Apr 15

Andy Mitchell and Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributor on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

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Oct 10

Conrad Black lets fly

I was about to write something deadly serious about digital media when I was

Conrad Black

stopped in my tracks by this: Conrad Black’s review of three books on American newspapers. The jailed Canadian tycoon is settling a few scores.

An example: Rupert Murdoch may have an interesting career and modus operandi but, as a person, he’s pretty boring. “He is generally not overly forthcoming, rather monosyllabic, an enigma whose banter is nondescript bourgeois filler delivered in a mid-Pacific accent,” says Black. Murdoch’s discretion in the company of this gigantic, convicted blowhard is perhaps understandable.

There is more (quite a lot more) in this vein. It’s like reading pornography or the Alan Clark Diaries: you know it’s not worth wasting tme with, but you go on reading all the same. Black reveals himself, without using the expression, to be a fan of Jay Rosen’s invention to describe the overblown pomposity of Washington correspondents, the Church of the Savvy.

Sep 10

The case for a point of view

It’s time to retire the exhausted idea that the best journalism separates “fact” and “opinion”. The invaluable weekly roundup from NiemanLab carries (second item here) a summary of the current debate inside the US about the rival claims of neutrality for journalists against the growing number of voices arguing for reporters doing their work from an openly-declared point of view.

Calling this the “exodus from objectivity” (a perhaps partial description in itself), the note underlines that people leaving jobs in mainstream media for ones in new media are now citing the lack of freedom imposed by neutrality rules in reporting. NYU professor Jay Rosen, who has been writing about this for years, said that “centrist detachment” was now so unpopular that it is driving talent away from traditional newsrooms .

I say “current” debate because of course this has been an intermittent issue for journalists since anything called journalism began. I say “inside the US” because if you read this American discussion from anywhere else in the world, as I do, the missing element in US argument is any sense of how this goes anywhere else in the world.

Try the British perspective for size. In Britain, the first newspapers grew from partisan newsheets; ideas of civic responsibility or inclusiveness weren’t uppermost in the minds of most editors and publishers. By the twentieth century newspapers had become more serious-minded, sober and influential. But even so, the separation of “fact” and “comment” was never as strict as that enforced (or at least declared) at US papers. Reporters on British quality papers, depending on their experience and seniority, were and are expected to make sense of the facts they report.

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Aug 10

Jay Rosen Q & A on political reporting

A quick link to an exceptionally clear exposition of the thinking of NYU professor Jay Rosen about political journalism. Rosen has for years been developing a case against the “neutrality” of political journalists, arguing that neutrality is a point of view but its defenders just won’t confess to it. This hypocrisy, Rosen says, distorts the journalism in the end. The stance of non-partisanship is misleading fakery.

This argument erupts regularly in the US but hasn’t ever really taken off in Britain, partly because newspapers are, and always were, more partisan in the first place and partly because attempting to apply the Rosen analysis to Britain involves casting doubt on the journalism of the BBC. And that, commentators are mostly loath to do.

I’ll come back to that theme, but as a primer in Rosen’s views here is a Q&A he did recently with The Economist. It has the great benefit of being succinct and clear.

Jul 10

Wikileaks and what they mean for journalism

The Wikileaks release of the Afghan war logs has unleashed a hail of commentary ranging from learned treatises on deciphering military jargon, through the morality of war to the implications for media and democracy. This post deals with what we’ve learnt about journalism. So far.

1. The unforeseen effects of quantity. Stories which begin with huge caches of data may begin with a bang (if the data is shown to mainstream media in advance, as here) but however they start, they will go on for a long time. A long tail of fresh stories will be fed by discoveries which can only, in the nature of the source material, be made slowly. The pace of the reporting changes; the sources of discoveries will be varied. We can see what one writer neatly termed the “sheer weight of failure” but we can’t see many detailed patterns until more work is done.

The estimates of what percentage of the logs have been trawled by whom vary. Two per cent? Five? Wikileaks said that documents had been witheld to protect individuals at risk. Did that mean that Wikileakers had been through 100% of the total? The Times this morning carried a story (can only be seen with payment) saying the raw documents did put Afghans at risk and suggesting that the screening was less than complete.

But whatever the exact extent of anyone’s knowledge, every conclusion about this is provisional  (and that includes my judgement in the post immediately below this on the Pentagon Papers comparison).

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Jun 10

Jay Rosen’s Pressthink: journalism’s real bias

Jay Rosen of New York University is one of the most original thnkers alive about the printed press. This doesn’t mean that all he writes makes sense, merely that he is incapable of being dull about it. In this post from Rosen’s PressThink blog, he has been worrying at a theme which recurs in his writing: do political correspondents have an “ideology” and, if so, what is it? In a nutshell, Rosen turns the conventional search for left or right bias upside down and says that the collective biases are not political but ones arising from the wish to appear independent and/or neutral. (Warning on the packet: it’s long and the comments are well worth reading as well).

British readers will have to do some clicking on the links to adjust to the fact that this is entirely about the US. Such a discussion doesn’t translate automatically to the UK, where reporters have more latitude to express opinion than is generally reckoned proper in America. But his analysis isn’t totally irrelevant or unrecognisable either. Substitute “BBC” for the American publications cited here and the argument works well.

I’m fascinated  by this discussion because it forms part of the wider one about objectivity and fairness in news media which has been driven by the web. If the control and production of news is no longer in the hands of an oligarchy of owners and a thousand flowers of individual expression will bloom, does objectivity, fairness and the separation of fact and comment matter any more?

This debate is given extra thrust by the increasing weakness of the resources mobilised by mainstream media which is leading some commentators to conclude that much of the work done by NGOs should be recognised and encouraged as journalism. Or rather that the boundary previously marked between journalism and advocacy should be abolished. As examples, see this from Paris-based writer and teacher Mark Lee Hunter who is enthusiastically supported by Gazeta’s Wyborca’s energetic Greg Piechota.

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Jun 10

Really useful list

Here’s a link to one of the more useful lists I’ve seen for some time: Michele McLellan’s index of new community online news sites in the US. The Reynolds Journalism Institute in Missouri is the host of a conference on these initiatives. If you follow Jay Rosen’s tweets (@jayrosen_nyu), you’ll have already been pelted with micro-announcements.

I’ve seen attempts at a similar list for the UK but nothing quite this full or systematic. If anybody knows of one, please let me know.