28
Jan 14

Laboratory sites are re-inventing journalism on the run

For the past fifteen years, an argument has been reverberating in and around journalism. The digital era, argued one school of thought, is a total re-set: nothing will – or can – survive of the old news media dominated by print and terrestrial broadcast. Rubbish, argued the other school: digital journalism can’t do original reporting and when the world clocks that fraud, mainstream media will revive.

I parody the opposing positions, but not by much. The quarrel was static and often sterile. I’ve argued (here and here) that the task of journalists in the digital era is to adapt old values and ideals to new circumstances and possibilities. In other words, a lot needs to change to renew an old ideal: telling people useful truth.

This stale dispute from the past is now being rendered irrelevant by new online news businesses which have the experimental drive, technological confidence and resources to try new ways of doing things – and which have already won a sizeable audience to try them on.

Experiments small and large with everything from how long the ideal list should be to the ideal width for pictures to the right tone for longform reporting are conducted one the run, at speed and with a wealth of data about what is shared and how much. Failed experiments are dumped and forgotten. Online sites are not inhibited by caution about their reputation; they have won millions of users but not yet prestige and respect. Such sites are run as laboratories for the next news.

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19
Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

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13
Dec 12

James Harding departs The Times: follow the money

I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.

The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.

Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.

In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.

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23
Nov 12

Leveson: the third, better way between statute and self-regulation

With Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the British press now due to report on November 29th, Press Gazette has kindly posted a version of an argument I made to the inquiry and wherever else I’ve been able to find an outlet for it since.

If Leveson proposes a new form of independent regulation for the press founded in statute (something which all previous versions of self-regulation have avoided), there will be an almighty fuss. But the proposal is liable to founder not because of the volume of complaint but because of the problems intrinsic to the plan: issues of definition, compulsion and funding.

There’s a better way. Use law as an incentive towards transparency and self-regulation. Strengthen and clarify privacy law, build strong and consistent public interest defences into laws which impact journalism and allow courts to take editorial integrity and standards into account when cases come to court. Within that framework, self-regulation would be worth doing and worth doing well.

That’s a bald summary. I saw an ad in the Daily Mail today from the Free Speech Network objecting to the possibility of the press being “shackled”, showing six newspaper front pages and asking if these stories would have appeared under “state regulation”. (The stories shown are the Mail’s front pages on the men alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, A Telegraph splash on MPs’ expenses, The Sun front page on Andrew Mitchell calling policemen “plebs”, a Times investigation on celebrity tax avoiders, the Daily Mirror on John Prescott’s affair with his secretary and a Guardian front page on phone-hacking.)

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25
Sep 12

Funding journalism: not before a sharp, painful squeeze

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.

Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.

Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.

Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.

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27
Sep 11

Small Google News blogpost: big development

This post on the Google News blog has not had the attention I think it deserves. It’s a small item with large implications.

At first sight the note simply sets down an announcement that a Google team made at the recent Online News Association conference. News publishers can now “tag” (or flag) journalism which they think is particularly special or “standout”. There’s limit to the number of times they can do this with their own content (seven times in a week) but no limit to the frequency with they can bestow the accolade on someone else’s content.

Google News has been wrestling for years with a dilemma which gets worse as the mountain of unsorted online information grows higher and higher. How do you find the information which is of the highest value to you? Google’s most basic algorithm, the foundation of the firm’s fortune, ranks links by the number of connections any given item has. The more links, the higher the place in the list Google returns. But that is a crude sorting mechanism which has long been open to gaming and manipulation.

Google News is plainly very keen to avoid any suggestion that they are choosing between news outlets, despite the fact that its engineers have been tinkering for years with ideas about ranking and sorting journalism for “quality”. It’s a minefield, for obvious reasons. But news is increasingly swapped in social networks. Can Google get involved (especially to help their own new Google+) while staying out of the judgement business? This commentator from TechCrunch thinks not (but note the disagreements in the comments).

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25
Oct 10

Wikileaks and the Iraq warlogs

Three days after the release of almost 400,000 pieces of US Army data about Iraq between 2004 and 2009 it is already clear that what Wikileaks has done is a game-changer.

The leak will permanently alter how the Iraq war is seen: take this striking example from the Daily Telegraph. It may not shift the opinion figures on whether or not the war was worth starting in the first place. The detailed revelations are, I’d guess, less important than the massive accumulation of hard detail. Despite being reported in machine-prose, the logs paint an appallingly vivid picture of the careless brutality which flourishes not only in any war but particularly when an army is trying to work out counter-insurgency as it goes along.

Fiction could not compete with the surreal dialogue in which a helicopter pilot asks what he should do about suspects on the ground who are trying to surrender. The lawyer says they can’t surrender to a chopper, comes the reply. The helicopter with the callsign “Crazyhorse” blows the men to pieces.

As the experienced military commentator Robert Fox says, the axis of the information war has shifted. The public can now see the war with a sharpness and depth not possible before. (For the wider context of cyberwar read Seymour Hersh here and on military classification culture a Stratfor analyst here.)

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