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July 23 2010

10:53

#cnnfrontline Mobile and journalism: Part one- some clarification

Big cameras at the Frontline

Big cameras at the Frontline

Last night I found myself at the infamous (and very pleasant) Frontline club to sit on a panel talking about Mobile technology in newsgathering and journalism (Disclosure: It was an invite from CNN and Edleman who bought me tea and put me up in a hotel, which was very nice of them).
The event was a chance for CNNi to launch their new iphone app and, if the chat on twitter was anything to go by, the audience to be a bit frustrated.
One commentator noted the white, male flavour of the panel. I agree and I’ll not go next time. But for many the problem was we didn’t really get round to what a lot of people wanted to know – what are the business models for mobile?
@thevideoreport report tweeted that it was all “a bit 2002” and @adamwestbrook noted that, lovely though the panel was, nothing new was learned.
I understand the frustration. The conversation ranged round some of the usual subjects – citizen journalism vs. journalism, big cameras vs. little cameras (a subject I’ve blogged in repeatedly) – and it seemed only vaguely touched on mobile itself.
I suppose I should apologise for that, I was on the panel when all is said and done. But I just wanted to clarify some points and maybe develop the conversation a little more in to the areas people felt we missed. As I was drafting this post it started to get a little long so I’m going to do it in a couple of parts.  So,to start, some clarification.
One point I wanted to pick up was the brief kick around of the ‘attitude’ of students to news and opinion. I was quoted as saying that “journalism students come in thinking everything they think is news” It’s not quite what I said but the point is worth amplifying.
Students do come in with very strong opinions and ideas. Opinions about what journalism is, what they will be as journalists, right and wrong etc. As they should and, as I always say, that’s brilliant – not that they need my permission or approval. I love opinionated people and I love the passion that brings. But the reality is that for most jobbing journalists expressing their opinion is a luxury. It isn’t what journalism is about. It’s my job to help them understand that framework perhaps to frame expectations. But it doesn’t mean I don’t thing they should have opinions or that they are wrong (or that journalism is wrong or right for that matter). It’s just there is a time, place and form.
What takes time is building a professional identity that separates that opinion and journalism in a visible and transparent way. I suppose the web blurs that slightly as we still labour under the distinctions of journalists and bloggers for example. But the truth is journalism works a certain way and if you want to be ‘in journalism’ its worth learning how to bend to that when required.
The issue of citizen journalists also came up. I said that I kind of liked the term because it described what the person was and what they did. They were a citizen, concerned and motivated by what was happening around them and they wanted to tell the world about that. The discussion prompted a question from the floor asking why, if it was so good,  it hadn’t taken over from traditional news sources?
For me that isn’t it’s job. It’s there to amplyfy the concerens and interests of a collection of people; hyperlocal, niche, whatever. In that sense it doesn’t aim to replace the mainstream media, just live in the gaps. And, I might add, there is a nice opportunity for a business model there. Not, as I have said before, for the big guys. But big enough to support the  community it amplifies.
That’s a challenge for mainstream media. Not the threat itself but the fact that it’s happening because of them as they seemingly ignore or having only a passing interest in those communities.
I’m going to stop there because I’ve blogged on all of these areas at length before.

March 15 2010

10:38

No such thing as free money to save the local press

As I was leafing through the Guardian on Saturday morning I came across an article with the rather alarming headline

Google news tax could boost local papers, report says

Google and other websites that carry news they do not produce should be taxed and the money generated used to prop up local newspapers, says a report which warns control of the media is concentrated in too few hands.

I tweeted it and got a number of interesting replies:

The report comes from the Carnegie trust UK’s commission on Making Good Society. It does indeed set out a suggestion for Industry levies citing Institute for Public Policy Research research that a 1% levy on pay TV providers of 1% “bring in around £70m a year”

A similar fee imposed on the country’s five mobile operators could generate £208m a year. Making Google meet its full tax liability in Britain would boost the pot by a further £100m.‘ The same IPPR report argues that ‘such sums could save many local newspapers and web sites from closing down, could stop the destruction of local and regional news on ITV and could help new media start-ups to plug these gaping holes in public service provision – all without the taxpayer having to stump up any more cash and without having to raid the licence fee.’

But the report also makes it clear that the money would come with something of price

Levies on the use of aggregated material have the potential to generate significant revenue to support the production of new public service and local content, involving civil society associations. If this form of funding were to be explored, changes in regulation would be needed to ensure that revenues go to original news producers and not just to those who present and disseminate material. Original news reporting needs to be supported so that it is financially viable; this could require charging those who are not authorised to use and distribute this material.

Not quite free money from a google tax.

The whole report makes for an interesting read (I mean genuinely interesting not that other academic definition of interesting)

It’s pretty wide ranging but it singles out “democratising media ownership and content as one of it’s four main areas where “a stronger civil society could make the most difference”

A whole chapter (chapter 3) is devoted to trying to understand the pressures and drives on news production and the impact that has. They are clear that technology plays a key part citing radical cultural shifts associated with pervasive technology and the rise of ‘digital natives;’ as an uncertain driver of change. But the discussion is a bit more broad ranging:

…[D]espite the proliferation of online platforms, more of the news we receive is recycled ‘churnalism’ and aggregated content. Trends of concentration in media ownership and increased pressure of time and resources have narrowed the sources from which original news derives. Moreover, the centralisation of news production and neglect of local issues has particular repercussions for access to information across the UK and Ireland, especially in the devolved nations.

And it’s clear where the problem is:

…the central issue affecting traditional news providers is not the decline of audiences or interest in news, but the collapse of the existing business model jeopardising the democratic role of journalism. According to the National Union of Journalists: ‘The media industry is essentially profitable but the business model is killing quality journalism.’

Media concentration.
When I first read the Guardian article I bristled at the idea of a google tax of newspapers. Why? Because we would essentially be propping up commercial organsiations who still work at a profit. It would be akin to a bail out. So I found myself drawn to the areas of ownership and centralization in particular. The report is pretty robust here.

The challenge of creating original content and the diminishing number of newspapers is further compounded by the concentration of media ownership in relatively few hands…..with four dominant publishers controlling 70% of the market share across the UK

That concentration of ownership and the influence it exerts is cited as a “key obstacle to transparent policy-making which incorporates a sustainable role for civil society associations” Which comes from the ‘continuing and intimate relationship between key corporate interests and policy-makers; a relationship whose bonds are rarely exposed to the public’

Their suggestion seems to be that the Scott Trust/Guardian model is more likely to serve the development of a pluralist media landscape than a purely commercial one. But it sounds a note of caution

While independent funds directly supporting journalism can come with strings attached and endowments are not immune from economic pressures, philanthropic funding can help preserve journalistic independence and secure guarantees on public service content.

General suggestions.
The big ticket suggestions like tax breaks and levies are balanced by some more specific suggestions that form the main discussion of the chapter.

  • Growing local and community news media.
  • Protecting the free, open and democratic nature of the internet.
  • Strengthening the transparency and accountability of news content production.
  • Enhancing the governance of the media.
  • Protecting the BBC.
  • Redirecting revenue flows to promote diversity and integrity.

Their ideas for strengthening transparency include the suggestion of a Kite mark that shows no dis or mis-information. Good luck with that one.

But back to funding, the last three points are interesting in themselves.

When they talk about enhancing the governance of the media they say that”

“All news organisations in receipt of public funding should actively engage with the public and with civil society associations, through their governing bodies as well as through their daily practice.”

Which could only really mean the BBC right? But in developing the suggestion of redirecting the revenue flow they:

…want to see new funding models explored: for example, tax concessions, industry levies or the direction of proportions of advertising spend into news content creation by civil society associations, or into local multimedia websites.

The price of public money.
My reading of the report was that nothing comes for free. In an earlier chapter the financial sector comes in for a real battering. But though the media orgs are more delicately handled the implicit message is still the same. All the money that could come from tax breaks, funding and other sources comes at a cost. That cost is de-centralisation, openness, stronger regulation and in transparency (a phrase that seems to disappear mid report to be replaced by integrity)

Would be nice but I can’t see it happening.

The full report is available here.

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