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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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….

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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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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