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December 01 2011


Cambridge University Press: like to rent an academic article?

In search for new revenue streams and business models ... let's be creative!

ars technica :: Ars' science articles link to the academic papers that are being discussed, and based on reader comments, people have a clear interest in looking over the publications. Unfortunately, that interest often runs into a significant hurdle, one that can be summarized as "they expect me to pay $30 to read that?" Now, Cambridge University Press, an academic publisher, is experimenting with a system that might get a few more people reading its products: it's offering to rent access to the articles.

Continue to read John Timmer, arstechnica.com

September 15 2011


Daily mail student media awards?

Yeah, wouldn’t happen. But should it?

The always interesting Wannabehacks posted yesterday stating that The industry isn’t doing enough to support student journalists. The post really should have been titled The Guardian isn’t doing enough to support student journalists as it takes a pop at the frankly risible prize the Guardian is offering for its Guardian student media award:

[T]he quality of prizes has diminished year on year: “Seven weeks of placement with expenses paid (offered 2003-2006) is a good way to spend the summer. Two weeks of self-funded work experience is an insult to supposedly the best student journalists in Britain.”

It’s a fair point. Just how good you have to be to actually be paid to work at the Guardian?

Maybe we are being unfair to the Guardian though. Why do they need to carry this stuff? I know plenty of students who don’t want to work for the Guardian. So why don’t more papers step up? If it’s about spotting talent then shouldn’t every media org have a media award?

Truth is there is a bit of black hole out there when it comes to awards. Aspiring journos could be forgiven for thinking that there is very little on offer between that letter writing competition the local paper runs for schoolkids and the Guardian awards. There are actually quite a few – the NUS student awards for example. But none with the direct association of the Guardian awards.

But maybe it’s not about the award. The wannabe hacks post (and the letter it references) suggests that there is more a problem of expectation here.

The Guardian is a very attractive proposition to many aspiring journos. In a lot of respects it plays on that strength; it presents itself as a like the paper where things are happening. But there is a danger that things like competitions exploit that aspiration and begin to suggest a slightly dysfunctional relationship - aspiring journos trying their best to please the indifferent and aloof object of their affection.

Show them the money.

This isn’t just a print problem. The truth is the industry has a bit of problem of putting its money where it’s mouth is when it comes to student journos.

As an academic I see more offers of valuable experience than paid opportunities in my inbox. They tend to coincide with large events where industry doesn’t have the manpower to match their plans for coverage. In that sense there is no secret here, the industry is living beyond its means and it’s increasingly relying on low and no paid input to keep newsrooms running. But student journo’s bear the brunt of that. Yes, they get experience, but not much else.

No return on investment

Of course the flip-side to that argument is that many of those who enter the competitions would happily benefit from the association but don’t put back in. I wonder how many people who enter the Guardian student media awards have regularly bought the paper rather than accessing the (free) website?  You could argue the same when talking about work experience. How many students actually buy the product they aspire to work on?

But the reality is that, regardless of how much is put in, if you court an audience, you have to live up to their expectations – unreasonable or otherwise.

This is happening at a time when those same newsrooms are reporting on the commercial realities of education and how students need to demand value from their investment. As someone trying to respond to those expectations, perhaps I can offer some advice.  Perhaps the industry need to reflect on their advice to prospective students the next time they reach out or connect with student journalists.  Just how much are you expecting them to invest in your newsroom and what’s the return?


February 28 2011


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 20 2011


September 30 2010


Ivory tower dispatch: Nothing is simple anymore

I’m going to try and share a little of what I do each week with the students and now that teaching has settled in a little bit after freshers it seemed a good time to start.

This week I wanted to get all the students thinking about some of the issues that contribute to the ‘changing media landscape’ that we have to function in as journalists.

Process in to content

For my second year, Digital Newsroom students I picked on process.

The lecture was really about how the process has changed because of digital. So I took a very basic view of the process – find, research and report – and looked at where in the process digital had made an impact. Here are the slides from my lecture (a bit cryptic without notes I know – come to the lectures!)

I started by saying that the reporting part was where the real medium specific stuff really made itself known (the mechanics of output for a particular platform). Given that we are platform agnostic, this was not where we wanted to be.  Maybe the first parts where more generic? More about broad journalism.

In truth, the process is no longer that discreet. In a multi-platform world we can’t simply focus on one ‘point of delivery’ when the point of delivery is changing all the time. By rights we are (and should be) generating content all the time; what Robin Hamman called turning process in to content. (I’ve written on that issue before.)

But in stumbling along to that conclusion we looked at how digital allows us to inject input from ‘communities’ in to the early parts of our process. We also started to explore the pros and cons of that involvement – legal, ethical and practical.

As a conclusion and starting point for more discussion later on, I picked out three ‘keywords’ that I wanted them to think about.

  • Community
  • Social media
  • Crowdsourcing

All of which, in some form, have contributed to the changing media landscape in which we practice, regardless of medium.

Where chips go, the nation follows.

I didn’t see the thirds year print students this week as they were putting together their first newspaper (1st. week back. No hanging around). But the time I spent with our post-graduate newspaper students looked at similar issues to the second years.

I started with a little debate. I split the group in to two. One side took the position “newspapers will die in five years”. With the other side getting “newspapers will survive the next five years”. As you can imagine interesting debates ensued. Including the position that newspapers weren’t even used to wrap chips in anymore(and the wonderful statement that headed this section), countered of course by ‘you can’t wrap your chips in an ipad’.

It was great to see that the range of debate broadly mirrored the industry concerns(or you may see it as a sad reflection of the echo chamber!) and that the students took a admirable middle ground. Passionate but realistic.

For them, the list of things to ponder was longer but similar:

  • Community
  • Multi-platform
  • Multimedia
  • Hyperlocal
  • Data Journalism

I also included Profile/engagement on the list but that became a broader discussion of brand and identity.  Something that began to touch on the deeper issues of professionalism and ethics.

Nothing is simple

If this week could be summed up in a nutshell it would be “nothing is simple anymore”. We don’t just simply write for newspapers ( or make TV/radio etc) – we have an eye on multiplatform.  It’s not as simple as just talking to the community anymore – we interact. Everything is made more complex by technology and the influx of digital. Some of it is in our control. Some of it isn’t.

What we can’t avoid is that some of that pressure lands on the journalist, right from the point they engage with a story,  regardless of where it ultimately ends up. It may not be your employer who brings that pressure to bear. It may be the audience…

PS. Just in case you thought that we do nothing practical they also started (or, in the case of the second years restarted) blogs (platform up to them) and google reader.  The postgrads got their beats and patches to play with and got to explore their hyperlocal/patch site.

Image from tim_ellis on Flickr

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September 14 2010


Digital Journalism: Ethics and ethos

Twitter through up an interesting link to NYU’s  Journalism Handbook for Students: Ethics, Law and Good Practice. I was particually taken with their Ethics pledge which all students are expected to sign or “The final grade for a student registered in a journalism course will not be submitted to the Registrar”.

It begins with:

As a New York University journalism student, you are part of a community of scholars at a university recognized for its research. A scholar’s mission is to push forward the boundaries of knowledge; a journalist’s mission is to serve the public by seeking out and reporting the facts as accurately as possible. Good journalists and scholars share a commitment to the same principle: integrity in their work.

By signing this ethics pledge, you agree to maintain the highest standards of honesty and foster ethical behavior at all times. Anyone who fails to uphold these ethical standards has committed a serious violation of this agreement. Penalties can range from an F on an assignment to a failing grade in a course to expulsion, depending on the decision of the instructor in consultation with the Institute’s Ethics Committee.

Serious stuff.  The idea that an ethics comittee within an institution would consider, and rule upon,  proffessional ethics outside of the purley academic is challenging but, I think, right. Behaviour like Plagiarism is cited as the kind of behaviour that breaks the pledge and could get you hauled up.

Now we take plagiarism serioulsy but it’s an academic issue, there are serious punishments, but academic none the less. The ethics comittee oversees research activity. We also hammer home the Society of Editors code of conduct etc.  But I’d love it to be more directly asssociated with the professional ethics of journalism – more proffession based.

Defining a digital journalist.

The pledge chimed with me as I’m updating my Digital newsroom class for this year. The class handbook includes a page that outlines the ‘module ethic’:

This module is not about defining a digital newsroom.

This module looks at the way digital and online practice affects newsrooms
and how that, in turn, changes and develops individual journalism practice.

We will explore this by :

  • Looking at the context in which digital and online practice has
    developed and how that has changed newsroom practice
  • Looking at the tools used and evaluating how they can be used to
    create content.

You will use one to inform the other in a way that suits your practice.
As you do this module there are two things to keep in mind.

  • We are platform agnostics: You can be a newspaper, radio,
    magazine, TV or online journalist and still be digital
  • We are consumers and providers: Think about what it takes to
    produce the content you use everyday.

But most of all, remember: You are a digital journalist!

Whatever their motivation for getting in to journalism, whichever media they see themselves working in, understanding how digital tools and practice can fit in to their practice is what being a digital journalist is all about. That last bit is a given whether they like it or not.

I can’t get students to sign-up to it and if they ignore it there is no ‘ethos panel’ but at least we start from a common ground.

Image credit: WCN247 on flickr

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August 24 2010


The value of a journalism degree

Recently I came across an interesting new blog called Wannabe Hacks. (@wannabehacks) It’s a group blog from three people all taking a different route in to journalism. It’s an interesting idea and one worth watching.

So it was a nice coincidence to see my name, along with Paul Bradshaw in one of their tweets.

@digidickinson @paulbradshaw Can anyone tell us the perceived perks of an undergrad journo course over doing non-journo degree? skills etcAugust 20, 2010 2:35 pm via webwannabehacks
Wannabe Hacks

An interesting question. Any answer I give is bound to be viewed as biased. After all teaching undergrads is what pays my mortgage. But I’m going to give it a go.

Any discussion about the ‘value’ or ‘perks’ of a degree in general will always stray in to the area of the inherent value of a university education.

I enjoyed David Mitchells take on this in the Observer. I liked this summing up in particular.

Except in the case of a few very vocational degrees, university isn’t about what you learn on the course, it’s about how that learning, how living and studying somewhere new, changes the way you think and who you are. Instead of forcing kids to make binding career choices at 17,higher education is supposed to give students who would benefit from further academic development a bit of space in which to find themselves. People who are allowed to do that, statisticians have noted, tend to earn more than those who aren’t.

There is so much I agree with there. But I found myself nodding at the line “students who would benefit from further academic development”.

University is not for everyone. Not because some people are not capable or intelligent enough. It should be just one of the environments that are available to encourage and develop people. Of course the shame of it is that for a good while a University has become one of the only environments to develop. No more apprenticeships or on the job training any more – especially in journalism. Worse still they seem to have been steadily belittled and undervalued in recent times.

That means good journalism degrees have found themselves in that ‘few’ that Mitchell talked about. They are vocational courses, training people to work in journalism because, increasingly journalism orgs won’t.

That is one of their greatest ‘perks’.

I won’t go as far as to say that journalism undergraduate courses are the ‘best of both worlds’. But a good course will give you all the skills you need and the time to experiment with them in an environment that is geared towards your experience. A chance to find yourself, yes. But also a chance to develop skills and find your voice.

But (and this is a big but) there is cost to a degree. It’s not just in the very real and important issue of money. It’s in the amount of time and effort you put in.

Given three years in which to establish yourself and prepare for work, you have to keep an eye on where you want to go. At some point university is going to finish, so what are you doing to give yourself some ‘exit velocity’

Perhaps you are starting a hyperlocal news site or blog about your experiences. Maybe you have joined journalism.co.uk’s young journalism group TNTJ. Perhaps you write for your local newspaper or do shifts at the local radio station. Maybe you even work on the student media at your uni. All of that takes time. Time you could be in the bar finding yourself. But that’s journalism.

So, given my biased position, I think the perk of a journalism degree is time. You have three years and if you are outward looking and engaged nothing you do will be wasted.

The other side
In saying all of that I don’t want to give the impression that I see Journalism degrees as the only way to become a journalist. The idea of taking a first degree in a subject like economics or law and then doing a postgraduate in journalism is one I think has a huge amount of merit. As does going through the front door and getting a job with a media organisation or even starting your own blog/publication/podcast and building an audience. Plenty of people would advocate the university of life route over a journalism degree
. But then the it always suprises me what skip-loads of extraneous horse-droppings get talked about the whole issue these days :)

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July 23 2010


#cnnfrontline Mobile and journalism: Part one- some clarification

Big cameras at the Frontline

Big cameras at the Frontline

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

March 15 2010


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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