein has seen a lot in his 39 years. He's been bombed on the Israeli border and won an Emmy for reporting in war-torn Kosovo. Through it all, there's been one constant: the need to tell stories.

Now, as the director of the University of Washington's Master of Communication in Digital Media, the stories (and number of people telling them) has multiplied. Hosein -- who refers to himself as a journalist-in-transition -- is helping the next generation of information gatherers make sense of tools like Twitter and Facebook. Along the way, the Toronto, Canada native and his students are trying to think up revenue models for new media companies.

I sat down with Hosein this week to chat about changes in journalism, his love of Twitter and why new opportunities may be emerging in the media business.

How is the media business changing?

Hosein: "It is all very experimental right now, and no one really has the answer. But what is really going on here is a complete reversal of the communications work flow. We are moving very quickly away from top-down communication to conversations and dialogue and transparency and, most importantly, relationship building."

You've said that media companies don't want to forfeit control of the message. Why not?

Hosein: "Because journalism hasn't totally fallen off the map yet.... It is not just journalism that is questioned. It is advertising. It is public relations. It is anything that involves communications.... Information used to be a scarce resource.... And now information is no longer a scarce resource, so how does a professional continue to justify being in control of that resource and getting paid a huge amount of money Katie Couric style? And the answer is not very much."

How do you teach new media concepts at the MCDM?

Hosein: "We take this very seriously. Universities themselves are traditional institutions that have a top down way of teaching. And our program takes a very collaborative approach because my attitudes about my students is if I wasn't teaching them, I would be working with them. These are my peers, these are my colleagues. And these are people who are all trying to figure it out.

If Google can't figure out how to monetize YouTube yet, the answers are out there still. There is no reason why we can't produce the answers ourselves in our collaborative environment in the classroom. So, that is our approach to using social media to figure out the strategies to communicate more effectively."

What's the mission of the MCDM?

Hosein: "We really believe at the University of Washington that we can be the community hub for digital media and communications in the Pacific Northwest. So that's what we are trying to do, but we are also trying to incubate ideas and relationships with companies and organizations throughout the region who will come to us and say: 'we are thinking about this strategy and can you help us?' So the center is working on three things: models, monetization and metrics. Those are the three big questions in social media."

Have you figured anything out yet?

Hosein: "We are still working on it." (Laughs)

Could the Seattle P-I transition to online only and is there any hope in that model?

Hosein: "The future of journalism is backwards. These newspapers have survived off monopolies pretty much for the last 20 years. There is a place for journalism, there is a revenue model for it, but the revenues are far less significant than what they were. So, the P-I ... has got to get rid of the printing presses. They have to get rid of 90 percent of their staff. And they have to offer a lean and mean -- like the West Seattle Blog does. The West Seattle Blog is doing just fine, but it is two people and they are working their asses off all of the time. But they are making money.... There is money to be made in news, just not as much. So you have to get rid of your multi-million dollar anchors and your very expensive infrastructure, and take advantage of the digital resources that are out there."

Why do advertisers pay more for a TV or print ad if it is not as measurable as an online ad?

Hosein: "Advertising online, there is no exclusivity there anymore. There is a flood of outlets to advertise on, so rates are really low.... If you are competing with Google Adwords, who says that is any less effective than putting on a 30 second ad for Doritos chips that you are paying $100,000 for."

What about a targeted online ad to a niche audience?

Hosein: "Maybe the mindset has to change because I think the feeling still is if it is in the newspaper or on TV, I need to pay more money for that because I am technically reaching more people. Maybe they haven't quite figured out that there is actually more value in reaching a specific target... The problem is, once again, even if you get those metrics, you could also pay a few pennies for a Google AdWord."

What do you make of Twitter?

Hosein: "I love Twitter. I think Twitter is more effective than blogging in many ways, because I am just too busy to read most blogs.... I think Twitter is an amazing broadcast tool and it is great for building relationships. I actually encourage all my students, especially in this job market, that they have to develop their own personal brand. It is no longer expecting to get hired by some media institutions when you leave. You need to sell yourself as a brand. And part of that is getting on LinkedIn and developing a following on Twitter. Just get that conversation going and establish yourself as an expert on something."

Would you pay for Twitter?

Hosein: "I would be willing to pay for Twitter. If they said a couple bucks a month or something like that, for me that is worth it."

What problems or roadblocks arise because of the amount of information that is now flowing online?

Hosein: "I think there are a number of concerns. We saw this whole Facebook terms -of-use scandal this week: Who owns that information that you are putting out there? The younger generations don't really have any thoughts about privacy. So there are two issues for me as an academic. What is being done with that information and how do we -- if we can -- control it? And who owns it? We try to educate our students on copyright and creative commons and all of those things.... I even think that we should be introducing this whole notion of ownership into civic courses in high school in Washington state, because everybody can communicate right now...

Secondly, with all that noise, if you want to be an effective communicator, how do you break through it? It is not just about social media to me, it is also about really effective storytelling. If you are a good storyteller, you are always going to break through."

Doesn't good storytelling take time and effort and in an era of Twitter is that lost?

Hosein: "I think storytelling is more important than ever. And you can teach it in a way that is reflexive.... A Tweet can be good storytelling at 140 characters if you have a good beginning, a middle and an end, and you know how to hook your reader in."

What was it like working with Tom Brokaw?

Hosein: "I've met all of the anchors. Peter Jennings once interviewed me for a job. Dan Rather came to my school and I struck up an email relationship with him. Brokaw was the most down to earth. And I think he took it more seriously even though he was still a celebrity and he knew that he was a celebrity... He was just very generous, a decent Midwestern guy. I had a great deal of respect for Tom, but he is still a top of the heap journalist where he could get on the phone and call the White House or whoever else. It is all about the powerful relationships. And those are the things that I rejected at NBC."

What did you learn from your experiences as a war correspondent that you can apply to digital media?

Hosein: "Whenever I was going to a war or a disaster area, all ordinary, rational people are running away from it and I am running towards it. I always thought, despite the danger of being in a war zone, there was always opportunity in chaos. And right now, there is chaos in the economy. And there is chaos in the communication business about what is going to work. I am not too upset about the P-I going away. I think there is huge opportunity right now to tell different stories and there are different players in this. And it is up to us to figure out how that is going to work. So, I am all about opportunity in the chaos."

What is your definition of social media?

Hosein: "It is essentially community building online. Social media might even go away as a term, so I am little reluctant to get too hung up on it. What I think it is essentially about is building relationships.... That is what people are looking for. They don't want to be talked to, they want to be part of the conversation. This is not a trend or a flash in the pan that is going to go away... We have fundamentally changed our mindset on how we want to communicate. And we want to communicate through relationships."

On turning down a job at the Medill school of journalism last year?

Hosein: "I said where can I really practice what I believe? And by going there is to be part of the power structure again with the institutions, which I think are dying, as opposed to being at the University of Washington where I have greater independence and a chance to be entrepreneurial with this program and teach entrepreneurship to my students."

And being in Seattle has a bit more entrepreneurial energy I would think than Chicago?

Hosein: "More so than Chicago. More so than New York and Boston. I love this city. I don't ever want to leave it. I think this is the right place to be for this crazy future."
A closer look at Hanson Hosein

Born: England

Grew up: Ontario, Canada

Age: 39

Education: M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Law degrees from Montreal’s McGill University and the University of Paris.

Hobbies: Biking, kayaking, guitar.

Favorite social media site: Twitter

Favorite Web sites: "You are going to hate this. I love Fark.com. I actually like the conversation that goes on in Fark, because it is humorous but there's also enough smart people there that you kinda get to what is really going on."

Favorite print pubs: "I read the Wall Street Journal in print cover-to-cover every morning. I actually like the print experience, and maybe it is a generational thing. I feel like I don't get everything that I need by looking at it online."

Favorite tech gadget: Nokia E71. "I don't get the iPhone. It is a crippled piece of technology compared to the Nokia E71. I want to shoot video. I want to send multimedia text messages. I want to cut and paste. What the hell is that. This does everything I need. This is my computer."

First job: Delivering printed flyers for Sears door-to-door in Canada. "I hated it."

Awards: Emmy Award for reporting on "The Fall of Kosovo."

Scariest situation as a war correspondent: Avoiding incoming rockets during the Israeli pull out of Lebanon in 2000. "I ended up having to hide in the shovel of the bulldozer and the rockets kept coming closer and closer. And the last one hit so close, that the gravel spat up and hit me in the face. I said, 'OK, this is pretty much it.'"

Favorite movies: "Casablanca" and "Lord of the Rings"

Documentary films created: "Independent America: Rising from Ruins" and "Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop."

What would you be doing if you weren't leading the the UW's MCDM? "Roaming the world telling stories."

article originally published at http://www.techflash.com/QA_Hanson_Hosein_on_Twitter_Tom_Brokaw_and_new_journali....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey