BBC v Local Papers – Oh no, not again…

Sometimes it’s difficult to underestimate the sheer nerve of people – where I come from in Yorkshire it’s known as having a brass neck.

The latest award for sheer brass neck must go to the local newspaper publishers who’ve reacted strongly to a recent suggestion by the BBC’s Director of News, James Harding, that the BBC should fill the information vacuum in the regions caused by the retreat of commercially-owned newspapers, in a report called The Future of News.

Roy Greenslade has done an excellent analysis of some of the evidence over at his blog at the Guardian, while I was at the BBC during the last stand-off between the corporation and the local newspapers, which ended in the BBC having to back away from its ultra local news services, which were piloted through its local radio station websites.

At the time the local newspapers won their case because they said they would provide local video services – something they never did; they refused to invest in local journalism overall and Greenslade highlights the evidence that proves their last promise was nothing more than snake oil.

So now Greenslade reports that the News Media Association, the trade body which represents local publishers has claimed that their commercial interests would be damaged by the BBC coming in and providing more local journalism – again, Greenslade has quotes aplenty to demonstrate their largesse.

The problem is that, sitting in their advertiser-funded ivory towers, they still believe they are providing solid, public-service journalism to their readers, when in fact most local newspapers are providing scant local news, often having a handful of staff whose main job is to re-hash press releases and tweets from the police.

One of the underlying main arguments for the licence fee (and by extension, the BBC) is that it ensures public service broadcasting, and public service journalism for all; even its opponents argue it should be used to make up for market failure.

Local journalism is one of the biggest market failures in the history of the media, and the local newspaper proprietors should hang their head in shame at the way they have decimated once-proud local newsrooms and thumbed their noses at their audiences as they chase profits.

Facebook is not going to cover the councils, Twitter is not on the press benches of our courts, so if people want solid local journalism it’s time for the local papers to admit they’ve failed and get the hell out of the way.

The News Media Association and the majority of local newspaper owners should hang their heads in shame at the way they have patronised and pilfered their readers over the last ten years, especially after making promises they knew they had no intention of keeping over local news.

If the BBC is suggesting there should be public money paying for public journalism, the local papers should shape up or ship out.

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Who is winning the social media war over Gaza?

We’ve seen a lot of conjecture in the press recently about who is winning the social media war over the current conflict in Gaza, while some commentators such as Con Coughlin in The Daily TelegraphPaul Mason of Channel Four News and Colin Daileda on Mashable are giving a points victory to the Palestinians, many other news organisations are reporting more even handedly on the way social media is being used by both sides.

One point stood out in all of this reportage and opinion: the unwillingness to really engage with what it means to be a journalist when so much information is flowing onto our smartphones, computers and tablets in real time. Mason summed it up thus:

And here’s the point: instant, unfiltered reports are cross-checked via the hive-mind created by social media itself. It is the medium that becomes the editing process: as last night, for example, when well-connected Israeli journalists were able to confidently nix the Hamas claims to have captured an Israeli soldier. Once they did this, reporters inside Gaza were able to question Hamas’ account.

But, one has to ask, what if they hadn’t? One also has to ask how long that process took, and how was that correction then broadcast to all the people who may have seen the original tweet? The answers are simple: Too long and it wasn’t.

There will still be a lot of people who still believe that Hamas captured an Israeli solder, just as there are still people who believe there were riots in Brazil during the World Cup because the hosts were being beaten 7-1 in their own backyard.

What is more worrying is that when experienced and respected professional journalists like Paul Mason, sitting comfortably in the middle of a field in Wales, go dewey-eyed over the prospect of the self-correcting hive mind of the Twitterati making sure that truth is always told, it really does make one wonder whether the whole of journalism should just pack up, go home and leave it to Twitter.

He rounded off his journalistic suicide note with an interesting point:

Today, anybody, wishing to bomb civilians, or risk civilian casualties in a military operation, can tell quite quickly what is fake and what is real. And so can the population that elects them. That’s the difference.


So what is the role of the journalist then? According to Paul Mason, and others like him, it appears that journalism is doomed and will be replaced by the massed intelligence of the “hive mind”. It’s what James Surowiecki termed The Wisdom of the Crowd.

While it is certainly true that social media has corrected many things that have been reported incorrectly (both on social media and in some notable cases, by journalists themselves) it is the reporting of these facts (and corrections) by journalists that sets the record straight and broadcasts those facts far wider than the self-interested confines of the Twittersphere.

Can we leave the truth to a hive mind where governments and corporations, dictators and religious extremists, vacuous pop idols and sports stars have, with their huge numbers of followers, much more of a voice than ordinary people. Can we trust any hive mind that is so badly skewed in favour of the vested interests? Can we trust a hive mind where spoof accounts can have more followers than the real ones? Can we trust a hive mind where propagandists and trolls can create huge numbers of zombie accounts to overpower any dissenters? Can we trust a hive mind that is run by one corporation, or will it start to run experiments on us like Facebook did?

There are clear dangers in taking the wisdom of the crowd at face value, as Surowiecki himself pointed out:

If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.

The problem is that groups are only smart when the people in them are as independent as possible.

Journalism therefore still has a huge job to do: its role is to search out the truth in all of this monsoon of live, real-time information, to cut through the propaganda and misinformation and tell the stories that people can trust, to place that information in its proper context and give people a way to digest the news instead of being overwhelmed by it; in Surowiecki’s terms, to keep people smart and independent.

Twitter is a tool – it can help journalists tell the story, it can, as Andy Carvin (formerly of NPR) demonstrated, allow you to cross-check and verify, but like all tools it can also be abused and mis-used.

As journalists, it is our job to ensure that, if that happens, then the “hive mind” is held to account, just like any other form of power.


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It’s a chill wind… even in Egypt

Al Jazeera 3

Mohammed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste

The decision by a court in Egypt to jail three Al Jazeera journalists for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and false reporting has provoked outrage from around the world, with thousands of journalists holding a vigil this morning to mark the moment, 24 hours earlier, when the sentences were handed down.

Already the Egyptian press, knowing they could follow Peter Greste, Mohammad Fahmy and Baher Mohamed into the dock at a moment’s notice, have understandably circled the wagons and rejected the criticism of the court’s decision.

This is what journalism looks like in a country where journalists are not free to report the truth, where any report that paints the government in a bad light, no matter how impartial and objective, will result in the journalist being arrested and jailed, and quite possibly tortured in the meantime.

That same BBC Monitoring report also shows that the people of Egypt are not fooled for one second by the theatrics and the rhetoric; the English hashtag #AJTrial was used more than 43,000 time in Egypt on the day of sentencing, most of the tweets criticising the sentence.

Egyptians know that the ‘Al Jazeera Three’ are mere pawns in a much bigger geo-political battle between the Egyptians and the Qataris, whose backing for the once-again-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and its ousted president Mohammed Morsi is well known.

Other hashtags, such as #FreeAJstaff and #journalismisnotacrime, have also been trending throughout the last 24 hours.

One tweet though stood out for me. I didn’t have time to record the details, but it was highlighted in a segment on Al Jazeera English’s Newshour by my former colleague Kamahl Santamaria, who was reporting on the reaction on social media and came out with a wonderful line: “This is what outrage looks like in the digital age” while pointing to a live map showing where the hashtag #AJTrial was being used.

The tweet was from a woman in Uganda who said that she wanted to become a journalist, but after the Egyptian sentence she was now worried about being jailed if she did so.

Journalism tweet

Tweet from Carolyne Amuge, with thanks to Kamahl Santamaria for providing the link

It was a poignant moment, and again, a potent reminder of precisely what this sentence was designed to do – stifle free speech and free expression.

As a journalist myself and as someone who trains young journalists, my advice to anyone having second thoughts about becoming a journalist is simple: Don’t be scared.

Journalism was born out of the battle for the right to report and express opinions freely, and the list of those who have been imprisoned (or even killed) fighting for or defending this right is long, and for the regimes responsible, shameful.

But to stay silent is to let those regimes win, and with more and more people now able to have their say via social media, the need for trained journalists who can inquire, verify, filter and determine the truth is greater than ever, especially with those regimes using the internet themselves to try and stifle free speech as well.

As Al Jazeera said when they were attacked for reporting the truth in the Iraq War in 2003:

Al Jazeera Poster

2003 poster [Al Jazeera]

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A funny thing happened on the way to the Referendum…

So, the Scottish referendum debate and the release of the SNP’s white paper on why an independent Scotland would be a good idea dominated the broadcast news bulletins morning, noon and night yesterday; the 648-page snooze-fest was pounced on and devoured ad nauseam by the various “breaking news” battalions of the UK press corps.

It wasn’t until lunchtime, and a chat with a colleague discussing Jim Naughtie’s slavering over another PhD-length question to some poor bemused politician on the Today programme, that a few questions began to be asked.

It was the BBC who actually let the cat out of the bag: only people resident in Scotland can take part in this referendum. People born in Scotland, but not living there, won’t get a say, but if you’re Welsh and live in Glasgow – have a ballot paper and join the queue.

Which all raises a rather interesting question about the editorial priorities of the suits who now run the broadcast newsrooms of the BBC and Sky.

Why were those of us in the rest of the union subjected to 24 hours of wall-to-wall speculation, pontification, obfuscation, hot air and repetitive filling of air-time when we won’t actually get a say in the matter?

Any newspaper editor will tell you that what leads in Lothian doesn’t necessarily lead in London, so why weren’t the BBC and Sky reflecting that?

Discuss (and if anyone utters those immortal words “public interest”, be prepared for a very disinterested and public poke in the eye).

PS: We also discussed what would happen to the “national broadcasters” in the event of Scotland rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall, but in the case of the BBC and Channel 4 the question was eventually answered, with the proposals for a Scottish Broadcasting Service buried deep within the SNP’s white paper.

Rather interestingly the SNP says this would be funded by the Scottish portion of the licence fee, which will come as a disappointment to the anti-licence fee brigade north of the border. Maybe there’s more to the complaints about SNP/BBC Scotland complicity than just pre-referendum rhetoric?

However there’s still no word on whether a new McSky News would be part of News UK’s plan, or indeed whether they would need another corporate re-organisation to form a new Scottish subsidiary.

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The death of the 500-word article?

On Tuesday I spoke at an event on the future of Journalism at a London creative agency called Protein. With me on the panel were Julian March of ITV (shortly to head to New York as seniorVP of NBC), Luke Lewis, editor of Buzzfeed and Martin Belam of Trinity Mirror.

In the wide-ranging discussion Martin mentioned some research by Quartz News, an American business site, which suggests that online journalists are wasting their time publishing articles between 500 and 800 words in length. These are too long to be shareable and too short to be in depth, so they don’t get read on line, runs the argument.

This chimed with some of my own thinking on where value  increasing lies in journalism. How can you stand out from the crowd and provide something that the public values. One answer is to be first with stories: this means being accurate at speed and publishing widely. Key here are sources, contacts, news sense, verification, the ability to reach large audiences on social networks. Being reliably ahead of the competition seems like a good place for a journalist to be.

Being first probably means being succinct: summing up the story in a couple of sentences and getting it out there.

Alternatively a journalist can go deep into a story and provide background and context: this probably means spending time over a story and writing at length. Key skills here are knowledge, research, the ability to explain. People will pay money for this – look at the Economist.

If you’re aiming to be first, you’re probably going to be short and succinct. If you’re aiming to provide context, you’re likely to be writing at length, so that you can set out your facts, background and argument.

But the typical news piece falls somewhere in the middle. These are the 500-800-worders that Quartz is taking aim at: neither super fast nor especially in depth, it’s often hard to see what they offer. They exist at that length largely because of the conventions of newspaper design. However, a properly written news story contains all of its key information in the first couple of pars: the further down the story you go, the less valuable is the information.

This story from the Telegraph is pretty typical. The new information – the revised death toll – is contained in the first sentence. Everything else that follows is either a restatement of that or repetition of old news from earlier in the week. A writer presumably spent an hour or two pulling all this together. And, because it was cobbled together from copy provided by news agencies, pretty much the identical story can be read in dozens of other sites. Where’s the value in that?

It’s an oversimplification to say that there is no point in producing 500-800 word stories (this piece comes in at just over 500, for example….). Of course, some are hugely valuable and interesting. But it’s worth noting that the fundamental form of the news story has remained unchanged for decades and asking whether it is really the best way of delivering information in the digital age.



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May defends ‘local’ papers

Another Tory MP fired a shot across the BBC’s bows at the Society of Editors conference this week, claiming that the corporation’s online activities are undermining local newspapers.

Theresa May said that the BBC’s claims that they were opening up new markets were nonsense and that it was, in fact dominating them, and that may have severe consequences for the small local newspapers such as The Maidenhead Advertiser, which covers her own constituency.

“If the BBC can provide all the locally-significant news, what reason is left for local people to buy a newspaper? That’s as dangerous for local politics as it is for local journalism,” she said.

It would actually be a very good question if it were in any way accurate, which it isn’t, and to blame the demise of the local press on the BBC is actually ignoring many of the very real issues which face local journalism in this country.

Anyone who has taken a few minutes to look at the BBC’s online output will realise that any local news comes from its network of local radio stations and regional television operations, which have been operating for more than 40 years.

Because of the geography, this means the BBC simply cannot provide the granular level of coverage that the local press provide, and which their audiences appreciate.

On top of that the ‘local’ press isn’t really a network of small local businesses operating in isolation; most local newspapers are owned by one of the large publishers such as Trinity Mirror, Associated, Gannett-owned Newsquest or Johnston Press.

These companies are perfectly capable of standing up to the BBC as was shown a few years ago when the BBC tried a pilot scheme to provide an “ultra-local” video news service, again based in its West Midlands local radio stations.

The pilot was not taken to full service after complaints from the newspaper editors that this would be a barrier to them providing such services, even though none of them had any resources to do so anyway; had they worked with the BBC rather than opposing them things might have been very different and there might be a lot more local video journalism jobs around than there are today.

As it is, the owners of local newspapers are feeling the squeeze and have shareholders to pay, so they aren’t investing in local newsrooms, which means fewer journalists, all of whom are welded to their desks turning round press releases from councils, MPs and charities and doing check calls rather than getting out and reporting on their local community properly.

Then there are the free-sheets. As one commenter on The Guardian story said: “Why buy a local paper when a free one comes through your letter box every week?”

Very often some of these free-sheets are paid for by local councils who don’t want their propaganda to be filtered by the professional journalists on their local paper, and so they produce their own newspapers, usually at the council tax payer’s expense, rather than engage with the local press where they might be, heaven forbid, criticised.

It’s not just in print, but online too – as Simon’s previous post highlights – many organisations now have their own online news services to provide news and information to people, not just the football clubs, and this too undermines the work of the local press, and this is a trend that’s on the rise.

Funnily enough,  many MPs do that as well, don’t they Mrs May?

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 10.13.00

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Journalists not welcome

Journalists don’t always get along with the people they write about: to some extent it’s our job not to do so.  We’re paid to be objective, to report what the public wants and needs to know and that can involve the telling of uncomfortable truths.

So there are often disagreements between journalists and their subjects, sometimes rows. I have even known reporters and press officers to come to blows over disobliging coverage. Generally, though, journalists are allowed to carry on doing their jobs without hindrance, all sides accepting, I suppose, that the public has the right to be informed. Organisations have the right to ban journalists they dislike from press conferences or to refuse to speak to them but, on the whole, they don’t.

One exception has been the football world where clubs have from time to time imposed bans on journalists whose reporting they take exception to. According to this report from the BBC, the practice is becoming more common.

Clubs know they need publicity but believe they can deal directly with fans, via club websites and social media. Doing it this way allows them to control the conversation and keep the bad news under wraps.

They’re not alone in thinking this way. As Kieran Alger, editor of T3 magazine, pointed out in last week’s guest lecture at the LCC, brands such as ASOS and Red Bull run highly professional magazines and websites, running the kind of journalistic content you would expect to find in newsstand titles – devoid, of course, of any criticism of Red Bull, ASOS or their products.

This is creating a new type of job – the brand journalist who uses journalistic skills and techniques in a PR environment. It is said that there are already more brand journalists working in the UK than there are journalists on consumer magazines.

It’s also creating dilemmas for traditional newspapers and magazines and the journalists who work on them. Many, perhaps most, magazines and newspapers produce sponsored content of various sorts, paid for by companies. We’ve all seen the special supplements and website sections marked ‘special promotion’ or the like.

But what do papers do when told, explicitly or otherwise, that they’ll be banned if their reporting of a local football club doesn’t find favour? Stand and fight or bend to the wind?

And what is the public’s attitude to all this? Do they value the critical, objective eye of an independent journalist? Or are they happy to receive information that is pre-vetted by their favourite football club? And how would we all feel if politics, business and the environment were covered in the same way, with independent reporting effectively cut out of the process?

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A modern day Tom Paine?

As our first year students have been getting to grip with the intricacies of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and their various interpretations of power and the people after the French Revolution, the last week has seen modern day versions of their debates taking place, albeit in a much shorter time-frame than in Burke and Paine’s day.

The first is Russell Brand, who might be called a modern day Tom Paine (facing down Jeremy ‘Edmund Burke’ Paxman on Newsnight), and all the debate that has flowed from that. This debate was taken up by The Independent who asked us whether we would be joining the Brand revolution:

Another example is a recent op-ed in The New York Times, where former Executive Editor Bill Keller invited Glenn Greenwald to debate the future of the press in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations about the work of the NSA:

One wonders what would happen if Brand and Greenwald were to join forces, or whether the extent of the apathy that Brand is describing could be demonstrated by adding “None of the above” to the bottom of every ballot paper?



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Looking back to look ahead

Interesting project underway in the US where the questions of how we came to be where we are in journalism are now being examined with the benefit of hindsight.

According to CNN, a trio of leading digerati are publishing an oral history project looking at the “original digital sin” of giving content away for free – which is currently being blamed for all the woes that journalism is facing at the moment, especially in the US.

The Digital Riptide project will have 50+ hours of video and testimony from those who were there at the start, and examine the decisions taken about whether content should be charged for or given away for free.

Some of the points raised are very true – at the start online was all about page views and eyeballs – traffic was the original currency, not actual money, as news organisations sought to establish their presence on the new World Wide Web.

However, it’s also true that while the technology of content delivery has developed incredibly quickly over the past 20 years, especially in relation to video in the last ten years, the technology of enabling people to make seamless micro-payments for content has not.

The researchers are looking ahead at what the future holds for journalism and the business models supporting them, and the inventor of the world-wide web (and UAL Fellow), Sir Tim Berners-Lee, agrees about the payment issues – he told the team:

“One of the solutions may be to get payment protocols on the web – new payment protocols – so it’s easy for me, as I read your blog or as I read your journal, the output of your journalism, I might be able to tell my browser, ‘You know what? Whenever I really enjoy an article, I’m going to hit this button, and I want to pay the guy who wrote it’ … because I really appreciate that.”

The researchers seem rather sniffy about that, claiming there’s already too much free content out there and they don’t think “asking people to pay a nickel every time is going to add up to enough to make it work.”

Well, you don’t know until you try – certainly the maths holds up: if you have an article that is read by 50,000 people and 10% like it enough to pay a nickel (five cents) then the author would receive $250, which is, coincidentally, what many magazines and papers currently pay for a feature article.

So, given this scepticism, it will be interesting to see what they come up with when the site goes live on September 9 – whether it helps the publishers and content producers of the future remains to be seen.

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Bucking the trend

As newspapers across America struggle for readership, advertisers and income, one title is, according to its owners, thriving.

The Orange County Register (OCR) in California has fought back against the decline in American journalism by… wait for it… hiring more journalists, doing more original journalism, prioritising print and making people pay online the same ($1) as they would for a physical paper.

The full story is in The Guardian, but one quote stood out:

“Imagine it’s your daily coffee. Each time you put down your money the cup gets smaller and the brew gets weaker. That’s essentially what’s happened to American newspapers. We took things away from people and at the same time gave content away free on the web. How crazy is that? The industry committed a kind of institutional suicide over time.” – Ken Brusic, OCR editor

But before the luddites start massing at the gates of Google, this is not about the impact of digital per se, but more about how the newspaper industry, like the other traditional media, responded to it so badly.

As Aaron Kushner, the OCR‘s owner put it:

“That’s the model: have a good product and get paid fairly for it.”

That applies whatever platform you read it on, digital or otherwise.

It will be interesting to see what their balance sheet looks like when they make their financial report in September.

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