23
Oct 14

Don’t be vague: measure the value

I went last night to the Frontline Club in London for a panel discussion organised by Index on Censorship on – what else? – “Will the future of journalism mean we are better informed”? Two admirable outfits, but the debate was a mess.

Many discussions of this kind are driven by what live-debate-marketers think is a widespread worry about journalism. The internet may look and sound like a boon, but is it just a tsunami of unreliable, manipulated trash? And, what with phone-hacking and related sleaze, the established mainstream media is hardly better. Oh what do we do?

I doubt that these assumptions are even right: I think most people are quietly celebrating how much information the internet gives them (yes, it’s that simple) and mistrust of popular papers is long-established. But majoring on anxiety produces shapeless discussions in which journalists – including young ones who’ve hardly started – lament the passing of a supposed golden age in which huge, well-resourced newsrooms provided jobs for most wannabees. While at the same time panellists do their best to sound polite and politically correct about citizen journalists and “user generated content”. The connection between these two bits of the picture isn’t often made.

I could go on at length about what’s wrong with this kind of discussion, but I’ve done that at length elsewhere (see Out of Print to the right). Instead, a modest proposal.

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29
Apr 14

An incomplete list of things which are going to shape the next journalism

People who ponder journalism’s prospects have turned cheerful. Not suddenly, but over the past few months. The evidence that there’s capital, generative energy and signs that some digital publishing can survive is too obvious to ignore. So the shift has been from pessimism to futurology.

What kind of journalism are we going to see or should we want to see? “Open”, “networked”, radical, non-capitalist or done in looser structures than in the past? Because we’re in a phase of accelerating, plural experiment, what will happen will be all of these things and more.

Just pause for a second to appreciate what a change in the conversation the hi-tech millionaires, philanthropists and venture capitalists have brought about, at least in the US, by demonstrating that they want to be involved in building the next journalism. The emphasis is now more about the content than about the delivery and the platforms. As a writer of the pre-digital age put it, we’re watching “the turning of a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” This is nowadays known as “disruption”.

Here’s a meandering list of seven factors which will shape the next journalism. I’ll be talking about this at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia later this week. (And there’s more on the background to all this in Out of Print, see right).

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06
Feb 14

As online news and comment sites find their feet…editing turns out to be…useful

I wrote here recently about how “pure-play” online news and comment sites were starting to find their feet in greater numbers commercially, and, as they do so, more confidently rewriting the handbook on how journalism gets done most effectively with the tools newly available.

Nothing unusual about this: upstarts, dismissed at first as frivolous, grab large audiences and then work more serious stuff into the mix. It’s happened throughout the history of journalism so far – with the exception of the late 20th century when advertising income was secure. And it’s happening again now. (For a longer version of this argument, see Out of Print, details on the right).

But there’s one aspect of this that gets sidelined in a lot of discussion of new things. And that’s because the importance of editors is an old thing, being rediscovered yet again.

As the digital era began and its opportunities and possibilities emerged, one thing became clear. News media were going to “de-industrialise”. The dominant position held by a small number of print publishers and terrestrial broadcasters was not going to disappear but it was going to be eroded because the power to publish was being radically redistributed. Furthermore, this argument ran, individual journalists would be empowered to become independent of corporate monoliths. Journalism would not just de-industrialise but the newsrooms would no longer be the dominant unit of organisation. The important player would be the smallest atomic particle in the system: the individual journalist.

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26
Sep 13

Buzzfeed is more likely to regenerate journalism than any number of anxious conferences

This post opens with a hat-tip to Martin Moore, who pointed out to me the other day what a remarkable document is the message recently sent to the staff of the viral video site Buzzfeed by its founder Jonah Peretti. I’d seen mention of it, but failed to see its importance.

It is fascinating and well worth a read. Peretti’s start-of-term pep talk is both new – digitally aware, thinking ahead and celebrating innovation both editorial and technical – and at the same time old. Improbable, even shocking, innovation to grab an audience and income which can later fund journalism has happened before. In fact it’s happened throughout most of journalism’s history with the exception of the late 20th century.

What Peretti’s memo describes is the compressed history of a site begun to make it easy for bored people at work to swop silly videos and lists is now hiring foreign correspondents and investigative reporters, often the two most important and expensive tribes of journalists found in any newsroom. Peretti did not reach this position by waking up one morning and deciding to help democracy be better informed; he put together a team of alpha geeks who built a site which was unbeatable for sharing video of skateboarding cats on smartphones and social media. With that foundation, he can now go out and compete for high-prestige journalism prizes.

Many experiments fail; Buzzfeed might. It uses its not inconsiderable creative skill to make fluent, clever semi-disguised ads for companies which pay for the service. Critics allege that this will blunt the site’s reportorial edge; we’ll see. (In my book Out of Print just published, I record a senior Buzzfeed person who seems to admit this: page 221). The giggling frivolity might simply overwhelm trying to explain what’s happening in Nairobi or Nablus.

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23
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….


19
Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

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24
Jul 13

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer up

Kogan 'OOP'To judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.

Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.

  • Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
  • The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
  • I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
  • The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
  • Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
  • But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.

That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….

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22
May 13

This much trivia I now know about writing a book (and some apologies)

I have in recent months been writing a book (yes, it’s about journalism, it’s out in September and you can pre-order) and the experience taught me a lot. I also have a few apologies to make. Here are a few lessons and mea culpas.

  • Graham Greene said that writers must have a splinter of ice in their heart. I think he meant this in the strictly literary sense of a writer always having the detachment to remember a scene of passion or misery for later use. I have discovered that anyone writing a book has to be selfish for months on end, excluding most other distractions and duties. Without this ruthlessness, the writing of a book stretches into years and decades. As it is, my wife thinks it may never end. Apologies to all the people, emails and obligations I have dealt with slowly or not at all.
  • Despite writing on the screen, I think I may have consumed my own weight in plain A4 paper. With the number of words in a book, there comes a moment where you have to feel it on paper to be able to grasp where everything is and how it reads. This may be terribly old-fashioned, but I still find it easier to correct my own writing in hard copy. Then you find yourself doing it again and again as a new version needs combing and fine-tuning. Here I say sorry to a lot of trees.
  • What is about writing which creates a craving for biscuits? I was fairly restrained about the amount of coffee I drank and I did not once, not ever, give way to the temptation to eat jammy rings. But I did eat quite a few other biscuits.
  • Human beings are hard-wired to ignore their own experience. I know that I write quickest when I prepare what I’m going to write and prepare it carefully. But I have been trained by experience to write fast if needed. Several times I sat down at the keyboard to make a fast, charging start on a chapter. If I hadn’t figured it out carefully, I lost momentum almost immediately. I have known this for a long time, yet I blithely forget it.
  • This was a long, cold winter to be writing and I discovered that your lower half gets colder than your upper half. Your arms and shoulders aren’t doing much exercise when writing, but they’re moving more than your legs; I guess that explains the temperature difference. At one point I was considering long johns. Do professional writers wear them or perhaps tights under their trousers?
  • If I wrote books all the time, I suspect I might become a vegetarian. My solitary lunches contained less and less meat as the weeks went on. Unless this was because I was subconsciously afraid I would fall asleep in the afternoon, I cannot explain this trend to meatlessness.
  • A non-fiction book writer needs a large floor. By the end I had stacks of paper and books covering a space large enough for two double beds.
  • The last paragraph you wrote at the end of the day before always turns out to be rubbish. Sometimes more than needs surgery, but often just that single last paragraph. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know.

PS: The book’s called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age and I’ll tell you more about it soon.

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