Tag Archives: Digital Britain

How can the government save journalism?

I had an interesting meeting recently with an MP who wanted to get a handle on the state of the media right now and how good journalism could be supported. Rather than just hear my voice I thought it would be worth starting something wider that involves more voices, and point him to this.

To kick things off, here are some of the things I thought the government could do to create an environment that supports good journalism:

  • Release of public data (I’ve made this case before – it’s about helping create efficiencies for anyone reporting on public bodies). He seemed to feel that this argument has already been won.
  • Tax relief on donations to support investigative journalism: a number of philanthropists, foundations, public bodies and charities are starting to fund investigative journalism to fill the ‘market failure’ of commercial news production. In addition, an increasing amount of investigative journalism is being done by campaigning organisations rather than news organisations, and there is also the opportunity for new types of businesses – social enterprises and community interest companies – to fund journalism.
  • Encouraging innovation and enterprise: as regional publishers reduce their reporting staff and shut down their less profitable publications, gaps are appearing in local news coverage. Local people are launching news sites and blogs to fill those gaps – but not quickly enough, or with the resources, to match what was left behind. Funds to support these startups are much-needed and might also encourage journalists who have been made redundant to put their experience into an independent operation. There is no evidence to suggest that subsidising existing publishers will subsidise journalism; indeed, I would suggest it will stifle local innovation and economic growth.
  • Reskilling of redundant journalists: related to the last point, I would like to see funds made available to help put redundant journalists (more Chris Browns and Rick Waghorns) in a position to launch news startups. They have a wealth of experience, ability, knowledge and contacts that shouldn’t be left to waste – give them online and enterprise skills.
  • An effective local news consortia: The Digital Britain-mooted local news consortia is a vague idea in need of some meat, but clearly it could go some way to meeting the above 2 by supporting local independent media and providing training. Allowing the usual suspects to dominate any new operation will see business as usual, and innovative independent operators – including those who work on a non-commercial basis – will quickly become disillusioned. The idea of putting some or all of the commissioning process in the hands of the public, for instance, could be very interesting.
  • Address libel laws: one of the biggest obstacles to investigative reporting is the potential legal costs. Most newspapers now make a hard commercial decision on stories: if the story is worth enough money to make it worth fighting, it gets published; otherwise, it doesn’t. Public interest or importance is not the major factor other than in how it affects likely sales. Likewise, startup operations are likely to shy away from edgier reporting if they feel they can’t afford to fight for it in the courts. Stopping councils from suing for libel was an important step; keeping libel laws out of science should be the next one – and it shouldn’t stop there.

So those are the ideas that occurred to me. What would you suggest this MP, and government, do to help journalism?

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An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government

Following the tone set so succinctly by Glyn Moody, I thought I would add my own thoughts on what Sir Tim should say to the government when he bends their ear on transparency.

Firstly, I would second everything that Glyn says.

But I’m going to be cynical and strategic, and urge Sir Tim to emphasise the importance of open data on a couple of areas that are close to the government’s hearts.

1. Stimulating growth in the economy.

You could compare a genuinely significant release of public data to an economic stimulus.

Like cutting VAT, only cheaper.

At minimal cost you could have a new raw material that startups and established media organisations alike could create new value out of. Some of those would create commercial implications far exceeding any revenue generated within government (as research recently suggested in relation to the comparably valuable Ordnance Survey data).

Repeat after me: jobs and money, jobs and money.

2. Efficiencies and passing on costs in the public sector

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon puts it particularly well:

You will sooner gain your end by “appealing to men’s pockets, in which they have generally something of their own, than to their heads, which contain for the most part little but borrowed or stolen property”

Public sector spending is going to drop whichever party is in power. Let’s play to that.

By opening up public data the government will effectively be able to pass on some development costs to willing volunteers who mash up the data in their own ways. The difference is that people will do this to their own agendas and for their own benefit.

But more importantly, the results of this experimentation – if supported and encouraged – should produce work that makes it more efficient to interact with public data and therefore public bodies. If I can use a slider to find out which schools are within 3 miles, that saves 20 minutes of someone answering a phonecall in the local education department. If I can have a Facebook app which tells other users how much money alcohol abuse is costing my local hospital, it might save the NHS a bob or two. You get the picture. 

Oh yes, and it’s important for democracy, civic engagement and digital literacy

The limited data that’s available in the UK is an embarrassment. Imagine what MySociety could do with what’s available in the US.

Likewise, for all the talk of transparency, the recent announcement that Cabinet Papers and information relating to the Royal Family would be exempt from the Freedom of Information act is a backward step. Heather Brooke’s concerns proved right.

The cynic in me sees the appointment of Berners-Lee as an action intended to generate the illusion of movement – “We’re working on it”. But the Freedom of Information act is possibly the most positive contribution the Labour government has made to this country’s political health since it came to power, and not to follow through on promises made would be an enormous political mistake.

So I will add one request to my advice above: I would stress that any discussion of transparency acknowledges the importance of requiring any organisation using public funds to make their data public too. So much public work is outsourced to the private sector that it is particularly difficult to see whether public money is spent responsibly.

More at Podnosh, BBC, Emma Mulqueeny, Simon Dickson and Amused Cynicism.

Letter to Govt. pt6: “How to fund quality local journalism”

The following is the last part of a series of responses to the government inquiry into the future of local and regional media. We will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. This post, by Alex Lockwood, looks at:

“How to fund quality local journalism”

The bottom has fallen out of the traditional publishing business model–and with it goes the hefty dividends expected by shareholders (e.g. £48.4m in 2008 for the Trinity Mirror Group). The future of local quality journalism can only remain with the current crop of regional newspaper publishers if they radically change their expectations, and innovate.

That might not happen. If it doesn’t, they will die off, and the future of quality local journalism will take a huge – but not definitive – blow. Then the future lies with new initiatives and the local communities themselves – passionate and entrepreneurial people, only some of whom will be journalists. What about local council initiatives to publish newspapers and local information? That’s not the way to go – covered in Part 3.

But how to fund it? Here are eight suggestions for the future of local journalism funding: Continue reading

Letter to Govt pt5: Opportunities for “ultra-local” media services

The following is the fifth of a series of responses to the government inquiry into the future of local and regional media. Andy Price looks at the opportunities for ultra-local media services. Blog comments will be submitted to the inquiry as well. If you wish to add a blog post to the submission please add a link to one of the OJB posts – a linkback will be added at the end.

Opportunities for “ultra-local” media services

Over the last few years one of the few, if not the only positive development in the regional press has been the dramatic growth of “ultra-local” or hyper local news. Often this is in the form of online participatory journalism, mixing traditional professionally produced news with a wide range of user generated content.

This has two major benefits. It grows significant traffic to newspaper websites, offering vital opportunities for revenue generation and develops the civic and democratic role of the media by allowing new avenues for discussion and debate, enhancing the local public sphere and maintaining a plurality of perspectives. It also widens and flattens the ‘market’ of news production, creating a new environment that integrates citizens as news producers in an entirely original and empowering way.

Looking at the existing geographical franchises of most regional publishers it is often the case that the local newspaper website is the only local digital platform that offers both participation and discussion of issues of civic interest. As well as the independent coverage of issues of relevance and significance to the citizen. Continue reading