01
Jul 19

Facebook grows up

Any powerful institution has enemies. Facebook has more than most. The platform has multiplied its critics both by its inability to talk clearly about its own power and by its sluggish and uncertain response to alarm about the harms it can cause. But, all the same, the social network with 2.7bn members (and 1.5bn daily users) is doing a little growing up.

Signs of the social network’s greater self-awareness have been accumulating. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg began, gingerly, to talk about power when acknowledging Facebook’s public reponsibilities in front of American legislators last year. I attended the last of Facebook’s workshops on its planned ‘Content Oversight Board’ in Berlin last week and Facebookers there talked quite unselfconsciously about the network’s ‘editorial control’ – not a phrase that they would have been allowed to use in front of strangers a year ago.

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14
Jan 19

For journalism’s sake…make a small change to the way charity law works

Dame Frances Cairncross is currently running an inquiry into ‘the market environment facing the press and high quality journalism in the UK’ and is due to report early this year. This post reproduces my submission to the inquiry and is largely concerned with the potential benefits for journalism of a small shift in the way that the Charity Commission treats applications from small (and often struggling) journalism startups. Other than removing a summary of career experience (here or elsewhere in this blog), this is the full text:

I am on the board of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Much of my knowledge about charity law and journalism comes from the Bureau’s attempts to register some or all of its activity as a charity. I was a member of a group of lawyers and practitioners which gave evidence on charity law and journalism to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012. I am currently a member of an informal group of journalists, academics and lawyers (sometimes known as the ‘John Street Group’, after its inaugural meeting) which is pressing for a change in the approach to journalism in the application of charity law. This submission is mine alone and no other group or institution bears any responsibility for its contents.

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20
Feb 17

Mr Zuckerberg’s education has further to go

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14
Nov 16

Zuckerberg: news ought to be ‘authentic’ and ‘meaningful’

No great surprise that the election of Donald Trump was a tipping point for opinion about Facebook. Now people are really asking the questions about the influence of social networks and the mix of human intervention and algorithms that power their selection of news.

This is not a post about the causes of the American election surprise and its implications of journalism (there’s an informative survey of opinions here). This is another bulletin on the progress that Facebook is making in absorbing and acting on the fact that it has moral and democratic responsibilities which stem from its colossal informational power.

At the weekend, Facebook’s chief honcho Mark Zuckerberg responded to charges that Facebook had influenced the election outcome, in particular by circulating fake news stories. No surprise either that Zuckerberg guesses not. But he is guessing. And I’d guess that subsequent research may show infuence. We’ll see.

Fake news is an issue, but it is not the heart of the question. The question which matters is how Facebook – the techies, the software and your community – decides what to show you. Anyone with a smartphone can now distribute information, true, false or debatable. The group of people who used try to sift the truth information likely to matter to society (aka journalists) no longer control the distribution of what they produce. Facebook is the first news distribution platform which operates at scale across the whole planet. Plainly that gives it power and influence; we just don’t yet know precisely how that works. Facebook’s responses to the dilemmas raised by this have been hesitant, crabwise, half-admissions that it may have some ‘editorial’ responsibilties and is not only a big, neutral tech-only company.

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27
Sep 16

A few clues to how Facebook should think about news

Among the mainstream online/print news media, anxiety about Facebook has turned to aggression. The attacks are the product of fear.

Facebook is a large enough corporation to generate headlines almost every day. But the row over the social network taking down a historic, and still powerful, picture taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War handed the pundits who worry about the future of journalism a golden opportunity.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-11-50-23Facebook was beaten up for good reason: taking the picture down was idiotic and asking for trouble. But the ferocious aggression is not about Facebook’s failure to tell the difference between kiddie porn and a legendary piece of photojournalism. It’s about Facebook hoovering up advertising revenue which once went to pay for newsrooms.

A great many journalists aren’t thinking straight about Facebook (notable exception here). In an attempt to clarify, this post is in the form of advice to Facebook. That’s because I don’t think sniping at Facebook is working (although I’ve had a go at its executives before now myself). Least of all do I think that publishers can seek protection from social news distrbutors from governments. With the distribution of news now decoupled from the organisations which generate news, power now lies with the distributors. Facebook’s daily news audience is at least 600,000 people and growing; it’s the most popular news-sharing site in America.

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09
Jan 15

In praise of the cartoonist: solitary, studious and searing

I wrote a short ode to cartoonists for The Conversation UK today and you can see it here.

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12
Dec 14

Nick Denton: a quotation to add to the collection

NDentonWLeitch_033110.jpgI 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.

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10
Nov 14

More on journalism’s value and the tricky business of trust

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 →

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