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August 17 2012

14:00

6 Questions for Arion McNicoll of The Journalism Foundation

It has been a difficult time for the British press, caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that has meant the death of the News of the World paper, along with arrests of News Corp. personnel, suspensions at Scotland Yard, and never-ending investigations. But from those ashes has risen one idealistic effort to promote free press issues around the world: The Journalism Foundation.

Unlike in the U.S. with our non-profit funders such as the Knight Foundation, the U.K. and Europe have been looking for a white knight that could help support struggling legacy media in their transition to digital. The Journalism Foundation was started last October by former editor of the Independent, Simon Felner, with money from the Independent's owners, the Lebedev family.

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The Foundation's first two projects include a training program for journalists in Tunisia (in conjunction with the City University of London's journalism school) and financial support for a hyper-local site in Stoke-on-Trent called pitsnpots. But the Foundation has also hired its own editorial staff, who are posting stories online relating to digital media, freedom of speech, and the Leveson Inquiry. The site recently ran a first-person account from the Independent's Guy Adams about Twitter suspending (and then un-suspending) his account.

I recently struck a content-sharing deal with The Journalism Foundation, so that they could run our various stories from MediaShift on free speech issues, while we could run their stories that touch on the digital and global angle of freedom of expression. The hope is to spread our content and ideas across the pond in both directions.

I asked the site's editor, Arion McNicoll, six questions via email to learn more about the Foundation and how it plans to spend its grants. McNicoll comes to the Foundation after being the assistant editor of The Sunday Times online, helping the Times build its iPad app. The following is an edited version of our exchange. (McNicoll also posted his interview with me here.)

Q&A

1. How did you get involved in The Journalism Foundation, and what are its goals?


Arion McNicoll: I joined The Journalism Foundation just prior to its launch in October last year. At the time, British press was under intense scrutiny in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal -- a public event that shocked the nation and led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper. Senior figures at Rupert Murdoch's newspaper publishing company, News International, were summoned to explain themselves to the government; the Leveson Inquiry was initiated to look into press standards and regulation not only within Murdoch press, but across the entire U.K. media landscape.

Against this backdrop, and at a time when the media seemed to be running out of friends, The Journalism Foundation was established to promote free and fair journalism around the world. We try to do this in two ways: by running media-based projects that have a positive impact, and by promoting intelligent debate around the big questions in journalism today on our website. My role as editor is to nurture that debate.


Arion McNicoll.jpg

2. Who has more awareness of press freedom issues, people in the U.S. or U.K., and why?


McNicoll: Whether the average American is aware of it day-to-day or not, freedom of the press is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment upholds a raft of important freedoms -- of press, religion and expression -- which simply do not have an equivalent in the U.K. That said, media in the U.K. is deep and varied, with numerous newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, and I think the U.K. public is rightly proud of this plurality. The high rate of literacy is mirrored by a history of high newspaper consumption.

The national broadcaster, the BBC, is a much-loved public institution, in which many people feel they have a stake. When the BBC spends money frivolously or in the wrong place, the public actively complains. Many regard the BBC's service in a similar way to how they think about the free medical care -- as a right and an integral part of what it means to be British.


3. Explain the grant process for people who'd like to get a grant from The Journalism Foundation.



McNicoll: The Journalism Foundation looks to support a broad range of projects. From community-based enterprises to broad initiatives, our grant scheme is intended to support people or organizations with specific projects that further the cause of journalistic freedom. Once an application is lodged (go here), staff from the Foundation will review it and get in contact for more information if the project seems promising. If we can offer support (either practical or financial) we then work out how best to make that happen.

We don't have an upper limit on what we can grant (notionally) but in truth our projects have tended to be to the tune of about £10,000 to £20,000 so far. Our initial funding comes from the Lebedev family who own the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers here in the U.K. This is one of their benevolent programs. We also do our own fundraising though, and all the money we raise from donations goes straight to projects.

4. Do you believe new online media outlets can help cover news lost at legacy organizations as they cut back? How?

McNicoll: I think media is currently in a transitional state. News organizations were quick to get their content online in the early days of the Internet, hoping that they could convert vast numbers of readers into advertising gold. Gradually it became apparent that simply having a lot of readers was no guarantor of financial success. Consequently, many news organizations have begun putting up pay walls and returning to subscription-based revenue models.

In the meantime, a raft of new media news organizations have sprung up offering alternatives to the traditional providers. Initially, the point of difference was journalistic veracity (i.e., people felt old media could be trusted, whereas new media was more suspect), but even that has eroded over time. Various sites such as Huffington Post and TMZ have put considerable effort into ensuring that their news is not just fast, but also accurate. Can such outlets fill the gap left by the decline in newspaper sales? Certainly, but the transition is not necessarily going to be swift or smooth. Plus, the future of news is unlikely simply to be digital newspapers, but something that fuses the best bits of print, TV, radio and social networking.


5. In the realm of press and Internet freedom, which organizations (including for-profit media and NGOs) do you respect in Europe and why?



McNicoll: Reporters Without Borders does a fantastic and admirable job, fighting for the rights of journalists who work in places where simply doing their job can cost them their lives. The Chartered Institute of Journalists does good work here in the U.K., and has been doing it for longer than almost anyone else in the world, founded, as it was, in 1884. The Centre for Investigative Journalism champions the kind of critical, in-depth reporting that makes the rich and powerful nervous.

At a more community level, Talk About Local is an excellent organization that trains people in starting up their own digital publications. And there are countless blogs and citizen journalism projects around the country which are doing their small bit for the spread of free information, many with deeply journalistic sensibilities.


6. How important is collaboration now in journalism, among non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers/community members?

McNicoll: Very important. In recent years the traditional division between people who are journalists and people who are not journalists has been almost completely eroded. Now anyone with a mobile phone can report on the news. While people remain rightly suspicious of the more sinister aspects of journalism, overwhelmingly I think there is still a great deal of public support for the free spread of information -- support which people are expressing through engaging actively with the process of news gathering and commentary. Just last month the United Nations unanimously backed a resolution that Internet access and online freedom of expression should be considered a human right.

While the spread of journalistic practice is an important development, I think the next stage is working out a fair way to recompense those people who work in the more costly or dangerous sides of news reporting: writers and photographers who report from the front line, investigative journalists who spend months on end trying to uncover a hidden truth. But I think there is broad understanding that some kinds of journalism cost money and people are prepared to pay for it.

The interaction between non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers underpins the evolution of journalism, and that evolution is essential to the continuing spread of information.

*****

What do you think of The Journalism Foundation and its work? Can it succeed in spreading freedom of expression ideas around the world and in the U.K.? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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April 27 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert takes the stand, and the Post’s pressure on young aggregators

Fresh accusations and denials for News Corp.: After several months of investigation, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified this week before the British government’s Leveson inquiry into their company’s phone hacking and bribery scandal. Rupert made headlines by apologizing for his lack of action to stop the scandal and by admitting there was a cover-up — though he said he was the victim of his underlings’ cover-up, not a perpetrator himself (a charge one of those underlings strenuously objected to).

Murdoch also said he “panicked” by closing his News of the World newspaper last year, but said he should have done so years earlier. He spent the first day of his testimony defending himself against charges of lobbying public officials for favors, saying former Prime Minister Gordon Brown “declared war” on News Corp., which Brown denied. James Murdoch also testified to a lack of knowledge of the scandal and cozy relationships with officials.

Attention in that area quickly shifted this week to British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, with emails released to show that he worked to help News Corp. pick up support last year for its bid to takeover the broadcaster BSkyB — the same bid he was charged with overseeing. Hunt called the accusation “laughable” and refused calls to resign, though one of his aides did resign, saying his contact with News Corp. “went too far.”

The commentary on Murdoch’s appearance was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple mocked the fine line Murdoch apparently walked in his currying favor from public officials, and the Guardian’s Nick Davies said Murdoch looks vulnerable: “The man who has made millions out of paying people to ask difficult questions, finally faced questioners he could not cope with.” He antagonized quite a few powerful people in his testimony, Davies said, and the Leveson inquiry ultimately holds the cards here.

But Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said Rupert doesn’t use his newspapers to gain officials’ favor in the way he’s accused of doing, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that there’s nothing really wrong with lobbying regulators to approve your proposals anyway. “Don’t damn Murdoch for learning the rules of the regulatory game and then playing them as aggressively as he can,” he wrote.

Plagiarism and aggregation at the Post: A Washington Post blogger named Elizabeth Flock resigned last week after being caught plagiarizing, but the story went under the radar until the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote a column charging the Post with failing to properly guide its youngest journalists. Pexton said he talked with other young Post aggregators who “felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing.”

Poynter’s Craig Silverman wrote a strong follow-up to the column, talking to several people from the Post and emphasizing the gravity of Flock’s transgression, but also throwing cold water on the “journalism’s standards are gone, thanks to aggregation” narrative. Reuters’ Jack Shafer thought Pexton went too easy on Flock’s plagiarism, but others thought it was the Post he wasn’t hard enough on. The Awl’s Trevor Butterworth said Flock’s mistake within the Post’s aggregation empire shed light on the “inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.”

BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza made the same point, criticizing the Post for trying to dress up its aggregation as original reporting. The Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier used the example as a warning that even the most haphazard, thoughtless aggregated pieces have a certain online permanence under our bylines.

Technology, connection, and loneliness: A week after an Atlantic cover story asked whether Facebook was making us lonely (its answer: yes), MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle echoed the same point last weekend in a New York Times opinion piece. Through social and mobile media, Turkle argued, we’re trading conversation for mere connection, sacrificing self-reflection and the true experience of relating with others in the process.

Numerous people disputed her points, on a variety of different fronts. Cyborgology’s David Banks charged Turkle with “digital dualism,” asserting that “There is no ‘second self’ on my Facebook profile — it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood.” At The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel said Turkle is guilty of a different kind of dualism — an us/them dichotomy between (generally younger) social media users and the rest of us. Turkle, she wrote, “assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.”

Like Banks, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pointed out the close connection between online and offline relationships, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci argued at The Atlantic that if we are indeed seeing a loss in substantive interpersonal connection, it has more to do with our flight to the suburbs than social media. Claude Fischer of Boston Review disputed the idea that loneliness is on the rise in the first place, and in a series of thoughtful tweets, Wired’s Tim Carmody said the road to real relationship is in our own work, not in our embrace or denial of technologies.

New media lessons from academics and news orgs: The University of Texas hosted its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, one of the few of the scores of journalism conferences that brings together both working journalists and academics. As usual, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida live-blogged the heck out of the conference, and you can see his summaries of each of his 14 posts here.

Several people distilled the conference’s many presentations into a few themes: The Lab’s staff identified a few, including the need to balance beauty and usefulness in data journalism and the increasing centrality of mobile in news orgs’ strategies. At the Nonprofit Journalism Hub, conference organizer Amy Schmitz Weiss organized the themes into takeaways for news orgs, and Wisconsin j-prof Sue Robinson published some useful notes, organized by subject area.

A couple of specific items from the conference: The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote on a University of Texas study that found that the people most likely to pay for news are young men who are highly interested in news, though it also found that our stated desires in news consumption don’t necessarily match up with our actual habits. And Dan Gillmor touted the news-sharing potential of one of the conference’s presenters, LinkedIn, saying it’s the first site to connect news sharing with our professional contacts, rather than our personal ones.

[Editor's note: Mark's too modest to mention the paper he coauthored and presented at ISOJ.]

Reading roundup: Several interesting debates lurked just a bit under the radar this week. Here’s a quick lay of the land:

— Reuters’ Felix Salmon wondered why the New York Times doesn’t sell early access to its big business scoops to hedge funds looking for a market advantage, as Reuters and Bloomberg do. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that the public value of those is too great to do that, and Salmon responded to his and others’ objections. The conversation also included a lively Twitter exchange, which Ingram and the Lab’s Joshua Benton Storified.

— The Chicago Tribune announced its decision to outsource its TribLocal network of community news sites to the Chicago company Journatic, laying off about 20 employees in the process. The Chicago Reader and Jim Romenesko gave some more information about Journatic (yes, the term “content farm” comes up, though its CEO rejected the term). Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich called it a good deal for the Tribune.

— In a feature at Wired, Steven Levy looked at automatically written stories, something The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield said she didn’t find scary for journalism’s future prospects, since those stories aren’t really journalism. Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite also said journalists shouldn’t be afraid of something that frees them up to do their jobs better, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tied together the Journatic deal and the robot journalism stories to come up with something a bit less optimistic.

— This week on the ebook front: A good primer on the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit of Apple and publishers for price-fixing, which The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz said is a completely normal and OK practice. Elsewhere, some publishers are dropping digital rights management, and a publishing exec talked to paidContent about why they broke DRM.

— Gawker revealed its new commenting system this week — the Lab’s Andrew Phelps gave the background, Gawker’s Nick Denton argued in favor of anonymity, Dave Winer wanted to see the ability for anyone to write an article on it, and GigaOM talked with Denton about the state of tech.

— Google shut down its paid-content system for publishers, One Pass, saying it’s moved on to its Consumer Surveys.

— Finally, a few long reads for the weekend: David Lowery on artist rights and the new business model for creative work, Ethan Zuckerman on the ethics of tweet bombing, danah boyd on social media and fear, and Steve Buttry and Dan Conover on restoring newsroom morale.

Rupert Murdoch artwork by Surian Soosay and texting photo by Ed Brownson used under a Creative Commons license.

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