Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.

The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.

That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.

In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).

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Jul 10

Lee Bollinger: the man from Fruitcake City

Lee C Bollinger, the President of Columbia University in New York, is an important man in American academia and has opined in the Wall St Journal that it is time to start considering state subsidy as a solution to the economic crisis in US news media. He is, alas, not alone in raising the idea.

Lateral thinking and fresh examination of prejudices are fine. But Bollinger’s argument is foolish and dangerous. Mercifully, what he suggests isn’t likely to happen. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell said in a different context: this is an idea so stupid it could only come from a clever man.

Bollinger points out, reasonably enough, that news media in the US and elsewhere are already entangled with the government by way of subsidies to public broadcasters and regulation. His argument boils down to saying that what America needs is a version of the BBC.

Leaving aside the flippant rejoinder that pretty well any American who wants to access the BBC’s news output can now do so either through the internet or the BBC’s worldwide outlets, Bollinger’s case for state subsidy falls on two grounds.

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