I think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.
I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:
“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”
Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.
Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.
If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:
- Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
- Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
- The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
- Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
- Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
- In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.
I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools: Continue reading →
The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.
The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.
The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:
“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.
So far as Ecuador has had any recent coverage at all in the European media, it’s been about Julian Assange and his sudden flit to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to ask for political asylum. This may have served to distract from the latest extraordinary episode in President Rafael Correa’s war against the country’s news media (that’s the Prez above).
To judge by Google Analytics, very few of even my most faithful readers bother with my occasional posts about Ecuador. Even though I’m not an expert, I will keep recording developments when I can. It’s a living example of a truth often forgotten in the pampered, plural, media-saturated lands of Europe and America. It’s perfectly possible for progress in press freedom to be stopped and go backwards, particularly if the government concerned can be confident that few people are watching or care at all.
This is what Ecuador’s President Correa seems to believe. I’ll allow that he may have some reason to complain of his coverage. He’s one of the continent’s new group of radical presidents and the established centres of power, news media included, are not all sympathetic. But mounting a full scale assault on media freedoms with the aim of trying to insulate his government and office from scrutiny is a policy with two tiny, but nevertheless significant, weaknesses: it’s undemocratic and it won’t work.
Here’s the latest absurdity, as reported by the Global Post: a law designed to prevent news coverage having any political effect at all.