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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May 13

Three somethings for the weekend

When I began this blog in 2010, at weekends I would occasionally do a post on a few pieces I’d read that I liked, good journalism well-written (and often contra-suggestive). These posts consistently received the lowest hit rates of anything I wrote.

I guess the reason was that people read blogs less at weekends, the posts didn’t contain strong opinion and you have to click links to see what I’m talking about (and you impatient lot don’t seem to like doing that). But I’m going to go back to doing it occasionally. Despite the endless threnodies for the End of Journalism As We Know It, there’s a lot of very good writing out there; sometimes I want to explain why in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.

The more writing there is being done, the harder it is to catch the good stuff. The quantity of words in circulation has increased by a colossal order of magnitude; the day is exactly the same length as it always was. The depth and quality that is present in the writing generated by the internet’s indiscriminate output is the subject of this excellent essay in optimism by Robert Cottrell, founder of thebrowser.com, who reads and selects long-form writing so that you don’t have to. He has better qualifications to judge the true noise-to-signal ratio of writing on the internet in English than most.

  • First recommendation is a piece in the current Prospect magazine on Nigel Farage and Ukip by Edward Docx. Millions of words have poured into the media since Britain’s fourth political party scared the other three with a strong performance in recent local elections. This reportage and analysis is one of the most perceptive I’ve read, slicing through a lot of cluttered thinking. As a taster, this is Docx on British bullshit detectors and why Farage connects with voters in ways that neither the Conservative or Labour leaders can:

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Jan 12

Paywalls, niche, mass and “general interest”

Here are two posts for anyone at all intrigued by what kind of income keeps journalism – and particularly journalism institutions – in business.

  • Clay Shirky on payment “threshold” schemes which are becoming more and more common in the US, particularly since the New York Times porous paywall looks as if it’s delivering on at least one aim of preserving the online audience while collecting some revenue from committed online users. Whether that’s enough revenue – Shirky thinks not – is another question.
  • Frederic Filloux on what we don’t yet know about the NYT scheme and on the striking price rises just announced by both the NYT and the Financial Times for their print editions. Filloux sees this, rightly I’m sure, as evidence of both titles trying to drive their readers online.

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Jan 12

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry in the British press isn’t quite finished yet, but the inquiry is entering new territory. Or at least there’s a change of mood.

The opening weeks were dominated by complaints and horror stories about red-top reporters. Straws passing on the wind tell me that this indignation is now being replaced by more sober reflection about the issues which face big-circulation papers.

Daily Mail February 1997

Here are the straws I’ve counted recently. Lord Leveson himself has from the start been keen to underline that he is not embarking on any project to “beat down” popular papers. He has also been asking each of his celebrity witnesses what they would do about the faults of which they complain and has more than once sounded a little irritated by the vagueness of the prescriptions he is offered. When editors take the stand at Leveson this month, we will be reminded that popular journalism can reveal important truths and explain complex events in ways that papers with bigger reputations and much smaller circulations can’t manage. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, at one time a columnist for the Daily Mirror, wrote a defence of the tabloids the other day.

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Feb 11

Lionel Barber on the risk of political blowback from phone-hacking

A quick plug for the full text of the Cudlipp memorial lecture given last night at the London College of Communication by the Financial Times editor Lionel Barber.

The headline on his talk was, unsurprisingly, drawn from Barber’s warning that politicians, bruised and resentful over the parliamentary expenses scandal, are liable to use the phone-hacking scandal to limit journalism’s freedom to manoeuvre. He’s dead right about that. A lot of journalism sails close to the wind and to the limits of the law, but the lies and the silence over phone-hacking are doing more damage than just lowering credibility and reputation. They are courting the risk of bad new law.

In a lecture last year I said that “editors might profitably concentrate on the moral behaviour of their own journalists for the simple reason that they should fear other agencies doing so.” I had in mind there judges and their current practice of assembling a privacy law by cumulative court judgements. But Lionel Barber is almost certainly right that political blowback is a greater risk still.

There are other reasons to celebrate the good sense of this lecture: Continue reading →


Oct 10

How ideas travel

There’s a lot of discussion about how inventive new ideas move, mate and multiply. Journalists should be interested in this topic because so much (particularly local) journalism is going to need to be re-engineered to work in a world in which digital dominates print. The best lab conditions for growing new schemes will matter a lot in the next few years.

The subject came up today at the Battle of Ideas conference panel on “journalism in jeopardy”. You can get a taste of the discussion from this post by my fellow panellist Charlie Beckett.

All of which is why this piece from Saturday’s Financial Times is a must-read. Steven Johnson is both a science writer and entrepreneur; he manages to make a sometimes elusive subject enjoyable. Best piece of ideas journalism I read this weekend.

(Johnson speaks at the LSE in London on Tuesday November 2nd at 6.30pm. Details here).


Sep 10

The Pope in Britain: stuff you might have missed

The coverage of religion in news media is odd. Journalists in mainstream outlets tend to be dismissive of organised religion and frequently cite (clearly accurate) polls showing the decline in the numbers of the faithful and of church worship. Typical example here.

But religious and spiritual ideas – including agnostic and atheist arguments – and the struggles of the institutions which embody them speak to something beyond the daily round of news stories about politics and money. The sexual abuse cases haunting the Catholic church which reveal such astounding corruption of spiritual authority have had the effect of making that church better known throughout the world. Religion retains a capacity to occasionally move public events in surprising ways. When the Cold War was still a fact, who would have guessed that in the late 1980s a Polish Pope, John Paul II, would have been a factor in bringing about the largely peaceful collapse of the communist regimes? Ideas move slowly but powerfully.

Much of the best writing about organised religion isn’t in mainstream media but in magazines which are more user-friendly to ideas. Here are three pieces published in advance of Pope Benedict’s visit this week  and all of which contain rich added value to make you think.
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Jun 10

Newspaper executives should look away now

Hard on the heels of the news that online advertising revenue will soon be the largest category of ad income in the UK, comes this polling result on the sites people go to for their online news. As The Guardian reported it:

“Newspaper executives should look away now. For the 83% that said they had accessed news online in the past month, websites of the national newspapers didn’t even make the top five. The top five visited news websites for these users were, in order: BBC News (34%), Google News (17%), Sky News (6%), Yahoo! (5%), and MSN (5%).” (Full version of the story, revealing a strong preference for print, here).

What’s the common denominator among those five sites? They’re either aggregators or broadcasters. So they have immediacy and range (or breadth).

Much of the logic behind newspapers putting paywalls round part or all of their content makes sense. But one of the flaws in the argument is they can’t quite compete on either. However excellent the journalism in the Financial Times, the Times or the Sunday Times can they be seen as valuable enough to pay for – when these results seem to give a clear guide what people actually opt for when wielding a mouse?

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