Sep 13

Newspaper are like horses? Not quite

Jeff Bezos is showing early promise as the new owner of the Washington Post: he has a sound grasp of how to say something familiar in an arrestingly new way.

The other day, he compared printed newspapers to horses:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

On one level, this is plainly true. As a medium for news, ink marks on squashed trees are economically inefficient, environmentally damaging and slow. Print, even for news, will not be replaced by digital. New media almost never completely substitute for older media; the newcomers shrink and shove to one side their predecessors. Just as the combustion engine became the standard way for people to get around without making horses disappear.

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Sep 13

Out of Print: the elevator pitch versions and reviews

You would have been hard put to be reading this blog in the past few weeks and succeded in avoiding any mention of my book Out of Print. This post is yet another encouragement to buy a copy by rounding up some of the stuff I’ve done about it and a few reviews. And the book is another instalment in my campaign to stamp out pessimism about journalism.

For easy watching, there’s a BBC interview by Nick Higham here (I fear it’s available only outside the UK). I summarised the book’s theme and argument in a blogpost here and in a piece for The Conversation UK here. There are recent pieces connected to the book’s themes on “who’s a journalist?” in the Yorkshire Post and on spaghetti-throwing (or experiments) at local level at journalism.co.uk.

There are a couple of online reviews here (Geoff Ward) and here (Roy Greenslade) and one in the News Statesman from Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School. Matthew Ingram of PaidContent assessed the book here. To complete the set here is one in Dutch by Bart Brouwers.

I naturally hope that these only whet your appetite to read the whole thing….


May 12

Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Teachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

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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 →