Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Paying for quality

Of all the arguments in favour of newspaper paywalls, one is utter tosh. It is that we - the readers - must pay to preserve "the best newspapers in the world".

Now, as a general rule it's always a good idea to reach for your revolver when you hear anyone say any country has the best TV/Health Service/Newspapers/Football teams ... anything "in the world".

Not because we/they don't, necessarily. But because life's more complicated than that.
But one thing we absolutely, certainly, assuredly don't have here in the UK is the best newspapers in the world. Full stop.

If we did, a quarter of those who used to buy them wouldn't have stopped doing so over the past twenty years - a desertion that long predates the web, incidentally. If we did, our press wouldn't be one of the least trusted institutions in the land and our newspaper journalists the least trusted in the world.

We wouldn't have journalists sent to prison for hacking into mobile-phone mailboxes. Nor editors fired for printing fake photographs or "setting the agenda" while, by their own admission, still drunk from the night before or admitting that they pay policemen to breach their public trust and give information to journalists.

A newspaper group wouldn't have had to pay the McCanns hundreds of thousands of pounds for quite literally making up over 100 separate defamatory articles.

Websites such as Tabloid Watch would have nothing to watch: they'd not be able to point to astonishing examples of poor journalism, like this or this or this or this We might have less of a warped obsession with celebrity.

And sites such as 'The Sun - tabloid lies' wouldn't have such a rich source of raw material.

Now, it's true that our democracy needs journalists who aren't intimidated by power. Who aren't browbeaten. Who need to be, on occasion, rude, offensive, disrespectful and bloody-minded - but, you'd have thought, as a means to and end not an end in itself.

NewsCorp argues that good journalism has to be paid for - which is true. Of course, it might help their argument if more newspaper journalism were better than it is. Worth paying for.

But beware the chopped logic here. Well-funded journalism doesn't unavoidably entail its readers paying to be let in through a turnstile to read it. Apart from anything else, readers have never been the major source of newspaper revenue. And as Alexander Lebedev has shown at the Evening Standard - and may well show with the Independent - you can give newspapers away free and still make a profit. Still fund good quality, original, investigative journalism.

Nor is paying at the door somehow morally superior to - or really very different from - other ways of paying. Like, errrr, the BBC licence fee, for example. News isn't free just because it's been paid for in advance.

The clock should have struck thirteen when News Corp's James Murdoch told his Edinburgh audience last autumn that

"Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet."

A broad attack on anyone making news by following a business model different from NewsCorp's. But flawed. The idea that news - in all its novel, invigorating, refreshing, chaotic, demotic forms - is not 'flourishing' on the web flies in the face of reality. It's news, Jim, but not as you know it. And it's flourishing.

What isn't flourishing is journalism built to fit the old model and the old mindset. Bundles of readers buying bundles of news printed on bundles of ads.

And this is the thing to watch. The terms of the debate have changed and continue to change. If we want to understand that debate, the changed world and how journalism fits in, we should take care not to allow those whose interests paywalls serve - as well as outdated understandings of what journalism is - define its terms.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The leadership fetish

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

Ian Watmore's departure as the Football Association's Chief Executive has "torn the FA apart", according to at least one headline.

It 'may affect England's football World Cup bid', according to another. And is unsettling for the squad preparing for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa later this year. Apparently.

But hang on. Here's what BBC Radio 4 Today's Garry Richardson had to say about Mr Watmore's sudden departure. It happened because he was:

"Able to have such little impact on key decisions".

And as for that other stuff about World Cups:

"He obviously doesn't pick the team or coach the team ... the 2018 bid team is totally separate so it won't matter at all."

So ... the departure of this particular leader doesn't actually amount to anything.

Apart from a pile of overexcited news stories telling us more than we probably want to know, and more than we could possibly care about, the office politics of a body that's marginal to most of our lives.

It highlights once more, though, journalism's obsession with 'the leader'. An obsession that is close to a fetish and isn't confined to political leadership. The leader is the organisation, this addled thinking goes: so their departure must matter. Even when it doesn't.

It's worse when there's a problem in an organisation. Then, sacking the leader is the obvious and only remedy.

It's lazy thinking. Worse, it presents the illusion of accountability journalism without any of the inquiry or understanding that lies behind the real thing.

Years ago, in our World at One morning meetings, some wag would usually break a stumped silence with: "Maybe we can get someone to call for John Prescott's resignation." It was code for: 'We haven't got a clue how to develop this story.' And finding someone to call for John Prescott's resignation was never very difficult.

Now, of course leaders should be held to account and journalists should hold them to account. Of course leaders are responsible for those they lead and should take the rap. And that might - might - mean a leader has to go for the good of the organisation. But of course it might also mean staying to put things right. Or firing those who've got it wrong. Accountability journalism is as complex as the problems those we hold to account have to deal with.

Last week, six Birmingham social workers were sacked: the sackings followed the deaths of eight children in the city, though were not directly related.

And then, the inevitable question: Why were no managers sacked?

The reasoning, all too familiar: if those sacked weren't doing their jobs properly, then it follows they weren't being managed properly or that there weren't people keeping an eye on them - so they must be sacked, too. All the way to the top - after all, the bigger the scalp, the bigger the journalistic kudos.

The problem is that once the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on, interest in how - or even whether - faults are put right is far from the minds of those journalists of simple remedy.

Birmingham's new social services director, Colin Tucker, put his finger on it in one of his interviews. He'd been brought in to sort out what was clearly a dysfunctional child-protection service. And what he was leading, he said, was "a learning process, not a blame process".

And that's something journalists as scalp-hunters just don't get. Public services - like our police or our hospitals or child protection - don't automatically improve in proportion to the bloodiness of journalists' belts. It may need work rather than symbolic, top-level resignations.

'Heads must roll' journalism does us citizens no favours. As Colin Tucker reminded us, "for ten years, social work has been on its knees". It is "failing to attract the brightest and the best".

And that's a surprise?

Friday, 19 March 2010

In praise of the audio slideshow

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

Of all the sessions at Digital Storytelling 10 - an event in London on March 19th (co-organised by the College) that is/was about ... well, digital storytelling - the one presented by Benjamin Chesterton of duckrabbit in praise of the audio slideshow was a stand out.

Duckrabbit is a production team that focuses on journalism and advocacy touching, mostly, development and human rights issues ... it also does stuff that is just, well, beautiful. And one of their most effective tools is the audio documentary illustrated by - usually very high quality - still images. The audio slideshow.

As Benjamin Chesterton said, it's both a new language and a very old one - and it's one that's much better developed in the US and amongst non-broadcasters than it is here in the UK and in (former) broadcasting organisations. Take a look at Interactive Narratives for some recent good, and bad, examples.

The audio slideshow suffers from a default perception that it's neither one thing nor the other; something less than video while tainting the purity of audio. One questioner at the conference put it succinctly: 'why would you choose a slideshow when you could use video?'

Benjamin Chesterton's response: with moving video the viewers eye is centred - broadly, locked to the framing of the video camera. With still images, the eye roams. It stops and moves and stops and moves. Frozen gestures and expressions kick off a cognitive process - thinking - that moving images simply never do.

Something similar is true of good audio. The best audio blends reportage ('being me, being here') with the kind of aural cues that make audiences think and wander off down their own pathways while still engaging with the sound.

Put the two together - great audio documentary and great still images - and you have something that is potentially MORE than great storytelling.

"Most storytellers want to get people to think" was a striking line from this session. Would that it were true ... true about journalism, at least. You'd need to add the phrase "... like them" to apply it to much modern journalism.

The point about audio slideshows is that they're not storytelling - at least, not in the conventional journalistic sense. You can, of course, build a traditional story in audio and images ... but why waste what you have?

Take one of duckrabbit's pieces of work with Medecins sans Frontieres, Condition Critical - a suite of shows beginning with Francoise's Story. This, and the other stories in the suite, don't so much include excluded voices (actually, traditional journalism is much better at that than its critics allege) as lift those voices out of the constraints of formal storytelling, the straitjacket of a single beginning, middle and end; an external, journalist imposed conclusion.

You, the viewer/listener bring your own narrative arc - or none at all - to the audio in the same way as, and at the same time as, your eyes roam the images. It is engaging and involving - and very, very personal. We will all see and hear something in the shows that no-one else will.

The antithesis of the story - and all the better for that.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Checking facts

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

Back in 1988 - yes, it really was that long ago - the former BBC Director General, John Birt (he was DDG and Head of News at the time), told the Royal Television Society that it would be a good idea to introduce 'fact checkers' into BBC newsrooms.

Brows creased on wise old heads and there was tittering throughout newsland.

This was a horrid US idea. And, anyway, wasn't that the point of BBC News? That it checked the facts?

But JB was serious.

I know this because shortly before his speech he and I were in Atlanta for the Democrats' Convention. I ran into him just after I'd interviewed a Native American 'chief' who wanted Michael Dukakis (he was the, now forgotten, Democrats' choice to confront George Bush MkI) to pledge the return of a mountain range to his tribe.

JB asked if I'd checked whether the chief's claims were valid in law. I hadn't ... but mid-admission he dropped the filling of his Taco Bell on his shoe and our focus was diverted.

In the event, fact-checkers were not bussed in and BBC journalists got on with checking their facts themselves.

But some journalists were chippy for tribal reasons. One, a more youthful (back in 1988) Christopher Hitchins, wrote in the Miami News (no, me neither) that fact-checking:

" ... sounds innocuous, even scrupulous, but it is a snare and a delusion. It usurps the idea of authorship, with its concomitant responsibilities, and indicates a vague, mediocre neutrality."

Getting the facts right a "snare and delusion"? Hmmm. Does "authorship" trump verification and veracity?

It's much the row that's blown up around the celebrated (and brilliant) Polish foreign correspondent and author, Ryszard Kapuscinski.

A new book - 'Kapuscinski Non-Fiction' by Artur Domoslawski - has stirred up a row over the journalist's 'non-fiction' by suggesting rather a lot of it (his books rather than news dispatches) stepped over the line into fiction.

Kapuscinski was without doubt a great storyteller - Travels With Herodotus an excellent example. But should it matter that in his books, 'literary' truth may have tainted his account of facts?

Journalist and author Neal Ascherson argues perhaps not - there is such a thing as "literary reportage" where:

"You're meant to believe what you are being told, but not in every literal detail.

In the end, there is no floodlit wire frontier between literature and reporting. All we can insist on is that a literary text is not presented as a verbatim transcript."

Tim Garton Ash, another admirer of Kapuscinski, takes a harder line:

"There are, it seems to me, few more responsible callings for a human being armed with a pen than that of being a veracious witness to great and grave events.

But if I say I saw that, then I saw that. It was not in a different street, at a different time, or told me by someone else over a drink at the hotel bar."

But here's the thing: we can debate this as journalists and - perhaps - cut ourselves the slack that allows us to persuade ourselves that usually verification trumps all ... but come on!? Every time?

And, anyway, what is truth? Etc. Etc.

But what do you think happens when you ask non-journalists? Aka, the audience?

Correct. They expect "witness" to be just that. And even though they don't expect all viewpoints to be the same - no two witnesses ever agree - they do expect facts to be ... well, facts.

And that expectation extends to political argument. When I was at Today, I'd often get emails from members of the audience asking, in the middle of some complex row, 'who's right?'

That's why Today's new partnership with More or Less presenter Tim Harford is so welcome.

Its first task - trying to sort out the Michael Gove and Ed Balls spat over how many pupils who receive free school lunches get into Oxbridge, an important indicator of social mobility. While Channel 4's Cathy Newman ran the rule over the same debate on the C4 'FactCheck' pages.

It's important that both Today and C4 are following in the footsteps of the daddy-of-them-all fact-checking site, Annenberg's FactCheck - especially during an election campaign, when our audiences probably have less time than normal for "literary" truth. And, as FactCheck found, once you begin you have an endless supply of claims to check and arguments to calibrate.

And an audience grateful that at last someone is answering their question - or at least trying to - 'who's right?'

Fact checking, John, but not as you knew it.