Thursday, 26 November 2009

Is it really all about ink and woodpulp?

**This is a cross post from the BBC College of Journalism**

The Italian newspaper magnate, Carlo De Benedetti is undoubtedly a man to listen to - an opportunity afforded by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism who invited Ing. de Benedetti (in Italy, the qualification 'Engineer' - 'Ingegnere' - is used respectfully as a title) to deliver its 2009 memorial lecture. You can read it here.

Carlo de Benedetti is Chairman of Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso and La Repubblica - the media group that owns those eponymous weekly and daily titles as well as handful of regional papers, radio stations and internet content.

He's a hugely respected leader of liberal opinion in Italy where his opposition to Prime Minister Berlusconi, both politically and as a rival businessman, has made him something of a hero to centre and centre-left alike.

His theme was the importance of newspapers to democracy and citizenship. Newspapers, note - not journalism. Here's his reasoning:
"Starting from a fact, which flashes naked and unembellished across internet screens – unmatched in terms of speed and immediacy – or across TV screens or radio waves, a newspaper organizes this fact, giving the reader an overview which aids understanding and puts it into context. It thus creates an authentic information system that enables citizen-readers to map out the issue and by reading about it form their own independent and complete final judgement. This passage is the difference between knowing and understanding, between looking and seeing, between being informed and being aware, to the point of ultimately being able to take responsibility for a reasoned personal opinion."
It'd be odd if Ing. De Benedetti didn't defend newspapers and their role in our democracies but what was striking here was his insistence that ink on woodpulp - and all the rigmarole that surrounds it - was somehow different from other ways of delivering journalism. His line that newspapers and newspapers alone can support citizen-readers' democratic decision making feels a bit of an oddity in 2009 .

Both in his lecture and in response to direct questions, Ing. De Benedetti characterised broadcasting and the web as transitory and ephemeral, good for the 'what' but lacking the 'why' - "the difference between knowing and understanding".

Perhaps the media landscape in Italy is very different from that in the UK where examples of genuine understanding derived only from broadcasters or genuine depth derived only from the web are too many to enumerate - indeed, they're routine. Perhaps it's Snr. Berlusconi's dominance of Italian TV that conditions Ing. De Benedetti's view of broadcasting's democratic potential.

Perhaps, too, newspaper culture in Italy is very different from that in the Anglo-Saxon world where, according to Ipsos/MORI's routine 'Trust' polls more than twice as many of us (54%)trust a total stranger to tell us the truth than trust a journalist (22%) to do the same. When 78% of your citizenry can't believe what they read in the papers, it's a bit hard to describe those papers as "an authentic information system".

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A new ethical universe

This is a re-post from the BBC College of Journalism 'Discussion on CoJo' pages.
*** UPDATE: Kurt Greenbaum's response here. ***
Kurt Greenbaum is the director of social media for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. He blogs on his own account as well as running a sector of the newspaper's website - stltoday.com.
On Monday, 16 November, Kurt posted this article both to his blog and to 'The Editor's Desk' - one of the parts of the website for which he's editorially responsible.
It told the story of a reader who'd posted a one-word response to an earlier blog which asked the question "what's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?" That word was obscene and would certainly have been removed by any moderator of any responsible blog - which is precisely what happened.
But it didn't stop there. Kurt takes up the story himself:
"A few minutes later, the same guy posted the same single-word comment again. I deleted it, but noticed ... that his comment had come from an IP address at a local school. So I called the school. They were happy to have me forward the email, though I wasn't sure what they'd be able to do with the meagre information it included.
About six hours later, I heard from the school's headmaster. The school's IT director took a shine to the challenge. Long story short: using the time-frame of the comments, our website location and the IP addresses ... he tracked it back to a specific computer. The headmaster confronted the employee, who resigned on the spot."
Kurt's actions have not gone down too well with his blog's readers. At the last count, there were 152 entries, most of them condemning what he did - some in strong terms, including phrases such as "thought nazi".
Sentiments such as this from 'Andrew' are more reasoned and catch the tenor of the responses:

"That was a really low move. The Post-Dispatch opens up their message boards to all users and takes it upon themselves to self-police them. Retaliatory attacks against users is not something that any person should expect from using these boards, save for threats of bodily harm or death."
What seems to have got up the noses of most of his readers is Kurt's tone in both telling this story in the first place and subsequently defending it where, in message board posts, he urges reader/writers to "follow the rules" and then they'll be OK.
So here's an ethical question journalists have never had to confront before. Is removing obscene or offensive comments in moderation enough? Is banning users from future posts enough? This offensive comment was posted from what appeared to be a school computer - does that change the ethical issues involved?
Should a message board poster risk losing his or her job for a comment which, though offensive and obscene, is neither illegal nor threatening?
I've emailed Kurt to ask if he's had a chance to reflect on all of this yet - I'll let you know what he says.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Emerging into the light

It now looks pretty certain that December 14th will be the day the BBC College of Journalism goes truly global with the launch of its new website on bbc.co.uk - free to UK users, under subscription overseas.
It's been a pretty frustrating couple of months - not with the build of the site; that's been going rather well thanks to the patience and expertise of Web Manager Jon Jacob. There's one niggly little techie thing to finish and then we're there.
No, the frustration has been around the prep work - writing, editing, blogging - to build the content, knowing that no-one outside the BBC can see it yet.
Vital though that constituency is for us - our mantra is 'BBC learning for BBC journalists by BBC journalists' - it has meant that a lot of our discussions on the site have had a dimension missing; journalists and audiences outside the BBC.
Anyhow, here's another sneak preview of the homepage:
A large part of that front page is, as you can see, feeds of various kinds.
We're using del.icio.us, for example, to share blogs and articles that have some learning for journalists in them.
Some of you will be familiar with the College on Twitter - once we're fully public, we'll be able to link from our tweets to our content and blogs ... not being able to do that, for fear of annoying the hell out of non-BBC followers, has felt very restrictive for the last few months.
But there are also links to the content - liking the carousel top centre? And there's a lot of content inside.
About 2,500 pages at the last count. And something like a couple of hundred videos. And dozens of 'virtual newsroom' scenarios ... and quizzes ... and tests. And. And. And.
It's all arranged into four main categories: Ethics and Values, Law, Skills and Briefing. There's also a cross-category bit of the site - the Glossaries.
We've tried to keep the structure as flat as possible - the idea is that you should be able to go exactly where you want with no more than a couple of clicks ... something that's helped by the site's 'intelligent learning environment' - each page's metadata should ensure that you're offered on that page something else similar or related to the learning you're reading or watching.
We'll be adding new content regularly - there's already more stuff in the pipeline on court reporting, numbers, field production and political reporting - and building what we hope will be one of the most important networks around journalism and journalism education in the world.
We'll see.