13
Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisisEd Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisisEd Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisisEd Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisisEd Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisisShare This Post

06
Jun 11

Is the article a luxury, a byproduct, disintegrating or simply over?

There’s been a splurge of stuff in the American blogs about “the article” and whether it still has a place in journalism. At first I thought this was just another missable debate provoked by the peculiar urge of some commentators to prove that the web is so exceptional and revolutionary that it alters the world, the universe and everything. Then I thought that there were a few things to say.

This discussion began, as many do, with a post by that carrier-to-the-extreme Jeff Jarvis on buzzmachine.com. The opener gives the flavour: “A few episodes in news make me think of the article as not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a by-product of the process.”

Jeff didn’t argue that people were going to stop writing articles, just that they were going to be less central to journalism. Because so many more people now capture and distribute news, more of that news will be in little pieces. Background can be linked to, synthesis is a luxury and reporting is what counts. I hope this is a fair summary. (If it isn’t Jeff will let you know, as he did with Matthew Ingram.) There’s also been a parallel and closely related discussion about whether “news” and “analysis” are going to be divorced and separated by these changes (see here and here).

One could quibble that “the article” wasn’t ever the “goal” of journalism. One could point out (and commenters on Jeff’s post did) that value-added luxury is a contradiction in terms. But the basic issue here is the relationship between fragments and the whole. The new trend right now is for refining ways of streaming bits of news at you in more interesting and enriched ways: expert Twitter curation, liveblogs and so on. In other words, the fragments are where peoples’ attention is directed just now. That’s an exploration of the possibilities of new platforms and applications: there’ll be yet more of them next year, and the year after that. When the innovation wave has washed away – and that may be a long time yet – what will be left? Continue reading →


16
May 11

Things to be optimistic about

So many discussions about journalism in the past few years have featured journalists from established media crying into their beer, I often forget how refreshing it is to have a different kind of conversation. One where people are working out for themselves how to rebuild the business model for journalism.

It is hard to convey the happiness you can feel when you hear people describing how they are taking a simple, empirical route to discovering and delivering what people need to know – and then finding ways to keep doing it.

I had one of these moments at City University a few days ago when a conference gathered to look at new ways of sustaining local journalism, arguably in much more immediate economic danger than the national and international varieties. An energetic group of our students, Wannabehacks, used Storify, as well as a liveblog, to record the day.

The point wasn’t agreement – there was very little on what works and what doesn’t – and speakers varied from Will Perrin of talkaboutlocal and the King’s Cross blog to Jeff Jarvis, of City University New York’ entrepreneurial journalism programme and the buzzmachine blog. Perrin illustrated what might be called the “pure, simple need” origin of a local blog: a local community identifies a problem and gathers to try to solve it, puts pressure on various local authorities and eventually ends up with what Will called a “community information burden”.

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28
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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14
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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28
Jun 10

Opinions on McChrystal and the media

Barrack Obama’s sacking of General Stanley McChrystal after the General had been quoted bitching about the President and his aides in a magazine article has unleashed a tide of  American reflection on the right relationship of news people to power. (The debate has been given extra life by the sudden departure of a Washington Post blogger, Dave Weigel.) There’s a good introduction to the McChrystal inquest here by New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Here are links to three pieces which give you a flavour of the discussion, which blends an old one (how close should a reporter get to a source and what compromises, if any, should be made to keep the source helpful?) with a new one: how much privacy does either party have in the linked world of instantaneous publication?

Jeff Jarvis is keen to recruit McChrystal’s story to his argument for the virtues of “publicness”, linked transparency for everyone as often as possible. The shock caused by the McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone, Jarvis argues, was the demolition of the myth that the General was an “opinionless man”. If we abolished the idea that generals didn’t have opinions, we wouldn’t have so much of a problem.

This is a stretch too far. McChrystal’s problem with Obama wasn’t that he had opinions but that he was airing them. McChrystal’s pithy contempt contradicted the Administration’s policy and carried more than a whiff of distaste for the doctrine that the military obey political decisions.

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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.”