News:rewired, January 2010
***Notes from opening remarks at the 2010 news:rewired event, City University***
This is a very special event – the kind of event, frankly, we don’t have enough of here in the UK.
I feel very privileged to be here this morning to talk about one of the tough questions that faces all of us in different ways.
How do we meet the challenges of learning – and teaching – some of the key skills of our new media environment. Multimedia and social media skills.
One thing I would say – the coward in me is relieved I’m at this end of my career and not the beginning … though I’m not escaping what is a very complex world.
After 25 years as a BBC frontline editor – the first programme I edited was the weekend that the task force was sent to the Falklands – I'm now one of the team - the BBC College of Journalism - responsible for teaching journalism in the biggest news organisation in the world. The BBC.
What I do want to talk about are the principles and assumptions we’ve used to build our responsive, informal and online learning.
And to do it in a way that lays down some challenges. Just in case you hoped today was going to be cosy.
Three quick stories
In April last year, the BBC opened the biggest multimedia newsroom in the world here in London. Eleven hundred journalists working on multimedia, multiplatform news content.
It was intended to be – and was – a transformation. Both for the organisation and for individual journalists.
Expectations about roles were changed. As were the combinations of skills required. Journalists who’d worked for years monomedially were encouraged to take on new skills. Or totally new roles.
Live and continuous and the web were put at the heart of the BBC News offer.
News 24 became the BBC News channel; News online became the BBC News website. TV became video; radio became audio.
A multimedia internal news agency was the flywheel of the operation; the blogging and podcasting networks became less constrained.
The then head of the newsroom, Peter Horrocks, wrote thoughtfully about UGC and the role of audiences in Big Journalism’s newsgathering and fact checking.
In short, it was an example of Big Journalism making a rapid movement in the direction it saw journalism moving.
With multimedia, multiplatform journalism at its heart … though, at that stage, not social media.
We were asked to put together some online learning to help the project along.
And it seemed important to try to capture both the big picture – what was happening at the organisational level – and the many individual perspectives.
So one of the things I did was to task a multimedia producer and a Flash developer with making an interactive movie did both those things – in particular, mapped the changing skills any individual would need.
It was, and still is, a beautiful 3-D map/graphic. You click on graphic of TV centre to open a 3-D map that gave you an overview and what was going on in each part of the production chain.
And you could drill deeper and deeper right down to the individuals in any part of the production chain to watch a video of each of them describing their role and the skills they needed to carry them out.
We launched it when the newsroom opened – it was amazingly popular. Pretty well every journalist explored his or her future.
But we had to re-author the map during that week – because the newsroom itself and the roles within it had been tweaked.
Within a week of the newsroom opening, we had to redraw the map, rewrite text and re-shoot some videos – it had changed again.
It wasn’t long before organic changes to the newsroom and the roles within it were being made faster than we could reflect them in the Flash movie.
So we gave up. But it’s still a beautiful movie. A historic document – a snapshot.
What’s the moral of this story?
The obvious one is that our landscape is changing faster than we can describe it, let alone understand it.
Or work out what we need to know – the skills we need to have to deal with it.
The less obvious one is that even big news organisations like the BBC are changing rapidly, organically, dynamically – sometimes in ways that seem chaotic. But only in the way that any complex organism seems chaotic.
The BBC newsroom has begun organising itself into what it calls ‘story communities’ around Big Stories. They began using MSM to communicate and keep the community together - now, there's a dedicated application that does this.
The ‘community' grows and shrinks according to the needs of the story - drawing in new skills as they're needed and sharing content.
Less obviously, for all the Big Journalism’s skills at resembling a rabbit caught in the headlights of multimedia and latterly social media … it’s probably doing better than you think at adapting and capitalising on new media.
I think I detect a hint of ‘return to the cottage industry’ in a lot of what is written about new media’s potential for journalists.
Don’t make the mistake, for example, of thinking that journalism’s future will be populated mainly by ‘news entrepreneurs’ – it won’t, as even that particular idea’s uberzealots will tell you.
Don’t make the mistake, either, of thinking that in future journalism will be entirely or even mainly about the kind of skills we’re talking about today.
Like it or not, much journalism is about process and organisation – and seems likely to remain that way.
Demand for people who can organise an outside broadcast or coverage of a court case for live and continuous news remains and will remain high.
Demand for people who can elbow their way to the front of a scrum – ditto. Or for people who can field produce, problem solve or persuade players to appear on screen or on the web.
And so one of the challenges of learning multimedia and social media skills is to understand them not just for what they are and what they can do, but how they fit with the other essential - arguably more endurable - skills of journalism.
In a different universe, 2002 to 2006, I was editor of Today.
In one of our more turbulent periods, I wrote in an email that described a particular journalist’s report as “a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting.”
In that different universe – five years ago – that email became part of the evidence to the Hutton inquiry. It was about Andrew Gilligan’s infamous 0607 two-way. That was the two-way in which he attributed to his single anonymous source the judgment that the Government included a particular claim in its pre-Iraq war dossier although it “probably knew it was wrong”.
My wording “a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting” attracted a lot of comment.
One BBC veteran insisted there was no difference between ‘journalism’ and ‘reporting’ - and that I didn't know what I was talking about. Another of journalism's Big Beasts said it was yet more evidence that the BBC didn’t know what words meant so how could you expect them to tell the truth.
Of course, the point I was making was, and is, that there are at least - at least - two distinct and discrete sets of journalism skills. But that neither of these sets can exist independent of each other - not for a journalist anyway.
First: finding, checking, assessing the facts.
Then: telling those facts – accurately, impartially, independently. And engagingly.
Andrew had succeeded in the first part of that. But failed in the second.
The moral of this story?
Well again, the obvious one – you can’t separate the getting skills of journalism from the telling skills. Good, multimedia storytelling doesn't somehow get you out of the responsibility of finding out in the first place.
Nor do good 'getting' skills make up for an inability to articulate accurately what you have found out.
Less obviously, however good your 'telling' skills and however good your innovative 'getting' skills ... they don't supplant more fundamental, enduring journalistic skills.
Making contacts who know; persuading them to speak; noting accurately what they say; verifying their claims, testing them; thinking through who you have to approach next before you have a story; pursuing a long investigation; finding stories in opaque documents; filling in the gaps without speculation or sensation when authority holds its information tightly to itself; finding ways through the democratic deficit.
Multimedia and social media skills work when they supplement or facilitate these and other of journalism’s fundamentals.
They don’t supplant them.
Spool forward a few more years – to around 2005, the early days of serious newspaper multimedia.
I was interviewing Ben Hammersley at the Frontline Club – mostly about being Ben who, as you know, is one of the UK’s earliest genuine multimedia/multiplatform journalist.
He is a man to respect – who practices what he preaches.
Among other things, he really got the wired, networked idea. He helped develop some of the Guardian’s early blogging platforms.
Sensibly doing the whole thing from a café in a piazza in Italy.
But when we spoke at the Frontline, he was pushing the multimedia storytelling frontiers with some energy.
They were exciting times – and Ben’s vision of the future journalist was based on what he knew was possible. He knew it was possible because it was what he was doing.
That you could, as a journalist, spot your story. Develop it. Check it … and then decide the best way to tell your story.
Text. Text and stills. Audio and stills. Video.
The fact is – some people can work this way. But they’re the minority.
As I meet journalism students around the country, I keep coming across a mindset that every journalist has to have every available skill developed to the same level. An anxiety at the skills they don’t have or aren’t taught or aren’t taught well or in the right combination
Ben’s dream journalistic ecology is fine for him and fine for some – but it’s not for everyone.
A news organisation that produces multimedia journalism does not have to be peopled exclusively by pan-media journalists.
Quite the opposite – large news organisations need people with higher than average levels of graphics skills; video editing skills; writing skills. And higher than average social media skills.
So, what are my conclusions. My final thoughts.
1. That you learn and keep on learning is at least as important as what you learn.
You will not get very far in journalism any more unless you have the mindset that accepts and understands you will need to learn something new, changing the way you do things several times in your career.
2. Cruise and surf
Be a journalist when you're thinking about new skills.
Be aware of what exists and what’s changing - just like you do with news stories; what other people say about them; what they could do for you.
But don't think you have to have hoover up every skill.
3. What do you well? Which of the skills around would help you do that better? How do new skills fit with your old ones
There is nothing worse than watching someone who has no audio sense edit a news package or podcast.
At the same time, there’s nothing worse than watching someone who writes great headlines or lead paragraphs think that writing great tweets is somehow different.
4. Extract the real value from each skill you try
What are you really getting from this new skill? What’s it giving you? What’s it giving your work?
5. … and be ruthless
If it is isn't delivering – drop it.
6. When you find the set of skills that works for you, keep thinking, keep innovating
Example – blogging has done an awful lot more than simply increase the number of people who can 'do' journalism.
Robert Peston and Nick Robinson (and thousands of others) have found that it changes the nature of ‘the story’ – no-one has to wait for the next bulletin and the opportunity to fashion the perfect package in order to get a story or a development out.
And it advances trust and expertise as good blogging criteria - show you can't be trusted or that you have no expertise and the info fog will close around your blog.
7. Don't ever deceive yourself that 'big journalism' is over – it isn't and never will be ...
It will change and it will adapt to and incorporate the kind of skills and techniques we're talking about today.
But they're not the only ones that have value to journalism– though they can enhance the value of those other skills.
8. … on the other hand, organisations are not cleverer than you
Change, even in Big Journalism, can come from the bottom up - from the realities in the ways people are using new skills and new applications.
9. Don't lose the bigger picture
The sets of skills we're talking about today are important.
But they’re not necessarily the ones that are doing most to change journalism.
The personal web, granular searching and more clever metadata and augmented reality are doing and will do more to change journalism than multimedia or social networking
10. Skills are a means to an end
In journalism as in everything.
And no matter how exciting multimedia and social media are – the way in which new, easier ways of doing things come on stream - they're not an end in themselves.
Don't become a Twitterhead - like a petrolhead who knows everything about cars but forgets the point of them is to go from one place to another.
Make sure you stay outside the bubble.