23
Sep 13

Out of Print: the elevator pitch versions and reviews

You would have been hard put to be reading this blog in the past few weeks and succeded in avoiding any mention of my book Out of Print. This post is yet another encouragement to buy a copy by rounding up some of the stuff I’ve done about it and a few reviews. And the book is another instalment in my campaign to stamp out pessimism about journalism.

For easy watching, there’s a BBC interview by Nick Higham here (I fear it’s available only outside the UK). I summarised the book’s theme and argument in a blogpost here and in a piece for The Conversation UK here. There are recent pieces connected to the book’s themes on “who’s a journalist?” in the Yorkshire Post and on spaghetti-throwing (or experiments) at local level at journalism.co.uk.

There are a couple of online reviews here (Geoff Ward) and here (Roy Greenslade) and one in the News Statesman from Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School. Matthew Ingram of PaidContent assessed the book here. To complete the set here is one in Dutch by Bart Brouwers.

I naturally hope that these only whet your appetite to read the whole thing….

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24
Apr 13

This blog is back – swift catchup on the post-Leveson dog’s breakfast

I know that this week’s media debate is going to be all about the pros and cons of real-time news sharing in fast-moving crises like the Boston marathon bombings and subsequent shootouts, but this blog has a little catching up to do. While I have been writing a book, the government, Houses of Lord and Commons and the Hacked Off campaign have managed to make a gigantic dog’s breakfast of the follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking.

This was pretty much the only subject on which I published during the long winter, so I’ll start by rounding up that stuff. It’s hardly surprising that inventive lawyers intent on intimidation are using Leveson’s recommendations to try to silence newspaper reporting or that the Metropolitan Police, who had a grimly embarrassing time in front of Leveson, are being cautious and unhelpful. What has surprised me is the depth of the legal and political doo-doo into which the government has stepped. In a hurry to get the Leveson Inquiry dealt with before the 2015 election season opens next year, the government tied itself in knots which may take years to unravel. The Royal Charter deal on a new press regulator was a rushed botch.

The largest single dilemma which Leveson plonked in the government’s lap is defining “the press”. Leveson was so heavily preoccupied by the issue of the misuse of power accumulated by the major newspaper groups, that he did not treat this as a central issue. He should have: defining who is to be covered by law or regulation dealing with news publishing is a basic issue in an era when “the press” doesn’t really exist any more. I argue in a TLS review (£) of Leveson and a report from the Columbia Journalism School on “post-industrial journalism” that the Leveson report’s worst flaw was that it was so backward-looking.

Thrashing round trying to define internet sites and blogs which are “news-related” and suchlike won’t work for anyone except lawyers who can spend happy years in court fighting over definitions. In this BBC explainer there is a nice little film by Newsnight’s David Grossman trying to explain the new law as it relates to online publishers. The Department of Culture Media and Sport have produced a colourful new diagram to help publishers work out if they’re covered by the new law. Here’s Patrick Smith of MediaBriefing picking holes.

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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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18
Nov 11

Journalism in India: the assassination test result

I’ve been lecturing in India and was yesterday at the Goenka Institute (partners with Lancaster University in Britain) just outside Delhi. As I usually am in India, I was asked by a member of the audience how Indian and British journalism compare.

My answer was truthful but also tactful: flaws in both…but at least open and competitive media systems…best journalism in both countries pretty good. I was conscious – over-conscious as it turned out – that the last thing anyone in India had heard about British journalism was phone-hacking and that Brits in India can so easily give offence and raise hackles by sounding “colonial”.

My tact was a miscalculation. At a later meeting with three members of the faculty and around ten students, my questioner was trenchantly contemptuous about the Indian media and had hoped that I would confirm his opinion. News media in any vigorous and open society are never popular, but all the same I was surprised by the depth and breadth of feeling. This wasn’t the frequently heard complaint that the Times of India has dumbed down; it wasn’t the usual moan about the silliness of the hyperfast 24/7 satellite news channels. No Indian media escaped censure.

On the spur of the moment, I invented the “assassination test”: you hear a rumour that the Prime Minister has been assassinated. To which media do you first turn? I thought that this would reveal that my Indian friends would actually rely on the state broadcaster or national news agency to tell them what had happened. Not a bit of it. “The BBC,” someone replied and most people round the table nodded. No one was prepared to say they would turn to an Indian source.

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15
Sep 11

State subsidies for journalism? (part 2)

Two footnote links to yesterday’s post about the slowly rising tide of opinion – particularly in America – that government should be intervening to support journalism, given that the business model which has kept private-sector journalism has broken down in many places.

I’ve made clear my doubts about this, but the point here is that the climate of thinking may be shifting. Two straws in the wind.

1) There’s an American-oriented survey of these arguments from Victor Pickard of New York University (see second item in the publications list here). Pickard is co-editor with Robert McChesney of a new collection of essays arguing that there may be a “fleeting opportunity” in the US to re-open the debate about whether the public authorities should come to the rescue of ailing news media. I suspect he’s whistling in the wind, but we’ll see.

2) One of Africa’s leading investigative journalists, Anas Aremayaw Anas, devotes an essay on africanews.com to the issues raised by the support he has had from the authorities in Ghana, where he works. I don’t know his work (and his piece is empty of links to his work) and it’s not clear how much of the support he enjoyed was financial. (Can any reader help me here?) But the kernel of his argument is that private-sector media have diluted and weakened the ability of journalists in Africa to reveal corruption and misgovernment in African societies which sorely need such information.

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14
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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14
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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