22
Sep 14

Metadata surveillance: the issue which won’t be allowed to disappear

This blog returns to what I hope will be more frequent publication after an unintended break with a small item of good news. How often do blog-writers throw out appeals, queries and rhetorical questions and hear nothing but silence? Frequently.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the scale of electronic communications surveillance by the NSA and its international partners, I wrote a short post a few months back underlining why journalists should worry about “metadata”. To journalists particularly, the issue of whether the snoopers, tappers and buggers are reading your email or merely tracking who you email and when (metadata is the latter) isn’t important.

A source can be identified by a list of emails and calls even if the authorities don’t have the content of those exchanges. Indeed, there are active cases in the US which suggest that the American government is doing precisely that. In the long history of keeping reporting free of the state, this may turn out to be a more important issue than the British media’s debate over regulation in the wake of phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

I suggested in February that someone should test whether the indiscriminate collection of this kind of information was a threat to free expression and a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not an open and shut case, but surely something worth trying.

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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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07
Apr 14

One easy, transparent way of making accuracy visible: open sourcing

This blog has occasionally murmured that serious news media with an interest in being trusted had one simple way of demonstrating their reliability with the facts. And that way was offered by the digital technology which is so menacing to the livelihoods of newsrooms rooted in the print era.

I’ve argued that the building of trust would be strengthened by footnotes: links in the text which take the reader to the full version or to the source material. Digital content operates in three dimensions: the two dimensions you see on the screen of a phone, tablet or PC and the third dimension which you can access via an embedded link.

I wasn’t alone in pointing out this neglected opportunity, but I was surprised by how little traction the idea – which still seems a no-brainer to me – actually had. I had the chance to explain it recently to the editor of A Very Serious Newspaper whose journalists, I said, could demonstrate their superior reliability by this simple change. It was clear the the editor in question had little idea what I was talking about.

I think part of the problem is the word “footnotes”. So this small campaign is here being officially rebranded. “Footnotes” remind people of tiny text at the foot of the page on dusty pages in silent libraries. Henceforward this is the drive for “open sourcing”.

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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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05
Sep 13

Rage about anonymous online comments is building: change is coming

The other night I went to see Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play about a photojournalist who searches for the never-identified Chinese man and hero of an iconic picture who stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

On the way out of the theatre, I bumped into a fellow journalist. The newsroom dialogue was witty and sharp we happily agreed. And our favourite among those bits we also agreed was the crusty American editor spitting with rage about online comments below the newspaper’s online articles.

Frank, the editor in the play, is killing the search for the “tank man” because it costs too much and because the paper now has Chinese investors. Joe, the photographer, provokes this pungent speech from Frank by telling him that as an editor he’s supposed to be a guardian of a free press. Frank, sick of change, replies:

Don’t you dare sit there and suffer at me, hell I suffer too! You think I enjoy using the word ‘multi-platform’? That I think it’s desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God forbid an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating eachother in packs under my banner, that’s not a democratic press, it’s a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles.”

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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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24
Jun 13

How many royal charters does it take to fix press regulation? Six, at least

Any time from this week, we may hear news from the government ministers assigned to solve the conundrum of press regulation. Consultation on one of the many royal charters which have been written since the Leveson Report was published more than six months ago has finished and we may hear how the government hopes to get out of the deep doo-doo it’s walked into.

Or possibly not. Lord Leveson remarks more than once in his report that press regulation is a subject about which politicians may have, or even voice, opinions. When in office, they rapidly conclude that they are determined to do as little as possible. The toughness of the present dilemmas isn’t going to change that.

Any system of press regulation which is “independent” of the state and politicians can’t, by definition, be compulsory and even if it were, news publishing groups increasingly pivoting to become global online publishers could operate from outside British legal jurisdiction. Yet a cross-party majority of MPs want, and have voted for, a tougher system of accountability than the three largest national newspaper publishers will accept.

There are now six versions of Royal Charters in play, all claiming to be to be the best balance between freedom and restraint. These six versions have all been generated despite the claim made for Royal Charters – that they protect the independence of a press regulation system from future political interference – having been strongly challenged. Six charters may just be the start.

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