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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The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.
The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.
The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:
“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.
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A significant marker in the rapid evolution of news media has just been passed – and it wasn’t the resignation of Rupert Murdoch from the boards of his UK newspaper companies or the charging of News of the World journalists.
The Daily Mail’s online edition, MailOnline, is reported to have just made its first operating profit. The site, driven by carefully-judged global celebrity coverage and a little sprinkling of soft porn, overtook the New York times some months ago to log the world’s largest user numbers for a news site. The NYT, for once sniffy for understandable reasons, said that they didn’t consider it competition.
So we have these developments to interpret:
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So far as Ecuador has had any recent coverage at all in the European media, it’s been about Julian Assange and his sudden flit to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to ask for political asylum. This may have served to distract from the latest extraordinary episode in President Rafael Correa’s war against the country’s news media (that’s the Prez above).
To judge by Google Analytics, very few of even my most faithful readers bother with my occasional posts about Ecuador. Even though I’m not an expert, I will keep recording developments when I can. It’s a living example of a truth often forgotten in the pampered, plural, media-saturated lands of Europe and America. It’s perfectly possible for progress in press freedom to be stopped and go backwards, particularly if the government concerned can be confident that few people are watching or care at all.
This is what Ecuador’s President Correa seems to believe. I’ll allow that he may have some reason to complain of his coverage. He’s one of the continent’s new group of radical presidents and the established centres of power, news media included, are not all sympathetic. But mounting a full scale assault on media freedoms with the aim of trying to insulate his government and office from scrutiny is a policy with two tiny, but nevertheless significant, weaknesses: it’s undemocratic and it won’t work.
Here’s the latest absurdity, as reported by the Global Post: a law designed to prevent news coverage having any political effect at all.
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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My colleague and City University Visiting Professor Paul Bradshaw has been reflecting in a 3-part blogpost on the changes in journalism education being driven by the disruption of the previous era’s pattern of communications.
Bare summaries of other peoples writings shouldn’t be so necessary in the digital world since I can link and you can click direct to the originals. But in case you’re short of time, I’d boil Paul’s case down like this:
I agree with Paul about the first, query part of the the second and think the third point overdone: Continue reading →
My loyal band of Twitterati may have noticed that I’ve been in Australia, where I gave a talk in two universities trying to sum up what we’ve learnt from the Leveson Inquiry. British readers of this blog might well want to stop right here because a good deal of the talk below will be familiar. There’s a very short version on the Australian-based The Conversation, a site which acts as a web publisher for opinion and analysis on public affairs by academics. But in case anyone wants to see the full text, here it is:
Phone-Hacking, the Leveson Inquiry and Rupert Murdoch
Public inquiries – often thought of as deliberate, careful, rational procedures – often provide examples of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. They don’t always work out as their instigators hope or intend.
So it is with the Leveson Inquiry, now running most days of the week in London. The Inquiry is formally into the “culture, practice and ethics” of something quaintly called “the press”. The inquiry’s terms of reference are very broad indeed. They cover standards, accuracy, regulation and law, media plurality and ownership, relations with both the police and politicians.
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