13
Jan 14

Here’s the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came back

My apologies for the break in transmission from this blog, My day job took over completely during the autumn of 2013 and I will try to do better in 2014.

As one year flips over to another, bloggers and others get asked to do pieces summarising the highlights of the year about to end in a style which used to be known in print newsrooms as “pipe-suckers” or “cud-chewers” (my own ruminations here and here). This time round, there was one common denominator to the looks backward and forward. To summarise the summaries, optimism about journalism reappeared.

No one believes that anyone has cracked the problem of a digital business model for news publishing. But there’s a gently rising tide of new things working and the unexpected being tried, sometimes with success. Some time in 2013, without anyone quite marking it, a corner was turned.

I spent the first part of 2013 writing a book (see to the right of this post) which argues that gloom and pessimism about journalism fly in the face of (a) what’s happening outside mainstream newsrooms and (b) history. Like most authors, I thought I was arguing against the prevailing pessimism. I emerged from my study and the seclusion needed to get a book finished to discover that I was pushing at a door not exactly open, but easier to open than I’d thought. The climate of opinion was changing.

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Heres the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came backHeres the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came backHeres the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came backHeres the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came backHeres the thing about last year: optimism about journalism came backShare This Post

27
Sep 13

Newspaper are like horses? Not quite

Jeff Bezos is showing early promise as the new owner of the Washington Post: he has a sound grasp of how to say something familiar in an arrestingly new way.

The other day, he compared printed newspapers to horses:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

On one level, this is plainly true. As a medium for news, ink marks on squashed trees are economically inefficient, environmentally damaging and slow. Print, even for news, will not be replaced by digital. New media almost never completely substitute for older media; the newcomers shrink and shove to one side their predecessors. Just as the combustion engine became the standard way for people to get around without making horses disappear.

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26
Sep 13

Buzzfeed is more likely to regenerate journalism than any number of anxious conferences

This post opens with a hat-tip to Martin Moore, who pointed out to me the other day what a remarkable document is the message recently sent to the staff of the viral video site Buzzfeed by its founder Jonah Peretti. I’d seen mention of it, but failed to see its importance.

It is fascinating and well worth a read. Peretti’s start-of-term pep talk is both new – digitally aware, thinking ahead and celebrating innovation both editorial and technical – and at the same time old. Improbable, even shocking, innovation to grab an audience and income which can later fund journalism has happened before. In fact it’s happened throughout most of journalism’s history with the exception of the late 20th century.

What Peretti’s memo describes is the compressed history of a site begun to make it easy for bored people at work to swop silly videos and lists is now hiring foreign correspondents and investigative reporters, often the two most important and expensive tribes of journalists found in any newsroom. Peretti did not reach this position by waking up one morning and deciding to help democracy be better informed; he put together a team of alpha geeks who built a site which was unbeatable for sharing video of skateboarding cats on smartphones and social media. With that foundation, he can now go out and compete for high-prestige journalism prizes.

Many experiments fail; Buzzfeed might. It uses its not inconsiderable creative skill to make fluent, clever semi-disguised ads for companies which pay for the service. Critics allege that this will blunt the site’s reportorial edge; we’ll see. (In my book Out of Print just published, I record a senior Buzzfeed person who seems to admit this: page 221). The giggling frivolity might simply overwhelm trying to explain what’s happening in Nairobi or Nablus.

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23
Sep 13

Out of Print: the elevator pitch versions and reviews

You would have been hard put to be reading this blog in the past few weeks and succeded in avoiding any mention of my book Out of Print. This post is yet another encouragement to buy a copy by rounding up some of the stuff I’ve done about it and a few reviews. And the book is another instalment in my campaign to stamp out pessimism about journalism.

For easy watching, there’s a BBC interview by Nick Higham here (I fear it’s available only outside the UK). I summarised the book’s theme and argument in a blogpost here and in a piece for The Conversation UK here. There are recent pieces connected to the book’s themes on “who’s a journalist?” in the Yorkshire Post and on spaghetti-throwing (or experiments) at local level at journalism.co.uk.

There are a couple of online reviews here (Geoff Ward) and here (Roy Greenslade) and one in the News Statesman from Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School. Matthew Ingram of PaidContent assessed the book here. To complete the set here is one in Dutch by Bart Brouwers.

I naturally hope that these only whet your appetite to read the whole thing….


06
Sep 13

What the comments on my views on online comments have taught me

Yesterday’s post about the rising indifference to online comments provoked replies which undermined one of my assertions: that early hopes of intelligent conversation made possible by easier digital access have evaporated in the face of the everyday experience of insult, aggression and irrelevance.

With only a handful of exceptions, the comments have been useful and to the point. A few pointed out, as I ought to have, that other have been there before me. Here’s one example from Helen Lewis of the New Statesman; in a tweet-exchange with others reacting, she said that the NS had switched its comments system to Disqus with good effect.

One thing I ought to straighten out. I was not arguing that online comments should be withdrawn or stopped. No such thing is going to occur. What I was suggesting is that the simple technique of opening comments has not delivered the results hoped for. That has two great attractions: it’s “open” in a simple, inclusive way and requires only minimal moderation to remove unacceptable material.

So I was hinting that I think this is going to evolve. This is exactly the point which Mike Masnick (of Techdirt) drove home: his site asks users to vote on comments and give prominence to those which come out on top. He sees no connection between anonymity and talking rubbish.

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07
Aug 13

The Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos isn’t just rich – he experiments, he invents

The Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe sale of the Washington Post for $250m to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have taken Washington DC unawares – newspaper people are good at being secretive when it matters – but nothing in this emblematic story is surprising. There’s every chance that this is a good development. Here’s why.

The Post, owned until Monday by three generations of the Graham family, had been struggling as a media business and had sought a way out by buying into businesses which looked likely to help keep the company afloat. It had become an electronic education corporation with a famous newspaper as an appendage. Last month, the company bought a furnace business; it stopped describing itself as a media business some time ago.

Editorially, the paper still holds the attention of Washington’s older movers and shakers; its reporting can still set the capital’s agenda. But advertising revenue had fallen steadily, partly because it was not recruiting younger readers in sufficient numbers. Its editorial personality has lost much of its self-confidence.

I’ve written a book (published next month) which tries to explain exactly how this kind of crisis has come about in the European and American print news media. I argue that despite the threnodies for mainstream newspapers in difficulty and decline, the future prospects for journalism are good. As it happens, the book’s graph showing how online advertising income has not compensated for the loss of print ad income uses the example of the Washington Post.

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24
Jul 13

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer up

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upTo judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.

Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.

  • Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
  • The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
  • I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
  • The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
  • Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
  • But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.

That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….

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11
Jun 13

This post about skim-reading on the web is short because…

We all suspect that people read less on the web than they pretend. Not least because if you blog, you can read the analytics and discover that very few people ever turn the page.

I’ve always wanted to see how few people actually reach the end of even short posts and stories. Now someone’s actually using software which does that and more. It’s all explained in this story by Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo. At some length.

On the face of it, this skipping, hopping, snacking pattern of reading is discouraging if you write stuff in the hope that people will read it. But I suspect that this is a transitional phase and that these habits may change over time. Each new communications technology which increases the amount of information in circulation creates a temporary explosion of stuff to consume which is chaotic and which splits attention into small fragments. Then, we master the new flow and settle down to slower, calmer absorption of what we want and need to know.

It’s easy to exaggerate how much printed news content people actually read. Yes, the minutes logged as newspaper reading are much higher than on screens. A person reading a paper for 20 or 30 minutes will probably reach the end of at least one piece of several hundred words. But how many people read past the first two paragraphs of a printed news story or feature? The more information in circulation, the more we switch off if we suspect we know what’s coming in the rest of the piece. Formulaic journalism now dies quicker on any platform. There was an editor of the New York Times three or four back who is said to have never quite recovered from being told by market researchers that in the category of the paper’s most loyal readers, no more than 10% of those read past page 4.