Sep 12

Funding journalism: not before a sharp, painful squeeze

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.

Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.

Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.

Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.

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Jan 11

History’s rough first draft – and the story of a “pseudo-event”

John Naughton’s column in The Observer yesterday mentioned something I’d missed in by Peter Maas in the New Yorker: a superb dissection of the now-notorious “statue-toppling” image captured as American troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003. This meticulous reconstruction should be read by anyone tempted to opine about media literacy, news, pseudo-events, spin and related topics.

By paying close attention to cause and effect, Maas underlines and confirms a complaint which started circulating on the day that pictures of Saddam’s statue being hauled down by American marines: that the event did not symbolise any kind of popular feeling by Iraqis. There were very few of them there.

But Maas also shows something which will disappoint those for whom this episode confirms every worst fear about the manipulation of international public opinion by the US government. No one organised or orchestrated the statue’s destruction. It just happened in the heady buzz of the unexpectedly – and as it turned out, misleadingly – easy victory won by the Americans.

But it made a neat, easy-to-grasp image which captured a lot of unrealistic hopes in one image. It zipped round the world and began creating myths on its own. The picture acquired a power no one had tried to give it.


Aug 10

“Web Death”, the fallout

While I was away, the argument about whether or not the web is dead, killed by the rise of apps (as argued by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff – see here), boomed back and forth. Mostly wrong as it was, the original piece nevertheless dislodged some illuminating ripostes. Some of the better pieces:

  • A good new-readers-start-here summary from The Observer.
  • Some expert debunking here from John Naughton.
  • A different angle from Frederic Filloux of the excellently quirky Monday Note.
  • Lastly, an upbeat lateral route outwards from this debate and towards the cheering idea that portable, wireless devices – be they called smartphones, tablets, e-books or whatever – are now getting so neat that and useful that long-form journalism may be better and better read. From Bobbie Johnson of The Guardian and with links to new sites specialising in promoting long-form.

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Jul 10

Is this really the way to defend the BBC?

Hyperbole is a technique well known to both politics and journalism. But is it the best defence for the qualities of the  BBC? Will Hutton’s angry blast at the BBC’s griping critics in in the Conservative part of Britain’s new governing coalition says that the BBC deserves defending because the public service broadcaster is “the last bulwark against rule by the mob.”

Warning lights go on in my head when I read the phrase “rule by the mob”. Hutton did not mean that unruly crowds with pitchforks were going to appear in the streets, but the use of that spectre frequently means that someone has looked at change and does not like what they see. Hutton has looked at the early results of the revolution in (all human) communication wrought by digital technology and gagged. Bloggers, all of them apparently irresponsible, partial, dangerous are poisoning American political culture. The BBC is the only defence left against the same corruption occurring in Britain.

I’d imagined that America’s big problems were the deficit and the economy, Afghanistan and the Louisiana oil spill. But no. According to Hutton, “the bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics. Senior American politicians and officials of all political persuasions despair about its impact on political debate and policy.” Only a small extension of that argument tells you that the blog you are reading is part of a sinister assault on the values of balance, fairness and good journalism. I had no idea I was part of anythng so important. (In case Will Hutton is reading this: that last sentence is irony. It’s another thing bloggers do.)

The Observer yesterday also carried a short and much less well-displayed piece by the paper’s New York correspondent which gives a clue to why Hutton may be overplaying his hand here. The White House and some of the American media were manipulated into firing an official by a political dirty trick. Whether in a new media world or not, journalism’s job was – or should have been – to expose the manipulation. Aggressive political bloggers are just one symptom of a new political world in which anyone can publish opinion or claim to reveal new facts which may be true or may not be. It isn’t going to be possible to impose “balance and fairness” rules on everyone on the planet with access to a computer or mobile phone.

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