13
Dec 12

James Harding departs The Times: follow the money

I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.

The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.

Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.

In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.

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James Harding departs The Times: follow the moneyJames Harding departs The Times: follow the moneyJames Harding departs The Times: follow the moneyJames Harding departs The Times: follow the moneyJames Harding departs The Times: follow the moneyShare This Post

29
Nov 12

Leveson quick read: severe narrative, law/regulation better than feared

This is a rapid gut and comment on the Leveson report executive summary released today. The complexity of his regulation-legislation solution seems to have masked the genuine severity of his audit of what some newspapers have been doing.

No report on the press would be complete without a quotation from Thomas Jefferson and Lord Justice Leveson obliges on page 4: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” The next fifteen pages demonstrate exactly the opposite.

Leveson does not think much of the “culture” of the press (as his terms of reference called it). Indeed it seems unlikely that he would even think the word “culture” the appropriate one. He is outraged not just by bad behaviour but by what he seems to think was a lack of any moral sense: “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as it its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Note the “which it wrote” dig at hypocrisy. (para 7)

He makes a nod to the fact that the press does hold its own powers to account, citing (para 10) both the Guardian’s investigation of the News of the World and the ITV and BBC Panorama’s investigation of Jimmy Savile. He acknowledges (para 18) that commercial changes have increased pressures on newspapers “to find different ways to add value” (without accepting this as an excuse for anything at all).

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24
Jul 12

Murdoch, MailOnline and other accelerating disruptions

A significant marker in the rapid evolution of news media has just been passed – and it wasn’t the resignation of Rupert Murdoch from the boards of his UK newspaper companies or the charging of News of the World journalists.

The Daily Mail’s online edition, MailOnline, is reported to have just made its first operating profit. The site, driven by carefully-judged global celebrity coverage and a little sprinkling of soft porn, overtook the New York times some months ago to log the world’s largest user numbers for a news site. The NYT, for once sniffy for understandable reasons, said that they didn’t consider it competition.

So we have these developments to interpret:

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01
Jun 12

Summing up what we’ve learnt on Leveson, Murdoch and law

My loyal band of Twitterati may have noticed that I’ve been in Australia, where I gave a talk in two universities trying to sum up what we’ve learnt from the Leveson Inquiry. British readers of this blog might well want to stop right here because a good deal of the talk below will be familiar. There’s a very short version on the Australian-based The Conversation, a site which acts as a web publisher for opinion and analysis on public affairs by academics. But in case anyone wants to see the full text, here it is:

Phone-Hacking, the Leveson Inquiry and Rupert Murdoch

Public inquiries – often thought of as deliberate, careful, rational procedures – often provide examples of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. They don’t always work out as their instigators hope or intend.

So it is with the Leveson Inquiry, now running most days of the week in London. The Inquiry is formally into the “culture, practice and ethics” of something quaintly called “the press”. The inquiry’s terms of reference are very broad indeed. They cover standards, accuracy, regulation and law, media plurality and ownership, relations with both the police and politicians.

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31
Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.

The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.

That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.

In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).

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15
Aug 11

PageOne: a good news story about news in New York

Somewhere around the middle of this past decade, the New York Times suffered a near-death experience.

The paper’s finances were shaky in the usual ways: print income was falling, digital revenue failing to compensate. A Mexican telephone tycoon lent a lot of money in exchange for an uncomfortably large stake in the company. Magazine profiles openly disrespectful of publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s abilities began appearing. Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal and declared war on the Times’ hold on New York.

One media guru put the previously unsayable into print: that the Times might soon fold or be sold. (Even this blog has occasionally been a little snarky about the Grey Lady.)

And what happened? No newspaper dependent on those dropping print revenues is out of the wood yet, but things have looked up. The Journal has not broken through in New York and Murdoch and the News Corp hierarchy have phone-hacking lawsuits, trials and revelations to worry about. Reporters from the New York Times made a significant mark on the phone-hacking disclosures.

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26
Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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03
May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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