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February 28 2011

20:58

Ethics, online and journalism

By yveshanoulle On Flickr

What follows is the text from a lecture on Ethics and online I delivered to third year journalism students a few weeks back.  I’m putting it online for a few reasons. It’s here to be pulled to pieces, it’s nice to be transparent and  it’s also here to force me to write something new next year! The tone is deliberately challenging, I hope, to stimulate debate.

The title of this lecture is virtual ethics in the era of wikileaks. It may be hard to see what the wikileaks saga has to offer us outside of the rarefied atmosphere of political journalism or easy to write it off as an internal debate. But it makes a good example for what I’m more interested in – does the web change the way we behave as journalists?

In thinking a little broader, I have a few key words that relate to journalism and I want to think about how they might relate to the web.

Let’s start where your reader does with a word that goes to the heart of any debate concerning anything starting with wiki(pedia,leaks) is TRUST

Can you trust what you read? Can you trust people to tell you the truth? Can you trust that people are who they say they are? Can you trust where the information comes from?What are their motivations?

Trust is one of those things goes to the very heart of our identity and role as a journalist.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as Journalists, we claim that you can, in fact should, ʻtrust us’. But why? Why trust journalism rather than a free agent like Assange? What can we offer?

Well, one reason you will hear,  is that the information that journalists provide you with has gone through a rigorous ʻprocessʼ. A process that journalists have been trained for: Trust us, we are professionals.

That ʻrigorous processʼ is the mechanical reflection of our commitment to accuracy, balance and fairness – The way we report, the use of sub-editors and editors, are built in to the structures of journalism organisations.

But I would argue that it’s the structure (and longevity) of the industry more than its value that has helped consolidate this as a defining feature. Rather than reflect any consistent, measurable commitment, it has become self-defining. Its also become self-defending.

It seems that any challenge or or attempt to qualify this definition of a journalist is taken as a challenge to the whole industry. So we have journalism defined and defended by journalists.

This is (one of the many areas) where the web throws a spanner in the works.

The web is place where the mechanical processes of finding, reporting and presenting information are available to anyone. You know the score; everyone can be a publisher! Something that was once the preserve of media organisations alone.

That process is no longer unique to journalism.

A key part of that carefully constructed and refined definition of what makes a journalist is unpicked. Which gives rise to a question:

Are those people who publish on the web journalists?

It seems that when we talk about the web and journalism we can’t avoid getting in to the argument of what a journalist is. In my experience it often starts (and ends) by trying to explain why everyone else is not a journalist.

Regardless of the motivations, many this is a pretty tired debate. But I do think it has some resonance with our topic. So let me rephrase it as:

Should those people who publish on the web have the same privileges and protection journalists?

There obviously are protections and benefits to being a journalist. Wikileaks claims it’s a journalistic organisation with all the protection that offers. But the US have declared Assange a ‘political actor’ rather than a journalist. An attempt to circumnavigate those protections?

You only need to read  Vanity Fair on ‘The man who spilled the secrets’ to see that many in the industry are happy to point out why Assange and wikileaks isn’t journalism.

Maybe I need to change that question round and make it more and direct.

What makes you a journalist?

I donʼt think we can argue that it is the process. It canʼt be about how we do it. Even at their most arch (and pompous) it seems that journalists are prepared to accept that even though it’s not journalism “it works under the same rubric” In other words, many ʻnone-journalistsʼ on the web follow exactly the same processes to create content as journalists do. But they aren’t real journalists…

Call them…Citizen journalism; UGC; amateur journalists.

All terms that have been used to define the difference between ʻthem and usʼ. Without, it has to be said, consensus or success. But that last one, amateur, is interesting to me. It suggests that a person may do everything a journalist does but not professionally.

So something other than the process then, sets journalists apart; Makes them professional.

Perhaps it’s a commitment to TRUTH.

Jane Singer identifies a commitment to truth as one of the ʻcentral normative aspects of professional journalismʼ. But, as Singer points out, even the idea of what constitutes truth is dynamic.

If we were to argue that truth is represented at all,the best we could say is it is represented by the individual journalists view of what is true. Not for example, what a government or individual may tell them is true.

A journalist, as Walter Williams said in 1908 in his Journalist’s Creed, is compelled to

“write only what he holds in his heart to be true”.

A bizarre throwback to virtue ethics in a profession where where the regulation suggests journalism is much more about consiquentialism.

In less prosaic terms a journalist:

“Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (NUJ code)

Accurate. That’s truth, right?

But couldn’t it be argued that the ʻamateurʼ also does this?

Anyone can write a blog post and claim that they believe ʻin their heart that it is trueʼ. You can dump thousands of pages of top secret memos on to the web because it’s true. Can’t you?

In striving to tell us the truth anyone could provide us with a huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view.  Just as a journalist might. Right?

Now you could argue that they may also choose not to strive as hard as they could. They could choose to ignore some facts and not apply any balance or fairness. But so could a journalist.

In their defense , we might say, is that the journalist has a level of responsibility for what they produce.

As professionals, not only is it their responsibility to admit if something is wrong but they will have to explain why – they are accountable for their work. This is often presented as a stark contrast to the online world where responsibility and accountability could be seen to be in short supply.

Critics dismiss the pyjama clad,self obsessives, who answer to no one. Their content, the ‘spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night‘! People who publish without a thought to the risk  - An accusation levelled at wikileaks.

But those who embrace online will claim that the network will decide. The responsibility and accountability  lies in the collective. Nothing can be hidden. Everything is explored.

But is that really accountability?

There would seem to be no punitive impact on those who do not tell the truth; who donʼt
act responsibly. Not like journalists…?

By agreeing to codes of conduct (in principle, if not in practice) – the professional ideals -by being accountable, journalists are compelled to be responsible. Aren’t they…?

The structures and hierarchies of media organisations mean that accountability comes with the ultimate sanction – get it wrong, get sacked. Don’t they…?

Taking those codes at face value could lead to an underlying belief that professional journalists only reside in media organisations (and by extension, not online). Not simply because you are paid (the most common reasoning  in the ‘why am I a journalist and your’e not debate) but because, within that organisation, there is a professional and structural oversight that holds individuals accountable. The ‘establishment’ polices itself.

This form of internal-accountability is often underlined and amplified with the claim that journalists have a social responsibility as a profession to serve the public good. The fourth estate argument. It’s a position that is often used to defend a higher status for journalism, justify the light touch legislation it is subject to and enable that self-policing.

But the lack of legal requirements to obey the codes of conduct and the punishment for failing to meet the standard is often less than obvious. (see page 94!)

Whilst most journalists agree that they must take responsibility for their actions, as an industry, journalism seems reluctant to answer for their mistakes. (Sanders p150) whoever is asking. They claim the internal system is enough.  I would go a step further and say seems that they will actively avoid any effort at outside regulation.

This is where the lines of a corporate responsibility (the self-regulation of the industry) and a more personal responsibility blur.  Any attempt at external regulation challenges the autonomy of the journalist – As I suggested before, the journalist should not (in fact canʼt be) answerable to anyone in their pursuit of truth.

It’s a position that is easy to maintain, if, at challenging times, responsibility is interchangeable between journalist and journalism and accountability rests in such a ʻlight touchʼ form of self-regulation that is essentially internal.

But the internal nature of that ‘regulation’ means it lacks transparency and that’s where journalism begins to butt heads with the online world.

Transparency is a presiding watch word for those who work on the web. Jane Singer argues that is to bloggers (our ‘anti-journalist’) what truth is to Journalists. In fact ʻtransparencyʼ is a standard by which the ʻqualityʼ of work online is often measured and made accountable.

The links and sources used to support an article online – the “huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view” that I mentioned earlier- are there for people to check.  Online, we lay out all of our ‘working out’ and people can hold us to account by questioning which sources we pick and how we use them.

That’s something more than the bland reading of transparency as a “fealty to dumping material in to the public realm” But it raises some interesting questions around fairness and balance. Interesting debates about Objectivity.

Those who practice ‘online’ are often accused of bias and seen to lack any of the recognisable elements of balance claimed by journalists. But, in their defense,  they are almost brazen in their desire to tell you that.

This is in stark contrast with the traditional media. Where the gatekeeper model is still held to be the norm. Somewhere, behind closed doors, one person decides what is news and we rarely, if ever, get to question their actions or motivations. In fact it’s an industry that seems to pride itself on secret connections, unnamed sources and off the record dealings

Consumers can only infer balance and objectivity.

We have to piece together the motivations of a newspaper owner from a broader context. Detect the bias from the omission of content rather than the content presented. Just as critiques would claim we must do with wikileaks. Yet objectivity is often cited as a central tenant of journalism.

But even the industry is having problems with the idea objectivity. Increasingly the traditional commitment to Objectivity is questioned.

Some will ‘blame’ the web for leading journalism astray -

“wikileaks sets the bar. Tempting [journalism] to shock. And awe through more intimate revelation”

Objectivity  has been described as the ‘bastard child’ of journalism; an unobtainable ideal which (in this web world) is at odds with our audiences demands and a barrier to successful business models.

The name Fox News has become synonymous with a move towards subjective journalism - the ‘foxification’ of news.  An organisation that claims to practice journalism but seems to ignore one of its core tenants. The argument is that, in a multi-platform world, this would be offset with a ‘free market capitalist ’ approach to objectivity – the market becomes responsible for objectivity through competition.

And here is where the industry and the world of the web really start to kick-off.

An increasing lack of objectivity and apparent lack of accountability (or visible evidence of accountability working) is bound to attract those who place so much value on transparency.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the mainstream media finds itself the target of scrutiny from a myriad of online sources. Tracking, testing and challenging its output everyday. Self-appointed watchdogs (or watchblogs) will take it upon themselves to hold the journalists and journalism to account.

And true to form the media response is to ask who watches the watchblogs? If they are unaccountable, is this fair?

If one of the defining features of journalism is its accountability to the public – by virtue of the professional practice it claims- then the answer has to be yes.

Journalists are no different than other ʻprofessionsʼ that claim service in the public good – the public interest. Medics, politicians, police, all have their work analysed to within an inch of itʼs life by journalists, more often than not, the gloves are well and truly off. So why not journalists?

For an industry nervous of accountability and committed to individual autonomy this is a strange, painful and sometimes, very personal exercise. Many resist it. But the web makes that impossible.

Like it or not, the medium means that content and the discussion around it is public and uncontrollable. People will talk about you if you are listening or not.

Resistance is there. Indeed the normal mode of engagement is one of threat. Some journalists are very public in their disgust at the apparent compulsion to invite readers to ‘tell me what you think of what I’ve written’. Perhaps they believe that journalism is not about listening to people but listening to what the journalist thinks. But it shows that journalism is more than capable of resisting the re-drawing of the lines of accountability and the emphasis on transparency – even in the face of what can seem like staggering inconsistency.

So what does this say about the definition of journalism.

Essentially it suggests that journalism is a recursive definition:

Who is a journalist? Someone who does journalism.What is journalism? Something done by a journalist…

It’s journalists who get to decide what journalism is. And because large media organisations have lots of journalists, they are the ones who exert most influence in defining it’s norms. They are the ones who play the biggest part on defining the practice, and the moral and ethical constraints.

So it isn’t the web changes things. It has neither the power (or, collectively, the will or desire) to do that. It’s the journalists reaction to it that shapes journalism

So, as a journalist:

  • Is using information from wikileaks any different than using information from ‘hacked’ mobile phones?
  • Is pretending to be someone you are not on Facebook or a chatroom any different than pretending to be a constituent of Vince Cable?
  • Is saying something outrageous on Twitter worse because you are journalist just like it is because you are a civil servant?
  • Does it matter what party you voted for in the election or what your political beliefs are if you are journalist?

Now try and answer those questions without resorting to examples of when others have done it.

When it comes to ethics, virtual or otherwise, we (journalists) make the rules.

But, we should remember that public will hold us to our own rules – rules that we are very good at applying to others- using the whole range of new tools available to them. Journalist may feel they are best equipped to judge public interest but the truth is that the public is now interested in us.

So if the web means anything for journalism ethics it means that we have to stick to our rules regardless of the situation, in spirit and in action. As much as we may feel that is unfair or a loss of control. That’s not their fault; we makes the rules. We police them. We decide who is and who isn’t a journalist.

If we donʼt, regardless of what we may feel is an entirely appropriate level of accountability, we will lose our credibility.

When you are the only game in town credibility can be seen as a right not something that is earned. But the changing media landscape has pushed it the fore. The web means we now need to pay more than just lip-service to Trust and credibility in what we do. We need to be seen to practice what we preach. I think that will turn out to be the most valuable and defining feature of a journalist in an online world.

Many think that sticking to the journalistic rules will hold us back. That whilst we ʻplay by the rulesʼ (if we ever did) the ‘web’ will ride roughshod over us. And what they hell, they are our rules aren’t they? (The argument for our fox news approach to objectivity) But is that really what we want?

The Wikileaks saga tells us that there is a place for journalists and media organisations. Even Assange recognised that. He needed that credibility. But when the exclusive was threatened (for all parties) the result is hardly a shining example of working together.

Assange would have you believe journalists will happily invite you in to the tent but just as quickly stab you in the back and throw you out when they have what they want. Journalism would have you believe that this is what happens when you work with people who don’t understand journalism!

Are we really happy to leave our professional standards to the worst of ego-journalism and let the market decide? Is that really what the web has forced journalism to become?

Of course not.

We need to maintain our independence, focus on our social responsibility (take that fourth estate role seriously) and embrace the transparency of the medium. If we do that our journalistic processes and codes will be a massively valuable asset. A credible journalist as something separate and meaningful from a credible blogger. But we have to learn to measure that by what we do, not by what we do to others or others might get away with.

Journalism needs to do that because I think that journalists are best placed to be a much needed credible source of information in a world where information is plentiful but trust, it seems, is in short supply.

Note: The inclusion of  wikileaks to the title and content was at the request of the module leader to fit with the seminar reading and topics. I think, it does raise some interesting issues but as I (hopefully) argued in the lecture, it doesn’t really matter what example I’d picked. It’s how journalist behave with respect to their own definition that counts.

January 11 2011

20:30

The progression of the public

I’m editing the manuscript for Public Parts now and so I’ll be throwing out some thoughts from the book to get your thoughts in return. Here, from my introduction, are what I see as the four stages in our conception of “public”:

1. From ancient times to the Renaissance, “public” was synonymous with the state and the state was synonymous not with its people (that’s our modern notion) but with its rulers. Leaders were not merely public figures; they embodied the public. The people had little political standing. They had little independent identity. “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” writes historian Jacob Burkhardt in Civilization of the Renaissance (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change).

2. In the so-called early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (also known as the Renaissance), Gutenberg’s printing press as well as the theater, music, art, maps, and markets enabled some people to create their own publics, as the Making Publics project at McGill University argues (I’ll explore their ideas further in a later chapter). These were voluntary publics formed among strangers sharing similar interests—which could mean simply that they read the same book and then contemplated and discussed the same ideas. Now it was possible for private individuals to take on and share a public identity independent of the state.

3. In the 18th century, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, the public sphere—and public opinion—first appeared as a political force and a counterweight to the state. Finally, the public began to mean the people. Habermas believes that a brief, golden age of rational, critical debate in society, carried out in the coffee houses of England and salons of Europe, was soon corrupted by mass media. I’ll argue differently, suggesting that the real corruption of the ideal of the public was to throw us all into a single public sphere, a mass—the lumpenpublic. To this day, the assumption that we are one public—which is the basis of mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass media—has enabled government, companies, and media to avoid dealing with us as distinct individuals and groups and instead to see us as faceless poll numbers and anonymous demographics.

4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean. Like our early-modern ancestors, we—but all of us now—have the tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) to create and join publics, establishing our own identities and societies. I see that as a purer form of the public, built not around the interests of the powerful but instead around our own interests, desires, and needs. Rather than being forced into a public not of our own making, we now define ourselves and our publics. The new vision of the public may look chaotic, but then change always does. The critical difference today—the next step in the evolution of the idea—is that a public is no longer a one-way entity, flowing from the powerful—king, politician, publisher, or performer—to an audience. Now through our conversation and collaboration, ignoring old boundaries, we define our publics.

In this progression, we are continuing—but accelerating—a timeless dance of balancing the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects; our privacy and publicness. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy; while in recent centuries publicness “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, together.

So today are atomizing because we have the freedom to be independent. Then we can reform into new molecules because we are social; we need each other and can accomplish more together than apart. We find the publics we wish to join based not merely on gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, even privacy advocates. We finally tear down the elite of the public few and each become public people in our own right. . . .

November 16 2010

17:00

“That heady feeling of being totally integrated”: The elusive promise of community, flattened and “real”

In the future-of-journalism business, we’re obsessed with adoption: getting online, getting hip to the web, leaving old analog practices behind, embracing the interactivity of social media. For a long time, not getting online — not getting hip to the digital program — seemed the provenance of clueless curmudgeons, middle-aged city desk editors, and Andrew Keen. Rightly, I think, we’ve devoted most of our energy to figuring out the details of what Jay Rosen has called “the migration point of the press tribe.” Getting to the other side of the chasm means getting wired in.

One of the things I always loved about Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything was that it covered enough historical time that it was as much a book about blogs ending as it was a book about the adoption of blogging. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to read several fantastic pieces that I think speak to this question of “getting offline” in ways that go beyond the usual curmudgeonly prattle. Two writers went down this road voluntarily: Marc Ambinder wrote a farewell post called “I am a Blogger No Longer,” and Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, referred to herself a 1.0 person living in a 2.0 world, a person who killed her Facebook page after a few weeks. A third blogger, however — Ruth Gledhill of The Times of London — was forced to shut down her blog when the newspaper she worked for went behind a paywall. No openness to the Internet, no point in running a blog.

For me, it was Gledhill’s comments about “life behind the paywall” that got me thinking. “In one sense,” she wrote:

I have my ‘life’ back as my blog took up all of my waking hours when I wasn’t writing news stories and I was neglecting our son and other areas of my life outside work. It was definitely an addiction. When I was wired up, I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere. I still miss that heady feeling of being totally integrated with the ‘ether’.

Ambinder’s comments about non-blog journalism being “ego free” may have garned the most attention on Twitter, but I think Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket is right when he flags this as the piece’s key point. Ambinder’s point intersects well with Gledhill’s:

The mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing.

The fact that one of these comments is primarily positive (“wired up,” “physically part of the internet,” “heady feeling,” “totally integrated”) while the other is negative (“endless discussions,” “exhausting,” “relentless,” “punishing”) makes it clear to me that both writers are talking about the same thing. They’re talking about an intensive process of speaking and listening, grounded in a social network that is itself embedded within a dynamic community. In both cases, the journalist is open, responsive, locked in…and open and responsive to a network of ultimately real people, not to some abstract entity that looms just over your left shoulder. This would be a hard feeling to describe to someone who had never Tweeted, blogged, surfed an RSS feed, or gotten lost on Facebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain frisson there. I can actually feel it as I write this post.

Having spent many years teaching and befriending journalists, and having participated in some poorly defined acts of citizen journalism myself, it seems that people generally go into journalism for a number of reasons. I’ve found that my would-be journalism students are usually curious. They want to get to the bottom of things; they deal in practical reality, not theory; and they (let’s face it) love to snoop. They’re practical, inquisitive, fact-minded folks.

In addition to them, though, I know a number of journalists who went into the industry because their communicative work gave them the chance to ground themselves in a particular community, to be embed themselves within a particular public. They want to stand near the center of the communications circuit. They want to listen to people and tell them things, all at the same time. They want to learn new things, things that matter to individuals and groups, and then tell them about it. They want to know that they’ve made a difference, that the people have heard them.

One of the things I think you realize as a journalist, however, is that your “public” quickly gets reduced to your beat, and your community most often consists of folks we might call “sources” (an ugly phrase). In everyday terms, the best journalists spend most of their time talking to a rather limited group of people — and even when that circuit of people expands they’re still primarily dealing with people they usually refer to as a “source.” Journalists are workers, and as workers, they become attuned to practices that make the most logical sense, that help them do their job, and get them out the door headed towards home as quickly as possible. For journalists, the practical necessities of journalism narrow the scope of the public.

This is why I think so many journalists get so excited about the social possibilities of digital technology. In the most basic sense, “the shock of community” that the Internet provides gets represented by quantitative audience metrics. Whatever audience-tracking tools may or may not be doing to the editorial process, there’s no mistaking the fact that when reporters first encounter those heady sheets of Omniture data, it blows their minds. “Finally! The invisible audience has returned! These are the people I cared about when I first went into reporting…I forgot about them — but here they are!” In more poetic terms, it’s what Gledhill talks about when she writes that “I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere…totally integrated with the ‘ether’.” It’s not just metrics, but it’s comments, links, email, and conversation.

When I was doing research in Philadelphia, this is how a local journalist/blogger described the evolution of his blog:

…the key lesson is that my blog got picked up and accepted as being an authentic part of the blogging community, which in his case was the left-wing blogosphere. And the way I did that was to link to these other blogs, to engage with them, and to seek them out. Some of our other blogs that are run by journalists are struggling with how to gain that acceptance. I remember a moment in September 2003 when one of my posts was linked by the leftwing website Buzzflash [which was popular at the time]. Comments came rolling in. Emails to me went through the roof — that was the kind of national attention I was looking for!

Ambinder, on the other hand, points to the aftermath of that social-network high: the endless comment moderation, the exhaustion that digital immersion can cause. And Zadie Smith goes one step further. For Smith, the community journalists have been so excited to rediscover isn’t actually real. It’s limited. It’s flattened. On Facebook,

If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos…Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees.

Smith’s point is philosophical: digital technology reduces us. Like any grand philosophical point, it’s ultimately unprovable, which is why I’ve tried to come at it from an oblique angle, by talking about publics and journalism. Does online journalism give us a community that’s more real, or less real, than the one we leave behind? I think that digital technology does flatten people. But it flattens more than just people. It flattens objects, concepts, publics, and relationships as well. And it’s not just digital technology that flattens things; the daily act of working, of day-to-day practical living flattens things too.

Reporters may go into journalism to be with the public; they eventually find beats and sources and the daily grind instead. Reporters may go online to find a community more responsive than the one they encounter in their daily work, but it’s a community that can be exhausting, pummeling, and not quite real. So get offline if you wish. Get online if you can. But in either case, never make the mistake in thinking that you’ve found a community, a public, a reality, that’s more authentic than the one you’ve left behind. We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

October 14 2010

19:48

October 04 2010

16:30

Why diversity turns into conformity in online news: An interview with comm scholar Pablo Boczkowski

If you talk to any of the number of young academics who occasionally contribute to the Lab, it’s likely the name Pablo Boczkowski will come up sooner rather than later. Pablo was one of the first scholars to rejuvenate the hallowed concept of the “newsroom ethnography” for a new generation of scholars examining a new generation of news problems. He has inspired many younger journalism researchers, including me.

Boczkowski was kind enough to take some time to sit down and talk with me about his new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance. Since Megan covered the general arguments of News at Work in a previous Lab post, I figure I’ll skip the chit-chat and just let you dive into the (lightly edited) interview. In it, I ask Pablo about, among other things:

  • how newsrooms have changed over the past 15 years
  • the two things he, as a qualitative scholar of news, would want working journalists to know
  • why it’s useful to study news in South America
  • how he thinks his work speaks to debates about the future of journalism

Some of Boczkowski’s most important arguments include:

On what consumers want: “When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer…it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.”

On the importance of the public: “It is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore…The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to people.”

On why blogs don’t affect the homogenization of news: “One blog is very different from the next. That is true, but if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner-takes-all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print. What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.”

CWA: You began your research in the 1990s with what eventually became Digitizing the News. And the book you’ve written now, News at Work, covers the mid-2000s. I was wondering if you can draw a narrative thread between your first book and your latest one. Can you tell me a story, or is there an arc that ties Digitizing the News into your new book?

PB: The obvious one on the academic side is that Digitizing the News focused on the making of news with a very, very strong sense of technology. Those were the major concerns. This book has a bigger agenda. So while I still pay a lot of attention to the making of news, I also started to branch out into trying to understand what happens with the news when it’s already made — how it is consumed and circulated in society. It’s an extension of the other book towards the realm of news consumption.

The second extension is that while technology still figures in an important place in News at Work, the book also deals with issues of content and meaning.

The third extension of Digitizing the News is the extension of ethnographic space. Digitizing the News, actually, the research for that book started outside of the U.S., but I never included that part. I was also going to do a comparative study at that point. I didn’t get to this because I thought that people were more interested in change and innovation. Over time, my research became more focused on the more interesting comparative dimensions. So still looking at the U.S., but putting the U.S. into perspective and trying to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, because it is interesting in its own right and also because it helps us make sense of what’s going on in the U.S.. That’s why News at Work, in part, takes place in terms of the data and the story outside of the U.S.

Another fourth thread has to do with the fact that Digitizing the News was a book about change and about innovation. It’s also about the impulse to innovate, but the difficulty to do so within established news organizations that are highly traditional. They have been doing certain things for a long time, and it was very hard for them to change from within. News at Work takes place several years — it’s not a decade later, but the following decade.

When a lot of water has gone under the bridge, we start to have a sense of how things have unfolded over 15 years, and how things might unfold over the next so many years. And it tells a story that it’s less about innovation with all its difficulties and possibilities. It’s more about the lack of originality, the lack of change. And not because people want that, but because of the social dynamics and the practical dynamics that have made innovation difficult. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it, but something has made innovation very difficult to emerge.

CWA: You might say the even when innovation has occurred, it has often produced as much imitation as it has diversity. Is that a fair way to summarize it?

PB: Yes. I mean, the unintended consequences of trying to innovate sometimes are that you get a situation which is more conservative than what was going on before. Again, News at Work is really a story about unintended consequences. Digitizing the News is a story about what people tried to do and what happened. News at Work is a story about things that people have not tried to do, have not tried to accomplish, and it happened anyway. Because it happened anyway, and because it happened on the way to doing something else, it was very hard to eradicate because it has not happened by our own will. I think this taps into very deep social tendencies, in general, and particularly in the news industry.

CWA: A lot of the Lab’s readers are working journalists, and they might not pay much attention to the academic study of news. So if you wanted practitioners to take away one or two key points away from News at Work, what would you want them to know? If this is the only time they will hear Pablo Boczkowski talk about this book, what would be the two main takeaways that you would want working journalists to know?

PB: The first thing I’d want them to consider is that, ironically, in the age of the Internet, more news has become less news. So you need to figure how less can become more, instead. To me, it’s evident that the growth and the speed at which information circulates has created some negative consequences for news agencies, negative consequences for consumers, and negative consequences for journalists, because they don’t like how their work is going these days. Nobody has gone into the news profession to replicate other people’s stories and to basically rehash material that already exists.

The question is how to go into that situation so that it is a situation in which less is more. What the research on consumers clearly shows is that, yes, there is some appetite for news headlines and maybe leads, but for the most part, all people really want to read is headlines. And because all people want to read is headlines, you shouldn’t keep rewriting them, rewriting them. You don’t need to rehash them. I am convinced.

You know, I was absolutely humbled and stunned when I started to talk to consumers, the public. To me it was shocking, revealing. When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer, and you get a sense of what news they like, what they don’t like, what news they want, what they don’t want, etc., it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.

You know, it’s not going to make much of a difference if the headline is coming straight from AP or Reuters or if it’s a tweet. I don’t think it’s going to make much difference. One question that I repeatedly ask — it’s not in the books, but it really informed my thinking a lot — a question I routinely ask is imagine instead of having me in front of you, you have the main person of your preferred news site, the manager, the editor. If you would ask for one change on the design of the website, do you know what people said? They wanted an interface like the Google page results.

CWA: So just give them the headlines and a sentence at most.

PB: Exactly.

CWA: They didn’t want video? They didn’t want chats?

PB: No.

CWA: They didn’t want interactivity? They wanted the headlines?

PB: Yes, for the most part.

CWA: That is humbling.

PB: The consumers described their routines. They were strongly organized around the headlines and the navigation of the headline. That coincides with the amount of time people spend on these sites.

CWA: Which is almost no time at all.

PB: Not very high. It’s a fraction of the time they spend on print. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that, that at that time, they are doing other things. They could be in a conference call.

CWA: They are working. They are at work.

PB: Yes. Even in the evening, they’re doing something else. I watch soccer games now with the computer on my lap. I’m sometimes taking soccer stuff from the game on my computer, but that already means that I’m splitting my attention. So if you speak to someone who has to make key editorial decisions, if you spend your time just rehashing what others are doing, you’re spending very valuable resources in creating a product that doesn’t have the value added. It’s not appreciated to the same extent that the resources have invested in them. That doesn’t make much sense. I think it is painful for news organizations to realize that. News has become a commodity.

Spending a lot of resources and trying to make your commodity slightly different from somebody else’s commodity, I don’t think that’s going to work.

CWA: Now, in some newsrooms, to the degree this is known, the reaction has been, “Well, we need new things that will keep them on the site for longer,” right? “We need to have a chat with the editor. We need a slideshow. We need to have the reporters not only typing the story, but getting up in front of the camera. We need to make these print reporters into TV guys who stand up in front of cameras.”

Based on your studies of consumers, do you think that is a losing battle? Do you think that is more what journalists should be doing rather than rewriting headlines? Where would you take that conclusion?

PB: I don’t think making people available for chats or having a great video, given how much time it takes — I don’t think that’s a winning proposition either. I honestly don’t think so. What happens in seven years from now, when journalists start to perfectly understand where the consumer is going — I mean you’ve written about this. Journalists have a set of very mixed emotions. For the most part, they use the data not to inform, like people do in most other industries, but to tweak what they already think and to adapt their thinking. Based on what I see, I don’t think it makes any sense to keep rewriting your competitors’ headlines. It makes sense to place them in a particular way that maybe some of them can be given an editorial perspective and frame. But if it makes more sense than to redeploy all of your resources so that you have more original content, comments, opinions. One often needs to increase the coverage of content that draws a lot of attention, but it also means that changing news values, generally, so journalists don’t want to do that.

It’s also probably time to realize that the level of newsroom employment is way too high for the nature of the market. The other thing for a journalist is — it’s the same way it was humbling for me as a scholar that had me thinking for more than 10 years about journalists and the news and thinking about everything I could think about inside the box of the newsroom, therefore having an impact on society. Then when you start to talk to people, to consumers, to the audience, you realize, ‘Whoops, there is a lot going on.’

Another conclusion is that it is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore. It is absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for scholars. I think it’s impossible for practitioners. The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to them.

So what you do with that is a separate story. But it’s absolutely critical to start listening. I think listening to the audience goes far beyond tracking website traffic. The traffic metrics will only tell you a little bit. I did that in the book, looking at what stories sell the most in terms of clicks. But what you get by sitting down and really listening to news consumers, even if it’s a handful of them, is far more important.

Journalism has always been a very insular profession. That cannot be sustained any longer. There is a lot of value that is lost by not listening to the audience. You might not like what you hear. It might be depressing or terrible to hear, but you can’t stop that. It’s not going to go away.

CWA: I’m sure there will be commentators and commentators who hear you saying that there is more media and less news, who are going to say, “Oh, but how can you say that? There are blogs. There is citizen journalism. There’s niche websites popping up all over. How can he say there is less? There is a town that had one news outlet. Now it has 15.” I guess my question would be how would you respond to that sort of criticism?

PB: What I say in the book is that it’s more volume of information and frequency of examination, coupled with decreasing diversity of the content. On the supply side, there may be many, many, many more outlets than before. There is much more media than years ago. They have more options. They have new content all the time. But if you actually analyzed the kind of content that gets supplied, it is incredibly similar from one outlet to the next.

There was that study in Baltimore where they took all the local media in Baltimore across the range of television, radio, blah, blah, blah, for one week. What they found was that 84 percent of the stories that they analyzed had no new content. Some other venue had already covered it the first time when it appeared on the second. That’s 84 percent.

CWA: So even if there were some methodological difficulties in that study, which a few people I know have pointed to, 84 percent is still remarkably high.

PB: It’s huge!

CWA: Even if you allow for some critique like, ‘Well, maybe they didn’t look at enough people,’ 84 percent is still tremendous.

PB: It’s huge. I found the same in my study. On the supply side, you have many more places to get the news, but what you get is the same.

Now, when you say that consumers have blogs and this and that, they are very idiosyncratic. One blog is very different from the next. That is true. But if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner takes all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print.

What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.

So, from a practical standpoint, there are outlets out there that have unique information, but do lots of people pay attention to them? No. So in terms of what happens to the supply of news, and what happens with the demand of news, on both sides of the equation, you have is an incredible loss of diversity because the large outlets tend to cover more or less the same stories.

CWA: Through monitoring and imitation.

PB: Exactly. That’s the main theme of the book. When people talk about the web, people talk about what is possible. They assume that what is possible will happen. Because it’s possible, therefore, it’s likely. What the book shows is that there’s a difference between something being possible and something being likely. We have to keep that in mind. There are a lot of things that are possible in life, but there are very few of them that are actually likely to happen. Given the current dynamics, both in terms of how journalists work and what the public does, it is quite unlikely that we will have a very diverse set of facts, even perspectives circulating in society for the average consumer.

I mean, yes, it’s a lot of noise, but there is very little difference in terms of meaning. There is a lot of volume, but it doesn’t make it necessarily very different.

CWA: The bulk of your research for this book takes place in South America. That’s still very unusual in media scholarship. What do you think we can learn by studying journalism outside the United States and the U.K.?

PB: There are several things. I will focus on one. There’s a very, very common explanation for the increase in journalistic similarity, and that explanation has to do with market concentration. We tend to call that the political economy explanation. It doesn’t have that name when journalistic practitioners talk about it, but it’s basically the same story.

The story is basically that this is all a result of the increased pressures of market variables and market logic in the profession. It has a lot to do with media companies operating on the market, and therefore having to compete with entities that are publicly traded across industries that have different logic. So newsroom managers will often say: “It’s not our fault. It’s the market.” It’s not really, “What can we do?” It’s the quarterly earnings or the pressure of the market; therefore, we have to downsize. It serves as a cure-all for the responsibility of the institution that people get news from. You can’t blame them. It’s happening to them.

The interesting case about Argentina is that, while there is a market component, journalists there enjoy a particular labor protection situation, whereby it is very difficult for news organizations for fire journalists. It’s very costly for news organizations to downsize very dramatically.

CWA: Unlike the United States.

PB: Yes. In Argentina, if you were to hire a journalist on a full-time basis, after a month, if you want to get rid of that person, you have to pay a lot of severance. So that’s number one. Number two is that most of the companies in Latin America are not publicly traded companies. They are family-owned enterprises for the most part. The media industry in the U.S. became publicly traded decades ago.

Now, of course, market pressure still exists. If you don’t sell or circulate, financially, there are consequences. It is less direct, especially for short-term dynamics. The cost for the news organization to expand or contract very rapidly is increased. Because those external pressures are mitigated to some extent, it is easier to bring to life what happens inside the newsroom as opposed to outside of it. It’s easier to see how they create a situation increasing monitoring, this increasing imitation, and how that transpired into the news. It happens even when these companies are not publicly traded. That doesn’t mean that in the case of the U.S., the fact that these companies are publicly traded and they shrink the news, it’s not important. Yes, it is, but it means that we have a situation in the U.S which is over-determined. The problems with journalism are not all about the market. It’s not all about debt. It’s not all about downsizing.

CWA: Some of the responsibility for this situation lies with the internal organization and management of newsrooms ultimately.

PB: Exactly. It’s exasperated by external market dynamics, but it’s not really what’s going on outside the organization. That’s a lack of taking responsibility by people inside the organization. That was the big advantage to having studied this outside of the U.S. Inside the U.S., it’s much more difficult.

CWA: In my own research in Philadelphia, the market is such a dominating factor in what I studied, and for other people who are probably doing primarily U.S.-based studies right now. I think it’s become even more difficult in the United States to disentangle the market from it.

PB: I think the consequences are far worse for journalists than for scholars because practitioners over-attribute. They say: “It’s all about the market. There’s nothing we can do. We’re just adapting to the new conditions.” That’s not true. There are lots of things that they are doing deliberately, with unintended consequence, that generate a lot of the outcomes that we see. So that to me was a plus that I had studied this outside of the U.S.

CWA: Obviously, the future-of-journalism stuff has become a major political and issue of public discussion in the United States. There are conferences. There are F.C.C. hearings. This is a public issue now in this country in a way that it has not been for a very long time.

So I guess what I would like to ask is: What would you say to the people who are engaged in this conversation? What can they take from your research? The big question is how to get journalism that is good for democracy. There are lots of ideas about how that type of democracy-building function of journalism can be maintained and strengthened. So, to the degree that you feel comfortable laying in on that debate, based on your own research, what would you say?

PB: That’s an interesting question. In terms of the research for this book in particular, I’ve been to one of these “future of journalism” conferences and I followed the others a little bit. My sense is that the discussion is poorly framed. It is framed in a very traditional way. In a traditional way, I mean framed like how journalism is framed. “We tell the public what the public needs to know. It doesn’t matter what the public wants. It doesn’t matter how the public reacts to it and make meaning out of what we tell them.”

Now, a lot of good has come out of that. But in terms of framed discussion, I think the relationship between journalism and the public has to be reframed. That’s a major element of this book. I made a conscious decision not to stop when I had figured out what was going on in the newsroom, but to then try to understand what happens then. The consequences of imitation shaping the news that we get. What happens? How do people deal with that?

The reason why this is so important is from a business standpoint. There is no business that can survive in a competitive situation, a competitive market, by ignoring the preferences and behavior of the consumer. So journalists could ignore that for decades because it operated, for the most part, in a non-competitive market. But that doesn’t exist anymore. What I hear when I go to “future of journalism” meetings, the discussion is framed entirely normatively: “This is what should happen.”

But, if you want realistic reform and real chances of something happening, you need to have normative conversations with grounded understanding of how people live their everyday lives. My sense that the power of journalism is extremely important for society, but it’s far more important to journalists than what it actually is the public.

A keen journalist really understands what the public does with the stories that they tell. It’s going to be extremely difficult to come up with a realistic reform strategy because these strategies, in my mind, have much less to do with the funding structures for journalism than with understanding how people live their lives and role that information has in the way that people live their lives. So it has to be about journalism and its public. It cannot just be about journalism.

Until we start having a real conversation about the inner workings of journalism, and the way journalistic organizations contribute and continue to contribute to its problems, it will be very difficult to come up with a real, workable solution.

September 14 2010

18:30

“Squeezing humanity through a straw”: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism

[Here's C.W. Anderson responding to the same subject Nikki Usher wrote about: the impact of audience data on how news organizations operate. Sort of a debate. —Josh]

One way to think about the growing use of online metrics in newsrooms (a practice that has been going on forever but seems to have finally been noticed of late) is to think about it as part of a general democratization of journalism. And it’s tempting to portray the two sides to the debate as (in this corner!) the young, tech-savvy newsroom manager who is finally listening to the audience, and (in this corner!) the fading fuddy-duddy-cum-elitist more concerned with outdated professional snobbery than with what the audience wants.

Fortunately, actual working journalists rarely truck in such simplistic stereotypes, arguing rightly that there isn’t a binary divide between smart measurement and good journalism. As Washington Post executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski told Howard Kurtz:

There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.

Or as Lab contributor Nikki Usher put it: “[I]f used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs.”

At the level of short-term newsroom practices, I agree with Usher, Zaleski, and every other journalist and pundit who takes a nuanced view of the role played by newsroom metrics. So if you’re worried about whether audience tracking is going to eliminate quality journalism, the quick answer is no.

My own concerns with the increased organizational reliance on metrics are more long-term and abstract. They have as much to do with society than with journalism per se. They center around:

— the manner in which metrics can serve as a form of newsroom discipline;
— the squishiness of algorithmically-afforded audience understanding;
— the often-oversimpistic ways we talk about the audience (under the assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing); and, finally
— the way that online quantification simplifies our understanding of what it means to “want” information.

Big topics, I admit. Each of these points could be the subject of its own blog post, so for the sake of space, I want to frame what I’m talking about by dissecting this seemingly innocuous phrase:

“We know what the audience wants.”

Let’s look at the words in this sentence, one at a time. Each of them bundles in a lot of assumptions, which, when examined together, might shed light on the uses and the potential long-term pitfalls of newsroom quantification.

“We”: Who is the “we” that knows what kind of journalism the audience wants? Often, I’d argue, it’s executives in our increasingly digitized newsrooms that now have a powerful tool through which to manage and discipline their employees. In my own research, I’ve discovered that the biggest factor in determining the relationship between metrics and editorial practices are the ways that these metrics are utilized by management, rather the presence or absence of a particular technology. Philosopher Michel Foucault called these types of practices disciplinary practices, and argued that they involved three primary types of control: “hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.” Perhaps this is fine when we’re trying to salvage a functional news industry out of the wreckage of a failed business model, but we should at least keep these complications in mind — metrics are a newsroom enforcement mechanism.

“Know”: Actually, we don’t know a whole lot about our audiences — but there’s a lot of power in claiming that we know everything. In other words, the more data we have, paradoxically, the less we know, and the more it behooves us to claim exactitude. While smart thinkers have been writing about the problem of poor web metrics for years, a major new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia has thrown the issue into stark relief. As report researcher (and, full disclosure, friend and colleague) Lucas Graves writes:

The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity. On the contrary, clear media standards emerge where there’s a shortage of real data about audiences…The only way to imbue an audience number with anything like the authority of the old TV ratings is with a new monopoly — if either Nielsen or comScore folds or, more likely, they merge. That kind of authority won’t mean greater accuracy, just less argument.

There’s a circular relationship here between increased measurement, less meaningful knowledge, and greater institutional power. When we forget this, we can be uncritical about what it is metrics actually allow us to do.

“The Audience”: What’s this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it “the public.” But audiences are not publics, and it’s dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don’t have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se — but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it’s often wrong.

“Wants”: Finally, what does it mean to want a particular piece of information? As Alexis Madrigal notes in this short but smart post at The Atlantic, informational want is a complicated emotion that runs the risk of being oversimplified by algorithms. Paradoxically, web metrics have become increasingly complex at the same time they’ve posited increasingly simplistic outcomes. They’re complex in terms of their techniques, but simple in terms of what it is we claim they provide us and in the ultimate goal that they serve. Time on site, engagement, pageviews, uniques, eye movement, mouse movement — all of these ultimately boil down to tracking a base-level consumer desire via the click of a mouse or the movement of the eye.

But what do we “want”? We want to love a story, to be angry about it it, to fight with it, to be politically engaged by it, to feel politically apathetic towards it, to let it join us together in a common cause, for it make us laugh, and for it to make us cry. All of these wants are hard to capture quantitatively, and in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.

So — will an increasing use of online metrics give us bad journalism? No.

Will they play a role in facilitating, over the long term, the emergence of a communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting? They might. But take hope: Such an outcome is likely only if we lose sight of what it is that metrics can do, and what it is about human beings that they leave out.

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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February 14 2010

13:48

Google Introduces Nexus One to Public

After weeks of anticipation from techies the world over, Google has unveiled to members of the press the Nexus One, its first consumer electronics device previously known as the Google Phone.  Set to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, the HTC-made Nexus One runs an updated tweak of the Google Android OS.

Apart from what are expected from smartphones developed post-iPhone-touchscreen display, 5-megapixel camera, and stereo Bluetooth for headphones-the Nexus One pulls off features that impress us.  The phone includes a Global Positioning System, two microphones (one for noise cancellation), and a speech dictation technology, which transcribes what you speak on the Nexus One as you compose e-mails, tweets, and Facebook status updates.

Reactions, however, were not as mind-blowing as Google might have expected.  “The Nexus One has attractive features, but many of them were already available on other phones that use Google’s Android operating system,” wrote Jessica Guynn of Los Angeles Times.

Michael Gartenberg, an analyst from Interpret research firm, says that the new phone provides a perception that not all Android phones are created equal.  “If I was a (Motorola Droid) customer who just bought the phone a month ago, I might not feel so good.”

The Nexus One is now available on Google’s online store for US$529 if you want it unlocked or $179 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile.  Similar offers will be available from Verizon Wireless and United Kingdom’s Vodafone within this year.  It is also expected to be shipped in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Image source:  Google

Kris Andrews writes for Gadget.com, delivering you with the latest tech and gadget news and updates that you need.

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January 19 2010

15:49

What thoughts about metered paywalls say about journalism, the public, and The New York Times

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion to my doctoral research on local journalism, I penned these thoughts:

The internet has deeply problematized local journalism’s vision of its public…Online, all publics appear fragmentary. There is always an element of the public that cannot be networked. There is always a fraction of this uncaptured public only a mouse-click away…Insofar as journalistic authority rests on its claim to give the public flesh, such a claim is no longer tenable — if it ever was. Insofar as local journalism’s image of the public is grounded in a vision that sees the public as a unitary, structural, or even interlocking entity that journalism can either confidently speak to or call into being, the authority of journalism has become deeply problematic.

The questions about newspaper paywalls, then, are more than simply economic questions. They are more than simply questions about “will the model work?” and “can we balance the ratio between clicks and advertising dollars that maximizes our paywall’s effectiveness?” There are also questions about how journalists see themselves, and whether they can live with the answers that a paywall provides.

In its article claiming that The New York Times was “close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, [through the kind of] the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe,” New York Magazine took a trip back in time to the days of TimesSelect, the Times’ last major attempt to charge readers for content:

The Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

Its easy to attribute Friedman’s displeasure to vanity, and to some degree, it’s probably just that simple. But his attitude is a window into a larger newspaper mindset, one that sees the news provided by newspapers through reporting as creating the common language by which “the public” informs itself about issues of public relevance. As creating the public, as it were. It’s a world where “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is more than just an outdated slogan. It’s a world where the slogan is true.

I wrote last month that the emerging consensus about paid journalist content seems to be, “most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else.” In other words, people will pay for niche content. Any sort of paywall — even the metered kind, like the Times is said to be proposing — is ultimately making a wager on the argument that it is enough of niche product that a wealthy enough niche of readers will pay for it. Putting up a meter represents the ultimate compromise between visions of news that are “mass” (“we want everyone to read this”) and niche (“we want to be unique enough that we will get unique people to pay”), because it ultimately amounts to a tax on the heavy users. (I have a sneaking suspicion that it is this compromise between the Times’ vision of itself as the crucible of the public and a vanity product that rich people will pay for that Jay Rosen was referring to when he tweeted that the alleged NYT plan “fit the mold” of previous attempts by the paper to strike the proper balance.)

In the days of advertising-funded journalistic content, there was no contradiction between the number of readers you had, your profitability, and the degree to which you could claim to print “all the news” that mattered. (This ignores, for the moment, the fact that even in the glory days of the industry business and circulation managers targeted particular demographic slices. But that was a decision largely hidden from editors and journalists, who could continue on under the illusion that they were writing for everyone.) These days, however, there is just such a distinction. In the world of the networked public sphere, putting up walls around your content ultimately moves you out of the center of the public network, which means you’re less linked to and less read. Putting up walls around your content means you can charge the niche but must sacrifice the illusion that you speak for and to everyone.

So there’s more to the New York Times’ decisions on meters and paywalls than just the question of whether the strategy will succeed economically. There are questions about how the internet has already changed the Times, and how the dawning world of niche-reader taxation will change journalists’ ideas about what they do and who they write for. And there are questions about how we ourselves see the “public” we are a part of. We live in a world where were our “nicheness” has never been more obvious, and one of the great questions in the years ahead is whether we are still capable of seeing ourselves as a part of something more. In order to do so, I think we need to radically rethink what we mean when we say the word “public.” Down with structural notions like “public spheres,” or even phrases “networked publics!”

These topics get us away from issues directly related to The New York Times, though, and might be better addressed in a future post.

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