28
Jan 14

Laboratory sites are re-inventing journalism on the run

For the past fifteen years, an argument has been reverberating in and around journalism. The digital era, argued one school of thought, is a total re-set: nothing will – or can – survive of the old news media dominated by print and terrestrial broadcast. Rubbish, argued the other school: digital journalism can’t do original reporting and when the world clocks that fraud, mainstream media will revive.

I parody the opposing positions, but not by much. The quarrel was static and often sterile. I’ve argued (here and here) that the task of journalists in the digital era is to adapt old values and ideals to new circumstances and possibilities. In other words, a lot needs to change to renew an old ideal: telling people useful truth.

This stale dispute from the past is now being rendered irrelevant by new online news businesses which have the experimental drive, technological confidence and resources to try new ways of doing things – and which have already won a sizeable audience to try them on.

Experiments small and large with everything from how long the ideal list should be to the ideal width for pictures to the right tone for longform reporting are conducted one the run, at speed and with a wealth of data about what is shared and how much. Failed experiments are dumped and forgotten. Online sites are not inhibited by caution about their reputation; they have won millions of users but not yet prestige and respect. Such sites are run as laboratories for the next news.

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18
Jul 13

You can no more take opinion and judgement out of journalism than take clouds out of the sky

Does any media person in New York and Washington ever read any history? Viewed from the English side of the Atlantic, there is a weird debate going on in the United States over journalism and partisanship. Irrespective of the opinions, the really peculiar thing is that the disagreement is happening at all.

The electronic spying revelations made by Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian have spawned a side-exchange of fire among American journalists in which Greenwald is accused of partisanship. His strong opinions, it is implied or said, disqualify him from the status of reporter and should place his stories under suspicion. This is poor logic and wilful ignorance of the past. Much better to ask: is this stuff true?

Jack Shafer, the inimitable US media critic, does read history and here he collects the American material to rebut the idea that you should or can have journalism without strong ideas and passions. Here also is an interview given by Nick Lemann reminding us that, once, all journalism was opinion.

I find the American discussion of this very odd to read, not least because I’ve been looking at what the changes of the last two decades (digital technology, the internet) do to journalism for a book which comes out in the UK and US in September. My perspective is more Anglo and European than the strictly stateside Greenwald debate, but the conclusion is the same. Journalism is not a branch of mechanical science.

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15
Jun 13

British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs Shia

Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.

  • David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
  • Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.

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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23
Nov 12

Leveson: the third, better way between statute and self-regulation

With Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the British press now due to report on November 29th, Press Gazette has kindly posted a version of an argument I made to the inquiry and wherever else I’ve been able to find an outlet for it since.

If Leveson proposes a new form of independent regulation for the press founded in statute (something which all previous versions of self-regulation have avoided), there will be an almighty fuss. But the proposal is liable to founder not because of the volume of complaint but because of the problems intrinsic to the plan: issues of definition, compulsion and funding.

There’s a better way. Use law as an incentive towards transparency and self-regulation. Strengthen and clarify privacy law, build strong and consistent public interest defences into laws which impact journalism and allow courts to take editorial integrity and standards into account when cases come to court. Within that framework, self-regulation would be worth doing and worth doing well.

That’s a bald summary. I saw an ad in the Daily Mail today from the Free Speech Network objecting to the possibility of the press being “shackled”, showing six newspaper front pages and asking if these stories would have appeared under “state regulation”. (The stories shown are the Mail’s front pages on the men alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, A Telegraph splash on MPs’ expenses, The Sun front page on Andrew Mitchell calling policemen “plebs”, a Times investigation on celebrity tax avoiders, the Daily Mirror on John Prescott’s affair with his secretary and a Guardian front page on phone-hacking.)

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25
Sep 12

Funding journalism: not before a sharp, painful squeeze

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.

Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.

Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.

Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.

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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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05
Jan 12

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry in the British press isn’t quite finished yet, but the inquiry is entering new territory. Or at least there’s a change of mood.

The opening weeks were dominated by complaints and horror stories about red-top reporters. Straws passing on the wind tell me that this indignation is now being replaced by more sober reflection about the issues which face big-circulation papers.

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

Daily Mail February 1997

Here are the straws I’ve counted recently. Lord Leveson himself has from the start been keen to underline that he is not embarking on any project to “beat down” popular papers. He has also been asking each of his celebrity witnesses what they would do about the faults of which they complain and has more than once sounded a little irritated by the vagueness of the prescriptions he is offered. When editors take the stand at Leveson this month, we will be reminded that popular journalism can reveal important truths and explain complex events in ways that papers with bigger reputations and much smaller circulations can’t manage. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, at one time a columnist for the Daily Mirror, wrote a defence of the tabloids the other day.

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