Oct 14

How to rebuild local news: a spaghetti-throwing competition!

The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.

By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.

But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies  fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.

I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).

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Jun 13

How many royal charters does it take to fix press regulation? Six, at least

Any time from this week, we may hear news from the government ministers assigned to solve the conundrum of press regulation. Consultation on one of the many royal charters which have been written since the Leveson Report was published more than six months ago has finished and we may hear how the government hopes to get out of the deep doo-doo it’s walked into.

Or possibly not. Lord Leveson remarks more than once in his report that press regulation is a subject about which politicians may have, or even voice, opinions. When in office, they rapidly conclude that they are determined to do as little as possible. The toughness of the present dilemmas isn’t going to change that.

Any system of press regulation which is “independent” of the state and politicians can’t, by definition, be compulsory and even if it were, news publishing groups increasingly pivoting to become global online publishers could operate from outside British legal jurisdiction. Yet a cross-party majority of MPs want, and have voted for, a tougher system of accountability than the three largest national newspaper publishers will accept.

There are now six versions of Royal Charters in play, all claiming to be to be the best balance between freedom and restraint. These six versions have all been generated despite the claim made for Royal Charters – that they protect the independence of a press regulation system from future political interference – having been strongly challenged. Six charters may just be the start.

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Oct 11

Media regulation: heat and light

Debates about the state of journalism “post phone-hacking” occur almost nightly in London. The Leveson inquiry into, among other things, press regulation has begun work. Are any new ideas being generated?

Newspaper editors, when they have been audible at all, have cautioned about any form of tougher regulation than the discredited self-regulation which exists now. But they have been less voluble about what might work better than the Press Complaints Commission which Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to pronounce dead when the phone-hacking storm was at its height in the summer. Editors appear nervous that to discuss possible future regulation systems in any detail increases the risk that any new system or laws will err on the side of strangling free journalistic inquiry. The PCC, apparently considering reports of its death to be premature, is advertising for a new chairman and revamping its procedures.

The risk of over-regulation exists for sure. But an intellectual vacuum also has dangers. If you assume that the PCC self-regulation system won’t survive intact, something has to replace it. Alternatives need to be sketched out and tested. Some of this thinking is happening. The rest of this post is a quick tour of the ideas being lined up.

A recent discussion at the Reuters Institute in Oxford looked at seven regulation options pulled together by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust.

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Feb 11

Dr Moore’s churnalism-spotting machine

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has just launched an amusing – if slightly terrifying – device which matches the words of a news story with the text of the relevant press release. Lo and behold, there is often a large overlap. “Churnalism” can be seen and measured.

Any reservations I might have about this aren’t about the idea of churnalism. Over a long period, many news journalists came to be expected to turn out more and more pieces or writing or broadcasting per day and the growing pressures have been particularly felt in regional media. Less research went into the journalism and more and more reporting was the same, often the very same words. The journalism’s quality fell. Audiences noted the fall in the value of what they were getting.

I’ve got two quibbles with the current software that the MST has now launched. First, it’s bit crude. It determines matching text overlap (between story and press release) and christens the result churnalism. OK, that will often reveal lazy reporting. But the fact that much news reporting is routine (and it always has been) doesn’t mean that it is badly done or valueless to the reader.

Number 99 in the current list of top press release for the past three months happens to concern driver insurance. Not very surprisingly the numerous papers which report this (Telegraph, Scotsman, Financial Times) use quite a few words from the wording of the government press release. In this case, the reporters had been doing their job – a modest one – of relaying public service information in pretty much the words that government officials had chosen. As Dan Sabbagh says here, journalism includes summarising.

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Jun 10

Moore of MST: this sounds about right

This piece by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust in London cropped up in my Delicious clips (which appear just to the right of this post in “what I’m reading“), but it’s so judicious that it deserves more prominence.

What I like here is the rigorous separation of the fate of journalism from that of individual journalists, the stress on the experimental mixture of things which are going to have to be tried to rebuild and sustain journalism on a useful scale and the mention of Roman Gallo’s Nase Adresa initiative in the Czech Republic (background from this blog here). Above all what’s appealing is the lack of dogmatism and admission of uncertainty.


Apr 10

Journalisted (or transparency 1)

I like the idea of the Media Standards Trust‘s Journalisted, an index of journalists with references and links to what they’ve written. Transparency for journalists is occasionally painful but tends, over the average and the long run, to promote that useful currency, trust. MST don’t have much money behind Journalisted, so in practice it’s been a bit underdeveloped. But they’ve nevertheless now revamped it and the new features are explained in this post by MST’s Martin Moore.