Tuesday, 16 December 2008

What I learned in 2008

... is the question over at The Learning Circuits blog. The big question.
Background first; I do many things these days but first and foremost I earn my corn at the BBC College of Journalism. Somebody thought that after thirty years in the front line - I edited the BBC's biggest domestic radio news programmes, including Today with some 6 million listeners - I might have something worth passing on to the rest of the organisation.
Not an unreasonable assumption ... except that I did my learning in a world very different from now. So different that the past couple of years have been more about discovering how journalists learn today than they have been about systematising my own learning from the past.
Example: everything I know about journalism I learnt from other journalists - ones I admired, feared, resented. It happened in pubs; in cutting rooms; in cutting corners; in salving wounds and pride; from that one piece of intelligence that transfigures understanding and from the revelation that came from riding the Story Curve (hence the title of this blog). Oh, and from that feeling you get after putting down the phone, bested by a politician or spin-doctor.
The common factor in all of this? Time.
Time to talk, reflect, experiment, understand what's just happened to you and to construct a principle for the future; time to go to the pub; time to talk about the edit; time to use short Anglo-Saxon words outwardly while embedding a piece of learning inwardly.
And what is it that our young journalists don't have now? Quite.
So part of my learning about learning in 2008 has been trying to find ways to use our website - sadly, still internal to the BBC but going global in 2009 - to recreate something of the power of that way of learning.
Some has been easy; journalists still want to learn from admired experts; they want critique - inwardly, at least ... outwardly they put on a good show of shrugging off anything that looks like criticism or learning. They want 'just in time' advice; intelligencing and a sniff of the Story Curve. Some simulacrum of this we can fashion online - but it only goes so far.
So here's the other thing I learned; organisations like mine can put social networking tools in place and we must and we should and we have ... but even if they're used (more on that in a moment) on their own they're not enough. The way journalists have learned traditionally captures a truth that we all now theorise - the piece of learning comes initally wrapped in garish emotional wrapping; the crashing, heart-stopping moment when you realise just how wrong you were ... how easily you could have got it right; but then moves - sometimes at dead of night or in an unguarded moment - to realisation, rationalisation and resolve. Deep learning self-generating away from the learning stimulus in other words.
On this, here's the thing I have still to learn; how to use online content to 'create' time or its illusion; 'create' the crashes of the learning moment; 'create' the opportunities for that deep learning.
Here's something else I learned; try to understand the learning networks that already exist - don't try to reinvent them. We did a lot of work in the middle of the year around how organisations use networking to support learning. It was good work, but it overlooked one thing; BBC journalists were already sharing learning, links and intelligence like crazy - millions of transactions a day amongst the 8,000 or so journalists. They were writing stuff that was in every respect blogging ... it's just that no-one called it that.
Like most newsrooms, the BBC uses a computerised real-time news production system to read news agency wires and write scripts; that news production system has an informal instant messaging system as part of the package. It's used routinely for every conceivable purpose from conducting questionable social lives to passing the most profound intelligence and thinking around breaking or moribund stories.
We - those of us delivering online learning to our journalists - shouldn't try to create an alternative to this. But here's the challenge; one very senior executive is reported - almost certainly unfairly and out of context, for it is ever so - to have said, "I go to blogs and read stuff ... but that's not learning".
Getting that particular executive to acknowledge formal/informal learning - that's to say, the informal learning contained within an enterprise like the College of Journalism website and blogs - is a bit of an ask. Getting him/her to acknowledge the rich learning contained in the instant messaging around programme production ... oh dear.
Here's the final thing I learned in 2008. Everything we journalists work with changes each time we use it - not just the technology to gather, produce and distribute our content but journalism itself. The story is dying ... but we're still not entirely sure what to put in its place. Our former audiences are talking back to us ... but we're still not entirely sure what to do with what they say. We stumble on fantastically successful formats ... but lack the confidence to read across from them to other content.
That's the big learning challenge/opportunity for 2009 - how to teach the 'meta-skills' of journalism ... or raise awareness of them and find some resource to wheel in behind. Not 'here's how you do this' or more accurately 'here's how we've always done this in the past' ... but 'here's an idea about how you could think and be to be able to deal with whatever it is that journalism becomes'.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The end

The Times' George Brock, one of journalism's old boys (sorry) writes in the TLS that journalism is approaching its end - at least, the 'professional' sort is. Excerpt:
"Journalism is in trouble as an idea. Does this matter? The fourth estate cannot, thank goodness, be managed, reformed or even considered as a coherently organized profession. But journalists could think more clearly than they do about how to improve the level of trust in their work. The case for the professionals needs making all over again. With humility."
He writes in review of Bob Fox's new anthology of reportage 'Eyewitness to History' - a 2,000 page lintel. And paradox to boot.
'The case for the professionals' can't be made without accepting that their/our base currency - the story - is dead. And that we 'professionals' need the people we used to think of as our audiences to keep us honest or 'improve the level of trust' in our work.

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.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Crisis, what crisis ?

A cracking 'Moral Maze' style debate in Oxford this weekend just past, marking the 25th anniversary of the Reuters Foundation – now Thomson Reuters Foundation - and examining the proposition that ‘Quality Journalism is in Crisis’.
One of the participants, Charlie Beckett of the LSE/Polis who opposed the motion, blogs that its outcome – overturning an initial near 2:1 supportive majority to a near 2:1 vote the other way – is resonant of the (in)famous King and Country debate at the Oxford Union. Up to a point etc …
I was fortunate enough to be one of the investigating panel – along with Jean Seaton of Westminster University and the Mayor of Woodstock and 'missionary to explain', Peter Jay – and began the enterprise needing to be convinced by the motion’s supporters.
Little united those supporters other than an uneasiness that a familiar past was slipping away; in the cases of the Guardian’s 'Flat Earther' Nick Davies or the BBC’s John Ware it was a past (largely imagined, I think) in which the journalist was hunter-gatherer hero, bringing stalked enlightenment back from the forest; in the case of former Reuters’ strategy director David Ure it was a past of brand-dominant information brokerage. Oddly, the fourth supporter of the proposition, former LA Times editor Michael Parks, had told us the previous evening ‘every minute spent lamenting is minute lost to inventing’ … so little surprise he ended up switching sides and opposing his own motion.
And that was probably justified by the debate, too: Charlie Beckett and the Oxford Internet Institute’s Bill Dutton presented a distinctly non-scary future vision of what is already the dominant news platform, the internet: while Zoe Smith of ITN online and Mehdi Hassan of C4 News – whose combined age was probably less than the average of the other speakers and of us on the panel – proved utterly unperturbed by a future in which platforms mutate before their eyes and passionately committed to finding ways of producing quality journalism.
What swung the vote ? Probably the realisation that the ‘crisis’ of the proposition is in large part an ever present feature of quality journalism: that it always has been and always will be under threat from something – whether the foibles of press barons, the profit drive of corporate ownership, the fickleness of audiences and their attention, the gutter morals of the lowest in the trade. There wasn’t isn’t and won’t be a golden age.
Probably, too, the understanding that journalism’s emerging future is one in which the divide between ‘news’ and ‘information’ is gone; that quality, revelatory journalism of the now and future is more about intelligencing information – which in all likelihood is already out there in some form - than it is about hunting it down. Oh … and that it’s inevitable someone out there in the audience is better at intelligencing it than a jobbing journalist.
That, in order to sustain quality journalism, what will be required are new analytical, intellectual and visualising skills more than technical skills (which, anyway, young journalists increasingly have as a matter of course); that the journalistic convention of ‘the story’ is dead; and that quality is unlikely to look like it did twenty years ago.
Yup. No crisis at all.

Monday, 5 May 2008

The shoe-horn cracked.

Nick Davies' excellent deconstruction of what must be one of the worst reported stories this year - the Haut de Garenne investigation - is a great Bank Holiday read. (Oh, how sad is that?). Until this:

"Like so many false and distorted stories, this one was driven by PR, here from the police. That PR material was used by media outlets without sufficient checks and then recycled secondhand by masses of others, all of them falling foul of the commercialised media's in-built preference for certainty over doubt; for fitting facts into fictional templates; for taking the safe road of running the same angle as the rest of the media; and, most of all, for running stories which sell."

You really could hear the shoe-horn crack. Somewhere deep, deep in the background of the Haut de Garenne insanities may perhaps be aspects of the far from unarguable journalistic universe that Nick articulates in Flat Earth News. But even if they are, they're well hidden by the figures in the foreground - the 'reporters' locked into a ritualised reverence for 'the story'.

By Nick's own account, the information shared with journalists was a million miles from PR - and it's worth trying to imagine the alternative for a moment. What if deputy chief officer of police, Lenny Harper had revealed nothing of the inquiry in press notices and conferences?

Inevitably, details would have leaked and the headlines would have been similar, the coverage similarly mendacious and chaotic ... with the added implied verification "it must be true because they didn't want us to know it."

Coverage like that of Haut de Garenne is much more the result of the internal rites and rituals of reporters obsessed with the outdated idea of 'the story' - and their preparedness to bend or omit any set of facts to make 'the story' - than it is newsrooms' surrender to commerical pressure or slave-labour news production quotas.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Bloody internet

Seems I'm the only person I know who isn't publishing a book right now. That's OK - I can live with it. What I am doing, though, is trying to get my head around an idea I sold to BBC R4's Analysis: and, yes, it did seem like a good idea at the time etc. The programme Editor and producer, Hugh and Ingrid, have that irritating tendency proper to clever people of insisting that people like me who aren't very clever get a grip of their facts and what it is they want to say before opening their mouths.
The idea is, on the face of it, a straightforward one: 'Can the British press survive its crisis by taking lessons from the American public journalism movement?' And yes, if I'd had the courage of my convictions, I'd have opened it up as a web conversation and taken it from there.
But I'd written a short(ish) pamphlet on public journalism for my BBC bosses back in 2005 ... so at the time I floated the idea, it didn't seem too big an ask.
Which is where the 'bloody internet' comes in. The great thing about the internet is the serendipity of the research you do there, arriving in places you could never had predicted when you clicked on that first link: I remember Theodore Zeldin telling a symposium at the World Economic Forum in Davos back in 2004 that the ideal internet search engine would be one that delivered random results, his way through the information fog.
The bloody thing about the internet is what happens when it crashes into traditional research for a traditional, linear piece of work. A piece of work with a deadline.
First, the depression when you find that every 'original' thought you think you've had has already been had: second, your subject's refusal to be constrained by any single, or even complex, line of thought: and by extension, third, the distance you travel from those post-its you sprayed around your computer screen with the chapter or section titles on them.
'Course, Dr Zeldin is right - it's much more fun this way and you do end up with both the conscious and unconscious bits of your brain better employed. But it doesn't make it any easier to arrive at five thousand particular words which, when joined end to end, work both grammatically and intellectually.
Take this: I thought I'd got the bit worked out about the 'BIG CHOICE' for the press - whether it re-establishes itself as a meaningful agent in the public sphere or finally abandons its threadbare 'public interest' loincloth and just gets on with flogging eyeballs to advertisers.
Then Googlereader gives me a link to this post on Steve Boriss' 'Future of News' - reviewing James Bowman's new book. Steve summarises James Bowman's arguments like this:
"... a key motivator for consumer newspaper purchases is the vanity of knowing more than others do. Since we tend to assume that the privileged rich, powerful and famous have access to knowledge the rest of us don’t, much of modern journalism has devolved into the questionable and narrow practice of digging out the “hidden truths” allegedly known only to elites."
Now, the problem with this is that it gives a second chance to a line of thinking I'd abandoned on space grounds: linear means you can't get everything in and have to decide priorities ... thank heavens 'the story' is dead. The post-it had already been crunched into the recycling.
When I was Editor of The World at One, in 1997, I commissioned some research to try to find out how the audience actually used what we broadcast. What it told us was that a huge chunk of our 3 million or so listeners used what they learned in conversations with others - in the pub, at the golf club or even in the 'bus queue: in the words of the academics, we were both a location and agents in the public discourse.
Of that huge chunk, a significant slice liked to feel - and here's the link - that what they heard on WATO enabled them to feel they knew more than others. Now, I wouldn't call that vanity ... though clearly the motivation has some sense of social hierarchy hidden in it.
But here's the thing: I had never linked that motivation - to know more than others within the context of their engagement with the public sphere - with the second half of Steve Boriss' summary: that it leads to the "questionable and narrow practice of digging out the “hidden truths” allegedly known only to elites" aka "punk journalism".
So what to do? Now that I know this is an argument out there ... do I have to include it? Do I have to un-crunch the post-it? I'm not sure that the link between the two propositions is a necessary one, by the way.
Or do I stick to the nice straight line my surviving post-its make across my desk and pretend either I never came across this or - haughtily - imply I've considered and rejected it?
Like I say, bloody internet.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The 'story' is dead

I don't think I meant to do this ... but you know how it is.
Two talks this month: the first to the University of North Texas (via a 128bit ISDN videophone - how retro is that?), the second to a group of early to mid career BBC journalists at a thing called the SON&R Centre in Bristol, a learning enterprise dedicated to sharing best practice.
At both, we were talking about multimedia news ... and both came soon after the launch of the new BBC News website and soon before the launch of the new BBC multimedia newsroom (I wrote about that here in the UKPG).
Maybe it was all the fault of that piece in which I wrote:
"... the idea of “the story” becomes meaningless ... “the story” is defined by an output deadline: “What can we find out and illustrate in the time we’ve got left?” There never was anything special about that particular iteration of those facts and that illustration, though we became very good at creating the illusion that there was.
And with “the story” goes the idea of an account being “complete enough” to put to air (why stop there?), of the fine balance of voices (there’ll always be another nuance, another voice) and the 24-hour-news cycle (whose 24 hours?)."
Anyhow, the idea that 'the story' is dead seemed to have wormed its way in there ... mostly because the concentration of thinking around UGC/citizen media, mobility and personalisation didn't seem to me to be getting at the essence of the transformation we linear journalists need to make to get to multimedia-/multiplatform-land.
Partly too, though, because this piece on Paul Bradshaw's blog back in September 2007 had taken root, followed up by Ed Roussel's talk at DNA 2008 - both, all, seemed to be pointing in the same direction. And so did the ideas underpinning the new, sleek, clean BBC News website.
The death of 'the story' - or at least we journalists' construct of 'the story'.
Which was how and why I came to two talks about 'Storyfinding and Storytelling' with the same opening line. 'The story is dead. Get over it.'
Since then, this in the New York Times echoing this from Loic Le Meur both articulate a truth we're all starting to see in action. News finds people - sometimes from Big Journalism, sometimes not (if you're under 25, usually not). And when it finds them - whether through BJ's alerts like Paul Bradshaw and Ed Roussel describe or by that weird wired osmosis that finds our teenage children without them apparently turning anything on - they don't quite respond to the carefully polished 'stories' we linearites cherish so much.
So far so obvious. But think about it for a mo. If you're one of those formerly known as the audience it's no big deal. But what does it mean for the stuff we journalists produce?
Thing about 'the story' is that it was the glorious evasion that enabled journalism. No-one can ever know 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' still less convey it to anyone else. But 'the story' absolved us journalists of the need even to try. 'The story' never was anything more than one subset of facts that we could bind into a coherent narrative to get us around the information asymmetry. 'I just tell stories.'
'Stories' are great for excusing irrational agendas and teamed with deadlines they create the need for false balance while creating the illusion of completeness. And 'storytelling' is wonderfully teachable, what with four w's and inverted pyramids and all that.
'Stories' have been good to journalism - all the greater truths (Watergate,Thalidomide, the Iraq deception) have been accessed, initially at least, by 'stories'. But they've done it a lot of damage too - mostly springing from the assumption that if the storytelling is good, you can get the attention of an audience not intrinsically interested. Fine - but for every Seymour Hersh story that gets through the mesh of indifference many thousand sensational half-truths swim through too.
But here's the thing: journalists have always been far more entranced by 'the story' than audiences. Less than a quarter of newspaper readers claim to read to the end of a story, even one they're interested in ... and of those, over two thirds don't read every word.
And a pattern's emerging on the web that audiences are tending to use a 'story' as a prompt to find their own background and context and history and consequences and discussion. They'll all pot out at different stages in 'the story' ... but pot out they will, rendering redundant the careful polish we journalists have put on our storytelling. But think about it. Why should they suffer our choice of background and context?
I used a phrase that caught some of this which my audiences seemed to like: 'navigable narration.' I don't think it does the whole job ... but it does start to get across the problem we have.
At one level - we journalists can't escape the story as the unit of currency if for no other reason than one thing follows another and the conscious bit of the brain works in a linear fashion. At the same time, it's also got to be our job - surely - to understand our audience's need to navigate around our narratives and, crucially, to navigate back to our narratives when they themselves become the context, history and background for the next story.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Alastair's denial

I was struck by a couple of passages in Alastair Campbell's Hugh Cudlipp Lecture and subsequent comments blogged by Charlie Beckett of POLIS.
First this: that, apparently, one of the reasons Alastair left No10 was:
"relations between media and politics had become so bad, I had become something of a symbol within that, and part of me thought maybe things would improve."
An act of selfless self-sacrifice, then, on behalf of the greater good ... though, he asserts, a sacrifice made in vain.
"I am not sure things have improved at all.”
May as well have stayed on, then ... though the diaries (and cheques) etc would have had to wait.

Alastair's list of what didn't improve at his going is long and familiar: quantity of journalism up, standards down ... and there's much with which most would agree. The media - the press in particular - should
"understand (that) its responsibilities in a modern democracy go beyond making money and filling space"
for example. Amen to that.

But while Alastair seems on one level to recognise that his controlling urges changed both politics and political journalism, he seems on another to be in denial about the scale and corrosive effect of that urge for control ... and what needs to be done to make good that corrosion.

The truth is that some very important things did change the moment Alastair left No10. It became possible, for example, to have rational, calm conversations both with Downing Street and other Government departments. My dealings - I was then Editor of Today - with Government and Ministers was no longer a perpetual combat, a zero-sum game in which reason was a sign of weakness and the resolution of every negotiation or complaint had to have a winner and a loser.

Second, this: I sometimes wonder whether Alastair's obsession with the quantity of news (“In an era of more pages, more space, more access, more talk, there is less said and done that is truly memorable”) is any more than the realisation that he could never really control the supply of news ... that no-one could. That news and journalism is cantankerous and messy. And I wonder whether what he calls "the media's obsession with itself" isn't just a cry of frustration at those pesky journalists he felt he should have controlled but who insisted in going off-grid - like Nick Clarke's The World at One, which always took as its starting point stories and angles that weren't on the Downing Street spreadsheet.

But Charlie Beckett is right - the question to both journalists and politicians is ... what are you going to do about it? Things may have improved since Alastair left Downing Street ... but not by enough to make repair all the damage done while he was there.

There are plenty of shortcoming in the British press; the obsession with failure or with doing down public figures ... rather in the way Alastair describes the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition as:
"a PR man by trade whose single most important achievement prior to becoming leader was making a speech without notes"
and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as:
"a good looking 40 year old about whom next to nothing is known"
But then, old habits die hard. Which is the point Alastair has never seemed able to grasp - that if you want a higher level of serious political debate then some old habits need to go ... on both the political and the journalistic side. And that those habits will never go while the default nature of politics and political journalism is blood sport and neither politician nor journalist really, really wants that to change.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

A UK first?

Roy Greenslade asks the question:
"Is Guido Fawkes responsible for Britain's first genuine
blogging scalp with Peter Hain's ministerial resignation?"

And points out that Guido Fawkes/Paul Staines
makes a passing mention of his possible involvement in the tonsuring while asking:

"Is this the first example of a blogger supplanting Fleet Street?
A good question given the realities of politics and journalism ... but one that for some reason hacks me off.

And not just because I've been reminding myself of the glory days of Ian MacIntyre and John Birt in
David Hendy's excellent history of Radio 4. I was a rebel, honest.

Of course, bloggers have been supplanting Fleet Street (columnists) for a couple of years now -
sorry Simon - you really don't get the best venom on paper any more nor do you have to pay for it.

Question is, have bloggers usurped Fleet Street's right to fuel palace coups or court culls - aka make the kitchen so hot the only sensible way is out? Answer is, no. Fawkes/Staines may have known (roughly) where the petrol cans were ... but it was only when the mainstream started waving them over their heads that it got dangerous for Mr Hain.

Test is this: who'd have cared if Fawkes/Staines was wrong? Or ... alongside the Hain 'scalp' how many missed crania are there? Possibleymore than one and perhaps up to many.

But back to the coups/culls. I really do understand the thrill of it - I've had my share and there's something undoubtedly satisfying about tucking the bloodied follicles under your belt. It's exciting, fulfilling, endorsing, validating. I really do understand it.


It can't be right, can it? Being a watchdog is one thing - waking voters up to those things the elected have done in their name. Reminding the people that they own the power, not those they lend it to.

But ... do watchdogs scalp those they watch? Isn't that up to voters? Is this kind of pressure exerted by a handful of journos on a single individual, an uncertain and increasingly insecure Prime Minister, really what democracy is about? Or what voters want it to be about?

Actually, the thing that really hacks me off is that it never seems to me that many political journalists - and now bloggers - see this side of their trade as anything more than or other than a game.

They use the language of democratic accountability to describe something that looks to those on the outside (ie voters, citizens - sorry, subjects - people, you, me) like a round of British bulldog in which they're not asked to play.

I said something like this
here back in April:
"From what I see of the successful political blogs - let's take Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes for instance - they replicate the inward looking, metropolitan chumminess of the Westminster village that many in the audience find repellent in both politics and political journalism."

Fawkes/Staines pinged back:
"it is only a blog, and it is intended to entertain not save the world."
Or change it. But that was then. This is now.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Future(ish) News(ish)

Recently, my good friend and Head of BBC Newsroom Peter Horrocks spoke to Leeds University and posted these comments to the BBC Editors' blog on user generated content.
The speech and blog are an early glimpse of the direction he intends for the newly merged 'News' department of the world's most important broadcaster and it’s a pretty clear statement of the relationship he sees between traditional, 'big' journalism and the participating audience ... as both journalism and information sharing on the web evolve.
He has the responsibility for that News - I have the luxury of being able to comment with no responsibilities, now, of a similar order. Peter was clear that he wanted a debate on his thoughts ... so I helped with these thoughts from the yellowing ivory tower and posted them this week on the internal BBC College of Journalism website.
One thing no-one could argue with; the nature and scale of the challenges to the BBC from new(ish) journalism are unique. The risks to it dwarf those confronting any other news organisation. It would be wrong to underestimate that. In this as in most things, the BBC is different.
For that reason if no other, a careful and cautious approach is probably essential; but, some would argue, Peter's journocentric approach might not be so essential. It’s worth discussing - his vision of journalism yields very little of the trade’s role as the principal agent in the information business. Interacting with audiences isn’t much more than a help and assistance in that.
Not everyone would agree.
Take this. Peter describes how the BBC considered closing down the online debate following Benazir Bhutto’s death, ostensibly because that debate, in conventional journalistic terms, went off message - discussing Islam (rarely in flattering terms) rather than the political future of Pakistan (though there are perfectly respectable arguments here, here and here, to pick a few at random) to be had about the nature of Islam and its effects on Pakistan’s social and political development.
In the end, he/they didn’t close the debate down … not because it was felt that the debate was in and of itself worthwhile but with two ex post facto, journocentric justifications.
One, this.
“Buried amongst the comments … were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eye witness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi. Our team that deals with user content sifted through the chaff to find some excellent wheat.”
The other, this:
“In one sense it is very useful to understand the strength of feeling on this issue (the nature of Islam) amongst our audiences.”
In other words, the value of hosting the debate (and remember, it’s the comment and debate side of audience participation not its role as occasional, accidental reporter) lies in the “wheat” we journalists can sift from the chaff (a wheat/chaff distinction determined by us journalists) and in the steer it gives us journalists about what audiences are thinking, though a steer we journalists interpret and are at liberty to ignore.
“We cannot just take the views that we receive via e-mails and texts and let them drive our agenda. Nor should they in any way give us a slant around which we should orient our take on a story. At their best they are an invaluable information resource and an important corrective to group-think.”
True. But who’s saying that it should?
Put the other way around, is it right still to place traditional journalism (with all its failings) at the heart of the “public participation journalism” model? It’s understandable that we journalists want to - but is it really just “messianic and starry eyed” to consider the possibility it doesn’t have to be that way? Or even that it shouldn’t be that way.
Peter gives a straw man a good shake with this rhetorical interrogative:
“Should we (in the case of the BBC’s Bhutto coverage) have given over a significant part of our website and our analysis programmes on Radio 4 to consideration of whether Islam is a religion that is inherently skewed towards violence? Or were we right to concentrate our journalism on reporting and analysing the life on Benazir, how she came to die and the political consequences?”
Some will see this as a journocentric elision that assumes the web and what happens there and on Radio 4 (or in any other traditional context) are both parts of a single editorial continuum … with traditional journalism at the ‘good’ end and peer-to-peer web action at the other.
But are they all on the same continuum, the ‘low’ end validated by the ‘high’? Or if they are in journalists' minds, do they have to be?
Only if you assume that the web is no more than a source (of stories and audience insights) for traditional journalism does the argument hold. It may just be that (some of) what’s done on the web – in particular peer-to-peer information sharing and debate - really is a different species from traditional journalism … and that it should be. And that by the same token, what happens there – even on a BBC site – should have no inevitable consequence for the choices made in traditional journalism contexts.
So why not either let the web crowd do what it does or – if traditional journalism must intervene - inject into that web debate (in this case, over Islam) content touching on the question the audience is itself discussing? Why does that have any necessary consequence for the choices Panorama, Newsnight or News 24 makes?
Here’s one of Peter’s answers why not – but some will wonder whether it really flies.
“The general conversation on the web is freely available to all. The BBC does not have to host that.”
Rework that with the word “News …” instead of “The general conversation …” and see where it goes.
And for the BBC to host a web conversation, here’s the essential criterion ...
“We will want the information generated to be editorially valuable ... we need to be able to extract real editorial value from such contributions more easily … (we must get) real journalistic value out of this material.”
Hmm. Is there really no intrinsic worth in civic debate - whether on the web or in a village hall? Is that debate and conversation only to be judged by the editorial content it supplies to traditional journalism? Is there truly no public purpose and civic value in hosting that conversation?
It’s a question of choice. The argument that moderating web debates is costly and time consuming and brings editorial risk is true of all BBC journalism. Cost and risk alone and in themselves can’t invalidate any journalistic activity – they’re parameters to help a broadcaster work out priorities.
There’s no doubt that audience participation on the web does and should support traditional journalism done by traditional journalists. Anything and everything is a source. There’s no doubt, too, that peer-to-peer debate and information sharing offers big journalism important audience insights – including an aid to calibrating what impartiality seems to mean to audiences on any story.
But is that what it’s for?
Few will argue with Peter's stress on the idea of “radical impartiality” and the pointers the web conversation gives traditional journalism to achieve it – though I think “radical impartiality” was something both Peter and I were already pursuing in the pre-web age … he at Newsnight, me at World at One ... both ever looking out for the “thoughtful or surprising views and opinions” in any source.
But some eyebrows might be raised at the characterisation of web debate as, occasionally, “digital bullying”. And at the assertion that it’s:
“actually about getting the so-called mainstream media to adopt specific policy agendas, or lean in certain directions.”
It may once have been true that contributing to online debates was a minority activity and that, therefore, marginal views became amplified. But even if that’s a valid metric – and most would argue that on the web, it isn’t – it’s becoming less and less true. A piece of academic research due to be published later this year suggests that 42% of audiences now participate in online interactivity.
But even if the web debate does shift the centre of gravity on an issue? So what? Off-line conversation as well as speeches, books, magazines, newspapers … even press releases and spin meisters … have always done that. Have journalists feared “hot-air” or “paper” bullying?
So, the question is worth asking in the light of Peter’s clear statement of purpose for the BBC in journalism’s latest burst of evolution.
Is audience interactivity on the web – or more precisely, interactivity on BBC websites – only validated by its usefulness to traditional journalism? Or, conversely, does the BBC (and some other parts of big journalism) need to shift from an understandably journocentric view of audience participation and consider the fact of the online civic debate as a public good in itself?

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...