Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.
If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:
- Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
- Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
- The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
- Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
- Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
- In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.
I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools: Continue reading →
As the printed press has struggled to cope with the end of an era of plenty and the collapse of the newspaper business model, the odd voice has played with the idea of subsidising the press. Here’s why that might be an idea to be briefly considered, but it’s also one to reject.
After all, such would-be saviours of the endangered species of printed news ask, don’t we all subsidise the BBC, to the tune of £4bn a year, through a licence fee which is a tax by another name? Do papers not enjoy a tax break by not paying VAT? Don’t other European countries do this and don’t they manage fine?
Not in France they don’t. Journalist Sebastien Fontenelle has just been having another go at newspaper and magazine subsidies there and bringing the story up to date. As he rightly remarks, major newspapers like Le Monde and Figaro use a lot of ink telling the state and government to reduce government spending and debt while hypocritically burying the figures on the subsidies they receive and doing nothing to abolish or reform the system.
Official figures show that the France spent €5bn between 2009 and 2011, amounting to 15% of the industry’s turnover. You might imagine that this money was distributed to high-minded but loss-making publications on politics and economics. In 2013, nearly €20m was handed to the four magazines devoted to TV listings and small screen celebs.
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I went last night to the Frontline Club in London for a panel discussion organised by Index on Censorship on – what else? – “Will the future of journalism mean we are better informed”? Two admirable outfits, but the debate was a mess.
Many discussions of this kind are driven by what live-debate-marketers think is a widespread worry about journalism. The internet may look and sound like a boon, but is it just a tsunami of unreliable, manipulated trash? And, what with phone-hacking and related sleaze, the established mainstream media is hardly better. Oh what do we do?
I doubt that these assumptions are even right: I think most people are quietly celebrating how much information the internet gives them (yes, it’s that simple) and mistrust of popular papers is long-established. But majoring on anxiety produces shapeless discussions in which journalists – including young ones who’ve hardly started – lament the passing of a supposed golden age in which huge, well-resourced newsrooms provided jobs for most wannabees. While at the same time panellists do their best to sound polite and politically correct about citizen journalists and “user generated content”. The connection between these two bits of the picture isn’t often made.
I could go on at length about what’s wrong with this kind of discussion, but I’ve done that at length elsewhere (see Out of Print to the right). Instead, a modest proposal.
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The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.
By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.
But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.
I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).
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As news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.
Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.
He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.
This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.
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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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The New York Times did a kind favour to the rest of the news media when, amidst the storm provoked by the sacking of its editor Jill Abramson, we got to see a report on the paper’s lack of progress in digital journalism by a group of its younger editors.
I don’t need to describe “Innovation” further for you: it’s been capably done elsewhere (see also here). Instead, I want to ask the question which I haven’t yet seen put, perhaps because it makes people a little nauseous. Is it actually possible for a big, mainstream newspaper to make the transition to being, principally, a digital platform for journalism? Not just make the transition slowly, painfully and with embarrassing mistakes but…not make it at all.
I’m by nature an optimist and I recently I wrote a book which, among other themes, looks at the regularity with which journalism re-invents itself when disrupted. But having read the 96 pages of the NYT document, even my faith in the future was dented.
As many other readers have said, it is a brutally frank self-examination. But for all the bravery involved, a number of questions just aren’t there. With all the fervour of tribesmen waving a talisman to ward off evil spirits, the authors repeatedly praise the outstanding quality of the NYT’s journalism. A touch smug, an outsider might think, but hardly controversial.
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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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