For many years, Slate has been one of the best sites for commentary in America. One of the stupidest things that intelligent team ever did was to sack their media columnist Jack Shafer, who now writes at Reuters.
His trenchant style hasn’t yet quite recovered from the transfer, but he continues stubbornly to refuse to think with the herd. For this alone he is required reading.
As evidence, here is Shafer’s column on Warren Buffet (left), the uber-guru of counter-intuitive investors everywhere, and newspapers. Buffet has owned newspapers on and off over the years and his commentary on their profitability or otherwise happens to write the twentieth-century history of printed media pretty well. And not just in America either. Once upon a time, newspapers could price their advertising space pretty much as they wished because their position in their markets was strong, bolstered by lack of competition and brand loyalty. Now that “franchise” has weakened. A cold-eyed view? Yes, but that is no bad way occasionally to look at newspapers which have more often been seen through rose-tinted spectacles of sentiment.
Journalists like to think that they are above grubby matters of business. But if you don’t understand what went wrong in the business model for printed news media, how are you going to figure out what will work in the future?
I listened to a briefing recently by a senior person at BBC News. I heard it on background, so I can’t name the individual but you can take it that this person knows a lot about a newsgathering operation which employs, worldwide, 6000 people. The world’s largest, so far. A few snippets:
- Chinese state broadcasting is set to become the world’s biggest newsgatherer. We don’t know when. In parts of Africa, people don’t see the Chinese as having any agenda or slant. The BBC is sometimes seen as having a post-colonial British agenda.
- In Britain, approval of the BBC diminishes the further you go from London.
- The BBC cuts programme is known as “Delivering Quality First” or “DQF”. In the newsroom this is rendered as “Duck Quick or you’re F*****.”
- We may be cutting back on two on-screen presenters on the news channel but we’re re-appointing political reporters at local radio stations. In local politics coverage, papers are “nowhere”.
- The first five bi-lingual (i.e. not English mother tongue) correspondents reporting across the network are just about to start work.
- The audience is pretty bored with the primary campaign in the US presidential. We kid ourselves about the level of interest. The Radio 4 audience is actually pretty hostile to the US.
- We have a dilemma about local coverage: the BBC Trust stopped plans to do that. We’re not in a good place.
- When the Leveson Inquiry began, the BBC began its own internal investigation. Pretty uncomfortable having your own records gone through. As far as I know, the Daily Mirror haven’t yet done their own inquiry.
The international affairs scholar Walter Laqueur (left) has been asking himself why so many commentators – who might in his view have known better – were proved wrong in assuming that the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square would usher in age in Arab countries of democratic tolerance and European rights. Whether or not you accept his view of Egypt, his speculation about why these mistake are made has something interesting to say about crowdsourcing and collective judgement.
Laqueur begins by going back to another glaring example of over-optimism (which happens to have long fascinated me): inflating the prospects for the integration of Europe and the imminent triumph of the continent’s superior economic and social model. He gives a few examples of overblown hyperbole about how the 21st century would be Europe’s era and asks why the evidence that this might not happen was so often overlooked. This resonated with me since I’ve had experience in the past of trying to persuade American audiences that uniting Europe might not turn out to be as straightforward as many politicians in Europe claimed. I can still remember lecturing at a college in Vermont in 1989 (just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall as it happened) and telling a sceptical-looking audience that the unification of Europe wasn’t going to be like assembling the united states in America. My audience looked very grumpy and disappointed.
Then Laqueur looks at rosy-eyed predictions about what future elections would bring in Egypt, noting that very few journalists reporting the revolution in Egypt went beyond Cairo (and some never beyond Tahrir Square). A trip outside the capital might have revealed that support for a secular revolution was very limited and that while there might be competition between different variations of Islamic politics, the new Egypt was going not going to be secular and more “western”. The odds, he says, were stacked against a tolerant, plural, secular outcome from the start.
I’m less interested in whether Laqueur’s Egyptian pessimism is correct than in the conclusions he draws about punditry: Continue reading →
From time to time the authorities intent on locking up journalists have second thoughts and we should mark it when they do. So it was this week when a Turkish court released Nedim Sener and three other journalists arrested in the Oda TV case connected to the (allegedly enormous) “Ergenekon” conspiracy.
Sener and several colleagues had been held for a year and had been the focus of a noisy international campaign, led outside Turkey by the International Press Institute. It’s easy for organisations like IPI to believe that while it may be their duty to protest and lobby when journalists are put in the slammer because of the opinions they hold, the results of such campaigns tend all the same to be meagre. So celebrations are in order when it seems to work. Sener was arrested a year ago this month, named a Press Freedom Hero by IPI in June 2010 and released nine months later. You can’t prove the causal connection, but….
It certainly seems to have made a difference to Sener’s time in jail. IPI director Alison Bethel Mackenzie said yesterday that Sener and his wife “today mentioned over and over and over again the impact of the letters that poured in from all over the world from IPI members and supporters, as well as the letters that were sent on behalf of the IPI board of directors and, separately, from the World Press Freedom Heroes. He also said that he had heard that board members sent letters to Turkish embassies in their home countries. He was very moved by that.”
The Ergenekon conspiracy trials are likely to run for years. Sener and three others are due back in court in June; six more defendants, mostly journalists, are still in custody (a taste of the arguments generated here) . Hundreds of people have been arrested for what is routinely described as a “conspiracy” to bring down the governing Justice and Development (AK) party led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I am not an expert on Turkey and no doubt there are no doubt parts of this complex story that I’m liable to misunderstand. But when I see a government arresting hundreds of people and constantly enlarging the scope of what cannot possibly have been any kind of efficient “conspiracy” – simply because the numbers claimed are so large – a warning light goes off in my head. Isn’t the alleged existence of this vast, all-connected conspiracy a bit too convenient to be plausible? (It predates Sener’s arrest and centres on the murder of Sener’s friend Hrant Dink, but there’s an excellent essay by British Turkey expert Maureen Freely on the complex politics of journalism and free expression in the country’s “embattled half-democracy”.)
I drew attention yesterday to two changes of editors, one in India and one in Hong Kong, which I thought important. One conclusion I drew was almost certainly wrong.
In the case of the new editor of the South China Morning Post, I thought that the tone of the commentary I read on Wang Xiangwei was overwrought. It seemed to be assumed that because he was born on the mainland, he would be the creature of the regime in Beijing. But I was writing from superficial knowledge and I sent a link to a journalist friend in Hong Kong. He rapidly corrected my opinion. He is pessimistic about what will now happen, even if the state’s influence over the paper takes the form of a slow squeeze rather than any sudden stifling.
My friend wrote:
“I think you underestimate the ruthlessness and determination of the Communist Party and its United Front Department to influence and manipulate the media in HK. It is not using the Propaganda Department and (powers of) confiscation as it does in the mainland, but the ‘capitalist’ means, like takeovers, mergers, pressure and lobbying.
I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.
The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.
But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.
Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.
The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.
That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.
In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).