Sunday, 30 November 2008

Quote wars

My friend Adrian Monck seems pleased by my aside in a recent book Beyond Trust that his thoughtful and entertaining book Can You Trust the Media is - as far as the values of journalism goes - nihilistic.

Adrian is reminded of a book (that's three books so far; one more to come) he read some thirty plus (I'm guessing here) years ago; Turgenev's Fathers and Sons in which the odious Yevgeny Vassilievitch Bazarov delivers himself of this juvenilium:
"A nihilist is a man who does not bow to any authorities, who does not take any principle on trust, no matter with what respect that principle is surrounded."
Apparently, there's a bit of him in every journalist. Well, kinda; and that's the problem. Bazarov's human weaknesses are multiple (irony) in that as well as being utterly ignorant of the consequences of the philosophy he claims to live by (more irony), he's a hypocrite, liar and cheat; he's also incompetent, snuffing himself out before the end of the novel because he couldn't meet the most basic requirement of his job.

For better or worse, I prefer Victor Hugo - and there's a lot of him to prefer. In my part of France, the whole population (apparently) of Montreuil sur Mer joins every year in an appropriately lengthy son et lumiere, scenes from Hugo's Les Miserables - this bears no relationship, incidentally to the London musical.

Now as every French schoolchild knows, Hugo has something to say about everything and one of the things he has to say about nihilism is this:
"All roads are blocked to a philosophy which reduces everything to the word “no.” To “no” there is only one answer and that is “yes.” Nihilism has no substance. There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives more by affirmation than by bread."
Relevance ? Well it's this. We can reduce journalism to zero - to something that has no meaning beyond story and cares nothing about a meaning that outlives the sound of its last story's last word; the question is, should we ... or even, do we want to ?

I suppose I have this daft belief that it's a good idea if the accounts of the world we give each other are true (inasmuch as they can be - and, yes, I get that problem) honest (inasmuch as we can judge them - ditto) and trusted (inasmuch as we can audit them - ditissimo). And that if journalism purports to make a living from scribbling these accounts on the back of adverts and flogging them to us, then it'd better make sure its accounts are at least fractionally more trustworthy than those we can get from the village gossip, for free and without the ads.

I suppose I mind the hollowing out of journalism that this nihilism supports. But I suppose I mind more that line about 'siding with Andrew Gilligan'. Now that is nasty. AM knows how to wound.

But I don't bear grudges - so here's a challenge; let's debate this. A showdown. You ... me ... with or without seconds. I don't even mind an away fixture down your end of town. Before Christmas ?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Will Big Media gobble-up the citizens?

I was struck by this exchange between BBC News chief Helen Boaden and Tobias Escher at the Oxford Internet Institute.
It touches on two things I've written and spoken about before - one, the attitude of Big Media towards its authoring audiences (partners or occasional amateur helpers) the other, a lecture back in June 2006 predicting Big Media's inevitable assimilation of UGC and citizen journalism ... certainly in the strict news context.
For anyone with enough time and curiosity, here's that period piece of almost two and a half years ago.

The Revolution Will Be Televised after all
Bournemouth, 8 June 2006


If we’d been having this discussion three or even two years ago, we’d have been full of certainties.

We’d have been certain that news had become just one source in the thickening fog of information about the world. For many, not even the main or an important source.

That news consumers had long since stopped turning to newspapers first as a source of news. And were beginning to stop turning to TV and Radio too.

That this thing called the internet was giving away free what we’d been selling. Selling directly in the commercial sector, indirectly in the public sector.

We’d have been certain that the traditional business models of news producers were unsustainable and wondered what next.

We’d have been certain that the young just weren’t consuming our news any more. And that if they never got the habit in the first place, they certainly wouldn’t develop it later on.

We’d have looked at the nervous breakdown in American journalism. Caused by the bloggers’ relentless pursuit of dodgy journalistic practices and Wall Street’s loss of patience in big newspaper chains.

Certain it was only a matter of time before something like that came here.

We’d have looked at all the data – and become even more certain.

UK newspaper sales continued in long-term decline. At least one national editor wondered whether printed papers had a future at all.

Audiences for the big news bulletins on BBC1 were falling steadily as they fragmented and spread themselves around all the digital options.

ITN had suffered from being the Flying Dutchman of the ITV schedules.

Serious current affairs were firmly located on the margins.

And we’d have looked at the trends on the net – certain that we saw signs there that journalism itself was unravelling.

Those bloggers in the US who’d become the scourge of the New York Times, Time Magazine and CBS were raising the obvious question.

If bloggers – ie we ourselves – could do what journalists did … why did we need journalists, their arrogant lectures and questionable practices ?

The war between bloggers and journalists was definitely on.

And we’d have been certain about the crisis of trust; only one in six UK citizens trusts a newspaper journalist to tell the truth. Fewer than trust a complete stranger. Fewer than trust bloggers.

That at the very time trust was emerging as the most important commodity in the wired world.

Tom Curley, the CEO of Associated Press, was certain. What was happening marked "a huge shift in the 'balance of power' in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers."

We’d have been certain about this huge shift because of what we were reading, too. And what was happening in other worlds linked to ours.

One of those books was Joe Trippi’s. It described Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004.

It’s a great story. About how the Dean campaign never really took off when it followed the traditional candidate’s route.

And how Trippi persuaded Dean to take a leap into the unknown.

To turn his back on traditional campaigning and funding and publicity. And rely instead on new internet based social and political networks for debate, money and coverage.

Democrats for Dean blogged. Trippi blogged, Dean blogged – they tested policies over what was an exceptionally well organised network of networks.

It was the story of grassroots power. A story about people sharing peer to peer, building into networks that didn’t need that politico/journalistic complex that was American politics and American political reporting.

Trippi called his book; “The revolution will not be televised.” And just in case you missed the point, he subtitled it; “Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.”

The Dean story wasn’t quite that. At the Iowa Caucus. Dean – by then the front runner – came third and went out on a scream.

Kerry won the nomination. Bush won the election.

Trippi’s was a surfer’s book. Not internet surfer – though it was that too. It was written by someone carried along on the top of a huge, exhilarating, exciting wave.

A wave that – Trippi was sure, we all were sure – was sweeping through politics and the media. That really did threaten the overthrow of everything – including what was, by then, being called Big Journalism.

That term, Big Journalism, was coined by one of the most significant and persuasive voices riding the wave. Dan Gilmor – a former Californian journalist who gave up the press to work with the internet.

In the summer of 2004, Gilmor produced another book that we all read; We the Media; Grassroots journalism by the people for the people”.

It’s theme was this;
Grassroots journalists are dismantling Big Media's monopoly on the news, transforming it from a lecture to a conversation. Not content to accept the news as reported, these readers-turned-reporters are publishing in real time to a worldwide audience via the Internet

The previous year, Hypergene’s Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis had produced the most read - and if you were in the traditional news media, most unnerving – account of a possible future for news.

Through the autumn and winter of 2003, traditional journalists and editors emailed each other links to that account – called “We Media”. There they read;
“We are at the beginning of a Golden Age of journalism — but it is not journalism as we have known it. Media futurists have predicted that by 2021, "citizens will produce 50 percent of the news peer-to-peer." However, mainstream news media have yet to meaningfully adopt or experiment with these new forms. Historically, journalists have been charged with informing the democracy. But their future will depend not on only how well they inform but how well they encourage and enable conversations with citizens. That is the challenge.”


And they were right. There was little sign back in 2003 that traditional news producers knew where to start in adapting to the new news ecology.

We were all certain that the revolution would not be televised … because all the signs were that Big Media, traditional news producers, wouldn’t be there to do it.

Then came Web 2.0.

An internet concept that seemed to make life impossible for Big Journalism – certainly for Big Journalism that had to make money.

Web 2.0 is an elusive term.

It was coined in Silicon Valley – by Tim O’Reilly, who happened also to be Dan Gilmor’s publisher - at about the time Joe Trippi was predicting the overthrow of everything

Initially, it referred to the kind of web being created around 2003 and 2004 by the companies that had survived the dotcom crash of 2001.

Borderless and continuous. Where the platform was king – giving users all the tools they needed to assemble their own content, making their own and mixing it with yours and mine.

All at no or very, very low cost.

Google is the paradigm Web 2.0 company with a paradigm Web 2.0 business model.

It collects rent on something it doesn’t own – your eyeballs. From people who don’t own them. – advertisers. In return for directions to something it doesn’t own – your and my content.

The strength of its brand resides in its ability to take you somewhere useful, reliably. Billions of times a day – raising revenue – a tenth of a cent at a time - from a percentage of those billions.

The contrast with the business models of Big Journalism couldn’t be more marked. Those models depend on the loyalty of a few hundred thousand or millions, in a close relationship, paying money up front for some things they want and a lot they don’t.

It was grim. And just a couple of years ago, the only question was. How grim exactly ?

The revolution would not be televised – at least, not by Big Journalism.

But 2005 was a remarkable year.

It began with one of the most perceptive commentators on the media – Jay Rosen at New York University – declaring the war between journalists and bloggers over.

Rosen reasoned that neither side had won; they do different things. There was room in the new world for both.

But their future relationship – which in essence was the relationship between news producers and consumers – would have important consequences for some of the most cherished – and most abused – notions in journalism.

But the lecture was over. Welcome to the conversation.

Some – but by no means all – of Big Journalism took Willis and Bowman’s advice and started to ask how they could adopt or experiment with these new forms.

Hesitantly and uncertainly at first – and it’s still work in progress.

But broadly successfully.

It was a process hastened by the major news events of that year. Events that tested Big Journalism’s engagement with the new forms.

The Asian Tsunami, the London bombings, the Buncefield explosion – and in a different way Hurricane Katrina.

In the world we all feared, the vast amount of vivid, eye-witness material gathered by news consumers themselves would have sat somewhere out there, aggregated by users themselves by-passing journalism using the platforms of Web 2.0.

But it didn’t happen like that. With each of these, Big Journalism showed it could handle this kind of news gathering.

Absorb it. Test it. Use it. Give shape to it. Crucially, give it the meaning the algorithmic platforms couldn’t.

American journalism – which had suffered more than the UK – seemed to be making its way back upstream.

In its 2006 review of the State of the American news media, journalism.org reported that traditional news producers were finally getting to grips with new platforms and establishing their brands amongst the young.

Here, some newspapers continued to lose circulation. But some didn’t.

And there seemed to be a direct relationship between brand strength and adaptation to the new media.

Amongst the newspapers, The Guardian, The Observer, The FT, The Independent and Independent on Sunday along with the Economist all had good years in 2005 – both online and on the news-stands.

In the BBC, 2005 was the year of Creative Future – the year the BBC became serious in its thinking about how to deal with the new realities.

We weren’t alone. Guardian newspapers’ developments online – one of the most used and trusted sites on the web; its podcasts; blogging columnists and user-generated travel reports.

In the US, the American Press Institute’s “Newspaper Next” initiative – all evidence that traditional news providers were getting to grips with their own survival.

Tamar Kasriel – the head of Knowledge Venturing at the Henley Centre – said at the Guardian’s “Changing Media” conference in London earlier this year.
“The single most important thing to understand about the future is that it’s not about being right, it’s about being ready.”

Her advice was to look closely at trends. Push them to extremes – and be ready for anything.

Anything means exactly that. Some challenges are predictable. Others not.

One clear trend that you saw in that film and which others have also identified is the durability of content. AP’s Tom Curley put it like this;
“we want to have ownership of the story for longer than the first few hours.”

The job used to be to produce news stories for your primary platform; a wire service, a newspaper, a radio or TV programme.

Now that’s just the start.

Just the first step in driving a much broader portfolio. More ways of getting those stories to consumers.

Headlines on the move; to mobiles and in public spaces. Online and into the home via radio and TV.

For AP – which the American Journalism Review’s Rachel Smolkin called the “meat and potatoes” of news – it means the AP blogs and podcasts; the online video network; and A-S-A-P, a syndicated online news provision aimed at the under 35s.

It’s what the BBC’s Director General Mark Thompson calls “the long tail.” Working every story through every platform. Connecting with both general and targeted audiences.

The other part of that is the journey stories make from news to context.

As stories develop, today’s news becomes tomorrow’s background or context.

We know the traditional model well. The editor’s choice of story is placed alongside the editor’s choice of picture, choice of background, choice of analysis, editorial comment and op-ed page opinion.

But in Web 2.0, everyone can and does make their own context - usually by searching on Google.

If you want your news to have a really long tail – and most business models require news producers to make money from that long tail – your stories have to survive in the new market place as context.

That means being a highly trusted source of news in the first place, doing something other news providers can’t.

And one source of that trust comes from the conversation with the audience.

News consumers know what they know. And know what you don’t. As Dan Gilmor point out, someone – perhaps a lot of someones - out there knows more than you do.

Integrating that knowledge is a critical part of Big Journalism’s survival.

Richard Sambrook – the BBC’s Head of Global division – sees it happening in four ways. Some of them, we saw in that film.

Eyewitness accounts, pictures and video; the integration of blogs into news coverage; news broken on the web; and using the public to develop and inform our journalism.

In the BBC, we’re setting up specialist units to handle user generated content and all the editorial challenges it poses.

Blogs and message-boards are emerging as important sources of news and context – the best insights into the Lozell’s disturbances was on the BBC’s “Where I Live” site.

And even the most traditional programmes like R4’s Today now trawl the 70 or 80 thousand emails it gets every year for tips for new stories and truth checks on running stories.

But I think Web 2.0 – and Webs 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 when they come along – will challenge journalism in a very much more fundamental way.

Big Journalism will be around to televise – and report – the revolution.

But the ability that those platforms give news consumers to slice across their news and information in any plane will changes our ideas of news at a very basic level.

Trust drives the web.

Often, we don’t know who we’re dealing with. So we develop ways of finding out whether we can trust them.

Google, eBay, Amazon, iTunes, Expedia … the list goes on. They work because we trust them. And we trust them because they do exactly what they say they will do.

But we have different kinds of trust. The kind of trust that wants to know it’ll get straight dealing. The kind of trust that – in our world, the world of information – knows it’ll get as factual answer as possible to the question; what happened; where did it happen; who did it happen to; why did it happen.

And then the other kind of trust. In platforms, sites and bloggers who appeal to us in particular ways. They confirm our view of the world. Or they tell me stuff that’s really whacky. Or they’re just cool.

Those two big strands in the new media world mirror the two great traditions of journalism.

The journalism of verification and of record. And the pluralist, argumentative, gadfly tradition. John Stuart Mill’s clash of ideas.

In pre-web journalism, these two traditions have been consistently woven together.

Sometimes loosely – the stinging editorial inside the paper with the straight report from Iraq on the front page. Sometimes tightly – the screaming headline that tells you exactly what the editor thinks and doesn’t give the facts even one clear run.

But I wonder whether that weave can survive the web ? Especially since we know the interleaving of fact and opinion is one of the principal sources of mistrust in journalists.

The new news consumer will still want both fact and comment – but no-one will need to tolerate them woven together sometimes so tightly that the paper’s voice drives the facts and not the other way around.

Google News filters one kind of content for you; Technorati another.

And as far as comment and argument goes, the distinction between columnist and blogger becomes daily harder to make. Newspapers experimenting with columnist/bloggers are identifying the one with the other.

If I like – trust - Simon Jenkins, David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris, am I going to buy three papers or go to the web ? And while I’m reading them on the web … why not Romanesko or Gaping Void or Kick AAS ?

And won’t I think that what I want to tell the world is at least as valid as what they have to say.

So how will the other tradition go ? Well, Wikinews and OhMynews show there’ll be a conversational role there too.

But it seems clear that there’ll still be huge demand for people who “do journalism”. The hard stuff that the average citizen can’t do, doesn’t want to do or hasn’t the time to do.

Journalists – the people who collect news from places most of us can’t or don’t go. Not routinely, anyway. And from the people the ordinary citizen has no access to.

Investigations and watchdog journalism that most citizens don’t have the time or skills to do.

Verification, explanation, judgement and analysis. Platforms don’t make judgements.

But to generate trust in that kind of content, journalism will have to show its workings.

Some Web 2.0 gurus doubt that traditional news providers can ever become the kind of organisations that generate trust.

Most British newspapers are notoriously opaque. Refusing the openness and transparency they demand of others. Most still have no means for the reader to question their decision-making; most don’t publish a code of practice.

Most refuse to correct all but the most glaring errors and some turn every which way to defend the most grotesque misquotations.

Maybe I’m imagining it, but it does seem that the news organisations most prepared to be open with their audiences are better placed to win trust.

American journalism – brutalised by the Blair, Miller, Jordan and Rather scandals … or more accurately, the news organisations’ initial opacity in dealing with them – is responding with a flurry of openness; codes of conduct and promises to their readers; publishing on the web interviews and source material in full.

I’m confident the revolution will be televised after all.

Some of the certainties that made us doubt that have turned out to be less certain than we thought.

One certainty – that news producers as a breed couldn’t handle the changes Web 2.0 was throwing at them – has turned out to be just another opportunity. There will be winners and losers.

It wasn’t and won’t be the overthrow of everything after all.

But one thing will, I think, be overthrown. The barrier to trust that some of the opaque rites and rituals of journalism truly are.

And if, as I believe, that leads to journalism becoming one of the most trusted trades rather than one of the least, then that would be a revolution we could all cheer.