Tag Archives: Media

A thought on journalism for Boxing Day

I’ve spent part of the Christmas break reading Andrew Marr‘s book “My Trade“, which is a kind of personal history of journalism. If you like Marr’s history programmes, and have any interest in the history of media, I’d highly recommend it as his writing style, a mix of good research and excellent lively prose brings newspapers and newspapermen to life in a way which is fun to read.

Reading Marr’s account of early journalism is particularly interesting. The first British “journalists” – corantos, because they wrote about “current affairs” – mostly spent their time writing up other people’s stories, lifted from the pages of similar publications across Europe.

Sound familiar? In other words, they engaged in much the same work as most bloggers (and far too many journalists) do: lifting stories from other publications and presenting them to their own audience. Continue reading

The future of journalism? It’s astronomy

There’s nothing more that journalists like than the opportunity to talk about themselves, thinly disguised as a treatise on the future of journalism This is probably why the “debate” (which it isn’t – not enough listening) on “citizen journalism” (which it isn’t) keeps rumbling on and on.

Martin Belam sums up the latest in the discussion, which was apparently all the rage at journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired event too. Like Martin, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the scene all too well having seen it play out often.

I think the biggest problem starts with the phraseology. The phrase “citizen journalist” is a loaded one, and VERY US-centric. It’s loaded with all that “citizen militia, defending your rights blah blah blah” stuff, and that helps prevent a meaningful debate actually happening. Manning the pitchforks, burning the barricades, beheading the king. All that goes over very well with a certain kind of techno-geek, but it’s really just a provocative mischaracterisation of what’s actually happening.

I’ve long argued that we should look at “journalism” as what it actually is: a craft. As a craft, it’s something everyone can learn – and you learn best by doing. And like every craft, some people will be professionals and do it all the time for money, while some will be amateurs and do it for other reasons – love, fun, or because they feel like they should.

Once you phrase it like this – with “amateur journalists” and “professional journalists” – a lot of the conflict that the “citizen journalism” debate engenders just goes away. You don’t get debates about whether the existence of amateur astronomers endangers the livelihoods of professional ones.

And in the future, the same pattern will emerge with journalism. Some people will make a living at it; some people will do it because they enjoy it.

My gut feeling is that the model of journalism as a craft will end up more like astronomy, where amateur astronomers are a vital part of the progress of the subject as a whole. Amateur astronomers produce vital data that the professionals use and build upon, as well as creating the odd “exclusive” themselves.

Of course, this idea – professional and amateur journalists working together to improve the quality of news and reporting – doesn’t make quite such a good headline. So I expect this tedious and counterproductive debate to continue for a while.

After all, what journalist – pro or amateur – can resist a good, conflict-based headline?

(Image used under Creative Commons license from Zen)

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

If people don’t want journalism, we have no right to make them have it

I’ve been partially watching, partially taking part in a debate on Twitter over the future of news (what else?). It began with a tweet from John Robinson:

Tired of the media obsession with Tiger? Me too. Yet people are fascinated with it. Serve the audience or ignore ‘em & move on?”

I’m bored of Tiger too, so amen to that. Then it got interesting, as my blogging friend Mathew Ingram added his perspective:

that’s the eternal debate — give people what they want to read about, or give them what you think is important?”

Jordan Furlong added this:

It’s not a debate: you give people what they need. That’s journalism. Giving them what they want is entertainment.”

Mathew responded:

so giving people what they need is journalism — how do we know what they need?”

From my perspective, deciding what people need is simple: They tell you what they need through the merry actions of the free market. There are other ways of deciding of course, but the only other valid one is “one person, one vote” – otherwise known as democracy. And that tends not to work well for deciding what should be lead story on page six.

Mathew’s response was to differentiate between “need” and “want”:

I disagree when it comes to news – I think more people would pay for news they want (gossip) than news they need (reporting)”

And that, I think, is where the real problems start. Once you start to divide things into “what people want”  and “what people need”, you end up in a kind of paternalism, where you decide as a journalist what people should be reading. Jordan actually summed up this perspective on what journalism should be in another of his tweets:

Journalism is exercise of judgment on deliverables for civic literacy. Not a market need; it’s an enabler of effective citizenship”

If ever there was a description of how to suck the life, soul and fun out of journalism, that is it. It moves journalism out of the real world and makes it into something like a branch of the civil service, spooning out “the truth” into ears that don’t really want to listen. It basically says “people don’t want to buy it, so we’ll give it to them whether they want it or not. They’ll be grateful!”

Would you read a newspaper that was all about “civil literacy”? I’m interested in politics and society, but even I would avoid something like that like the plague. This is a form of puritan reductionism for publishing, dividing the world neatly into “things people want” and “things people don’t want but need to hear, so by God we’ll sit them in Church on Sundays and read it all out to them. They need it.” It treats readers as children, who need to be spoonfed their medicine because it’s good for them, but don’t understand why they need it.

The fact is that the best journalism has always been about entertainment as much as information, because entertainment is story telling, and story telling is about provoking an emotional response – and that’s the first, best way to help people understand and engage with the world. John Pilger’s reports from Cambodia were incredibly good journalism not only because of the facts he uncovered, but because of the tools that he used to provoke emotional engagement. He told the story.

Yes, sometimes people don’t know what they want until they hear it. If your idea of deciding what should be in newspapers is just “whatever the readers say they want in a focus group”, you’re in the wrong business.

But if you treat journalism as some kind of “enabler of effective citizenship” you will never produce stories which are compelling, interesting, provoke real emotion – and yes, which entertain too.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Why “process journalism” is neither journalism, nor process

Jeremy Toeman, talking about the truly absurd “Twittergate”, sums up why process journalism fails:

“But this is par for the course if your job is breaking news as fast as possible, as there is no reward for being late nor is there a penalty for being inaccurate.”

With process journalism, there is no penalty for being inaccurate. If something is wrong, just go back and rewrite it. There’s no pressure to ensure the facts are right when you hit the publish button.

How anyone with half a brain can think that this is a better method than dull, old-fashioned fact-checking and multiple sourcing I don’t know. Of course, doing proper, in-depth reporting takes time and money and effort – it’s hard, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the story right.

But it does mean you have a better chance of getting the story right than any other method.

Journalism as beta isn’t journalism. Saying that there’s such a thing as “beta journalism” makes as little sense as saying there’s such a thing as “beta car making”. If your car broke down, would you be happy if the car maker turned around and said “oh, sorry, we’re trying out a new system called ‘process manufacture’. We’ll fix it for you, but sorry you got stranded out in the woods. We got a new set of parts and took a chance on them fitting right without bothering to check the measurements.”

Or to put it another way: next time Jeff Jarvis is flying across the Atlantic to tell newspaper people how to fix their industry, I bet he’d be pretty unhappy if Boeing had used “process plane making” to construct the 747 he’s on.

Of course, news writing isn’t in the same league of importance as the safe manufacture of products which we trust with thousands of lives. But businesses can be hurt and lives can be lost because of news stories. When you have the kind of influence that major news vendors have, you bear a massive responsibility to get it right first time.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The new economic reality: business model first, build traffic second

Farhad Manjoo at Slate offers a timely reminder of one of the underlying realities of online business:

“Everyone knows that print newspapers are our generation’s horse-and-buggy; in the most wired cities, they’ve been pummeled by competition from the Web. But it might surprise you to learn that one of the largest and most-celebrated new-media ventures is burning through cash at a rate that makes newspapers look like wise investments. It’s called YouTube.”

I’ve said before in various conversations that one of the factors that big online publishers need to consider is the value of the traffic they are getting, and YouTube is a perfect, if extreme, example. Without a real method of turning traffic into money, every visitor represents a cost to your business. Bandwidth, server maintenance, development, and infrastructure might have a low cost on a per-user basis, but they’re not free, and the more users you have, the bigger than sum is going to be.

Saying, as some commentators do, that you should build traffic before having at least the outline of a plan to turn that traffic into money is simply unsustainable in the current economic climate. It was actually unsustainable in the old economic climate too, but the flood of cheap credit based ultimately on overvalued assets and Chinese savings disguised that fact. It made it seem like the era when VCs would endless fund business with no business model (and big companies would buy them) would go on forever – and that’s sadly not the case.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]