10
Sep 12

Olympics and Paralympics on television: a small niggle

Like everyone else, I had fun with the Olympics. I loved what I saw close-up and I watched the coverage.

Different mediums, different lessons. I learnt that womens’ basketball is more exciting than the better-known, big-money mens’ version because female players aren’t tall and strong enough to make long, lone runs to score and must play it as a passing, team game. That makes it mediocre television but a terrific live sport. I learnt that synchronised swimming, if you’re watching it live from near the roof of the Aquatic Centre, is well-nigh incomprehensible; thank heaven for underwater cameras and big screens. Like millions, I thought Clare Balding and Ian Thorpe were an inspired pairing. And I watched in the roaring stadium as Richard Whitehead won the Paralympic mens’ 200m.

But I’ve got one small, niggling reservation which won’t quite go away. The BBC is our public service broadcaster and that should include setting standards for others. On many levels, the BBC did that in the London Olympics. The weight of sporting expertise assembled to comment on everything was mighty.

But the vast majority of that commentary was about effort and emotion. The set-piece films about individual athletes, made in advance and played endlessly, were all about preparation, dedication and previous disappointment or triumph. These are all part of the story. But only part. Remarkably little of the hour upon hour of “analysis” was actually devoted to explaining what was happening and why – beyond commenting on what was visible. How do you pace a 100m hurdle race at Olympic level? How to do you measure acceleration and deceleration in rowing? How does a judge split the performances in gymnastics?

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26
Jun 12

Making better use of journalism technology, take two

The first phase of the adoption of new technologies is breathless and unreflective. Vast and weighty conclusions are drawn about the meaning of change and future trends based only on the first phase.

This makes as much sense as it would have done to project the future of domestic architecture from the mud hut. Invention and innovation are important, but so is adaptation and particularly adaptation to how people react to new opportunities and seeing what they need and want. Steve Jobs wasn’t just good with code and gadgets; he was an anthropologist as well, and a very shrewd one.

We can now say, twenty years or so after the internet entered the mainstream, that we’ve got our breath back and we’re starting to see intelligent adaptation of new media in journalism. Straws in the wind:

  • Science journalists on mainstream media are starting to see that linking to sources is going to change their field in the next few years. Hotlinks make “footnotes” easy and simple to put in text. Yes, they’re chore to insert. But I’m as certain as I am of anything that footnoting will be a standard feature in quality journalism in a few years. The user can see the source and if necessary open a new window to look at the detail which lies behind. This came up this week at the UK Conference of Science Journalists.
  • In a few years time, young journalists will be astonished to hear that well into the second decade of this century, major news websites with pretensions to be taken seriously – particularly those with print legacies – did not routinely require reporters to link to disclosable sources. “You mean you just asked them to take it on trust?” the shocked youngsters will ask. One effect of footnotes will be less bad science in news media. Not instantly, but gradually. And the improvement needn’t be confined to science either.
  • The resistance to thinking in terms of jigsaws and encyclopaedias is beginning to break down. News websites are, still, largely driven and dominated by people who think of news as disposable, like the newsprint it was distributed on. Once it’s gone to the consumer and been read, it’s gone. Websites aren’t like that. They have rolling news which comes and goes. But that layer of fast-moving information sits atop and supplies a slowly-accumulating mountain of data, a digital encyclopaedia. A big site will by now have built up an online archive of several million pages. The best sites carry links to related stories. But the linking is automated and crude.
  • So far. If a big story breaks in Syria or Burma, you want to read the correspondent on the spot first. But it would be great to have the backstory, the background, opinions and analysis from other sources, other versions of the same event all laid out and labelled. A richer menu of ways of seeing the story; a better jigsaw, in short.
  • TV companies and websites have noticed that young consumers of sport and entertainment often watch TV while using smartphone or tablets to discuss what they’re seeing. We’re not very far from editorial content which is designed for two-screen consumption. (I’m supervising the Masters dissertation of a student who is currently on an internship at a major news website in London studying just this). An independent report the other day criticised the BBC for failing to use its own depth of knowledge properly in reporting the Arab Spring. They had a huge website with lots of cool stuff on it and didn’t point enough people towards it. Here’s Alfred Hermida, who used to work in BBC Online, lamenting this.
  • Lastly, comments. I’ve long thought that simply making comment space available at the end of articles is an overblown advance. Navigating your way through the abuse, duplication, one-on-one squabbles is simply too time-consuming. The problem is partly technical – how do you sift for what’s worth reading? – and partly exaggerated deference to the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valuable. Comment software has destroyed that illusion. Here’s Clay Shirky noticing that Gawker have begun to do something about this.

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24
Apr 12

BBC News and what the future looks like from the top floor

I listened to a briefing recently by a senior person at BBC News. I heard it on background, so I can’t name the individual but you can take it that this person knows a lot about a newsgathering operation which employs, worldwide, 6000 people. The world’s largest, so far. A few snippets:

  • Chinese state broadcasting is set to become the world’s biggest newsgatherer. We don’t know when. In parts of Africa, people don’t see the Chinese as having any agenda or slant. The BBC is sometimes seen as having a post-colonial British agenda.
  • In Britain, approval of the BBC diminishes the further you go from London.
  • The BBC cuts programme is known as “Delivering Quality First” or “DQF”. In the newsroom this is rendered as “Duck Quick or you’re F*****.”
  • We may be cutting back on two on-screen presenters on the news channel but we’re re-appointing political reporters at local radio stations. In local politics coverage, papers are “nowhere”.
  • The first five bi-lingual (i.e. not English mother tongue) correspondents reporting across the network are just about to start work.
  • The audience is pretty bored with the primary campaign in the US presidential. We kid ourselves about the level of interest. The Radio 4 audience is actually pretty hostile to the US.
  • We have a dilemma about local coverage: the BBC Trust stopped plans to do that. We’re not in a good place.
  • When the Leveson Inquiry began, the BBC began its own internal investigation. Pretty uncomfortable having your own records gone through. As far as I know, the Daily Mirror haven’t yet done their own inquiry.

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12
Dec 11

The government media review everyone’s forgotten

Amid the drama of the phone-hacking inquiries, anyone could forget that the British government is undertaking a review of plurality and media ownership. I had forgotten myself. And I’d actually sent the review a contribution.

My memo to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was based on a post on this blog. But for the record it’s here (scroll down to Brock and click). By far the hardest issue is not “how much should anyone own?” but how to measure media influence in the hands of one company.

Transparent government is a splendid thing. But that hardly makes it exciting.


03
Nov 11

Media regulation: a new idea (and some older ones)

Almost every week in London this autumn there has been panel discussion, a lecture or a seminar on one aspect or another of regulating the media. Regulation fatigue is starting to set in.

Several dozen regulators, analysts and academics tried looking for a new ideas on regulation at City University this week. They heard a few, not least from the Irish and Australian media regulators who came to compare and contrast their own systems of self-regulation.

But the discussion never quite escaped the battles of the past. The issue of how a self-regulatory system guarantees that it covers all the major players was dramatised by the appearance of the editorial director of Northern & Shell, owners of the Daily and Sunday Express, which withdrew from the Press Complaints Commission earlier this year. One disgruntled commentator was led to wonder if the Leveson Inquiry was really worth holding if the informal debate on regulation would soon produce changes sooner.

The audience was offered one entirely new idea in the form of a book outlining a 3-tier system for the regulation of all news media by Lara Fielden, who has been both a broadcast journalist and a regulator. At first sight, Fielden’s scheme looks too complex and hard for consumers of news to grasp or use. But Fielden’s research and reflection has two great strengths: it relies heavily on incentives to voluntary submission to rules to improve journalism’s quality and it tackles the pivotal issue of producing a convergent regulatory scheme for converging media.


07
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

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06
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar in London

Wadah Khanfar, until very recently the director-general of Al-Jazeera, is due in London this evening to deliver the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University. This is the first time a journalist from the Middle East has been invited to give the lecture (the year of the Arab Spring seemed an appropriate moment) and the first time that Khanfar has been in London since he suddenly announced that he was stepping down from running Al-Jazeera.

To get an idea of the importance of satellite television in general – and of Al-Jazeera in particular – in this year’s events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain take a look at the annual Strategic Survey of the Institute of Strategic Studies (the relevant section starts at p97). I have a fair idea of who wrote the (unsigned) analysis and she is very expert. There have been many analyses of the influence of social networks and satellite television on the Arab revolutions. Because the IISS survey is sober and careful, its carefully weighed evidence about the influence of cross-border broadcasters counts for more. A slightly less sober (but well-rated by insiders) account of Al-Jazeera’s sudden global fame from GQ is here.

We still don’t know exactly why Khanfar left his job: this is his explanation and this is a summary of the rumours. Khanfar is a journalist; he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family previously working in a state oil and gas compnay. All of the above (significance, reasons for departure) in this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review. We may learn more this evening; I will report back tomorrow.


11
Jun 11

Miscellany: on getting used to things being free, Mamet, closure on a reporter’s death and more

I’ve haven’t for some time rounded up a diverse collection links in a weekend post because I noticed that the readership of this blog falls to its lowest on a Saturday and Sunday.

But I’ve also been noticing that my posts have quite a “long tail” and get looked at some time after they’ve gone up. So here’s some varied weekend or weekday reading. There is absolutely no common theme.
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