15
Jun 13

British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs Shia

Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.

  • David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
  • Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.
British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs ShiaBritish political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs ShiaBritish political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs ShiaBritish political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs ShiaBritish political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs ShiaShare This Post

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.

Continue reading →


05
Jul 11

Phone-hacking goes platinum

I’m not surprised that David Cameron has abandoned his non-committal language about phone-hacking by newspaper reporters. The moment yesterday when the story broke that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler and, by deleting message in the phone’s mailbox, have given her parents and police the false hope that she was still alive marks a watershed in the miserable saga of phone interception by journalists. This is more than “a new low”.

Yesterday was the last possible moment that anyone could, with a straight face, claim that this was a limited infraction with minor consequences being blown out of proportion. Until yesterday the story was of huge interest to journalists, policemen and MPs. The drip-drip revelations in The Guardian were not only intriguing, they were significant. But they hadn’t grabbed any really widespread attention.

Campaigners on the issue claimed that this was because major news media managed to mostly ignore the subject; some editors were presumed to be nervous about possible revelations in their own newsroom. This may have been a factor, but the basic explanation was much simpler. To be a marmalade-dropper, a story needs – among other things – an element of surprise, an assumption upended. Stories which showed that red-top reporters behaved badly and broke the law don’t upset anyone’s picture of the world. And into the bargain, the victims of phone-hacking were celebrities. Most people ration their sympathy where red-carpet people are concerned.

Not so the bereaved and much-abused Dowler family. That reporters seem to have been so cruelly indifferent to a family whose 13-year-old daughter had gone missing moves the story into new, mass territory. The essence of the story is emotive and straightforward to grasp and convey. This will be true in spades if it turns out that anyone in the families of the Soham murder victims was treated in the same way.

Continue reading →


05
May 11

Bin Laden: real time fragments or the whole story?

Very interesting reflections today by John Gapper in the FT arising from the coverage of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Gapper watched as Wolf Blitzer of CNN struggled to cope on air as rumours swirled about Bin Laden’s death but the fact wasn’t confirmed solidly enough for the channel to broadcast it.

As Gapper predicts, rolling news broadcasters will not get caught like that again. They will feel increasingly obliged to start broadcasting rumours, correcting them as they go, sifting and iterating versions of the the truth as best they can. But as Gapper says, this doesn’t suit every consumer of news, particularly not people short of time or patience. “For the average consumer, the effect can be akin to going to a dealer to buy a car and being presented with a bunch of parts to assemble yourself. It suits hobbyists but has serious frictions for those wanting the full service.”

I wonder if this change in way news comes at us is going to divide news consumers into active and passive. Perhaps a single person will switch between active and passive depending on what they want to know. I’m content to get my news about media in fragments on Twitter because I have the background knowledge and motive to interpret it and integrate it with what else I know. But I don’t necessarily want to follow in detail the unfolding of the Japanese tsunami or the operation to kill Bin Laden in real time. I’m prepared to wait for an integrated, confirmed synopsis.

With fragments of information flying at us in huge numbers, it’s natural that skills and software for aggregation and curation are being developed. Those tools suit the active, time-rich news consumer who wants to assemble the car from the parts. But there will always also be demand for a more integrated picture of the whole. Even if it is a littler slower to arrive.


11
Sep 10

Economists vs historians (aka Harford vs Rachman)

Yet more weekend reading on a unexpected subject. There’s a glorious and entirely civilised duel running on ft.com between columnist and blogger Gideon Rachman and his colleague the Undercover Economist, Tim Harford. They are arguing the relative merits of economists and historians.

Rachman begins by demolishing economists here. Harford replies here, with a brief rejoinder from Rachman. They stray into physicists and architects and Harford includes a lovely little anecdote about a stadium that fell down just after hosting an architects’ convention.

The context of this illuminating exchange of course is the anxious examination of their own role that economists began after the financial crash two years ago. Having done a history degree, my sympathies lean towards Rachman. Harford would make a stronger argument if he conceded that he was defending economists with intellectual humility and who display a sense of the limits of their craft. That’s a sub-group of economists in general.

There’s a lot of excellent (and accessible) good sense on this subject from another FT contributor, John Kay, in his new small book Obliquity.


17
Aug 10

South Africa’s press freedom: the tipping point

It’s a sad but plain fact that underground political movements, however excellent their democratic aims, are sometimes run by people who are themselves a little challenged in the tolerance and liberalism departments.

When South Africa created a new, post-apartheid constitution in 1994 that documen swept away the media controls which had been used for many years by the white-majority government. The new freedoms created have not been free from controversy (they never are), but have played a role in a building a varied, vigorous and independent news media.

To cite only one example, the media played a significant role in revealing allegations against Jackie Selebi, the ex-commissioner of police who was recently jailed for 15 years on corruption charges. The government vilified the journalists who broke the story but in the end failed to quash the controversy.

South Africa is not formally a one-party state, but its governance is dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC’s leaders have had enough of press freedom and introduced a draft bill which will drastically curtail it. If the bill reaches the statute book in its current form, South Africa will tip towards the authoritarian state which at least some ANC leaders wanted all along. It would be a miserably sad outcome.

Continue reading →


15
Jun 10

Paywall watch

An astute survey of where NewsCorp is shifting on digital outlets for newspaper content which make charging easy here. And John Gapper’s take on today’s bid for Sky (and via him, Robert Peston’s interpretation).

And an FT blog goes behind the paywall.


26
May 10

Life expectancy of newspapers: and the answer is…

On a recent radio debate, Sunday Times editor John Witherow and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger both said that the latest printing press purchases by their companies were likely to be their last – thus putting a rough outer limit on the number of years they think their titles will be in print. Thirty years and twenty respectively.

A senior honcho at Pearson, owners of the FT, shortened this to (maybe) five years at a seminar this week. Er, not quite, said a different suit at the FT, rowing back some way. Rob Andrews of PaidContent has very helpfully rounded up here this new readiness to schedule the death of print in more detail then ever before.

Or, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted today: “They said I was nuts when I saw an end to print. I’m getting more company in the asylum.”