Sep 12

Funding journalism: not before a sharp, painful squeeze

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.

Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.

Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.

Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.

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May 12

Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Teachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

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Mar 12

Journalists and the perils of the over-optimistic herd

The international affairs scholar Walter Laqueur (left) has been asking himself why so many commentators – who might in his view have known better – were proved wrong in assuming that the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square would usher in age in Arab countries of democratic tolerance and European rights. Whether or not you accept his view of Egypt, his speculation about why these mistake are made has something interesting to say about crowdsourcing and collective judgement.

Laqueur begins by going back to another glaring example of over-optimism (which happens to have long fascinated me): inflating the prospects for the integration of Europe and the imminent triumph of the continent’s superior economic and social model. He gives a few examples of overblown hyperbole about how the 21st century would be Europe’s era and asks why the evidence that this might not happen was so often overlooked. This resonated with me since I’ve had experience in the past of trying to persuade American audiences that uniting Europe might not turn out to be as straightforward as many politicians in Europe claimed. I can still remember lecturing at a college in Vermont in 1989 (just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall as it happened) and telling a sceptical-looking audience that the unification of Europe wasn’t going to be like assembling the united states in America. My audience looked very grumpy and disappointed.

Then Laqueur looks at rosy-eyed predictions about what future elections would bring in Egypt, noting that very few journalists reporting the revolution in Egypt went beyond Cairo (and some never beyond Tahrir Square). A trip outside the capital might have revealed that support for a secular revolution was very limited and that while there might be competition between different variations of Islamic politics, the new Egypt was going not going to be secular and more “western”. The odds, he says, were stacked against a tolerant, plural, secular outcome from the start.

I’m less interested in whether Laqueur’s Egyptian pessimism is correct than in the conclusions he draws about punditry: Continue reading →

Jun 11

Is the article a luxury, a byproduct, disintegrating or simply over?

There’s been a splurge of stuff in the American blogs about “the article” and whether it still has a place in journalism. At first I thought this was just another missable debate provoked by the peculiar urge of some commentators to prove that the web is so exceptional and revolutionary that it alters the world, the universe and everything. Then I thought that there were a few things to say.

This discussion began, as many do, with a post by that carrier-to-the-extreme Jeff Jarvis on buzzmachine.com. The opener gives the flavour: “A few episodes in news make me think of the article as not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a by-product of the process.”

Jeff didn’t argue that people were going to stop writing articles, just that they were going to be less central to journalism. Because so many more people now capture and distribute news, more of that news will be in little pieces. Background can be linked to, synthesis is a luxury and reporting is what counts. I hope this is a fair summary. (If it isn’t Jeff will let you know, as he did with Matthew Ingram.) There’s also been a parallel and closely related discussion about whether “news” and “analysis” are going to be divorced and separated by these changes (see here and here).

One could quibble that “the article” wasn’t ever the “goal” of journalism. One could point out (and commenters on Jeff’s post did) that value-added luxury is a contradiction in terms. But the basic issue here is the relationship between fragments and the whole. The new trend right now is for refining ways of streaming bits of news at you in more interesting and enriched ways: expert Twitter curation, liveblogs and so on. In other words, the fragments are where peoples’ attention is directed just now. That’s an exploration of the possibilities of new platforms and applications: there’ll be yet more of them next year, and the year after that. When the innovation wave has washed away – and that may be a long time yet – what will be left? Continue reading →

Mar 11

Predictions for journalism’s next 25 years

This blog is currently in Vietnam, not an easy country in which to practice journalism. I will report on that in a few days’ time.

In the meanwhile, here are my predictions for the next 25 years in journalism given to the website XCity.

Sep 10

Does science journalism need saving?

David Rowan, editor of the UK edition of Wired magazine, thinks so and explains why here. One sentence takeout: science writers, to survive and prosper, are going to have to learn to be less dependent on journalism’s institutions, which are being eroded.

Footnote: David Dobbs, namechecked in David’s lecture to Dutch science writers, is currently a Visiting Fellow at City University’s Journalism department in London.

Update 29/9/10: I appeared on a panel with Martin Robbins not long ago and thought that more or less everything he had to say about science journalism made sense. His dig at the mannerisms of science reporting is on the nail.

Sep 10

Webdeath (3)

By far the best look at the forces pulling the world wide web in a new direction (a.k.a. the debate about “webdeath”) comes from The Economist here. Background to this in previous posts here and here. I’m with the academic quoted towards the end of this piece who says that it’s just going to be too hard to build proprietary walls round web content and break up global interoperability. Also note: web access rules by governments in Britain and the rest of Europe come out of this well.

Aug 10

The web, RIP?

“Is the Web Dead?” ask the big red letters on the cover of the latest edition of Wired magazine. Twin pieces by Chris Anderson (Wired’s editor-in-chief and author of “The Long Tail” and “Free”) and Michael Wolff (of Vanity Fair and Newser) agree that the web is done for.

Both men are professional exaggerators and overstate their cases. Which is briefly that the web’s “open”, free-wheeling, browser-based serendipity era is over and being gradually replaced by closed apps and systems which will capture ever-larger chunks of what is now a fluid and fragmented markets in news and entertainment. Their pieces are here.

But as exaggerators often will, they have dislodged a cascade of interesting reflection. Some of it is accumulating on Twitter at #webdeath. Best of all so far is this commentary from Alexis Madrigal which carries a lot of links on the fallacies of technological determinism.

The relevance of this to journalism lies in whether digital publishing will eventually shake down into a faithful reproduction of the print or broadcast models which tend to create a small number of big players. An oligarchy of news if you like.

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