26
Jun 17

What editors worry about today (notes from Newsgeist)

I went at the weekend to a Google Newsgeist conference in Copenhagen. The discussions are under ‘Chatham House’ rules (views can’t be attributed to individuals) but here are some quick and selective notes on what I learnt as a couple of hundred people from all over Europe (and a few from the US) chewed over journalism, technology and news.

  • Top shock value. When online news platforms try out several headlines on the first version of a story to see which one works best, bots can be used to ‘game’ the results of a survey, distorting the result and delivering – say – a headline more sympathetic to an individual featured in the story. The bots were originally developed to twist these experiments in favour of advertisers, but can just as easily be used to bend headlines in favour of anyone with the clout or expertise to deploy bots. If news sites aren’t savvy and careful.
  • Man with numbers. An expert on news consumption in Facebook made this simple point. The news people are shown in Facebook is more balanced than a lot of people imagine. What is unbalanced is people’s consumption of the stories they are shown. They simply ignore what they think they aren’t going to like.
  • Big underlying fear. No one quite knows what to do about this, but they’re afraid of it. Societies which can’t agree about what might or might not be true are at risk. That isn’t the same as societies disagreeing about stuff: democracies do that ceaselessly. But if a society is fundamentally divided on how to establish (with evidence) truth and how to recognise that, trouble follows. America in the age of Trump was on everyone’s mind. ‘We are losing our sense of collective reality,’ as one participant put it. (My views on this in a review of Cass Sunstein’s book #Republic are here). No consensus on the causes: many people think social networks cause or aggravate the problem, others think it has deeper causes such as social, demographic and geographic segregation.
  • New trend. Journalists, and particularly those with technology backgrounds, are beginning to think harder about how algorithms surface information and the long-term, accumulative implications. Those algorithms which lean particularly heavily on emotion (Facebook) were contrasted with Upday (a news app produced by Samsung and Axel Springer), whose designers claim to be balancing the emotion with some reason and use of public interest criteria. Are we witnessing the first attempts to design an editor-in-chief with machine learning?
  • To be continued. Online makes the disguise of information easier, cheaper and almost frictionless. Huge debunking and factchecking efforts have responded to new fears about ‘fake news’. The Google people present agreed that more technical inquiry was needed into whether there might be better ways to ‘hard code’, label or tag information to make it harder to distort or misuse. I talked about the INJECT project (with which I’m involved) which aims to produce software which, among other things, will help journalists add references and backing to what they write with minimum hassle.
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16
Mar 15

Little rays of sunshine…journalism in Spain and voting registration

As an antidote to grim March weather, here are two stories to lighten gloom. Struggling to keep up with new media, older people burble that digital social networks carry nothing but trolls and trivia. Many (older) journalists remain sternly pessimistic that their work can survive its bumpy transition to new technologies whose users seem so little interested in serious news and opinion.

At a supper last week organised by Tech City Insider, I had the good luck to sit next to a bearded, energetic man called Michael Sani. He began life as an actor and teacher and founded one of the campaigns trying to improve the falling voter registration rate among young people.

The campaign is called Bite the Ballot and early this year it organised a week-long registration drive. There wasn’t much choice that promoting the apparently-boring cause of registering to vote had to be done on social networks. Besides being the natural online conversation of the 18-24 age group that Sani and his volunteers were aiming at, getting people to relay your message by making it go viral is cheap. Which was good because bitetheballot didn’t have much money.

Long story short: 441,000 new voters were registered in that week. That set a world record for the numbers of voters (as a proportion of the potential electorate) put on the list in a week, outstripping America’s Rock the Vote drive in 2004. New voters registering had a 72% completion rate doing the 5-page form, which might also be a record. The campaign projected pictures onto Big Ben, went to community centres, worked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…and spent a grand total of £200.

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23
Oct 14

Don’t be vague: measure the value

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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20
Oct 14

How to rebuild local news: a spaghetti-throwing competition!

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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29
Apr 14

An incomplete list of things which are going to shape the next journalism

People who ponder journalism’s prospects have turned cheerful. Not suddenly, but over the past few months. The evidence that there’s capital, generative energy and signs that some digital publishing can survive is too obvious to ignore. So the shift has been from pessimism to futurology.

What kind of journalism are we going to see or should we want to see? “Open”, “networked”, radical, non-capitalist or done in looser structures than in the past? Because we’re in a phase of accelerating, plural experiment, what will happen will be all of these things and more.

Just pause for a second to appreciate what a change in the conversation the hi-tech millionaires, philanthropists and venture capitalists have brought about, at least in the US, by demonstrating that they want to be involved in building the next journalism. The emphasis is now more about the content than about the delivery and the platforms. As a writer of the pre-digital age put it, we’re watching “the turning of a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” This is nowadays known as “disruption”.

Here’s a meandering list of seven factors which will shape the next journalism. I’ll be talking about this at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia later this week. (And there’s more on the background to all this in Out of Print, see right).

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06
Feb 14

As online news and comment sites find their feet…editing turns out to be…useful

I wrote here recently about how “pure-play” online news and comment sites were starting to find their feet in greater numbers commercially, and, as they do so, more confidently rewriting the handbook on how journalism gets done most effectively with the tools newly available.

Nothing unusual about this: upstarts, dismissed at first as frivolous, grab large audiences and then work more serious stuff into the mix. It’s happened throughout the history of journalism so far – with the exception of the late 20th century when advertising income was secure. And it’s happening again now. (For a longer version of this argument, see Out of Print, details on the right).

But there’s one aspect of this that gets sidelined in a lot of discussion of new things. And that’s because the importance of editors is an old thing, being rediscovered yet again.

As the digital era began and its opportunities and possibilities emerged, one thing became clear. News media were going to “de-industrialise”. The dominant position held by a small number of print publishers and terrestrial broadcasters was not going to disappear but it was going to be eroded because the power to publish was being radically redistributed. Furthermore, this argument ran, individual journalists would be empowered to become independent of corporate monoliths. Journalism would not just de-industrialise but the newsrooms would no longer be the dominant unit of organisation. The important player would be the smallest atomic particle in the system: the individual journalist.

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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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19
Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

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