Online Journalism

Filter bubbles, the gerontocracy and why George Osborne makes me angry

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This blog has been a bit unloved over the last few weeks, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Below are the pieces I’ve been busy with – both journalism and politics related. Hope you enjoy.

A man creates a huge bubble and a small girl runs towards it
Bubbles by Mandoft, on Flickr. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Writing about filter bubbles and echo chambers

I’ve been writing a series of articles about how journalists, entrepreneurs and technologists are fighting extreme politics and echo chambers on the internet, over on the Online Journalism blog. There are several posts:

How journalists (and everyone else) can use Nuzzel with Twitter lists

I’ve also written a piece using Nuzzel – a Twitter tool that allows you to short cut to the most popular stories being shared by your friends on Twitter.

The rise and fall of the Gerontocracy

I’ve written two pieces about how our current focus on policies that hark back to an earlier age do not bode well for our future. One is a bit serious, the other really not.

Why George Osborne’s appointment as Evening Standard editor makes me angry

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer announced he would take over as editor of the Evening Standard. Here’s why it’s bad for journalism. (Since this was written, Osborne has said he won’t stand for re-election to his seat, Tatton.)

 

 

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Hyperreality, fake news and the lost power of linking

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Painting of Trump - fake news

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, fake news has been in the ‘real’ news.

Detractors claim Facebook negligently allowed baseless attacks, masquerading as real news, to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and seal victory for her rival. A senior writer at the Washington Post even argues that Facebook should employ an editor to stop the fake news virus spreading any further.

A journalist calling for more journalism appears self-serving; it also ignores the practical and ethical questions that flow from employing editors at Facebook. How, for example, would a journalist act as the moral arbiter for hundreds of millions of users exchanging billions of separate pieces of information mostly for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with current affairs?

Facebook users have different political and religious persuasions, languages and cultures. Even ostensibly similar users have competing world views that are hard to define or even understand. So how would employing editors to judge their output not end up threatening free speech? And how do you determine what is fake and what is not, anyway?

Trumping fake news

A list of fake news sites produced to help students stay aware of distorting ‘news’ is illuminating, but not as you might expect. Reportedly the work of a media lecturer, the list included the well-established, much-respected British news magazine, Private Eye because it’s satirical. Satire often manufactures ridiculous stories to highlight stupidity or hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean it should be lumped in with fake news sites. It does, though, demonstrate how blurred the boundaries are. Indeed, one self-confessed fake news author claimed in an interview that his sole reason for cranking out hundreds of fictitious memes was to highlight ‘alt-right’ supremacists’ use of false information.

Fake news is not one-sided, either. Following Trump’s election victory in early November, one piece of fakery appeared in my own news feed repeatedly. It reported Trump telling People Magazine in 1998 that if he ever sought the presidential nomination it would be with the Republicans, because their supporters were gullible and easy to manipulate.

Picture and text reporting Trump: If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters

Thousands of people exchanged the meme without questioning its authenticity, no doubt because it matched their impression of Trump. In fact, it’s a delicious (or perhaps unpalatable) irony that it was precisely because people thought Trump was preying on the gullible that they believed a fake news story about him.

Confirming bias

In this sense, fake news stories are confirmation-bias memes. They work because they tell us something we already believe in – and we are all, therefore, vulnerable to them. That leads to an uncomfortable – if obvious – conclusion about fake news: it’s not that different from real news – and not just because it looks like real news. Firstly, fake news and real news can help to support or propagate a particular world view: The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Guardian, even The New York Times, have determined editorial perspectives that are there to support their readers’ view of the world. Yep, there’s a difference: these news providers mostly report on ‘facts’, i.e. things that verifiably happened, rather than stuff that’s just made up. But the lens they apply to these facts is one designed to a serve a world-view, nonetheless.

Secondly, both real and fake news expect us to trust that what they are saying is real. In a news meme, whether the news is real or not, it’s often disconnected from the sources that establish its veracity in the first place. Indeed, news inherently has this problem anyway, even when it’s presented on news sites or newspapers or on news TV channels, let alone when it’s on social media. It is, after all the point of news. You read or hear that something has happened to be informed; you don’t then expect to have to go and make sure that it did actually happen.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and fake news

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. In Simulacra and Simulation,  published in 1981, Baudrillard explores a phenomenon he calls hyperreality. This is the idea that in a world where everything is experienced through media, our impression of ‘reality’ is in fact completely removed from the actual real. Instead what represents truth isn’t truth at all, because it is so disconnected from any empirical thing in the first place. At first that idea seems ridiculous – not least because it’s so disturbing: One of the most popular references to Baudrillard’s idea is the film The Matrix (where a copy of Simulacra and Simulation is used as a prop). In the film, the world that appears real soon turns out to be a simulation. A character quotes the book, calling it ‘the desert of the real’.

Despite its disturbing qualities – and whether you accept Baudrillard’s claim that the real isn’t real at all – it’s easy to accept his observation. In a mediated world, in which everything is represented or reproduced rather than actually experienced, it won’t take long for notions of veracity to become questionable. Indeed, questioning reality is now an actual ‘thing’ in itself.

Baudrillard developed his theories for Simulacra and Simulation in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet dominated news reporting and the media. Nonetheless, it makes his argument that much easier to support. Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme to make a website look, ostensibly, as authentically newsy as the New York Times.

Beyond this, Twitter and Facebook offer ready-made templates for news production and dissemination that make it laughably easy to pretend to be real news producers. In the case of Facebook the platform is reported to be engineered to favour self-referencing: Uploading a video to the platform appears to elicit more engagement than linking to it on YouTube, owned by Facebook’s rival, Google.

Fighting fake news

If news was on shaky ground already, the internet then is helping to reduce that ground to sand. What the hell can we do?

Firstly, journalists need to work harder. Journalism, after all, purports to report significant, real events to audiences who aren’t there to witness them. Given that there is always going to be a gap between real experiences and an audience’s experience, it’s vital that journalists work to address that gap. Otherwise, the dislocation of reports from the facts on which they are based can be exploited to create fakery. Worse still – and more alarmingly – it also makes it much easier for people to pretend that real news is a lie when it’s not – particularly if it doesn’t suit how they feel or think. That, I think, is a bigger potential problem than the fake news itself.

The most obvious tool at an online journalist’s disposal to deal with this is the link: linking to reports, linking to source material, linking to the people in the report. But that shouldn’t be the end of it, either. Journalists need to find other ways to take people directly to where they found out the facts. I’d venture that also means adopting exacting standards of transparency in how reporting is carried out. And backing it up constantly. Indeed, linking is part of the approach used by Wikipedia to help establish ‘truth’ – and now suggested by some for Facebook.

Secondly, the Internet we’re creating increasingly looks like a trap for anyone who isn’t equipped to determine what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. If we allow companies and individuals to develop self-referring ‘realities’ that don’t rely on any objective truth, then all sorts of scary worlds can and will develop. The internet was designed with linking in mind – in fact the world-wide web was proposed as a linking system for scientists. But somehow that hasn’t prevented the web turning into a place where referencing is viewed as a self-serving process rather than one of common interest. That matters because it’s where we are ‘living’ our lives: it’s where our views are shaped and experiences defined. In other words, getting this new world sorted is a big, serious problem. And that isn’t for journalists to solve, love them as I do – or even for Facebook. It’s a dirty-great, society-wide humdinger of a thing. A problem that belongs to us all.

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Nigel Farage is Trumping the British media with his career options

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Have you noticed how many jobs Nigel Farage is about to take or has just decided not to take?

First Nigel scotched claims he was about to appear on the TV show, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, because he wasn’t a ‘blithering idiot’…

 

headline: Nigel Farage refusing £750k to go on I'm a Celebrity because he 'is not a blithering idiot'

Article: Daily Telegraph. 18 October, 2016

 

Then he said he was considering a role in Donald Trump’s White House…

farage-says-he-would-like-role-in-trumps-administration

Article: Independent, 8 November, 2016

 

Not long after, though, Nigel was considered vital to the UK’s relationship with the US. This led to the suggestion that Nigel should join Britain’s ruling Conservative party.

headline: nigel-farage-refuses-to-rule-out-return-to-the-conservatives

Article: Daily Express, 15 November, 2016

 

Weirdly that morphed into the idea that Nigel should be a Lord. A government minister even called him LORD NIGEL. Not, ‘lordy, Nigel what the hell are you up to?’ Just plain old Lord Nigel.

Headline: Lord Farage? Theresa May declines to rule out peerage for Ukip leader

Article: Guardian, 16 November, 2016

 

And then we heard that good old Nigel wanted to bring it all back and become an MP in Blighty. Yep, by now people were actually running out of photos of Nigel Farage grinning.

Headline: Nigel Farage admits desire to stand again if South Thanet by-election triggered

Article: Kent News, 21 November 2016

 

But that didn’t last long, because then the Donald tweeted that maybe Lord Nigel could be the UK’s ambassador to the US… I’m yet to establish if the ‘many people’ were, in fact, just Nigel.

 

When that didn’t work out – Prime Minister Theresa May, the spoil sport, said no way – Nigel was thought to be considering living in the US again. Apparently there he’d be, er, freer. You know, because of Trump.

headline-nigel-farage-planning-to-move-to-us

Article: Politico, 24 November

 

Then he said that actually that wasn’t happening at all…

news headline: Nigel Farage denies reports he is moving to America

 

 

 

 

Article: Independent, 24 November

 

And that’s got us to today…

Since speculation of his foray into reality TV, Nigel Farage has had the kind of month most job seekers would kill for. But he hasn’t taken a job yet. Officially, he’s just looking after the only role he is doing: leader of the UK Independence Party, while a permanent replacement is found. In case anyone doesn’t know, they’re the third or fourth force in British politics, well behind the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour party.

So what is Nigel Farage doing? Well, he’s exploiting a weakness in the way we report and respond to politics. Frankly at the moment that is the only thing Nigel is doing. He’s feeding speculation about what he might do just to keep his name in the news. Each time a suggestion is made, he scotches it – but the briefings are coming from somewhere. Sometimes it’s ‘sources close to Nigel’. Sometimes he just suggests he might do something himself. That way he can keep the rumour mill going and appear to be the most important person in British politics. Which he really isn’t.

In a sense it doesn’t matter what Nigel Farage’s going to do or not do next. It just matters that his name is in our heads, continuously. Where did this strategy come from? Well as Cas Muude,  who knows much more about the activities of populist right-wing politicians than I do, pointed out he’s learned this from the master. Donald Trump.

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It’s time to talk about leadership

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a woman and a man dancing wearing bright blue in a brightly lit studio
Photo: BBC

It’s time we started facing up to the fact that leadership now is too big a job for politicians on their own

We’re all in charge but we don’t know what we’re doing

When I was very young I told a teacher at my school that I could tap dance. Either my teacher was taken in by my fantasy or could spot a liar – because very quickly I found myself in front of the class awkwardly shuffling on the spot, pretending to tap dance when I very obviously couldn’t.

This early brush with dance-floor humiliation might explain why I’m a terrible dancer and a newly converted fan of Ed Balls. The former Labour politician is becoming a ‘national treasure’ – as each week he survives the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ opprobrium to stay in the show. With gusto and self-deprecation, he is styling out his hopelessness for the millions of us who can’t dance. As a consequence, thousands of people are voting for him, like they’ve never voted for a Brownite politician before.

Things aren’t going so well, though, for Ed Balls’ former colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons – who themselves appear to be attempting to style out their difficulties, sadly with less aplomb.

Both the government and the opposition have struggled to come up with coherent plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Frequent pronouncements are only adding to the sense that Brexit might be the greatest challenge they’ve faced. Which, of course, it is.

This air of uncertain competence is not as endearing in serving politicians as it is when embodied by former ones. Boris Johnson, once seen himself as a national treasure, is now being treated as a global embarrassment.

Leadership and uncertainty

It would be easy to indulge in truisms, call politics a cruel mistress – even point out that governing in difficult times should be the greatest honour to which a politician can aspire. But these are not just difficult times.

Politics – as the old saying goes – is the art of the possible. But right now our politicians are facing the impossible. And not just in the shape of Brexit – where a majority of Brits favour unchanged access to the European Union’s single market, but with immigration controls that have already been ruled out by remaining EU members.

From climate change, to a growing chasm of inequality, to the sense that the West – after generations of global dominance – is on the wane, we are seeing challenges that our politicians can’t just style out on their own. That means we will have to change our expectations of how politicians and governments solve these challenges – and, indeed, our own role in the solutions.

If we were to imagine that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition had both spelled out how difficult a Brexit would likely be it is not hard to fathom the reaction their honesty would receive. The markets would tumble, and the tabloid newspapers would wail. Ultimately, we would be no closer to a solution – only watching a different set of politicians trying desperately to style it out.

Instead, we have the unedifying prospect of uncertainty that politicians have to pretend doesn’t exist, choosing either stony silence or speculative busking to keep us calm. A constant analogy has been a game of poker. ‘We won’t reveal our hand in negotiations with our European partners, because to do so would weaken our position,’ we are told. That unwittingly betrays a sense of random chance that none of us can be comfortable with, particularly given that the cards in the government’s hand are our own futures.

Leadership needs to change

So how do we grow up? Brexit and the even greater challenges that lie ahead won’t be solved by our politicians pretending they can simply sort them out, or by us expecting them to. Calling for a ‘new kind of politics’, meanwhile, is just as facile as the poker analogy. Instead, we have to start asking questions about the concept of leadership in the 21st century – recognising that it really isn’t one person’s job any more.

By the end of the 20th century we had largely adopted a system of parliamentary democracy in the West and elsewhere that offered a degree of popular involvement restricted to elections. This made sense, given the constraints of the industrial age. It invested power in a relatively small group of people for entirely practical reasons.

Around that system grew a culture of political scrutiny that responded to our political leaders as the sole arbiters of the future, albeit for limited periods. Newspapers, TV and radio journalists each did their jobs to pick at, understand and challenge the political class, but it remained a politician’s job to lead.

Today we are unburdened by the restraints of the industrial age but have made few attempts to explore how our democracies need to change. An age of information has helped to distribute power in new ways. In some cases this has turned the notion of leadership on its head completely. Is Theresa May more or less of a leader than someone who commands millions of followers on Twitter? The obvious answer starts to look more and more shaky when Donald Trump is elected US President.

Nonetheless, our political systems have not responded. They are largely the same top-down institutions that they were when they succeeded monarchies in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps, given the challenges they now face, it is not surprising that we are seeing more and more referendums, unhelpfully lobbing tricky questions to the voting public and then scrambling when the answers that come back don’t suit.

Similarly, the media – so vital in calling to account our politicians – is caught in its own interregnum. As newspapers go to the wall, new media businesses emerge that command huge power but are less constrained by the standards we expected from their predecessors.

The only way of addressing this is to start to be honest, both about the scale of the challenges, and to face the fact that we are moving to a new kind of democratic and political system, one in which control is much less fixed than it was. The response to this will need to be more than just a switch in voting systems – like moving to proportional representation. It will require a full-scale change in our thinking that starts with questions about who leads, how do they lead and when? More pertinently, it needs to address what involvement we all have in leadership. We each face profound issues about how we manage this, but those challenges are upon us now.

This will have to start with a conversation about our democratic institutions at the very least. They are woefully out of date. If politicians can’t yet be honest about their own readiness for the scale of the challenges we face, we must at least make sure they are made to confront this.

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Trump told a story and his story won

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Donald Trump looking up in blu tie and suit
Donald Trump photographed by Gage Skidmore, Flickr, licence: CC-by-sa-2-0

A man who wants to build walls and promised to ban Muslims is the president-elect of the world’s most powerful country.

There are innumerable theories posited, explaining how it happened and apportioning blame: Trump stood on a platform that exploited white people’s fears and used immigration to signal an existential threat to the Western world. Trump exploited the collapse of blue-collar America. Alt-Right lies spread because Facebook’s algorithms don’t favour veracity. The Democratic Party invested in a candidate who was never genuinely popular. Add to this a hundred more.

Each argument may have merit; some will  stand the test of time. Perhaps together they help to explain Trump’s victory. But we are a long way from understanding this phenomenon and will probably remain so for years.

So rather than dwell on the arguments, I want to make one observation about Trump: That he tells a story.

Stories are powerful things. They sink into your consciousness, and permeate your being.

In politics, the stories that appeal most are the ones that confirm our views and our values. They don’t even need to be true, in fact sometimes they are more effective if they are not. Seth Godin, in his book ‘All Marketers Are Liars’ describes how stories are often the way we tell lies to ourselves, about who we are, who we want to be and the world we live in.

Trump understood this and he used his own carefully crafted story time and again.

It was ruthlessly simple. Trump was the guy who knew Washington, who understood corruption and could tell people how bad it was. He was the insider who had seen how bad things had got and could ‘drain the swamp’. Only he could see, from his vantage point, how the American Dream had been corrupted by Washington and by the outsiders who were taking away American values and power.

Trump’s story signalled to his supporters that if you were angry, he was too. He told people that they were right to feel frightened but he’d take that fear away because only he really, truly understood it. Most importantly, Trump’s story made sense to people – it told them something they wanted to believe about themselves.

It is harder, but not impossible to identify Hillary Clinton’s story.

Clinton stood to become the first female president of the United States. This part of her story should – really should – have been a moment of great renewal in America. Clinton, too, was a hardworking politician who had relentlessly pursued equality for minorities – and whose record at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 suggests a remarkable politician, with determination, fearlessness and compassion. But too often the story she told was simply one of continuity and acumen. It played right into Trump’s own critique of what his supporters saw as Clinton’s privileged and corrupt America.

Does this explain Trump’s victory? No, it absolutely does not. It makes no reference to the world that Trump found himself in, the bizarre set of consequences that undercut Clinton’s lead in the polls and the state of America right now. But it does demonstrate the power of story – and how a story can overcome the inconsistencies that all politicians embody. Trump told and sold his story well, whatever we might think of the consequences.

Blog

10 things journalists do that can really help first-time bloggers

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infographic
Blog like a hack
When it comes to making the most of a story, the tips and tricks I picked up as a journalist are fantastic. I’ve always thought these can help bloggers, particularly those new to the art. If I’m being honest, I just wish I used them more (there are plenty on this short list that I could do with heeding myself!)

 

1. The follow-up

If you find a great story don’t write about it once. Keep writing about it. Ask yourself when you’re first writing what is next? Nine times out of 10 you’ll find more great posts right there and then. Have a plan for what you’ll do with that subject matter next. How can you make your one piece into 15 more posts?

(Thinking about it, I might follow this post up with a post about the five great follows up to any post. What fun.)
 

2. Make it snappy. Don’t drone on

OK, we all know that but I used to tell myself (after a sub editor used this particular complaint to me) that I couldn’t afford to waste any more ink. Making sure each word counts is vital in news journalism and it can really help you get your posts down in length and make them better to read. It’s a discipline that initially is easily ignored online, but if you look at the best digital news outlets, it’s something that is even more vital now.

 

3. Use formulas

It’s so dull to talk about but pretty much any piece in any newspaper or magazine follows a certain forumla or pattern. Why? If you’re churning out content you want to make sure you’re using your brain for the bits that count – being accurate, luring in the reader, making the most of your quotes, finding great stories. Formulas help you do that and – perversely – allow you to make life more interesting for readers. The most famous is the much vaunted ‘inverted triangle’. This basically says: write the most important stuff for the reader up top. It forces you to get out the salient facts first and in order. But there are many more that bloggers use, like the simple list (which, ahem, I’m using here). You’ll find your own formulas but it’s good to have a few different ones up your sleeve – which will help you to vary the experience you give readers and keep their experience fresh.

 

4. Prefer shorter words

The English language is great: you have a huge number of words to choose from. But writers often like the longer ones because (and I am guilty of this a lot) we like to show how clever we are. But every long word you use has the potential to distract or confuse readers and – even when the meaning is clear – makes the information less like to be digested. Plus, you look like a know-it-all.

 

5. Steal

I’m not advocating copying people’s work. No way. That’s the worst thing in the world that you can do (apart from all the other things that carry heavier prison sentences). But you can and should pinch ideas from other people. The best (ethical and creative) way to do this is to look beyond the people who are most similar to what you’re doing and see how other journalists and bloggers are getting ahead. Copying of this kind is to be openly rewarded because it can get you ahead of your competitors.

 

6. Use your calendar

Tie your stories to events that are universally understood. It’s Christmas so talk about Christmas. OK, that’s obvious. But stare at that calendar and think about all the dates that relate to your subject matter. Put them on the calendar and then work them in to your posts. Journalists talk about off-diary and on-diary news, to distinguish stuff you can plan for from erm… the stuff that just happens. The point is that you get to plan out a hell of a lot of content throughout the year.

 

7. Give yourself a deadline

You have 20 minutes to write this post. Can you do it? The clock is ticking. Ultimately one of the things that sets apart a successful blogger from a… well… blogger is regularity and volume of content. How long do you want to spend writing your blog in a year? And how many posts do you need to keep readers engaged? Do the math(s).

 

8. Say one thing

Make your post about one thing and one thing only. Stay on message. This will help you with points one and two of this blog post. Hey, I’m not cheating. It all fits together, that’s all.

 

9. Follow the trend when it matters

Don’t ignore the prevailing wind of the news. Even local newspapers end up writing about national stories when they get up a certain head of steam, which demand the most focus and attention. Make sure you use these stories and find ways to link them to what you’re writing about.

 

10. Audience, audience, audience, audience

Only do what matters to your readers and always keep them in mind. How do you do this? Bloggers and online journalists have great an enormous amount of data at their disposal to help understand what readers want and don’t want, as well as the joys of A/B testing, but there are some old-fashioned journalism tips that still work. One simple thing is to spend time with readers to understand them better. Local newspaper journalists traditionally had this easy – they often came from the places they wrote about and spent plenty of time with their readers. For bloggers this same connection is created by the online connections you make through comments and social media.

 

Have you got any more tips and tricks?
I would love to hear them – whether they’re journalism related or not.
Silly stuff

The big society is a bit like… [add your thoughts here]

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I think I might have become a fan of the Big Society. Not because I think it’s brilliant (although at least some bits of it do make sense), but because it’s incredibly difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe make life tricky for journalists and commentators (let alone civil servants and junior ministers) and result in fantastic similies and metaphors – rich in both imagery and variety.

While the policy (is it a policy? Or a slogan?) may seem destined to die a slow and painful death, at least it has had us all working hard to sum up what the hell it actually means. Oddly I think this trend may have actually started in earnest with Nick Clegg who, long before he realised he might one day have to defend it, said that David Cameron’s pet project was ‘a bit like a party in a pub where your card is behind the bar’. It was a joke, I think, but it also presaged a golden era of ‘the Big Society is a bit like’ creations.

In the hope that this creativity is not lost, I have started to collect what I’ve spotted on Delicious. Below I’ve listed the best. Admittedly not all are direct comparisons – some are simply associations. A good many are excellent articles that do very well to describe what might be behind some aspects of the Big Society. And possibly one or two others are just plain mad, even quite stupid. I hope you enjoy them all.

The Big Society is a bit like…

Cool Britannia (Anthony Zacharazewski, The Democratic Society).

Downton Abbey (Deborah Orr, The Guardian).

Harry Hill’s TV Burp (The Waugh Room, Politics Home).

The Great Society (Chris, Prerogative of Harlots).

Communism. Yes, that’s right, communism. (From the David Icke forum. Hmmm… the places I get.)

Bullshit (Anne Shooter, Daily Mail).

A toy town (Hillary Wainright, The Guardian Cif blog).

Oliver Twist (Mike McNabb, Outside Left).

The 1950s (Statement from Unite the Union).

Common sense (Janet Daley, The Telegraph).

A cloak (Ed Miliband, The Independent).

Cheese (CMPO).

Ballroom dancing (Phil Redmond).

Education, education, education (The Archbishop Cranmer blog).

Online Journalism

If anyone else talks about paywalls I’m going to punch them

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No industry can be as self important as the newspaper business. OK, maybe TV. And, I suppose, if politics is a business (which it all to frequently appears to be) then that deserves a mention, too. But journalism – a trade designed to make a mountain out of a molehill – has a habit of getting itself in the headlines, often to its detriment. Evidence for this claim is hardly difficult to find. From the well-paid columnists who tell us about their not-very-interesting lives, to the current debate about the New York Times’s decision to charge customers for using its website from January 2011.
This news has been greeted in some quarters as common sense, and in others with nothing short of derision. In particular, online gurus have lined up to have a pop at the venerable ‘Gray Lady’ of American news. In fact, it has been a little like watching the judges of American Idol, with the New York Times cast as the feckless wannabe and Jeff Jarvis as Simon Cowell.
Now, if the words of one New York Times exec is to be believed (thanks to Jay Rosen), it seems the paywall is a paywall only if you are actually going to sit down and read the online product properly (who does that?). Those who arrive through the millions of links that in turn benefit the Times’s standing on the web will arrive free – no doubt thanked for their valued Google juice. Since subscribers, who might by one estimation account for 70 per cent of the small number who will stay long enough to pay, would be handed access gratis, it suddenly seems like less of a paywall. This might be the greatest double bluff in online newspaper history (or is that the only double bluff in online newspaper history): the NY Times had been paid-for, then it was free and now it is going to be paid-for, but also free. Anyone who could get their head round this would no doubt be given a subscription forthwith and asked to join the board.
There is, of course, a little more method to the NY Times’s madness than might immediately meet the eye. Firstly, the vast majority of clicks on the site will be from people who won’t under any circumstances pay. They will visit – through Google or through links from other sites – but their time perusing the NYT’s content will be brief at best. These are the folk who Murdoch hates, because they pore sweaty-browed over his finely rendered, beautifully polished and expensive prose, but provide nothing (either by directly paying or as customers to whom he can advertise). Because they won’t stick around, particularly if they’re asked to cough up (imagine Rupert as red-faced shopkeeper chasing them out of the store after they’ve thumbed through his comics), there’s no point trying to make ’em. Frankly, this is the hardest lesson for newspapers: lots of people just won’t pay. All they offer is the promise of links, something Jarvis has pointed out offers a different form of value. But some, you see, will. It will be a tiny number, probably, and mostly made up of people who have an affection for the product, who stick with it and believe in it. But, for the NY Times, that number doesn’t have to be that big. And, what’s more, you can advertise to them. Maybe you can even advertise much more directly to them (if you know their tastes, their habits, their interests). So, with these, er, win-win benefits, it’s presumably considered to be worth a shot. Whether it works is another matter and, frankly, I don’t care.
That’s because all this talk of paywalls is something of a red herring. Newspapers feel they need to charge for online content because it appears to cost them so much. After all, the readers are deserting the paper product for their free online offering, just as the advertisers are. But what are a newspaper’s costs? Principally, as it happens, the production and distribution of newspapers. And is anyone talking about this at the moment? While we all blow hot and cold on paywalls, newspapers seem to have a far bigger problem to deal with: the newspaper itself. When I say the newspaper I don’t just mean the paper, the print and its distribution – although this is an expensive business in itself. I mean the advertising sales teams, the support staff, the big offices, the related human resources costs, the insurance, and everything else that has been sucked into the business of making and distributing news. What will happen to all this when, as will I think inevitably happen, it simply is too costly to bear?
It’s a much more important argument and goes to the heart of news production, its merits and its values. Paywalls don’t – and that’s why I’m so fed up with all this pointless hot air. Some will work and some won’t, it’ll depend on whether you’ve got something people can’t get elsewhere – i.e. it’s common sense – and that’s really all there is to it.

Online Journalism

Will disco dads save the local newspaper business?

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Roger Green is one of the most important men in local online journalism in Britain. As the boss of Newsquest‘s digital division, he’s the head honcho for more than 150 newspaper websites up and down the country. Remarkably, however, Roger isn’t too enamoured with all the fuss about clever-clever technologies and is more than a little fed up with new media partnerships. He also reckons Jeff Jarvis‘s collaborative vision of the future won’t work in the dog-eat-dog world of British local journalism.
In a frank and refreshing presentation, the senior manager for Gannett‘s UK subsidiary hacked away at a few sacred cows before delivering a stark and fairly simple message to the AOP’s micro local forum, yesterday: ‘either work with us or take us on’. Established businesses, like Newsquest, are operating in a very crowded market and have established brands with loyal readerships, Green told his audience. There isn’t much room for new firms to elbow in on the party and, if they do, they can expect Roger and his pals to make life more than a little uncomfortable. Also, if you do work with Roger, don’t expect to get anything for free. He said his audience ‘wouldn’t believe’ the things people have expected from Newsquest in return for little more than goodwill.
But Green didn’t just land a few blows on new entrants, as he took time to warn his fellow newspaper bosses against falling at the feet of every new technology, with increasing levels of desperation and inversely proportionate levels of understanding. He mocked efforts to force sub-editors to geo-tag business stories and told his peers that they risked looking like ‘disco dads’ as a result of their new-media dalliances.
Sadly, the only thing about Green’s speech that wasn’t a breath of fresh air was its core subject matter: Newsquest’s online strategy. After all his tough words, one might have expected Green to reveal that his company had found the answer his audience was looking for: how to make online local journalism pay. Green admitted that he, like many others, would be waiting to see how competitor Johnston Press did with its experiment in charging for local news content. Meanwhile, Newsquest would have to make do with kicking journalists out of the office and using twitter to improve its conversation with the readers. There are no easy answers, it seems. Even engaging with the newspaper’s audience wasn’t a straightforward task, with Green pointing out that it had proved more than a little tricky to appoint community reporters. Perhaps expecting a local newspaper group to start a revolution is asking too much, but one still might hope that an industry in the grips of a crisis, with its readers dying off – as one of Newsquests’ editors spoke of here – would have a more creative approach to its future. And what’s wrong with a few disco dads anyway? Haven’t you got to be prepared to risk making a fool out of yourself to do something interesting?

Online Journalism

Why blogs can beat traditional news for quality (sometimes)

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In preparation for his appearance in front of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow, Paul Bradshaw has attempted to define how new journalism (namely blogs) and traditional media guarantee their quality in quite distinct ways. In doing so, Paul is preparing the ground for a set of questions he expects to be asked by the select committee. His evidence, along with that given by a diverse group of witnesses, will help to shape the government’s response to the worsening state of regional media in this country.
Paul has identified that, while traditional media relies on commercial pressure, codes and regulation for its assurances of quality, new journalism does so through offering a right of reply and transparency.
As he puts it, these can be characterised as pre-publication (in the case of traditional media) and post-publication (in the case of new media).
It strikes me, however, that there is one more important distinction that can be made. In assessing the quality (or reliability) of a story, it is important to consider its proximity to the original source of that story.
This could be seen as similar to the distinctions made by historians, who identify sources as primary, secondary or tertiary. The traditional role of the news journalist was (and remains) a job of narrowing the distance between a primary source (whether that be a news event, eyewitness, or a news maker – such as a politician) and their report (which, in history parlance, would usually be a secondary source). This takes time and often requires the journalist to apply training and experience as well as shared knowledge. This job can also be a fairly unpleasant business. That’s why, when a trainee local reporter returns from her first death knock (approaching directly the family of a recently bereaved person), she’s congratulated for her work.
But a significant distinction between new and old media is that new media can often come directly from the primary source, without any need for an intermediary.
In fact, it might be possible to imagine a future where the public is consistently able to seek a first-hand account of a news event without the help of traditional media. That, in other words, the primary source will be open and available to us all. Local blogs, run by local people, are evidently fantastic primary sources – and the internet has given the means to all sorts of groups (charities, residents’ associations and, notably, well-educated former call girls) to directly publish their experiences. But the existence and availability of social media do not on their own mean all stories will be told directly, or be easily told by others. Clearly, court cases are an example – where the frankly odd, arcane structure and practices of our legal system, in particular the laws governing contempt, make it necessary for a trained intermediary to operate. Furthermore, it may be that our open-source utopia, where all information is available in primary source and easily navigable, will always remain just that. It is much more likely that some primary sources will be available and others won’t. While those sources aren’t available and remain difficult to access there may still be a role for traditional journalism, because, frankly, it’ll still be a full-time job to get at them.
Of course, there are two clear caveats to this. Firstly, a lot of journalism has shied away from doing this primary source, coalface work. Instead, it has become far closer to the definition of a tertiary source, relying on press releases, wire reports and other second-hand material. Secondly, there is no reason why some of the work at getting close to the primary source can’t be shared between large numbers of people all contributing small, but significant amounts of effort – as happens in the open-source software movement.
The first point, of course, is the result of the financial problems facing traditional media, about which much has already been written. The second point, however, I think is more interesting. Is it possible for an open-source concept of news to completely replace professional journalism? I don’t think it is, because open source hasn’t stopped many people from making lots of money out of computer programming. Instead, it changes what journalists do and allows them to develop specialisms and new skills – perhaps in mining information and in manipulating and analysing that information. However, for open-source news to be really effective, it needs free access to information. Many are already familiar with the struggle to open up data sets to the public – such as postcodes, public health, crime and environmental data. But free information doesn’t end with this struggle. In many ways it is only the beginning. Court cases, council proceedings, company reports, government communication and any number of other sources of information are also difficult to access. Making them more available and more consumable is a huge challenge, but it is essential to do so because it is within these sources of information that our news and – by extension – our public interest lies.
The debate that currently exists between the political parties is preoccupied with solving the problem of the death of regional and national media. But this bloody sideshow deflects attention from the real issue, which is in serving the public interest by making available accurate, trustworthy information to all citizens.
Worse still, preservation of these media firms may do more harm to that provision than good. After all, if your commercial survival depends on providing information you may wish to protect it – and prevent others from copying and using it. Such control would not only mean that this information falls into fewer hands, but that it is not treated to as much analysis as it would otherwise do. It would also do incalculable harm to the kinds of new journalism that we are just beginning to see, where basic news is turned into all sorts of ingenious forms of media – whether that be maps, games, or other ‘mash ups’.
If open-source news provides a better model for the dissemination of information in the public interest (by making it more available, more consumable and more engaging), then it should become the goal of legislation. It may seem better in the short term to preserve jobs at existing media groups, but if doing so stifles the provision of information then it would be at far too high a price.
As a journalist myself, it is also worth pointing out that journalists and their interests should remain distinct from the interests of their employers. To confuse these two, as has sometimes been done, would be a terrible trap for legislators to fall into. After all, I don’t imagine anyone cares whether they are working for Trinity Mirror or a new-media start up. They’re much more interested in the quality of their job and how much they are paid for it. Putting a failing industry on life support – either by spending government money on it, or by allowing it to effectively block the development of new competitors – won’t do journalists or journalism any good in the fullness of time.
Sadly, the policies of both the major political parties are muddled by their own short-term interests. In particular, attempts to court favourable coverage in the run-up to the general election already appear to be threatening the prospects of a decent policy emerging. That’s an indictment of our political system. And it would be a cruel irony if it means that this important issue itself remains under-reported.

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Online Journalism

Meeting Channel 4’s digital commissioners

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Today Channel 4’s digital commissioners were in Birmingham to explain their plans for 2010 and give the great and the good of the city’s creative community a run down of the dos and don’ts of pitching to the projects they’re running.

Jason Hall, head of innovation at Screen West Midlands had the job of introducing Louise Brown, head of cross platform commissioning, Matt Locke, commissioning editor, education and Tom Loosemore, head of 4ip.

Louise Brown started by making it clear that, in her role, she was looking to ‘increase the impact of Channel 4 online’. She explained that it wasn’t just breadth of impact that the channel was interested in, but ‘more interactive content’, and they would be looking to increase the depth of impact, too.
Louise used the examples of both Embarrassing Bodies and Hollyoaks to illustrate how interactivity is an increasingly important part of Channel 4’s mission and made some fascinating points about how interaction could be particularly effective with a youth audience. In particular, she said that interactivity on programmes aimed at older audiences were less likely to do well (down towards one per cent), while a series like Skins, aimed at a much younger audience, had something like 40 percent of its audience figures going online. She said that some of the online visitors may not have watched the programme on TV.

Next Matt Locke talked about commissioning ‘for attention’, keeping an audience and then, as he put it, giving that attention value. Because the channel is aware that young people spend 80 per cent of their time on sites that ‘manage the web for them’ it has looked to set up partnerships with social networks such as Bebo. He said young people are likely to come across the channel’s content in the various sites they visit. He also pointed out that visitors are more likely to return if they can leave an impression on a site, be that simple engagement through polls or feedback. He used the example of Battlefront, which featured ’20 campaigners to save the world’, and followed the lives of young activists featured. The website that accompanied the series, which operated for some time after the programmes had aired, became ‘a back office’ for their efforts, with several of the young people garnering considerable attention for their causes. Channel 4 has also experimented with gaming projects, notably Smokescreen, a sort of mock social network that attempts to teach young people about some of the effects using such sites can have in real life. In one challenge gamers are asked to help discover what one social network member is doing that evening. This gives game players an understanding of how, by using a social network, one can leave a trail of personally sensitive information

Finally, we heard from Tom Loosemore, unique among the digital commissioners in that he doesn’t have anything to do with TV! For those who didn’t know, Tom explained that 4ip is a pilot for Channel 4, and is about a year into its three year project of investment. This aims to deliver the channel’s founding values online: doing it first, inspiring change in peoples’ lives and making trouble in the public interest. Now on the lookout for ‘bigger, bolder’ projects and stimulating products, Tom said he was interested in helping hyperlocal journalism and mentioned Help Me Investigate, the Birmingham based website that has benefited from 4ip funding.
Much of Tom’s presentation was taken up with a guide to pitching successfully to 4ip. He made it absolutely clear that there are certain fundamentals that pitchers would have to meet. Firstly, any idea would need to have a clear understanding of how the project would become sustainable, either by commercial means or some other. He mentioned the example of Wikipedia as a non-commercial, but sustainable site. He also said that, so far, 4ip had never backed a project looking to find its revenue solely through advertising and pointed out that this is extremely difficult to do. It was also essential that the project is made possible by the new technologies 4ip is concerned with – that its centre of gravity is ‘participation or collaboration’. A failure to grasp these fundamentals had led to a fairly low success rate so far: out of some 1,700 approaches, only 40 or so had received funding.
Tom mentioned some themes that he’d be interested in exploring this year, including ‘holding power to account’, ‘MOT your life’ – encompassing health and well being – comedy (what Tom called ‘British fun’), art (in particular, collaboration and participation) and, finally, discoverability. By this he meant finding ways to make visible to individuals content that they might otherwise not come into contact with. One of Tom’s bugbears is ‘aggregation’ and portals. He said they hadn’t and wouldn’t be backing projects with these ideas at their centre.
He did present examples of a number of projects that have received backing, including Audioboo and Mapumental. He is also keen to extend 4ip’s interests in iPhone apps, and mentioned You Booze You Lose, a fun, but educational (he said) game that is in the process of being added to the Appstore. He also expressed serious interest in Android apps.

Online Journalism

How readerships differ from print to online at the Daily Telegraph

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I was lucky enough to be among a small group of online journalism students who yesterday had the chance to the pick the brains of Kate Day, recently appointed the Community Editor at the Daily Telegraph. Kate gave us a fascinating insight into life in the famous broadsheet’s online arm.
I asked Kate about her role and she explained that much of her time is taken up looking after the MyTelegraph site, where readers are invited to blog on a range of subjects, from politics to gardening. She points out in this video of our conversation that this part of the site and the Telegraph’s other blogs are among its most successful online ventures, generating considerable traffic and proving more ‘sticky’ than traditional news.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8ehe_x3dA8&feature=related

While Kate and the online team have a clear picture about some of their visitors (or readers, if you like), what particularly sticks out is that they can make fewer generalisations about them than you would make with the print Telegraph’s traditional readership. That, as Kate admitted, presents a challenge to the Telegraph and other news organisations wishing to ‘monetise’ their websites. Traditionally, one of the great attractions for advertisers of a newspaper was the relatively fixed, assured profile of the readers they attracted. The Daily Telegraph, for example, is often derisorily referred to as the Torygraph, but its readership – relatively old, high income, Conservative-voting and usually conservative in their tastes – represents a large portion of the British population and one that advertisers want to communicate with.
While Kate points out that blog visitors often impart considerable information about themselves – and it might be possible to use this information commercially, (I should stress that this is not something that is happening) – these are younger, rather different visitors. And, by virtue of the way that blogs work, they are likely to be a less homogeneous group as a whole than the readership in print. That is to say, they don’t necessarily represent a single easily identifiable group. A reasonable proportion, it seems, hail from outside the UK, for example. So you might be able to channel very specific advertising to a small group, but you won’t necessarily be able to sell your products across a nice, neat range of people.
I’m fascinated by this added complexity to advertising for newspapers. As if it wasn’t hard enough already to persuade advertisers to spend big on online advertising, now it’s clear the whole game has changed. Is it possible to find a way to foster a similar identity/profile of readers online as it is in print? And would that be something that would be attractive anyway? Whatever the answer is, it presents a real challenge to the news industry. One, of course, that it is already engaged in, but that seems to grow more complicated by the day.

Online Journalism

A hyperlocal news service for Brum

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As part of my studies for an MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University I’m involved in a new project to run a hyperlocal news site for Birmingham.
Ahh. So here we go. I’m going to try to explain our idea in 150 words…

Imagine a website for central Birmingham. You go to the site and see a map of, wait for it, central Birmingham. It’s split into smaller areas and you’re be able to click on each one. You decide to click on Digbeth, cos that’s where you live. Great! Up comes a stream of information all about Digbeth. You can contribute to this, either from the website or from Twitter, using our handy hash tag #brumdigbeth. We (that’s the folk who run the site) will scan the feed for morsels to make into blog posts that we’ll encourage anyone to contribute to, thus creating a brand new hyperlocal news service for Birmingham.

Gulp. How’s that? It took me 130 words. What we’re hoping to do now is get people interested in helping us to get the site going, telling us what we should do and how we can improve it. What I’ve sketched out here is the rough idea, so any help at all is appreciated.