Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 4: Human Capital

This is the fourth part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Human capital

So here’s person number 4: Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist.

Fifty years ago he used the phrase ‘human capital’ to refer to the economic value that companies should ascribe to their employees.

These days, of course, it is common sense to invest time in recruiting, training and retaining good employees. But at the time employees were seen as a cost.

We need a similar change in the way we see our readers – not as a cost on our time but as a valuable part of our operations that we should invest in recruiting, developing and retaining.

Any online operation that does not incorporate its users in production is not only democratically deficient, it is commercially inefficient.

Of course some are inclined to see user generated content as a mass of ignorance, abuse and waffle. Those people should ask how much work has been put into attracting good contributors? Into developing a healthy commenting culture? And how much has been invested into giving the good users a reason to keep coming back?

Journalism’s conflicted future

I have spoken about journalism’s ego problem. This is worsened by the fact that journalism is going through an identity crisis, which will become increasingly problematic as it tries to reinvent itself for an uncertain future.

And as always, this is nothing new. In the 1920s journalism faced a similar conflict: between the journalism of information and the journalism of stories. Should we, as journalists, perform a role of providing citizens with the information that they need to make informed decisions? Or are we just in the business of great stories?

The source of that conflict then was the rise of the scientific method, as I explained at the start of this lecture. The source of today’s conflict could be traced to institutional change in news organisations becoming part of larger entertainment empires – and the melting pot of online publication.

Where you stand on the role of journalists will likely depend on whether you think you’re in the business of building cars, constructing roads or organising picnics, and what role you think journalism should perform in a democracy.

Is journalism part of a deliberative democracy, in which the media provides a public forum for debate and consensus?

Is journalism’s role is to provide citizens with information – as part of a liberal democracy?

Or should the media encourage participation and engagement as part of a participatory democracy?

The institutional history of journalism kept those views somewhat separated – as Lokman Tsui explores in his ethnography of Global Voices.

But as these cultures of journalism clash in the online space it is more important than ever that we reflect on our own views of where we stand.

And as educators we should be teaching our students to be aware of their positions and how that affects what they report on, how they report it, and who gets a voice in its coverage.

If objectivity is to remain a journalistic value, then it should be modern objectivity, not this 19th century construct that passes for objectivity in most newswriting: the setting up of an arbitrary fence, and the selection of a source from each side of it as an indication of ‘balance’.

Culture shift

In many ways culture is the way that people and institutions communicate with each other. And just as institutional culture shapes the journalism that we create, for the last couple of decades there has been a growing movement outside of news institutions that sees democracy as both participatory and information driven.

The campaign for Freedom of Information, the work of MySociety in opening up voting records and debate transcripts so the public could see what their representatives were doing and saying in their name. The Free Our Data campaign – which sought to give the public the right to use information that was paid for with public money. And the Linked Data and Open Data movements which have campaigned to make public bodies publish data in a form that makes it easier to interrogate.

What these people – and I want to name some of them here:

  • Tom Steinberg and Tom Loosemore
  • Heather Brooke
  • Charles Arthur
  • Tim Berners Lee and
  • Chris Taggart

What these people have done – and are still doing – is making power accountable, promoting a cultural expectation that we should have access to information about how our money is spent, and that most publicly funded information should be available to the people who paid for it.

This of course is one of the first steps to ‘holding power to account’, the great argument that publishers make for their existence. That is what the Telegraph did with the MPs’ expenses; what The Guardian have done with Wikileaks data.

But too much of this groundwork is lying ignored and unsupported by the mainstream press.

When Walsall Council released their spending data last year the webpage received more visits than the rest of the council website. They received several enquiries from people like Chris Taggart asking for information about why particular items had been redacted – but they received only one enquiry from the local newspaper.

And that was to ask: ‘Why have you released the data early?’

For comparison I want to show you a video of Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation in the US talking about their government’s transparency initiative.

Where is the news organisation in the UK that is lobbying like this?

A similar cultural shift is happening around public meetings and hearings, with hyperlocal blogs who want to make processes of law and democracy transparent.

Simon Perry of the Ventnor Blog was ejected from a coroner’s court last year on the grounds that he was neither a member of the press nor a member of the public. Richard Taylor was investigated by Cambridge City Council for recording public meetings – he was not told what the grounds of the investigation were. In Brighton a councillor was disciplined for posting clips of council meetings to YouTube. And Heather Brooke was told that she could not make an audio recording of a hearing because the tribunal could not “maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.” When Brooke asked for a copy of the ruling she was told that there was to be no written record of it.

This is one area where journalists and news organisations can be investing in their users. It should not just be bloggers pushing for these changes.

Part five can be found here.

7 thoughts on “Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 4: Human Capital

  1. Pingback: Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 5: Protect the public sphere | Online Journalism Blog

  2. Pingback: Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 6: Everything I’ve just said in 7 soundbites | Online Journalism Blog

  3. Pingback: Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 3: The production line has been replaced by a network | Online Journalism Blog

  4. Pingback: Guardian vs Mail: is engaging with users really that important? « You Generation

  5. Ana Gomes

    I’m missing a ‘read full text’ version. Also a proper print friendly 🙂 and a bigger font, please, I’m an old lady without glasses (yes, old people are reading posts)

  6. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks Ana – the Print Friendly button does offer a font size option. I’m afraid because I’m on a WordPress MU platform now I can’t customise the theme to change the font size there. Will see if I can get an accessibility plugin installed though.
    Will also try to collate it all together into a full script.


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