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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27
Sep 13

Newspaper are like horses? Not quite

Jeff Bezos is showing early promise as the new owner of the Washington Post: he has a sound grasp of how to say something familiar in an arrestingly new way.

The other day, he compared printed newspapers to horses:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

On one level, this is plainly true. As a medium for news, ink marks on squashed trees are economically inefficient, environmentally damaging and slow. Print, even for news, will not be replaced by digital. New media almost never completely substitute for older media; the newcomers shrink and shove to one side their predecessors. Just as the combustion engine became the standard way for people to get around without making horses disappear.

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23
Sep 13

Out of Print: the elevator pitch versions and reviews

You would have been hard put to be reading this blog in the past few weeks and succeded in avoiding any mention of my book Out of Print. This post is yet another encouragement to buy a copy by rounding up some of the stuff I’ve done about it and a few reviews. And the book is another instalment in my campaign to stamp out pessimism about journalism.

For easy watching, there’s a BBC interview by Nick Higham here (I fear it’s available only outside the UK). I summarised the book’s theme and argument in a blogpost here and in a piece for The Conversation UK here. There are recent pieces connected to the book’s themes on “who’s a journalist?” in the Yorkshire Post and on spaghetti-throwing (or experiments) at local level at journalism.co.uk.

There are a couple of online reviews here (Geoff Ward) and here (Roy Greenslade) and one in the News Statesman from Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School. Matthew Ingram of PaidContent assessed the book here. To complete the set here is one in Dutch by Bart Brouwers.

I naturally hope that these only whet your appetite to read the whole thing….


19
Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

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30
Aug 13

Syria, Snowden and how public opinion really moves

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the news media shape, frame and alter public opinion. Only up to a point: the exceptions to this rule help to explain public reactions to both the use of nerve toxins in Syria and to the surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden.

This morning, pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are scrambling to assess the British parliamentary vote against military action against the Syrian government. The way in which public opinion is moving on Syria, surveillance and relations between Britain and America can be partly explained by two striking qualifications to the simple idea that news media tell people what to think.

Sometimes, public opinion moves independently of discussion in the media and does not reproduce the prevailing consensus inside mainstream newsrooms. In the 1990s, British (and Danish) public opinion began to turn doubtful on the European Union before sceptical opinions started turning up in newspapers. Media opinions in Britain were not unanimous about joining the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but there was majority in favour; public opinion was against. Most editorials in London this week tilted in favour of action in Syria; public opinion is solidly opposed.

Secondly, when the tone and conclusions reached in the public sphere differ from what opinion polls tell us people think, the difference is usually the result of long, slow deep changes in mood and thinking. Journalists like to present change as something sudden which has just happened. Big changes in consensus don’t occur as right-angled turns. They are gradual, tentative, empirical and often only half-observed.

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07
Aug 13

The Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos isn’t just rich – he experiments, he invents

The Washington Posts new owner Jeff Bezos isnt just rich   he experiments, he inventsThe sale of the Washington Post for $250m to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have taken Washington DC unawares – newspaper people are good at being secretive when it matters – but nothing in this emblematic story is surprising. There’s every chance that this is a good development. Here’s why.

The Post, owned until Monday by three generations of the Graham family, had been struggling as a media business and had sought a way out by buying into businesses which looked likely to help keep the company afloat. It had become an electronic education corporation with a famous newspaper as an appendage. Last month, the company bought a furnace business; it stopped describing itself as a media business some time ago.

Editorially, the paper still holds the attention of Washington’s older movers and shakers; its reporting can still set the capital’s agenda. But advertising revenue had fallen steadily, partly because it was not recruiting younger readers in sufficient numbers. Its editorial personality has lost much of its self-confidence.

I’ve written a book (published next month) which tries to explain exactly how this kind of crisis has come about in the European and American print news media. I argue that despite the threnodies for mainstream newspapers in difficulty and decline, the future prospects for journalism are good. As it happens, the book’s graph showing how online advertising income has not compensated for the loss of print ad income uses the example of the Washington Post.

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24
Jul 13

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer up

Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upTo judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.

Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.

  • Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
  • The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
  • I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
  • The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
  • Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
  • But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.

That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….

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