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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Jun 12

Paul Bradshaw on journalism education (and how slow some people are to wake up to change)

My colleague and City University Visiting Professor Paul Bradshaw has been reflecting in a 3-part blogpost on the changes in journalism education being driven by the disruption of the previous era’s pattern of communications.

Bare summaries of other peoples writings shouldn’t be so necessary in the digital world since I can link and you can click direct to the originals. But in case you’re short of time, I’d boil Paul’s case down like this:

I agree with Paul about the first, query part of the the second and think the third point overdone: Continue reading →


Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

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).

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Dec 11

Leveson takes academic advice

Unless you look very hard you will not have seen the Leveson Inquiry session of yesterday mentioned in the news. The inquiry wasn’t taking a day off: it was hearing from seven media academics.

Our views, to put it mildly, did not make headlines. But for the record, here is the link to the video and transcripts. The best summary I’ve seen is here (others here and here).

A few quick impressions. The questioning is thorough, rigorous and well-directed, much of it conducted by Lord Leveson himself. Given that so much of the focus is coming down to the less attractive activities of red-top papers, the absence from the inquiry’s panel of “assessors” of anyone with experience of a red-top newsroom seems odder and odder. Partly because such a person could have helped diagnose the problem; partly because the inclusion of red-top experience would bolster the political defences of inquiry conclusions which turn out to be unpopular with the popular papers. Those papers editors’ will give evidence in January and at least some of them are meeting shortly to see if they can organise a common front and shared proposals for the inquiry.

Lord Leveson referred yesterday to what had gone wrong in newspapers in the past “twenty years”. That choice of timeframe reminds us that the unspoken premise of this inquiry is to discover why the suggestions made (twice) by the last judge to consider these questions, Sir David Calcutt, two decades ago did not succeed as planned. There is a clear hint of this (part 1 c and d) in the Leveson Inquiry’s terms of reference.


Sep 11

The future of international journalism is…female

I haven’t looked back to see if this is a growing trend or a one-off. But the gender ratio of students enrolled for Masters courses at City University London’s Graduate School of Journalism is striking.

Our largest course, the MA in International Journalism, has registered 89 students (from 32 countries). Sixty-eight of them – 76% – are women; there are just 21 men on that course. In our other nine MA courses, the ratio is 66:34 in favour of women. The overall balance for all our postgraduates is 69:31.

One of our students, Rizwan Syed, thinks that journalism’s bosses haven’t yet woken up to this shift.


Jun 11

People-knitting, Anglo-Polish style

Many are the ways in which well-intentioned social engineers have tried to knit together the similar-but-yet-different peoples of Europe.

Some misbegotten schemes try to make different nations more like eachother. The best allow and encourage people to enjoy and appreciate their neighbours. The German poet and author Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said that cheap tickets which allow young people to travel across the continent’s rail network had done more for European integration than anything ever decided by the European Union.

If you want to see a working, evolving example of eyes and minds being opened, take a look at these blogs written from Poland by British students who are on summer assignment for Gazeta Wyborca, checking out whether Poland is ready for the next year’s football championship, Euro 2012. (Declaration of interest: these are some of my students).

The Misja21 scheme, the brainchild of the inspired Greg Piechota of Gazeta, wasn’t designed as a “cultural exchange” or anything as eat-your-greens boring as that. Greg wanted to generate raw material which his paper could use to tell Poles how their policemen, railway officials and ticket sellers look and sound to the rest of the world. And football is a language spoken by almost everyone.

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Apr 11

Come off it Kelvin!

Kelvin MacKenzie sounds off today about university journalism schools, how they’re all a waste of space and how they should all be shut down. If training on the job was good enough for me, runs the argument, then it should be good enough for today’s generation.

Kelvin MacKenzie

Kelvin MacKenzie

First, a declaration of interest: I lead a university journalism school. Second, Kelvin is talking bollocks.

There is a delightful irony in the route that Kelvin’s opinion took to be published. Last November, he came to speak on a panel at City University on local television news. While wandering round the subject in characteristically subdued fashion, he took a sideswipe at journalism teaching in universities and advised any students present to abandon their course and get a job as a reporter on a local paper. The students took this on the chin and ignored the advice. And one of them must have thought: there’s an idea there someone can use.

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May 10

Bothering Berger

Going briefly backwards in time, en route to Qatar I spoke to the 20th anniversary conference of the European Journalism Training Association in Paris. The talk – “How do we teach journalism if we can’t define it?” – reprised the drift of the lecture to be found here and there is some Q&A material here.  (It’s not clear if the video of the talk itself is on the site; maybe you have to be an EJTA member).

The lively discussion which followed was an object lesson in the risks of strpping down an argument to a shorter version. If you find this blog or others a little egocentric in their wish to always have the last word, then have a look as an antidote at the early #ejta tweets from Guy Berger of Rhodes University.

For the record, I really hope I am not imprisoned in a siege mentality about journalists and journalism as they presently are. There are occasional attempts to defend journalism against the forces of change by saying that “we are journalism and what we do is grand and important and we should be protected from change” or by claiming that citizen or grassroots journalists have nothing to contribute. These arguments cannot succeed and will fail.

When I’m on my feet nowadays I try to look beyond the huge changes that technology and economics and to ask if there is a definable activity which can be called journalism and, if so, what should define the value that it adds. The very last thing on my mind is to erect a trade-union-style defence  or self-justificationfor journalists who don’t like the  way the world is going.

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