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Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date.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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Why journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upWhy journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upWhy journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upWhy journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upWhy journalists should look over the horizon and cheer upShare This Post

18
Jul 13

You can no more take opinion and judgement out of journalism than take clouds out of the sky

Does any media person in New York and Washington ever read any history? Viewed from the English side of the Atlantic, there is a weird debate going on in the United States over journalism and partisanship. Irrespective of the opinions, the really peculiar thing is that the disagreement is happening at all.

The electronic spying revelations made by Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian have spawned a side-exchange of fire among American journalists in which Greenwald is accused of partisanship. His strong opinions, it is implied or said, disqualify him from the status of reporter and should place his stories under suspicion. This is poor logic and wilful ignorance of the past. Much better to ask: is this stuff true?

Jack Shafer, the inimitable US media critic, does read history and here he collects the American material to rebut the idea that you should or can have journalism without strong ideas and passions. Here also is an interview given by Nick Lemann reminding us that, once, all journalism was opinion.

I find the American discussion of this very odd to read, not least because I’ve been looking at what the changes of the last two decades (digital technology, the internet) do to journalism for a book which comes out in the UK and US in September. My perspective is more Anglo and European than the strictly stateside Greenwald debate, but the conclusion is the same. Journalism is not a branch of mechanical science.

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15
Jun 13

British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs Shia

Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.

  • David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
  • Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.

03
Jun 13

The ever-changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013

I’m in Thailand (at the World Editors Forum) and the news is full of protest all over the world: Bangkok itself, Turkey and in the unpredictable places where the ladies of Femen pop up and take off their clothes.

Protest needs innovation as much as any department of life and perhaps it needs it more than most because protest goes nowhere if it isn’t noticed and doesn’t spread. Innovation is deviation and new protesters must find new and original ways to imprint a message instantly in as many minds as possible, preferably without words. It must be an image delivered instantaneously because protest can be snuffed out fast and because there is anyway so much else competing for peoples’ attention. Compelling visual wit is harder than it appears.

The examples above represent a remarkable cluster of originality in this specialised global competition. In Turkey, they wave beercans to protest against new restrictions on alcolhol. Much better, a hundred or so people held a kiss protest at a subway station in Ankara to make fun of the increase in rules on public behaviour.

The ever changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013Here in Thailand, demonstrators have reached back into an example distant in both geography and time. Political movements in Thailand have long been signalled by colour (yellow vs red mostly) but yesterday, the anti-goverment crowd wore Guy Fawkes masks and the (equally peaceful) counter-demo wore red masks. Needless to say, young Thai activists have not been reading books about 17th century British history. They picked up the cue from the 2005 film V for Vendetta in which people march on the parliament in London wearing the masks. (The use of these masks isn’t confined to Thailand and didn’t start here – examples here – but looks especially odd so far from its origins).

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20
May 13

New, improved censorship from Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace

I’m not inventing this: Iran really does have a body called the the Supreme Council for Cyberspace. This body with the science-fiction name is wrestling with the dilemma facing dictatorships everywhere.

Even by official estimates, more than half of Iran’s 75m people are net users. At that level, the internet is basic to the functioning of the economy, and that includes trade and contacts outside the country. So the cyberspace councillors can’t just shut down the internet even if they had the technical means to do it.

So they do two things: they slow it down and they try to build infrastructure which they can watch. There’s a tense election coming in June and the authorities have had several years to plan against a repeat of the demonstrations which took them by surprise in 2009. As AFP reports, the authorities in Tehran are suspected of putting the internet in a “coma”. Revealingly, the people who seem to have spotted this first are the DVD pirates who can’t any longer download foreign movies because the system is so slow.

The way that the cyberspace rulers may be managing this is by blocking Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Iranians who don’t want to be traced accessing sites outside their borders use VPNs to connect to international sites and to disguise where they are. The use of VPNs is illegal on the grounds that they are insecure and may carry material considered depraved, criminal or politically offensive. So the Iranian authorities are building their own VPN for people to use, which internet experts quite reasonably assume will be transparent to the supreme cyber-councillors, not to mention to the security police.

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29
Oct 12

Indian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directions

By what seems only to be coincidence, there has been a bundle of rich, informative writing about the India news media in the last month. It seemed a good idea to collect the links in one place – and they turn out to have a common theme.

Exhibit One is the James Cameron lecture by N. Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu. As befits his biography, Ram writes as a newspaperman but his magisterial survey does not neglect the astonishing growth of 24-hour news television in India. I have already posted about this lecture, so I’ll summarise brutally and say that Ram’s underlying message was: because Indian news media is a “growth story”, don’t assume that everything is fine.

Second item is a piece in the New Yorker (£) by long-time media analyst Ken Auletta on the Jain brothers who run Bennett & Coleman, the owners of the immensely successful Times of India. Auletta isn’t the first person to write about the changes which have occurred at the Times of India but he is the first writer to lay out with such clarity and force the truly revolutionary ideas which have altered the group’s papers.

I do not mean “revolutionary” in any romantic sense. The insight on which the Jain brothers based their changes at the Times of India and the Economic Times was simple but turned the world of those newspapers upside down. The idea is shocking to journalists like me, brought up on the assumption that newspapers have a democratic function beyond their existence as businesses. Not so, thought the Jains: we’re not in journalism, we’re selling advertising. And so the journalism was gradually but firmly subordinated to adjusting the newspapers to be platforms collecting readers whose attention could be sold to advertisers. This has been so successful and influential, that the group’s executive no longer feel and need to fudge or obscure what they have been doing.

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15
Oct 12

At last: a journalist with a sense of history and of its power to renew

People who run university journalism schools get used to being asked why they are offering courses to wannabe journalists who won’t be able to find jobs because so many of those jobs are disappearing in the digital disruption. I get asked this twice a week.

Nicholas Lemann steps down as head of the Columbia Journalism School in New York next year and an interviewer from the Daily Beast asked him just this question. His splendidly iconoclastic and counter-intuitive reply makes an excellent riposte to the unreflective pessimism which dominates much pipesucking and public moaning about journalism.

Lemann doesn’t dispute the facts: that jobs have been lost on papers and that more will go (see this blog on Britain here and here). He’s not optimistic about the 25 largest big-city dailies in America. But Lemann takes aim at two fallacies which pop up in most discussions about the future of journalism: the idea that these problems didn’t exist in a golden age sometime in the recent past and the assumption that the future of well-known daily newspapers is the same as the future of journalism.

“People tend to feel, whatever the pressing problem of the moment, that humans before me didn’t have to deal with it,” as he puts it.

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09
Oct 12

Wisdom from India (and from children in Ethiopia)

The traffic figures for this blog make clear that what people like is strong opinions from the author. But occasionally this author grows tired of the sound his own thinking and just wants to pass on wisdom from others. I have two items to offer.

Last week’s James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University London was by N Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu, which has a claim to be India’s best daily paper. Ram delivered a magisterial overview of the Indian media which I can recommend as one of the best analysies of the subject you can find (video/audio, text).

My personal selection of edited highlights (page numbers for text in full):

  • Ram, who knew James Cameron, observed that the great foreign correspondent would not have had much truck with the idea, floated occasionally at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere, that journalism should be regulated as profession in the manner of doctors or lawyers. Cameron, writing in 1967, was clear that journalism was “not and never has been a profession…since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions” for the reason that “it can be practised in many ways.” (p2)
  • Ram stressed a discussion that far too many journalists complaining about failing business models forget: the fortunes of the news media are not the same as the state of the news media (p7).
  • Ram gives an up-to-date list of India’s juiciest corruption scandals (p11), remarking that the Indian media has been much better at reporting scandals in government and politics and much less good at chasing corporate corruption.
  • Reminding us that India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, he lists the recent threats to free speech (p17).
  • He quotes often from a long piece on Indian media in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta: “Citizens Jain” (£).
  • If you want to see one o the most important differences between India and China, look at internet penetration rates: China: 40%, India 10%.

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