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.

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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19
Dec 11

The meaning of the abrupt departure of the New York Times CEO

Recessions, or rumours of their return, concentrate minds. Late last week, the New York Times announced the departure of its CEO, Janet Robinson, in terms which made clear that this wasn’t her initiative and that it had something to do with the paper’s struggles to find a successful digital publishing strategy.

I suspect that Ms Robinson’s removal is a symbol of a debate not confined to the boardroom of the New York Times or, come to that, to the United States. A long period of economic uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic is starving newspapers of both readers and advertising income. In Britain print circulation declines are accelerating and given that two of the largest year-on-year falls are for the Guardian and Financial Times, I don’t think this can be attributed to the phone-hacking scandal.

This pushes all newspapers and their publishers closer to one of the biggest decisions in their history, a momentous choice which is coming sooner than many expected. How much longer can they stay in print? When do they switch to digital?

When two British editors were asked last year how much longer they expected to be printing their papers, both said that the companies had bought their last printing presses. Since both had invested in new presses in the past few years, that gave the Sunday Times and the Guardian maximum time horizons of between twenty and thirty years as paper products. I doubt that many titles now think they have that long.

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05
Jul 11

Phone-hacking goes platinum

I’m not surprised that David Cameron has abandoned his non-committal language about phone-hacking by newspaper reporters. The moment yesterday when the story broke that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler and, by deleting message in the phone’s mailbox, have given her parents and police the false hope that she was still alive marks a watershed in the miserable saga of phone interception by journalists. This is more than “a new low”.

Yesterday was the last possible moment that anyone could, with a straight face, claim that this was a limited infraction with minor consequences being blown out of proportion. Until yesterday the story was of huge interest to journalists, policemen and MPs. The drip-drip revelations in The Guardian were not only intriguing, they were significant. But they hadn’t grabbed any really widespread attention.

Campaigners on the issue claimed that this was because major news media managed to mostly ignore the subject; some editors were presumed to be nervous about possible revelations in their own newsroom. This may have been a factor, but the basic explanation was much simpler. To be a marmalade-dropper, a story needs – among other things – an element of surprise, an assumption upended. Stories which showed that red-top reporters behaved badly and broke the law don’t upset anyone’s picture of the world. And into the bargain, the victims of phone-hacking were celebrities. Most people ration their sympathy where red-carpet people are concerned.

Not so the bereaved and much-abused Dowler family. That reporters seem to have been so cruelly indifferent to a family whose 13-year-old daughter had gone missing moves the story into new, mass territory. The essence of the story is emotive and straightforward to grasp and convey. This will be true in spades if it turns out that anyone in the families of the Soham murder victims was treated in the same way.

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01
Jul 11

The Times: the paywall puzzle

The Times reaches 100,000 digital subscribers and I’m still baffled by their online strategy. I ought to be better-placed than many to figure out what they’re up to (declaration: I used to work there). But it’s not easy.

This blog starts from the position that anything which promises a sustainable economic base for journalism is to be encouraged. Dogmatic assertions (“content wants to be free”, “content wants to be expensive”) which aim to shout down empirical experiments are to be discouraged. So any publisher adding to the sum of knowledge about what will or won’t work in charging is contributing. From that perspective, the Times announcement tells us a few things.
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06
Apr 11

Blogs, paywalls: trends and straws in the wind

Two signposts for two clear trends this week.

Last night a journalist whose form is live-blogging won the “Political Journalist of the Year” title at the UK Press Awards. This is Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian, who has carved himself a niche as the Westminster reporter who writes minute-by-minute bulletins of big political set pieces and crises. What makes Sparrow good is his blend of old skills and new form. He is fast, but he is also wise.

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/5/28/1275066281360/PoliticsLiveAndrewSparrow_620.gif

As I’ve heard him explain, he began as a normal political reporter and just evolved his live-blog speciality as he went along. He doesn’t think live blogs on any subject replace reporting of a more conventional kind; they complement and enrich it. His strength lies in a combination of “old” qualities (journalistic self-discipline, background depth) and the “new” digital opportunity to distribute updates frequently and instantly.

Second trend sign: people experimenting with paywalls. It isn’t a coincidence that at least two newspapers on either side of the Atlantic announced digital charges this week: in Wolverhampton and Tulsa (with perhaps San Francisco to come). This isn’t just a metropolitan rarity any more. And we had the first public appearance by the two head honchos at the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, since the paper announced its metered payment system.

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12
Feb 11

Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review: Continue reading →


20
Sep 10

It ain’t easy studying journalism

As more than 400 MA students arrive at City University London today to study journalism, what better way to mark the day than this exchange between a journalism student in Long Island and (apparently) Steve Jobs of Apple, reported here by Charles Arthur of The Guardian.

There’s a theory abroad that the internet and its capacity to circulate and store anything and everything makes big companies more responsive to consumers because if they ignore someone or screw up, more people will know. The House of Apple does not subscribe to this belief, it would seem.


27
Jul 10

Assange, Wikileaks and the war logs

Are the Wikileaks Afghanistan “war logs” as big as the Pentagon Papers leak about the war in Vietnam in 1971? At first sight, clearly not.

Daniel Ellsberg

As the Pentagon Paper leaker himself, Daniel Ellsberg, gently pointed out, the Pentagon study had been a high-level, candid history which revealed the extent of government dishonesty about the war. Some analysts of that period concluded that the impact of the Pentagon Papers on public opinion at the time was in the damage the documents did to the government’s credibility, rather than in changing opinions about the war itself. The fact that the documents tended to support the view that the war was unwinnable had less effect than the revelations of large-scale lying to the public: people had already mostly made up their mind about whether the war was winnable or not.

Little of this applies the 92,000 documents in the war logs – as far as we know so far. The picture painted by the logs is rich in detail, but short on surprise. Civilians get killed and the military are reluctant to acknowledge it, secret military units try to kill Taleban leaders (and often fail), Pakistani spooks help the Taleban, the Taleban seem to have surface-to-air missiles (not clear how many or how effective) and, generally, the armies involved don’t give the public the full picture. War is ugly and messy; innocent people are killed. It may be useful for the record to have this confirmed in detail and that detail may well shift opinion further against the war, but it’s hard to describe these as revelations.

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