Tagged: skills

The value of journalism debate reheated

I was asked to speak at the NUJ London Freelance Branch meeting last night about making a living as an online journalist. It followed a discussion I had with branch member and NEC veteran Phil Sutcliffe when he was preparing a briefing for members. I was wary of presenting myself as some kind of online guru – I have a suspicion there are too many gurus and too few people actually doing things in the online world. But I agreed on the basis that I had made a decent proportion of my living from online work when I was a freelance. So I opted to give a few examples of what I’d done and how I’d been paid; adding in a couple of points about the judgements I’d had to make. And I finished by posing a few questions that I thought might be useful – questions about liability online and about payment models. Continue reading

It’s time for Design 2.0

Art direction (the sort you get in magazines) has always been a bit absent on the web, and for good reason. A lot of people around the world use the internet to publish content, but only a fraction of them are actual designers. So it makes sense that most of the content on the web is being spooned into pre-designed moulds, to make publishing quick and easy. Such is the beauty of the internet; anyone can publish whatever they want without any special skills or knowledge.

However, as a designer of the internet, I have no excuse to carry on publishing content via the same old templates.

Designer Greg Wood.

I’ve never seen design as something separate from the editorial process. But I have always seen it as a specific skill. This morning a very thoughtful post entitled Why the designer holds the key to the future of journalism by Adam Westbrook on Journalism 2.0 helped bring a few thoughts together.

When I came into the trade, desk top publishing was the big deal, and we were all in awe of a computer with a tiny screen and 1MB of memory called a Mac Classic. Many people thought that knowing how to use Pagemaker, the layout software then standard, made them designers. But they were wrong. DTP did bring many parts of the process into the grasp of in house editorial teams, and offered greater control over the finished product to those who created it. But I still shudder at the memory of being told by a colleague at one trade paper I used to work at to “stretch that typeface to 150% to make it look a bit funkier”. And, having lived with a designer for the past 18 years, I’m always guaranteed to be reminded of the limitations of my faltering design efforts.

Creative differences

My wife is not being the type of “precious” designer it was always fashionable for the “word people” to sneer at. There is an important difference between laying out and designing. Design is a more creative process, and there are different skillsets and considerations involved in the job. Of course, subs can now do what compositors used to and designers now implement much that used to be done at the repro house. But while technology offers the chance to reduce costs by combining many skillsets into one job, questions of quality, time and expertise have to be considered. That is always assuming the people running the show think these things are important.

Unfortunately, the view that design is just a matter of assembling “stuff” has tended to become more common. The growth of web publishing means this misguided view has to be reconsidered. As Adam says in his post, “if people are going to pay for journalistic content in a digital form, it’s going to have to look good, not just read good.” I’d go further and say that, paid for or not, good design should not be an optional extra.

Inflexible working

There are real problems to address here. Several editors I’ve worked with have expressed frustration with the constraints of content management systems that force material into grids, instead of allowing the kind of flexibility to break out and innovate that DTP packages offer. The technical constraints of how work is rendered on screen rather than in print are given. But the time devoted to getting to grips with them and trying to move them on isn’t. Because companies tend to see technology primarily as a way to save money, they are too eager to implement mechanical processes which rely on journalists fitting material into templates quickly. ‘Get it up simple and quick’ may well be the optimum way of presenting news online. But more skill and time could be applied to much of what’s currently on the web in order to produce a better reader experience, and greater retention on site.

When I visited Reed Business Information for a feature I was researching a few months ago, the general view of those at the brainstorming session I attended was that design and production staff had not been involved early enough in the process of changing the way RBI’s titles were published. That’s an encouraging recognition, because too many companies see the editorial process increasingly as something performed by technicians who churn out ‘stuff’ to predetermined templates. Cheaply.

Time means motion

It’s accepted that there are a greater variety of tools on offer, that journalists need to learn new skills. But we need time to develop and apply and refine those skills if the quality of the product is to improve. Although I’ve always been interested in design, I’ve had to get to grips with it much more since I started getting stuck into web work. My journey has taken time. I learnt how to use Rapidweaver to design my website (see link at the top of the page). It’s a great piece of kit, and nowhere near as expensive as the upgrade to CS4 I need in order to use Dreamweaver. It’s also much simpler to use than Dreamweaver and helped me understand the basics. But, flexible as it is, it’s still template-based and I haven’t got the total control over look and structure that I want.

I started blogging on Rapidweaver, but it’s not the most searchable kit to use. So I went for WordPress, starting with the hosted version. It’s what this blog is created with, and using WordPress has taught me much more about the basics of using a content management system, driving traffic, search and all the other now vital skills we need. But I’m starting to get to the point where it’s not flexible enough for my needs. And I want more control over the look – especially the elements of this theme I’ve never liked. To do that I need to move to WordPress.org. That involves learning a whole new set of skills, and really getting to grips with coding and structure issues.

It’s all very useful and very interesting – although I must confess learning how to use and implement self-hosted WordPress is proving very complicated. Adding to my frustration is the realisation that learning and trialing all this new and stimulating stuff has led to a situation where I am creating less than I used to. I’m certainly writing less than I used to. Because while my level of skill is increasing, the time I have available isn’t.

New landscapes, greater value

It may be that much of what I want to do comes easier to a designer than it does to a writer and sub-editor. But I’m not arguing in favour of strict demarcation. What I am saying is that rather than seeing technology as something which gives everyone the chance to do most stuff to an acceptable standard, the business also needs to recognise the value of developing specialist skills. Not doing so has led to the current neglect of design online. As Adam Westbrook says, “making your website look pretty isn’t just style over substance. It opens up a new landscape of narrative and storytelling to the journalist. It adds untold value to your content.” This means giving people such as Greg Wood the room they need to develop, and not seeing it as a luxury. Or as Greg puts it;

Creativity is like a big pair of bollocks, and regular releases are required if you want to avoid an awkward situation.


A point of view on journalistic impartiality

Reading the guide to Editorial ethics for Twitter journalists on the Media Helping Media site this morning I saw the old but extremely important chestnut about impartiality featured quite strongly. MHM says “journalists need to be objective and impartial and keep their own opinions firmly under wraps”, especially where “controversial” issues are concerned.

I’ve always said the idea of journalistic impartiality is a myth – the very designation of an issue as “controversial” involves making a value judgement after all. My approach has always been to make clear what is opinion and what is fact, to declare an interest where I think it could significantly impact on how I see something, and to argue for diversity in order to allow different views to be aired.

Get things in perspective

I’ve always found the NUJ Code of Conduct a much better guide. It says a journalist should “differentiate between fact and opinion” and should strive “to ensure information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair”. Some might say looking to a trade union for guidance on this sort of issue is in itself a value judgement. I make no secret of my support for progressive trade unionism, but those simple clauses were constructed through the experience of working journalists and, as such, I would argue they provide a much better guide than a questionable notion of impartiality.

There are those among my colleagues who get very annoyed about this, but I’ve always seen this notion of ‘the impartial journalist’ as something of a conceit. We cannot, any more than any other human being, be entirely neutral about what we see. The information we select, the angle we pursue, the conclusions we draw, the connections we make, the perspective we adopt – all of these things are informed by our own feelings, opinions and experiences.

Neutral is not a colour

So to pretend that journalists are somehow able to suspend all of that and approach a story in a completely neutral manner is, I believe, a nonsense. Of course, we must be careful to try and ensure we really are “honestly conveying” information and “differentiating between fact and opinion”. I often find this process is helped by declaring an interest, a perspective or a point of view so that readers are left in no doubt that there is some element of the subjective in what I write.

All this is important for a number of  reasons. Efforts to be “impartial” lead almost inevitably, in my opinion, to the forming of a consensus around establishment views, or the status quo if you prefer a less loaded term. While I am a supporter of the idea of public service broadcasting and the BBC, for example, I’ve never felt the corporation was anything other than a voice for the establishment. I still go to the BBC as a trusted news source, but I will also read other media – particularly if industrial or political issues are being covered. Those other media have a more upfront point of view, and I don’t always agree with them, but taken together the various sources help to form a picture.

Hidden agendas

This is not, I know, a new argument. One of my earliest heroes – a description I am sure he would shudder at – is John Pilger, a journalist who has argued this point much more eloquently than me. He says: “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it.” Pretending any of us can be impartial actually increases the possibility that opinion is presented as fact. It helps to push the idea that one subjective view of the world is in fact ‘the truth’, and in so doing reinforces the status quo rather than questioning it. It marginalises rather than includes.

It also creates problems for journalists. The idea that no journalist should really have a point of view, and certainly should not be politically-engaged, is another that is strongly held. And yet it could be argued that the nature of journalism is far more likely to lead a person to form opinions about what they see, and to seek to influence the world they interpret. Good journalists such as John Pilger are dismissed in some quarters because they are politically engaged – itself a value judgement. And the view that ‘good journalists’ should not have any point of view that could remotely construed as ‘political’ has led to some ugly exchanges in the current ballot for the editorship of the NUJ magazine.

New urgency in the debate

An example of the kind of knots the trade ties itself in while pursuing this impossible ideal can be seen by reading through the BBC’s 12 guiding principles to impartiality. You can see what the BBC was trying to achieve, but what emerges is a rather too literal interpretation of Boyzone’s observation that “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”.

As the debate over the impact of new forms of creating and consuming media calls into question the very concept of the journalist, this old debate is given new urgency. Because there are a set of values and a framework of awareness that can be applied to gathering and disseminating information that can and should be applied in order to distinguish journalism from what is simply communication. (And note that I am not arguing that one is always or necessarily better than the other – that’s another article). One of the most important is that the myth of impartiality hinders, rather than helps, us.

A very good idea to start the week

My LCC colleague Russell Merryman drew my attention to a very useful and worthwhile site over the weekend, Media Helping Media. Its stated aim is to “support journalists where media freedom is threatened” and it tries to do so by bringing together training resources and materials that can be shared on the web.

It’s a great idea, and some of the material is useful for journalists anywhere too. I particularly liked the Editorial ethics for Twitter journalists link, one of a number which provides a useful framework for negotiating how to use one of the many new tools of the trade.

Do we still need proper journalists?

I examine this question in the latest edition of InPublishing magazine in a piece commissioned to prompt debate about journalism education and training in these tumultuous times. You can read the feature at the magazine’s Knowledge Bank, or listen to a podcast of the feature which is hosted there. I don’t claim to deliver the definitive analysis. Instead I ask a few questions, make some observations and post some opinion as part of the process of finding our way. I hope it’s a useful contribution.

Journalism ain’t broke

I rather liked this piece on Fleet Street Blues. It needed to be said, although I don’t agree with every dot and comma. FSB qualifies a couple of points very well in a follow-up post though. I’m not as cynical about college journalism courses or NUJ training courses as FSB is when he says, “Here’s a secret – and one that journalism academics, media commentators and the NUJ with courses to flog will do everything they can do to avoid telling you. If you want to get good at journalism, you have to practice it.” Time to declare an interest – I teach journalism and I value and contribute to the NUJ’s training programme. What I, and many others, always emphasise is precisely what FSB refers to – that journalism is about finding stuff out, about telling stories, and that all the buzz about medium should be looked at in the context of the message.

I think FSB makes a valuable contribution, and I don’t see it as another attempt to spark a battle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. And I think more than a few of us are saying the same thing. I found this post on Freelance Unbound a good read, too.

Cut costs or improve quality? The great production journalism debate continues

It was a lively session at this afternoon’s Publishing Expo seminar on outsourcing and production journalism. Those who expected blood on the walls were disappointed, but there were some sharp differences of opinion. I bemoaned the fact that points of view were often misrepresented in this debate, so you’ll have to take my assurance that I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in summing up the arguments put forward by the rest of the panel.

The point made most frequently was that we ‘had’ to accept a future in which much or all of the subbing and production function was outsourced. This was because of the recession. I made the point that this didn’t ring true as the same arguments were being used when we were in the middle of a boom. My contention was that, too often, technological change was being used primarily or solely as a way of cutting costs, not of improving quality. This is a tremendous waste of technological know-how and opportunity. 

While we’ve disagreed in the past, and still do on a number of issues, fellow panelist Roy Greenslade said that we were really both talking about creating new business models for journalism. I think that’s true, but my argument is that we are not yet making quality a central enough part of that discussion.

I didn’t hear much from the rest of the panel to convince me otherwise, as time again we returned to the justification of “inevitability” – a depressing manifestation of our lack of faith in what we can achieve perhaps, more likely just a mission to produce something as cheaply as possible until we wreck it. Express KCS MD Robert Berkeley talked about his firm’s outsourcing operation and how it could meet many editorial needs through its India-based operation, and got to the heart of the debate when he answered a question from the audience. “What happens when wages in India go up to the level of wages here?” asked the reporter from Press Gazette. To which Robert replied: “I think you need to ask what happens when wages here go down to the level they are in India”. He didn’t use the words ‘cheap labour’, or even mention cost. But behind the arguments about technology ‘forcing’ us to do things seemed, to me at least, to be a more basic one about producing cheaply.

I’m not arguing for a minute that any business can survive without considering cost. I just think we’re missing a trick. I watched a fascinating demonstration of the capabilities of Adobe’s CS4 package at today’s show. It’s a million miles from what I was doing as a stone sub over 20 years ago, and a good thing too. But seeing impressive bits of kit such as CS4 merely as a way of using fewer people to produce our media is an enormous waste of potential. 

Look at something like Flyp, produced in Creative Suite. There’s real craft gone into that, which required the application of time and effort to develop and execute skills which we couldn’t dream of even 20 years ago. Shouldn’t we be using the time-saved by technological development to improve skills, to give people the time to create something of real quality that will, in the long term, retain readers? Or should we just get one person to use technology to do the job that three did before? The latter may seem attractive in the short term, but I’d argue that a quality product has a better long-term chance of survival.

The debate also touched on the old multiskilling/deskilling chestnut. I happen to think multiskilling is a good thing, if something of an inaccurate description. Very few people are skilled in just one thing. What we’re really talking about is just how many skills an individual can reasonably be expected to develop before the overall level of skill drops. Too often, when we hear ‘multiskilling’, it means deskilling. 

I’m going to continue to argue that quality is important, that technology is something we can and should control rather than something we let control us, and that above all the quality of this debate must improve. Journalism will certainly be very different in future, but we still have a chance to ensure more positive changes than those being presented to us now.