Oct 14

The importance – for experiment – of not being embarrassed

catAs news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.

Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.

He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.

This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.

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Sep 14

Metadata surveillance: the issue which won’t be allowed to disappear

This blog returns to what I hope will be more frequent publication after an unintended break with a small item of good news. How often do blog-writers throw out appeals, queries and rhetorical questions and hear nothing but silence? Frequently.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the scale of electronic communications surveillance by the NSA and its international partners, I wrote a short post a few months back underlining why journalists should worry about “metadata”. To journalists particularly, the issue of whether the snoopers, tappers and buggers are reading your email or merely tracking who you email and when (metadata is the latter) isn’t important.

A source can be identified by a list of emails and calls even if the authorities don’t have the content of those exchanges. Indeed, there are active cases in the US which suggest that the American government is doing precisely that. In the long history of keeping reporting free of the state, this may turn out to be a more important issue than the British media’s debate over regulation in the wake of phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

I suggested in February that someone should test whether the indiscriminate collection of this kind of information was a threat to free expression and a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not an open and shut case, but surely something worth trying.

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May 14

The New York Times and innovation: are they asking the right question?

The New York Times did a kind favour to the rest of the news media when, amidst the storm provoked by the sacking of its editor Jill Abramson, we got to see a report on the paper’s lack of progress in digital journalism by a group of its younger editors.

I don’t need to describe “Innovation” further for you: it’s been capably done elsewhere (see also here). Instead, I want to ask the question which I haven’t yet seen put, perhaps because it makes people a little nauseous. Is it actually possible for a big, mainstream newspaper to make the transition to being, principally, a digital platform for journalism? Not just make the transition slowly, painfully and with embarrassing mistakes but…not make it at all.

I’m by nature an optimist and I recently I wrote a book which, among other themes, looks at the regularity with which journalism re-invents itself when disrupted. But having read the 96 pages of the NYT document, even my faith in the future was dented.

As many other readers have said, it is a brutally frank self-examination. But for all the bravery involved, a number of questions just aren’t there. With all the fervour of tribesmen waving a talisman to ward off evil spirits, the authors repeatedly praise the outstanding quality of the NYT’s journalism. A touch smug, an outsider might think, but hardly controversial.

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Apr 14

An incomplete list of things which are going to shape the next journalism

People who ponder journalism’s prospects have turned cheerful. Not suddenly, but over the past few months. The evidence that there’s capital, generative energy and signs that some digital publishing can survive is too obvious to ignore. So the shift has been from pessimism to futurology.

What kind of journalism are we going to see or should we want to see? “Open”, “networked”, radical, non-capitalist or done in looser structures than in the past? Because we’re in a phase of accelerating, plural experiment, what will happen will be all of these things and more.

Just pause for a second to appreciate what a change in the conversation the hi-tech millionaires, philanthropists and venture capitalists have brought about, at least in the US, by demonstrating that they want to be involved in building the next journalism. The emphasis is now more about the content than about the delivery and the platforms. As a writer of the pre-digital age put it, we’re watching “the turning of a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” This is nowadays known as “disruption”.

Here’s a meandering list of seven factors which will shape the next journalism. I’ll be talking about this at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia later this week. (And there’s more on the background to all this in Out of Print, see right).

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Apr 14

One easy, transparent way of making accuracy visible: open sourcing

This blog has occasionally murmured that serious news media with an interest in being trusted had one simple way of demonstrating their reliability with the facts. And that way was offered by the digital technology which is so menacing to the livelihoods of newsrooms rooted in the print era.

I’ve argued that the building of trust would be strengthened by footnotes: links in the text which take the reader to the full version or to the source material. Digital content operates in three dimensions: the two dimensions you see on the screen of a phone, tablet or PC and the third dimension which you can access via an embedded link.

I wasn’t alone in pointing out this neglected opportunity, but I was surprised by how little traction the idea – which still seems a no-brainer to me – actually had. I had the chance to explain it recently to the editor of A Very Serious Newspaper whose journalists, I said, could demonstrate their superior reliability by this simple change. It was clear the the editor in question had little idea what I was talking about.

I think part of the problem is the word “footnotes”. So this small campaign is here being officially rebranded. “Footnotes” remind people of tiny text at the foot of the page on dusty pages in silent libraries. Henceforward this is the drive for “open sourcing”.

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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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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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