I think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.
I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:
“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”
Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.
I’ve spent the past few years being told repeatedly that investigative journalism is under terrible, terminal threat. The business crisis of newspapers and commercial pressures have gutted investigative teams and dumbed down the very idea. Owners and publishers don’t like it. Across the world, the future for penetrating and patient reporting of what powerful people don’t want revealed is bleak.
I’m pleased to say that this is doom-laden nonsense. Philanthropic money continues to flow into the most difficult and demanding investigations both in the US (the founding donation to ProPublica and Pierre Omidyar’s $250m being the most spectacular examples). Mainstream media continue to strip away layers of concealment. The British Press, Foreign Press Association and James Cameron awards – all in London within the last few weeks – have recognised investigative reporting by, among others, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, The Times, Channel 4’s Despatches and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (declaration: I’m a trustee). There are few weeks of the year when a conference boosting the skills or morale of investigative reporters doesn’t start somewhere. Today in London it’s the Logan Symposium (foundation funded).
But there is one example of the health of investigative journalism rarely mentioned and I think it deserves to be. I first came across a clue when I was in Hong Kong last year and had lunch with an old friend who brought an extra guest to the meal. This Australian worked, he said, for Reuters and I asked him what he did. He was an investigative reporter and I asked if he specialised in any subject. He did long-form reporting, he said, on the army of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Now the Chinese army is very large, very powerful and no doubt rich and fertile territory for investigations. But I was struck that Reuters, with its roots as a global news agency, should be deploying investigative reporters on that kind of scale.
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The annual conference of the Society of Editors heard two arguments this week for “shield laws” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources including a pledge from the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, that a future Conservative government would amend the Human Rights Act to give more “specific protection” to journalists.
There is a good account here of the speech by Gavin Millar QC, a very knowledgeable expert, and Javid’s speech is here. All this is well-intentioned and understandable: shield laws already exist in several American states. For a whole series of reasons stemming from recent disclosures, the protection of sources in the digital age is a big concern.
But there’s a big difficulty with shield laws, however tempting they might sound at first hearing. They require journalists to be a defined category of people. Once upon a time, that might have been easy: they were people who worked on the editorial content produced by printed newspapers and broadcast channels. Important disclosures are made by journalists; but they are also made by people who aren’t inclined to call themselves that.
Now, it’s not so easy. Anyone with a smartphone can “publish” to audiences large and small, simply by hitting a “share” button. Who counts as a journalist? In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and related wrong-doing, civil servants tied themselves into tangled knots trying to define “news publishers” who would be included in a new regulatory system.
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Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.
If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:
- Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
- Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
- The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
- Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
- Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
- In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.
I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools: Continue reading →
As the printed press has struggled to cope with the end of an era of plenty and the collapse of the newspaper business model, the odd voice has played with the idea of subsidising the press. Here’s why that might be an idea to be briefly considered, but it’s also one to reject.
After all, such would-be saviours of the endangered species of printed news ask, don’t we all subsidise the BBC, to the tune of £4bn a year, through a licence fee which is a tax by another name? Do papers not enjoy a tax break by not paying VAT? Don’t other European countries do this and don’t they manage fine?
Not in France they don’t. Journalist Sebastien Fontenelle has just been having another go at newspaper and magazine subsidies there and bringing the story up to date. As he rightly remarks, major newspapers like Le Monde and Figaro use a lot of ink telling the state and government to reduce government spending and debt while hypocritically burying the figures on the subsidies they receive and doing nothing to abolish or reform the system.
Official figures show that the France spent €5bn between 2009 and 2011, amounting to 15% of the industry’s turnover. You might imagine that this money was distributed to high-minded but loss-making publications on politics and economics. In 2013, nearly €20m was handed to the four magazines devoted to TV listings and small screen celebs.
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I went last night to the Frontline Club in London for a panel discussion organised by Index on Censorship on – what else? – “Will the future of journalism mean we are better informed”? Two admirable outfits, but the debate was a mess.
Many discussions of this kind are driven by what live-debate-marketers think is a widespread worry about journalism. The internet may look and sound like a boon, but is it just a tsunami of unreliable, manipulated trash? And, what with phone-hacking and related sleaze, the established mainstream media is hardly better. Oh what do we do?
I doubt that these assumptions are even right: I think most people are quietly celebrating how much information the internet gives them (yes, it’s that simple) and mistrust of popular papers is long-established. But majoring on anxiety produces shapeless discussions in which journalists – including young ones who’ve hardly started – lament the passing of a supposed golden age in which huge, well-resourced newsrooms provided jobs for most wannabees. While at the same time panellists do their best to sound polite and politically correct about citizen journalists and “user generated content”. The connection between these two bits of the picture isn’t often made.
I could go on at length about what’s wrong with this kind of discussion, but I’ve done that at length elsewhere (see Out of Print to the right). Instead, a modest proposal.
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The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.
By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.
But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.
I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).
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As news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.
Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.
He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.
This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.
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