May 11

Bin Laden: real time fragments or the whole story?

Very interesting reflections today by John Gapper in the FT arising from the coverage of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Gapper watched as Wolf Blitzer of CNN struggled to cope on air as rumours swirled about Bin Laden’s death but the fact wasn’t confirmed solidly enough for the channel to broadcast it.

As Gapper predicts, rolling news broadcasters will not get caught like that again. They will feel increasingly obliged to start broadcasting rumours, correcting them as they go, sifting and iterating versions of the the truth as best they can. But as Gapper says, this doesn’t suit every consumer of news, particularly not people short of time or patience. “For the average consumer, the effect can be akin to going to a dealer to buy a car and being presented with a bunch of parts to assemble yourself. It suits hobbyists but has serious frictions for those wanting the full service.”

I wonder if this change in way news comes at us is going to divide news consumers into active and passive. Perhaps a single person will switch between active and passive depending on what they want to know. I’m content to get my news about media in fragments on Twitter because I have the background knowledge and motive to interpret it and integrate it with what else I know. But I don’t necessarily want to follow in detail the unfolding of the Japanese tsunami or the operation to kill Bin Laden in real time. I’m prepared to wait for an integrated, confirmed synopsis.

With fragments of information flying at us in huge numbers, it’s natural that skills and software for aggregation and curation are being developed. Those tools suit the active, time-rich news consumer who wants to assemble the car from the parts. But there will always also be demand for a more integrated picture of the whole. Even if it is a littler slower to arrive.

Feb 11

In defence of party leaders’ TV debates in elections

Interesting arguments and data last night from Professor Stephen Coleman, giving the first David Butler lecture, supporting the case for continued televised leaders debates in general elections, begun last year. (You have had these already for a long time in other countries? We are a little behind here).

Coleman was taking aim at the grumbling which attested to the success of the debates. Gordon Brown, who was going to lose the election irrespective of what happened in the debates and who did not perform well in them, complained that the televised jousting “clouded” the issues. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News (who was not invited to moderate one of the debates) kvetched that the British system was turning presidential and spoiling the campaign.

These were transparently silly arguments when they were made, but Coleman demolished them with a handful of arguments and figures from some research just out from the Reuters Institute in Oxford. A selection:
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Feb 11

A different angle on the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB

At a seminar on media plurality held in City University today, two knowledgeable commentators aired opinions on the vexed issue of News Corp’s bid to own 100% of BSkyB that were so different from the usual lines of argument that they deserve a wider hearing.

David Elstein, who has worked for most British broadcasting channels (including BSkyB), pointed out that the debate over the takeover was now entirely confined to Sky News, the least valuable part of the company and losing somewhere between £30m and £50m a year. The BSkyB board, he said, had already made clear that it was prepared to sacrifice – to sell or to close – the news division in order to get the rest of the deal through. In those circumstances, Elstein suggested, Rupert Murdoch could happily allow Ofcom, the regulator, to appoint the team of news executives at Sky News and make several other similar concessions to erect barriers against his interference in news. In that case, Murdoch would have no more or less influence on the editorial output than he does now, but would have secured the profit stream from the company at that relatively small price.

Elstein went one stage further and reminded his audience that news organisations are not the same as broadcasters: Independent Television News, for example, doesn’t broadcast but supplies other broadcasters. Sky News could find itself in the same position as a contract supplier of news, perhaps in Britain and certainly in continental Europe.

This got me thinking. People have talked about the possible closure of Sky News, particularly if a deal stops the cross-subsidy from BSkyB. But tens of millions of pounds have also been invested in the Sky News website. The site is one of the best of its kind in the world – often giving the larger BBC a run for its money – with a sizeable team of its own journalists, including video reporters. The chances of this being shut down, even if Sky News wasn’t broadcasting any more, are small. Almost certainly zero.

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Nov 10

A reply to Alan Rusbridger on convergence, plurality and regulation

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, has asked important questions about plurality and the news media in a recent longform blogppost. To make much sense of this post below you need to read Rusbridger first; this is an an attempt to reply to the issues he’s raised.

Rusbridger sees a media mixed economy now divided into three parts: the printed press (light, much-criticised self-regulation), public service broadcasting (heavily regulated) and social or new media (unregulated).

I agree that this three-way mixture manages to be, to a remarkable if accidental degree, all things to all people. A combination of regulated journalism with the wilder flights and fancies of both print and the web balances reliability with disclosure, provocation and an array of voices. It’s not anarchy, nor is it over-controlled and the range of possibilities is wide.

“Can regulation of itself help protect this delicate balance?” Rusbridger asks. This seems a very Japanese way of looking at it. A number of opposing forces fight themselves to a standstill; regulation then freezes the status quo. Never mind how we got here, we are where we are; let’s preserve what we have. Nothing dishonourable in that approach; it’s use has averted many a disaster. But might it not be better still to go back to first principles?

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Nov 10

Shirky, paywalls and newsletters

Intriguing suggestion here by Clay Shirky, analysing the opaque numbers issued for the websites of The Times and Sunday Times: that a paywall for a general interest paper can only work on the “newsletter” model of privately circulated content to a small, fee-paying readership. In other words, charging can only succeed by altering the nature of the publication.

Shirky makes the powerful point (and he’s made it before) that the web decisively disrupts the continuity of well-known titles and brands in news.

One of the problems for the printed press is the fall in the value that people think newspapers have. Perhaps the most powerful driver of that decline is the simple ability now given to the reader to compare. Before the web, only working journalists sat down each day to compare the relative performance of a competitive set of news outlets; it was part of the job. Now anyone can do this on the web, using any basis of comparison they choose. The lack of relative orginality and the commodity nature of much news, particularly in an era when editorial resources have been thinned out, is far more obvious to all.

It’s beginning to dawn on newspapers that they can only respond to this by thinking the unthinkable. Even if a newspaper decides to make separate pieces of its output special “micro-brands” and to ask readers to pay, this involves restructuring to concentrate on these new outlets. And it may not be easy to locate or form a paying community which appreciates what a paper thinks is a key strength (“comment”, say). Specialist and niche websites will already be in those spaces and they may not be easy to dislodge.

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Nov 10

Local TV: setting Jeremy Hunt straight

A lot of the gloom-laden chat about the “crisis in journalism” (which is, naturally, a massive problem for democracy) tends to focus on newspapers. And rather less on television, which outside London is in no better shape than papers. Possibly worse.

Coming into office, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government dumped a series of pilot schemes under which coalitions of news organisations in locality could combine to compete for (probably modest) subsidies for local broadcasting, suspending rules prohibiting newspapers cooperating with local TV. By way of replacement the government has commissioned work (interim report so far) on what conditions are needed to revive local TV and talked about licensing some 15-20 experiments under new rules, as yet unwritten. One thing is clear: subsidies are very unlikely.

We gathered 70 or so experts at City University yesterday to discuss these embryonic plans. General conclusion: almost no one thinks that the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt is yet making sense (example here). Here’s a quick summary of the takeouts:
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Oct 10

BBC links and what they tell us about footnotes

BBC Online announced a new links policy for its news website the other day. There was some predictably snarky comment wondering why the BBC had taken so long to catch on.

The rules are a bit laborious, although a masterpiece of brevity compared to Wikipedia’s 5,000-word version. But the BBC’s policy change is a straw in the wind telling us about two important developments just over the horizon.

1.  The more links to external sites that appear on stories on major news websites, the more top tomatoes in the news business are going to be brought face to face with a large issue which most of them don’t want to think about. The BBC or anyone else can’t link to complimentary or connected material without reminding users yet again how many stories are too similar for comfort. This is especially likely to happen if, as is mostly the case, linkage is automatic. Algorithms aren’t yet good at spotting or avoiding overlap.

In the pre-digital age, it was time-consuming and expensive to lay many different versions of the same event side by side and compare them. Only journalists did that. The web now allows anyone to hop, skip and jump between the media of different continents, channels and languages in seconds. The entropic tendency of 24/7 media to converge on the same facts, soundbites and pictures and to rearrange them a little for each “original” version is painfully obvious. The perception of the value of journalism is bound to suffer. And it has.

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Sep 10

Panorama/BIJ: data journalism is scoopy

Delighted to say that last night’s BBC TV Panorama on top public service salaries has caused plenty of ripples. The programme was a co-production with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University. (Declaration of interest: I’m a BIJ trustee). The programme can be seen for six days here, some of the coverage is here and here and commentary here.

There will be more high-profile work from the BIJ before long, but  this is probably the largest stone this new outfit has yet thrown in the pond. Its journalists only began work at the start of this year. Investigative reporting is never quick. The raw material for this inquiry is 38,000 lines of data and it was obtained by 2,400 freedom of information requests.

Much of the coverage has focussed on the BBC salaries – and it must have required some nerve for Panorama to have devoted so much airtime to yet more detail of how much top people at the Beeb earn. But the really interesting stuff seems to me to lie not with the outliers at the top, but with the mass in the middle. Leaving the special case of the BBC aside, does the public service really need thosee thousands of salaries lying somewhere between £100,ooo and £300,000? It’s hard to imagine that a ruthless audit would give them all a value-for-money clearance.