Tagged: media revolution

Why it’s time for Journalism First

The week’s started with plenty of fuel for the ‘what next for journalism’ debate. And it seems we’re still arguing the toss over form rather than content. My previous post contained some initial thoughts on The Guardian announcing its ‘Digital First’ strategy, and now Jeff Jarvis has added a few thoughts. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger also fleshed out the idea. And there was a very good post on Wannabee Hacks this morning which takes things off at a tangent, in the process sparking some interesting discussion. Continue reading

NUJ New Ways to Make Journalism Pay event

I was going to try to post something on this rather excellent NUJ event, held on Saturday, but while researching an article on this and the equally useful and stimulating news rewired shindig last week I came across Ian Wylie’s detailed round-up of the day. I heartily recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the media, and I also tip my hat to Ian for preserving my sanity.

To tell the truth, after two days of media conference brainstorm network debate action, sandwiched around a full day of teaching at LCC  and in advance of a full week of shifts at several different clients – oh, and an early start for the under-9s football on Sunday morning – my head is spinning. I sat late into Sunday evening trying to do a first draft of my feature, but rapidly reached the conclusion I need more time to mull it all over. I also worried about finding time to post on the NUJ event, make some long overdue changes to this blog, organise my teaching notes for next week, prepare for a meeting with my publisher, and get my head into gear for a new client on Monday morning. That is the nature of freelance life, I guess.

So, thanks to Ian Wylie for providing a great example of what an individual journalist can do with modern technology and some nous, for easing the pressure on my brain just a little, and for prompting me to bookmark a blog that looks like a very entertaining read. And thanks to the ever-marvellous Sarah Hartley for posting the link in the first place.

Is directing readers to other people’s stuff cheating? No. This is how media works now – link, credit, share. Why replicate when you can innovate? My contribution will come, and I am not passing off anyone’s contribution as my own.

What I aim to do now is drink just one glass of the eight-year-old single malt I got for Christmas, watch some rubbish TV, talk to my wife and get an early night in. A very busy week ahead means it’ll almost certainly be quiet on this blog for a few days, but I’ll leave you with a first impression that is forming from the gazillions of thoughts spinning around in my brain at the moment. It is just possible that we are at the start of the development of a far better media than we have ever had. The innovation, enthusiasm, co-operation and sheer friendliness I’ve experienced over the last few days have been quite extraordinary.

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Time to move the debate about journalism’s future on

I was teaching on the day of the recent Is there a crisis in world journalism? event so I was unable to participate and I’ve been trying to catch up since. There’s plenty of audio and video at the link above, set up by Coventry University which hosted the event, and on journalism.co.uk. But I had a few doubts about the event, and what I’ve seen and heard so far hasn’t assuaged them.

Form and content

I should say at this point that I’m not knocking the very great effort that went into staging or contributing to this event. I just think we need to move things on a little. Coventry University’s John Mair, who produced the event, described it as as: “Distinguished speakers from across five continents, an audience of students, academics and real people, three and a half hours of exciting intellectual debate and more, breaking new frontiers with videoconferencing and webcasting and Twitter and more: this has put Coventry and Coventry journalism on the world stage.” All of which is fine, but the measure of the event’s value is surely in what was actually said, as well as the methods used to say it.

From what I’ve seen so far, there was much general discussion about the exciting and challenging media times we live in. Jeremy Paxman made an interesting contribution about the kind of journalism that can be produced, and Adrian Monck also focussed on a practical angle, observing pertinently that “journalists are obsessed with the notion of crisis” and saying that we need to “seize the opportunity” to put new ideas and new ways of producing news into practice. And on one of the podcasts on Coventry Uni’s iTunes U site, jco’s own Judith Townend mentions the problems caused by management’s inability (or unwillingness?) to communicate properly in this era of change, therefore fuelling staff suspicion rather than ambition.

Navigation skills

But there was also more of the same stuff I’ve been reading and hearing for over a year. At the risk of over-simplifying in summary, this seems to consist of the massive generalisation that print is “dead”; some vague assertions about the need for journalists to be entrepreneurs (as if this is something new); and a few references to how social media means we are all media barons now. OK, I know I’ve really over-simplified that, but bear with me on this.

One of my teaching colleges spoke of a frustration that “so much of the debate is consumed in negativity without giving any of the new young journos any interim navigating skills”, and I think some of that is driven by the tendency of so many journalists to re-invent themselves as expert commentators – something I refer to in the comments following a very good post by Adrian Monck in which he debunks some of the commentary.

I’m aware that by writing about all this I’m opening myself up to the same charge of posing as an expert commentator, but what I hope I can do is help to move the debate on so that we are looking at the very practical ways we can deal with the new media landscape rather than simply pushing general theories. It’s not quite so easy to get a punchy headline or a simple set of soundbites, but it may prove more useful.

Bottom up

This stage of the debate can’t be driven by talking heads, by ‘experts’ who are often removed from the day-to-day issues faced by ordinary journalists. It has to come from the trade itself. So I’ll be looking for reports of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom‘s ‘Media for all, The Challenge of Convergence’ event, and pushing the value of the NUJ’s New Ways To Make Journalism Pay event on 16 January 2010. And I’ll also be continuing the discussion with the students I teach at the London College of Communication and Goldsmiths College, who seem to have little doubt that the quality of the content, not simply the method of delivery, is key.

It’s at this level, and at the level of the – let’s call it the shop floor – that the most interesting debate is going on, whether it be Reed Business Information’s more formal discussion sessions about how to work in new ways, or simply on-the-hoof decision-making about how best to find, present and extend a story using whatever tools we have at our disposal. It’s why I’ve always believed in the value of labour that is organised – not for some theoretical political reason but because of its practical value. Understanding and valuing a trade leads to the development and practical application of skill.

That’s not to say the participants at events like ‘Is there a crisis in world journalism?’ do not understand or value the trade. They clearly do, although I would agree with Adrian Monck when he observes that any crisis may well be one of confidence in what we can do.

Don’t forget variety

It’s also worth observing that 99% of the discussion about “journalism” is actually about news reporting. There are other forms of journalism, which may not be as socially and politically significant – although there’s room for debate there – but which are embracing new opportunities with far less gnashing of the teeth than the news end of the operation.

Too much of the debate in the last 12 months has been about talking journalism down, about predication rather than application. We talk about what might happen rather than what could happen. In the choppy waters we find ourselves in, we need more navigation and less forecast.

More on journalism’s chicken and egg conundrum

Some interesting comments were made in response to my piece on Journalism’s chicken and egg conundrum while I was on holiday, so I here are some follow-up thoughts.

Fra Paolo takes issue with my assertion that readers became “bored”.  I’d stick with the term “bored” – readers became bored because what was offered wasn’t original or engaging. There wasn’t much to distinguish one publication from another, and the basic template wasn’t that interesting. Markets decline for the reasons you mention too, but boring products played a part. Exciting new ideas can still be interesting when they are mainstream, so I don’t agree that the critique doesn’t take account of this.

He makes an interesting point when referring to James Murdoch’s speech last week about how the BBC shapes the debate, saying “maybe viewers and listeners would prefer the licence fee not to be spent on new media content, especially if the money improved the old media service. There’s a debate we’ve never had.” It’s certainly a debate that would be useful, and one I want to return to. I wonder what people’s thoughts are?

Fra Paolo concludes “Why should the Internet supply more than headlines? Because it can? That’s a stupid reason.” I’d say the answer to the first question is “because it does”, which changes the shape of the debate.

Tom Davies says: “There’s also the less-discussed issue that advertisers, more than journalists, have found the internet a harder thing to adapt to.” An astute point.

We need to be more specific about what we are debating. Sometimes we talk about means of communication and interacting with an audience, and sometimes we talk about commercially viable or successful means of communication. There are three separate concepts there. Of course, each one can overlap to a certain extent with either of the others. But there are important differences.

I still think what is at the heart of my original post is valid. Too many print publications prioritised the needs of advertisers when they should have been prioritising the needs of readers. The result has been that readers have drifted away because they are not being properly catered for, while advertisers have found other mediums in which to advertise. In the clearest example of the error of prioritising advertisers, the falling reader numbers prompted in part by this strategy are themselves a major reason why advertisers are looking elsewhere.

All the talk of value rarely valued journalism – of whatever type. Hence the crisis of confidence among journalists. But if we don’t value journalism, why should anyone else? I still say people are prepared to support – financially or otherwise – a quality product. And I don’t use the term “quality” in an elitist way. Developing technology means we have more and better ways of producing that quality. The future of journalism will be shaped by producers and consumers together, and not by continuing to allow narrow definitions of “commercial reality” to masquerade as scientific fact.

Readers or advertisers; journalism’s chicken and egg conundrum

I was drawn into an interesting debate on Freelance Unbound yesterday, as a result of which I’ve been thinking a few things over. In print, the expectation is usually that comments expressed are hard and fast opinions, but one of the things I love about blogging is that it affords the opportunity to think aloud and therefore to shape ideas. So what follows is a bit of thinking aloud, prompted by the thought that producing material primarily for advertisers rather than readers is proving to have backfired. Let me eleborate.

The death of print – a synopsis

At the risk of unfairly paraphrasing, the many obituaries for print boil down to this; print publications traditionally survived on advertising and advertisers no longer advertise in print because print readership is falling. So far, so logical. Except…

Chicken or egg?

The readership of print titles has, in fact, been falling for decades. The reason is not, I would argue, solely because of the web. It’s because there are more titles competing in the same market. The reason this isn’t recognised is because much of the debate about the media focusses on news and newspapers.

There is only one more UK national newspaper in the market now than there was 40 years ago. But newspapers recognised long ago they couldn’t survive just by providing ‘news’. They dealt with the “crisis of journalism” of the age by expanding into the features area and attracting magazine readers when they realised that they couldn’t be first with the news in the age of TV and radio. Analysis, colour, background, human interest – these have all been staples of newspaper journalism since TV and radio discovered (although went on to lose sight of the fact) that they could be first to report events and so offered a unique attraction that newspapers couldn’t replicate.

In the world of magazines, it’s a different story. A time traveller from 1969 would be startled by the sheer variety of magazines in every niche that are on offer in a newsagent’s. New market niches have appeared and new markets too – where were the celebrity gossip and men’s mags in 1969? The result is that success has been measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions.

More means less

So readerships of individual titles were falling long before advertisers moved away. But the underlying trend was that more titles didn’t mean diversity, because many of the titles in the same market were owned by the same companies. IPC pretty much owned the entire women’s weekly market before Bauer came and shook things up, for example. And Bauer shook things up by increasing the availability of the product by striking sale-or return deals with newsagents which ended the practice of big media companies forcing small outlets to take the risk of ordering bulk copies. This, allied to strong editorial brands which hooked the readers who found it easier to access the product, enabled Bauer to lay the foundations of its now dominant position in the UK magazine publishing sector.

Following the money

So fewer people read specific magazine titles than they used to, but for a long time there were more people in the magazine-reading market. Media companies got advertising on the basis of a portfolio of titles, while media titles – especially individual newspapers – didn’t. Unfortunately, this meant that the measure of the success or failure of a title became the advertising that it could attract. Which led to the blandification of the market as magazine content, and especially covers, were dictated by advertising rather than editorial departments. It’s why most media senior executives come from the sales rather than the editorial side, and why for all the titles on offer, you’re pretty much buying the same magazine whatever you chose.

Why did the readers stop reading?

I’ve argued why the readership of individual titles has gone down due to the fact that there are more titles, but there’s another reason for the loss of readers. Most of those titles are boring. Editorial direction is dictated by marketing needs, so content is designed to keep the advertisers happy rather than to attract and stimulate readers. The result is that readers are bored, they don’t buy the bland products on offer. And so the advertisers pull out.

All of the above above will no doubt be characterised in some quarters as the ramblings of a deluded purist who doesn’t understand the economic realities of the age. But I’d ask you to look at just where the ‘visionaries’ who truly understand the game have got us. They’ve chased the advertisers for so long they have reduced the worth of their product, to the point where advertisers and readers are questioning the value of paying for the product at all.

Ironically, it was the contract publishing sector which first understood this. I remember reading an interview with Ekow Eshun, former editor of Arena when it was a proper magazine and then director of the ICA, who talked about his time editing the BMW magazine as one of greater creative freedom than he’d known for years. The big brands realised they needed something original and true, and so in some strange way, the market demanded proper journalism. For a while, the contract publishing sector was the place to be – far from the dead hand of the marketing department-spawned publishers who worried that their magazine wasn’t the same as everyone else’s.

I’ve argued before that the assumption that journalists never understood the commercial side of the trade was nonsense – the art of the finest of the legends of the trade was not only to find the story but to get people to read it. The mistake was to forget that the way to attract readers was to give them something attractive to read.

Opportunity knocks

So. The current wisdom is that journalism is in crisis because advertisers don’t advertise. This assumes that publications only ever survived because of advertising. But some publications survived because they had enough readers prepared to pay a cover price that would keep them going. Many of the women’s weeklies, following in the footsteps of Take a Break, do so. TV listings magazines still sell in huge numbers despite the competition from free alternatives and online and onscreen competition because people want the product.

It is possible to run a viable publication primarily by attracting readers. Especially with the technology and production processes now available. This doesn’t mean using the technology to drive down production costs, it means focussing on creating the best possble product in order to attract readers.

Surely what the current crisis shows us is that there IS a value in producing a quality product – and I don’t use quality as a highbrow term. Chasing the advertising rather than creating a product that advertisers want to chase seems to have caused many of the problems the trade faces. It could be argued, could it not, that the current turmoil in the trade presents the opportunity to rectify that mistake?

The Shirky analysis and change in the media

The intensity of the discussion about what is and what will happen to the media industry is becoming more pronounced by the day. Already this week, in the short time I allow myself to surf the net and catch up before I get on with the day’s tasks, I’ve come across some stimulating exchanges and articles which could keep me bouncing from blog to message board to site and back for at least a week, gathering information and contributing comment. It’s a stark indication of the nature of the internet age that I could spend the whole day doing this and still not scratch the surface. With instant access to more information than ever before, the worry that you’re missing something increases. What follows is, inevitably, simply my take on just a few points that have arisen.

The big talking point is Clay Shirky’s essay Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable. Shirky describes himself as someone who writes about “Systems where vested interests lose out to innovation,” and commentates extensively on communication in the digital age. His article makes some pertinent observations and sets out many of the issues facing the newspaper industry, and includes an interesting examination of how, during any time of great change 

“old stuff gets broken faster than new stuff can be put in place”. 

Some of the comment sparked by his piece seems to suggest Shirky is proposing a way forward, but to me it reads like a very good round-up of the issues facing newspapers and news media rather than a manifesto for change. And from what I’ve read of Shirky, he’s not one for manifestos. There’s some witty and sharp observation in his comment that 

“employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.”

And he observes perceptively that

“The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

But I think it’s over-dramatic to say that

“When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.” 

And when he says

“It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem”

it doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that the publishing industry is not just about newspapers, or in fact about putting information in a readable format. Publications can inform, entertain, provide cachet or just be a pleasurable frippery. They come in many forms, newspapers, magazines, books, websites… and each one requires not just production but distribution. It’s all very well producing something, but how does an audience find it? Examination of the distribution side or of the growing power of SEO reveals that the vested interests Shirky refers to may not be losing out quite as much as some would like to think.

It’s over 20 years since Eddie Shah said that new technology meant “anyone could start a newspaper”. The reality is that only one UK newspaper, The Independent, has launched that still remains open – and its owner is a multimillionaire businessman. It would, of course, be foolish to deny a growing democratisation of the media, but at the top the usual suspects are still very much in control.

I think it’s always interesting to look at how established forces take on what they require of the new in order to control change, even if this means missing out on the full benefits of technological developments. The trouble with vested interests is that they are not interested in what can be achieved, only what they can achieve. So for all the opportunity offered by technology and the digital age, we still see headlines like Expect to work for free for two years, magazine editor tells students.

Speaking at a Women in Journalism event, Maureen Rice, editor of Psychologies magazine, said that working for free for up to two years was

“very much the right way to get a first job, especially in magazines”.

Now, if there is anyone who can afford to work for two years, that’s 24 pay packets, for nothing – especially in London – I’d suggest that they may not actually need to work at all. It’s always been the case that new entrants to the trade need to be prepared to do a little work on spec, and to accept a lower wage while training. But wanting staff to work for nothing is a very old ambition of bad employers and Maureen Rice, a very good editor of a very successful magazine, should know better. I’m hoping something was lost in the report, as Maureen did say that internships are

“worth the investment for us”,

which suggests that there are properly financed and organised schemes for new journalists to be had at her magazine. If not, it’s just another example of how the media world sometimes exists in a different universe. If you were opening a shop, you wouldn’t expect suppliers to provide stock for free, after all. But maybe the Psycholgies office is very different, as Maureen also says 

“Interns should act as though they are just as excited to make someone a cup of tea as they are to write a feature.”

I’m not underestimating the importance of making tea in an office, in fact it’s something I expected everyone to do and made sure I did myself when I used to run subs’ departments, but I would have been worried if my staff got as much of a kick out of making a cuppa as they did out of editing copy.  

That last paragraph may be used as further evidence that subs serve no useful purpose – they have time to make tea! – by the Roy Greenslades of this world, but the issue of how functions break down across a publication came up again with news that Seattle P-I is to close its print edition and publish online only. In that article is this quote:

“We don’t have reporters, editors or producers—everyone will do and be everything. Everyone will write, edit, take photos and shoot video, produce multimedia and curate the home page. That’ll be a training challenge for everyone, but we’re all up for the challenge and totally ready to pick up all these skills.”

This is an experiment that will be closely watched, but I’m not convinced that everyone doing everything won’t lead to a general reduction in quality. I’ve argued before that the industry is moving towards a jack-of-all-trades approach because of short-term cost considerations. There’s nothing wrong with everyone having some experience in everything, because this helps staff to understand and appreciate how the entire product works. But we have to find a way to continue specialisation if we are to take full advantage of the technology now available. And there also needs to be a realisation that staff are human beings with different abilities, not machines who can be made to do anything through the insertion of the right programme. 

It all comes down to quality again, to focussing more on what we produce than the way we produce. And, as David Hepworth argues in his article for InPublishing, we need to reconnect with people who read.

Finally, I really enjoyed reading DigiDave’s blog entry about online branding. A much needed direct and witty summation of something often over-complicated, and very much a current issue.