Monthly Archives: October 2009

FAQ: Why do you blog? And other questions

Here’s another collection of Q&As from a correspondent, published here to prevent repetition:

1. How do you feel about the opinions published in your blog being used by journalists in the news?

I’m not clear what you mean by this question, but broadly speaking if my opinions are properly attributed then I am fine with it.

2. Why do you blog?

I started blogging out of professional and creative curiosity – at that point it wasn’t an online journalism blog. I continued to blog largely because I started to feel part of a wider community – I particularly remember comments from Mindy McAdams and links from Martin Stabe. Now I blog for a combination of reasons: firstly, it is hugely educational to put something out there and receive other people’s insights; secondly, it leads to meetings and conversations with very interesting people I otherwise wouldn’t meet; thirdly, it’s a useful record for myself: forcing myself to articulate an idea in text means I can identify gaps and come back to it when I want to make the same point again.

3. Do you consider yourself a journalist when blogging in that you source news and broadcast it?

Yes. But how much I “source news” and how much I “broadcast” it are subject to further discussion.

4. What do you think about information put on social media websites, such as photos and personal details, being used in mainstream media?

I assume you mean without permission? I think there’s a lack of proper thought on both the part of the individual and the journalist. On a purely legal front, it’s breach of copyright, so media organisations and journalists are in the wrong. On an ethical front, journalists need to realise that a social network is not a publishing platform, but a conversational one. If someone puts information there it is often for an intended, personal, audience. The closest analogy is the pub conversation: it is being held in public, but if someone listens in and publishes what you’ve said to a much wider, different, audience, then that is unethical (public interest aside).

5. When blogging, are you aware that you are putting your opinions and thoughts out there for the world to see? Do you censor what you say because of this?

Yes. And yes. ‘Censor’ is probably the wrong word: I choose what I say; I generally don’t talk about my personal life or meetings which I assume are confidential.

6. Do you think a news piece sourced from blogs is as worthy as a piece sourced from investigative journalism?

To properly answer this I’d probably need lengthy definitions of what you mean by ‘worthy’, blogs, news, ‘sourced’ and investigative journalism. And even then I think to impose broad-brush distinctions like these is a flawed approach. A news piece sourced from blogs can be investigative; ‘investigative journalism’ can be ‘unworthy’. Judge each case on its own; don’t dismiss the value of something because of the packet it comes in.

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Are there too many journalism courses?

I took a phonecall recently from a journalist writing an article on the increase in journalism degrees. The question – are there too many? – is one of those that recur every so often, so I thought I would lay out some of the thinking behind it and why I think the question itself is flawed.

What and who are journalism degrees for?

The first problem with the question is the implicit assumption about what journalism degrees are for; that journalism courses exist ‘to train people to enter the news industry’. If the news industry is shedding jobs, the question suggests, why should we have so many journalism degrees?

But journalism degrees do not exist just to train people to enter the news industry. This is the difference between ‘education’ and ‘training’. Off the top of my head, here are just some of the things I think they do. Feel free to add more:

  1. Build core academic skills such as research, conceptual knowledge and critical skills
  2. Build practical skills such as communication, research, and production
  3. Develop creative skills
  4. Develop project management skills
  5. Develop teamworking skills and the ability to work on initiative
  6. Build a critical understanding of news processes and relationships of power
  7. Provide space to explore how journalism and publishing is, and might be, different (particularly important when it is in crisis)
  8. Allow people to find out whether they want to work in the news industry
  9. Allow students to achieve a degree in an area they find challenging and fulfilling
  10. And yes, to train people to enter the news industry
  11. And the PR industry
  12. And any industry that involves professional communication

There are a huge range of journalism courses – from those that are purely theoretical with no practical work, to those that are almost entirely practical, and those that have a mix of both. Ultimately, there are a lot of journalism courses because there are a lot of people who want to study journalism, and their motivations are as varied as the courses themselves – for many it is simply ‘something I am good at’. If it was simply to ‘get a job’ then they could do a training course for much less.

Journalism is not the same as ‘the news industry’

A second assumption underlying the question is that journalism and news publishing are the same. They are not. I’ll save the ‘What is journalism?’ discussion for another time, but if we can agree that it is more complex than ‘working for The Sun’ and closer to ‘finding information and crafting it into meaningful narratives’ then that’s the point I want to make. And jobs requiring the skill of journalism are not limited to ‘the news industry’.

While mainstream broadcasters and publishers are shedding jobs, you see, other areas are recruiting. AOL has increased its journalists from 500 to 3000; Microsoft has entered the arena with MSN Local; there are in-house and business-to-business magazines; the hugely-expanding area of SEO is hiring content creators; and any company that doesn’t pay an SEO company is realising it needs to produce regular content for that website it paid for.

In an article in the latest issue of The Journalist, Vivien Sandt puts it well when she points out a number of job ads for journalists: “The skills required do not differ substantially from those of a sub-editor or journalist. But none of the advertisers is a traditional media company.”

The biggest problem with journalism degrees is not that there are too many, it is that too many of them are ignoring these parts of the media ecology.

‘Disappointed’ students

Assumption number 3 underlying the question of ‘too many journalism degrees’ similarly involves employability, but from a supply perspective rather than that of demand.

‘Students come into journalism degrees expecting jobs in publishing,’ it runs. ‘And there are no jobs.’

Notwithstanding the points I’ve made above about jobs, there are some other points to be made here. I’m sure that most people studying drama hope to become actors; that most people studying art hope to work in the creative industries; even that many people studying English Literature hope to become writers.

Not all of them will. Shit happens. Some people are not very good; some people don’t try very hard; some people are just coasting along on the path of least resistance – we can’t design that out of our education system without excluding those that work hard, who are talented and dedicated and want to achieve great things. A degree isn’t the promise of a beautiful career – it is the promise of an opportunity for personal development which relies on your own commitment and ability as much as that of the lecturers, support staff and university.

The philosophy industry is pretty dead right now, but I don’t hear people saying ‘There are too many Philosophy degrees’.

C&binet: The mice that roared. Or at least wrote some things on Post-Its.

I spent today at the hyperlocal C&binet event, organised by Creative Industries MP Sion Simon at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. I’ve already blogged my thoughts leading up to event but thought I would add some more links and context.

For me, it is significant that this happened at all. Normally these sorts of events are dominated by large publishers with lobbying muscle. Yet here we had a group combining hyperlocal bloggers, successful startups like Facebook, Ground Report, Global Voices and the Huffington Post, social media figures like Nick Booth and Jon Bounds, and traditional organisations like The Guardian, BBC, RSA and Ofcom. Jeff Jarvis pitched into the mix via Skype.

As for the event itself, it began the previous afternoon with a presentation from Enders Analysis, embedded below: Continue reading

Twitter insights: Blaine Cooke @ teacamp

This is the video I shot (with hand-held Flash camera, someone tweeted about how I managed to keep my hand up for an hour) of one of Twitter’s creators, Blaine Cooke, visiting Teacamp, a gathering of Whitehall webbies and hangers on.

Cooke kindly spent a hour answering questions about Twitter – where it came from, is now and where it’s heading to. In other words, lots of insider knowledge

C&binet notes part 2: 10 things government can do to help local journalism

More notes from this morning’s train journey down to C&binet at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

The word holistic annoys me for some reason, but I can’t think of any other. Journalism’s problem is holistic; the solution is likely to be holistic as well. There is no magic bullet, so here are 10 ideas of things that government and other public bodies can do to help journalism.

  1. Journalism as volunteering – formally recognise journalism as a way to contribute to your local community: cleaning out the trash, so to speak, in a figurative sense. Provide the formal structures to support this: training, legal support, travel costs, connections. As a side-effect this can help address the Samantha Syndrome in the media: journalists increasingly coming from affluent backgrounds as they are the only ones who can afford to support themselves through internships, training etc. Make journalism a formal volunteering activity and you widen the pool of participants, while increasing media literacy.Arts funding for journalism – journalism is art. Journalism that engages particularly effectively with communities is, for me, worthy of arts funding. Let’s help that happen.
  2. Tax relief/support – on, for example, R&D. Local newspapers are sitting on a vast archive of local information that could be hugely useful if effectively digitised and an API created. Let’s help that happen.
  3. Open supply of information and data from public bodies – instead of spending the council PR budget on a local freesheet, spend part of it on streaming council meetings and providing public data that acts as a resource for professional journalists, citizen journalists, developers, startups and citizens generally.
  4. Outreach training & support – also from the council PR pot: if ‘celebrating the area’ is your objective spend money training local people and support them editorially to blog about the great and not so great things happening in their area.
  5. A Council News NetworkNick Booth’s suggestion of the BBC as a model for publicly owned news is a great one. Take editorial control over council news away from councils to a body that has independence. The BBC would be a good candidate for this.
  6. Postcode-based direct mail – If councils object to being required to advertise notices in their local paper on the ground that it doesn’t reach everyone, use direct mail through another agent. The Newspaper Club could do this very well: telling people about planning alerts, etc. based on their postcode, with the money used to subsidise other journalism.
  7. Wired cities – a perfect place for local information is the bus stop or train station – not just billboards but electronic systems that currently show bus times. Why not show other local information there? Invest in the infrastructure and improve local distribution networks for information. Put the supply of that information out to tender.
  8. VRM for power and people – Yoosk is a good model for vendor relationship management (VRM) between politicians and citizens: people post questions, politicians answer, and users vote on whether they felt the question was answered. Ultimately this is part of great journalism: interrogating power and holding power to account. The funding criteria need to avoid domination by powerful, so it might be based on, for example, the numbers of people looking at planning alerts, council meetings, engaging, voting etc.
  9. Providing efficiencies – supplying raw data is one efficiency; organisations like the BBC could provide training, platforms, kit and space, pubic organisations have distribution networks. All of these can be opened up for greater efficiency.
  10. Legal change – Libel is an enormous obstacle to true engagement with and challenging of power, particularly for news startups, and needs to be urgently addressed. Widening the Freedom of Information Act to apply to organisations who receive public money above a certain amount would be hugely useful. There are probably others you can add.

Those are the ideas I have, anyway. Anything to add?

UPDATE: FROM THE COMMENTS:

  1. Simon Clarke: “some kind of move against police harassment of journalists for spurious “security” reasons.”
  2. Paul Miller: “banning junk mail would have a pretty positive impact. It accounts for 11.5% of UK advertising spend and shifting that online and into newspapers would be a big boost to local revenues.”

Saving local journalism: some thoughts ahead of C&binet

I’m sat on a train on the way to the C&binet session at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport looking at the question of what the government should do – if anything – to save local journalism. Here are my notes:

The problem is not journalism

The vanity of journalists often leads to chest-beating deprecation of modern journalism. While there is some validity to that argument, it misses the point. Audiences have been steadily declining since well before the internet – that’s not what’s caused the current crisis.

The problem is not a journalism problem – it is an advertising problem, and a distribution problem.

The advertising problem is this: over recent years the market has been flooded with suppliers. This has driven the price down to a level that cannot sustain shareholder-owned print operations. In the last 12 months a sheer drop in demand has compounded the problem, and it’s widely accepted that some of that demand may never come back.

Advertising itself has changed too – from the traditional model of CPM (selling eyeballs) to CPC (selling clicks) to CPA (selling actions, e.g. purchases), and is likely to evolve further in the future towards VRM (vendor relationship management, i.e. managing the relationship between seller and buyer). I’ve seen little evidence of newspapers adapting their own advertising offerings in line to get a foothold when advertisers catch up – it’s still print-centric.

The distribution problem is that newspapers do not control distribution online – by and large their readers do, and newspapers have failed to acknowledge this, leaving themselves open to web startups that build user distribution into their design and operation. Of course the loss of control over distribution means losing the monopolies that allowed newspapers to keep advertising prices high enough to sustain the profit margins they were accustomed to. Now advertisers have choice, and the newspaper ad offering doesn’t look much of a bargain.

What does the future of local journalism look like?

I see 2 main paths of development, and both have one thing in common: the future is networked.

On the one side I see the national-grassroots-data path – I’ll call it the Networked Model for simplicity’s sake. As increasing numbers of local newspapers close or stunt their operations, hyperlocal blogs will spring up to address the gap. At the same time national news organisations enter the local market and partner with these and data-based operations. The most likely figures in this scenario are The Guardian, hyperlocal blogs and the likes of MySociety and OpenlyLocal. It’s a patchwork solution that is likely to leave gaps in coverage.

On the other side is the Local News Consortia proposed by Ofcom. Established operators like PA, ITN and regional newspaper publishers will partner up to gain access to a pot of public money and efficiencies that they cannot achieve without ending up in front of the Competition Commission. This will require some public service commitments such as covering councils and courts, and universal coverage – but fundamentally this will be Business As Usual.

More to follow in further posts

This year’s reading list – an OPML file

In addition to the usual reading list I give to students on the new MA Online Journalism, I also provide an OPML file of around 50 RSS feeds they should be subscribing to – broadly, 5 feeds each in 10 categories.

I thought I should make it available here, so: here it is.

The idea is that a) they get instant access to up-to-date news and analysis of a range of relevant areas; and b) it introduces them to the concept of RSS, if they don’t already know about it, and how to share OPML files.

It seems a no-brainer that we should be doing this on all courses.

Oh, and if you think there are better feeds, let me know.