Radio silence: an attempt to explain

I recently realised that I’ve not blogged about journalism for a long time.  My tweeting, too, has been mainly of the non-journalistic type, except for sharing the links I find most interesting on Twitter.

So I’m wondering why that is. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; I do. I have thoughts about restructured newsrooms,  about paywalls, about tweeting the news, engaging with readers – you name it, I’m opinionated about it.

Yesterday I was particularly exercised about Google’s Fast Flip and how all the reaction I’ve seen has been about how it serves newspapers and not how it serves consumers of news (which in the end is surely what will decide if it’s successful  or not?)

Today it’s the way someone in my office has asked me, as a notorious heel wearer, what I think about the TUC wanting to “ban heels from the workplace”, a misinterpretation of the motion written so hilariously about by the Times today that has become “news fact” because a bunch of journalists thought it was funnier to pretend that what’s the TUC wants, so much funnier they completely ignored the quote from the TUC that said that wasn’t what they wanted at all.

But for some reason I’m reluctant to share.

Partly it’s because I know opinions can get you into trouble.

First, Twitter: A brief but unfortunate appearance in UKPG (pre-rising-from-the-dead) reminded me that while I might feel there’s a culture of trust amongst the people I follow, not everyone feels the same way.

You never know who’s reading, or how they might choose to repeat what you say. And yes, I could protect my tweets, but that excludes me from the wider conversation which to me was the point of twitter in the first place.

Then I lost a follower (yes, just the one) for reasons I’m not sure about but can guess at, which for me underlined the futility of having a presence in a media where people might expect me to express an opinion without being able to say what I really think.

And sometimes I find myself agreeing with Steve Jackson’s pov about Twitter and the media. The opinions I find most interesting are often those of non-journalists (because I think Tweeting journos can sometimes suffer from as narrow a world view as those who say the internet is killing newspapers)

Then there’s the difficulty of working in online in a traditional newsroom. I am often frusrated by our approach to, and execution of, news online, but blogging about it will not solve that –although I’m sure others out there would find it informative, if not helpful.

And then there’s my general uncertainty about newspapers and journalism in general. Maybe I’m reading too much Enemies, too much Bad Science. Maybe it’s the way that stories that would be a nib on a printed page get equal billing with leads on a website (especially when you come at a story from a link),  and the way that skews the view of readers about what we as news organisations stand for/care about.

I read the Guardian interview with Max Mosley and agreed with him that his private life is none of our business. I watch Glenn Beck on Fox News and wonder if Fox would be allowed to get away with it here – and then I read something by @antonvowl and wonder if what he’s outling is that we’ve already got our own Fox.

And sometimes I wonder if we’re asking the right questions when it comes to ‘saving journalism’, confusing what has always been a business with our own altruistic notions that we’re a public service.

What if it’s as simple as “what the people want, the people will pay for”? And what if that’s not the kind of reporting we want to do, or think we should be doing?

And I’m tired of the squabbling about if, what and when we load to the web that distracts us from all the exciting, innovative forms of storytelling we could be trying, all the things that digital journalism could and should be.

In short, I’m struggling to find anything nice to say at the moment. I’m feeling picky and prickly about what news I consume and to be brutally truthful quite often I wonder when (not if) I’ll end up doing something else instead.

It may be that all I need is a holiday.  (which is lucky, because I’m about to go on one). It may be that I’m just suffering from plain and simple resistance to change. Or maybe it’s just writer’s block.

Whichever it turns out to be, I’m going to make an effort to resume blogging when I come back from my holiday next month.

Hopefully I’ll find something positive, forward thinking and useful to say. ..

Council v Local

We don’t have a council newspaper to speak of here. But the council does tweet its stories. So here’s a quick compare and contrast about two things that happened yesterday.

Full council approves leisure centre plan

and

Roko takevoer approved

Then there’s

New faces join the cabinet

or

Eyre a victim of thirst for power

The BBC’s new ‘comedy’

Driving to work this morning I heard an advert for a new comedy on Radio 4.

It’s called Electric Ink and it’s where ‘old hacks meet new media’ apparently.

The announcer started to described it thus: “Robert Lindsay is an old school hack who asserts the need for in depth reporting.”

My heart sank.

“He’s pitted against his editor, who’s decided it’s time for him to ‘go digital'”.

Heart, meet knees.

Cut to clip: Editor: “We’re giving you a video podcast! on the website.”

RL: “Really?”

Editor: “Yes, it’s called the Politics Minute.

RL: “Is the name a clue to it’s length?”

Editor: “It’s more likely to be 48 seconds, there’ll be a little commercial first.”

I’m SO pleased to see the Beeb avoiding cliches about the web and reporting. Really. Delighted.

Coming soon

In a bid to make myself find time to blog, here are some things I’m going to write about (it’s a list to prod my conscience – if I publish it, I’ll have to write it, right?).

  1. Our week of liveblogging
  2. The Telegraph, expenses and paywall what-ifs
  3. What if everything we think we know is  wrong? (lessons from Bhm Mail, Telegraph and New Milton Times about online)
  4. Changing hearts and minds – progress in the newsroom
  5. Data and journalism (or when did I start wanting to read the sources?)
  6. A quick word about the advertising model
  7. newspapers and elections – did we provide a service for the reader?

Radical or ridiculous? Idea #2: Devil’s Advocate News

Okay, so this second idea in my series of suggestions could well just be bonkers. My office certainly thinks it is (and I can understand why).But it won’t go away, so I need you lot to either pick it apart for me or (less likely) tell me I’m a misunderstood genius.
Here’s my thinking. Journalists are frequently accused of bias, either overtly politcal or simply choosing the ‘wrong’ angle for a story.
Now obviously news writing demands an angle. So we are taught, anyway. And finding an angle usually means picking a side. Getting everyone’s point of view in an intro does not make for exciting reading. We are required to attract the interest of increasingly time-poor readers, so we craft intros and headlines that grab the attention.
But we all know that in doing so, we may be doing a disservice to one side or the other, choosing a relatively minor fact in a report or highlighting bad news in a sea of good. On some occasions finding the angle might mean actively, if not maliciously, misrepresenting the subject or person we write about.
Increasingly, and especially online, readers are not only spotting this but expressing their disgust, cynicism and dislike of the angle or tone we choose on a story.
Some examples from our paper: the surf reef (not everyone thinks it’s a disaster), a new football ground on an open space (some people think it’s a brilliant idea); the disaster plan for a flu pandemic (otherwise known to readers as complete nonsense that shouldn’t have been anywhere near the front page).
So I had an idea. Now bear in mind this idea assumes that a) we’re not going to start writing balanced but boring intros for news stories any time soon and b) is intended as a way of engaging those disaffected readers. Having our well-spun cake and eating it, if you like.
We’d call it Devil’s Advocate and it would work a bit like this. You’re a reader. You’ve seen a report of a meeting, or a decision, and you think we’ve got the angle wrong. We’ve highlighted the good instead of the bad, or vice versa, quoted the wrong people, missed out a tranche of opinion.
So you submit what you think we should have written, whether a complete story, or a section of quotes, or a different version of events. (I should make clear that we’d obviously leave legal disputes and the like out of this service…)
We read it, and if we’re sure it’s safe to publish, then we will. In my head I’d like it look a little like this, where if someone’s submitted something, a little red devil appears at the relevant paragraph, or at the bottom of the story. Other readers could comment on the DAN, we’d link to all the relevant source material and maybe even include a rating system so people could choose which story they prefer.
(Or what about a website where you could go to submit your DAN, complete with links to the original, and the sources?)

And that’s it. I know it could be a minefield, and a magnet for trolls. And I know it would rely on the readers to take it in the spirit we intend it (a sort of news version of Bad Science) rather than an alternative to complaining when they have a legitimate concern about accuracy.

So the question is: is it a) unworkable; b) idiotic; or c) not a terrible idea? Vote now!

Ridiculous or Radical? Idea #1: Stop making video

A few weeks ago I promised that once my editor had cast his verdict on my list of radical or ridiculous (I still can’t decide which ones are which!) ideas, I’d post them here. So this is number one.

I know it’s heresy to say it. But are we wasting time concentrating on video journalism?

On average, in our newsroom, videos take at least six hours to make. They are watched by maybe 1 per cent of our online audience.* So why do we do it?

I’m not saying there’s no place for video in local newsapers, far from it. But say you’re reading a story about the latest in a spate of arson attacks. The story is online, with a video. You finish the story, then click play.

What you get is a reporter reading you the story you’ve just read, over some footage. Maybe a talking head, saying the words quoted in the story you just read. Is there any point in that?

Instead of making a TV version of a story you’ve already told, why not just post a 20 second clip of the fire, and spend an hour putting together an interactive map of the previous arson attacks, with links to pictures and previous stories?

Job done, five hours to spare.

We don’t have the equipment, experience, production skills or staff to be TV stations. So why do we try? We should stick to videos that add something extra – footage of things actually happening and save the big labour intensive jobs for the occasions where it can make a difference – an interview with a controversial figure, or quirkier, entertainment videos.

Instead of a photographer spending hours making a video at your local Race4Life, isn’t it a better use of resources for that photographer to take LOTS of pictures (you know, that thing we used to do because ‘faces sell papers’?) that you can publish on an online gallery and then sell?

The only problem with non-contexualised video is that it doesn’t really work off-site. So if your video for the fire, for example, is embeddable, it doesn’t work so well without the story. But we’re in an era of extreme cutbacks. Surely we should be asking what the best use of staff time is?

The bottom line is: most readers don’t watch them, even the good ones. So maybe we should think about why we make them. Is it for the audience? Or is it because it’s become the thing local newspapers do to show they’re multimedia?

If it’s the latter there are dozens of less complicated, more useful ways to add to our stories. We shouldn’t overlook them in favour of video without thinking very carefully about why.

* (From what I can tell we’re not unusual but I’d like to hear about it if we are – there’s always the possibility we’re just doing it wrong…)

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Stating the obvious: newspapers are not journalism

Newspapers exist to make their owners money. Journalism exists (in its noblest form) to serve a public purpose. Journalists are journalists for a myriad of reasons; public service, nosiness, a desire to do good, a love of the printed product, a need to be part of a community, to tell stories, and sometimes but not often, purely and simply to make a living.

Once, these three things existed in harmony. Newspapers made money, to pay journalists, who created journalism. Now, though, they’re not so in sync.

Making money requires changes that don’t sustain journalism or fulfil journalists. And if you are a journalist earning a wage from a company whose primary concern is to make money, those changes can create a bit of an identity crisis. What are we for. exactly?

While those three goals existed in harmony, it was easy to forget that newspaper owners weren’t altruistic, and that while creating great journalism helped to sell papers it wasn’t the reasons those owners/shareholders got into the business.

But these days you can’t pretend that your employer’s goals are the same as yours. Which leaves this question: what do they pay us for? What do they want?

To sell more papers? To sell more advertising? To maximise profits, whatever it takes?

That sounds obvious, but each of those goals requires different things from us as journalists.

Selling more papers requires a radical rethink of this whole interweb business. Selling more advertising (on the web) requires innovative approaches, open mindedness, and an improvement in the quality of content. Maximising profits means higher work ratios with less thought to quality. (Yes, I know that’s all an oversimplification, this whole post is an oversimplification…).

None of that chimes very well with what I came into journalism for. But the scales are well and truly fallen away. Our reasons for doing our jobs are not the reasons our employers provide them.

So we should stop hoping the big groups will save newspapers, merged or consolidated or whatever.

They might save them as a business. But the saving will be on their terms, and for the most part their terms are not, and have never been, our terms. Our goals sat on the same train for a while, but those days are gone. Don’t like that? Start thinking of an alternative.

Beware the brain drain

Two posts from bloggers/twitters I follow today announcing they’re leaving their big corp jobs for exciting (but to us as yet unknown) web projects.

The MEN’s Sarah Hartley, @foodiesarah and @sarah_hartley, has left her job. And Bauer’s Dan Thornton, aka @badgergravling, is leaving his.

I mention this only because I worry it’s the start of a trend. Without a focus and a forward-thinking spirit, aren’t we running the risk of a massive brain-drain out of the industry?

Faced with the choice of working within the constraints of media groups that seem more focused on profits than products or taking the chance to work with like-minded people on exciting and innovative projects, what would you choose?

Obviosuly I’m not saying that’s what’s behind these particular choices. I’ve no idea what prompted Dan and Sarah’s moves. But it made me think.

Would a brain drain be bad for journalism? Definitely not. Would it be bad for the news industry? Undoubtedly.

A blogging dilemma

A quick post here about a blogging dilemma.

We’ve run a story today about the chair of the police federation saying PCSOs should be scrapped or reduced so the money can be spent on more frontline officers. He calls them a failed experiment.

Then I spotted a tweet from someone we follow with the paper’s account, expressing disappointment that his local paper had done down his job.

I responded, to ask what had upset him. He replied, to say a lazy story about PCSOs didn’t help those who were PCSOs. He then tweeted a link to his blog, asking people who follow him to read it.

So I read the blog, and it’s a very good. I thought he made some excellent points, so I retweeted and suggested to the editor that we linked to it. But before I linked to it, I used the paper’s twitter to check he was okay with that.

He said no thanks, he didn’t want to get in trouble. He’s not taking the blog down, and he was happy with the retweet, but he didn’t want a link.

I then asked him how he’d feel if we quoted it anonymously, but by then he’d gone to work and has not, as yet, replied.

Now the newshound in me thinks this could be a great follow up to our splash. So I asked the Twitterverse for their opinions.

Here’s a selection of replies.

blogg
You’ll see they’re quite varied. Which made me think.

Do you need permission to link to content freely available on the web?

I assume, when I blog, that I have no control over where links to that content ends up, just like I have no control over things I’ve posted publicly on Twitter (a painful lesson I learned courtesy of Press Gazette but that a whole different post). I assume copyright to the extent that I want to be acknowledged as the author of my work, I expect a link if something of mine is used and I expect people not to pretend its their own or make money out of it, but that’s it.

So having blogged this, then tweeted it, made it publicly available and invited people to read it, does he still have the right to ask us not to use it? In other words, if we haven’t asked him, would we have been doing anything wrong in linking to it?

And if you decide not to link because you’re trying not to get someone in trouble, in a case where crediting or attributing will identify them, is quoting their content anonymously better or worse?

I realise that to many people the simple answer would be don’t use it. To many journalists the answer would be ‘he’s made it public, therefore you can use it.’ I think if he explicitly says no to us using it in any form, then we won’t.

But it made me think hard about the whole concept of copyright and permissions when it comes to blogs. And I’m still not sure what the answer is.

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Big ideas

Very quickly:

This is what the NUJ has to say in response to Tory newspaper plans.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “This looks like a policy that has been rushed out in response to calls by media owners who are simply looking to make even more cuts to our already limping local press.

“These plans fail to deal with the problems facing local journalists. Consolidation of media ownership has meant office and title closures; it has meant journalists taken out of their communities, fundamentally undermining their ability to do their jobs well. The Conservative response to these problems seems to be more of the same, which will do nothing to help quality journalism.

“Where are the big ideas? We need our politicians to come up with proposals for how local journalism can be saved – not surrendered to big business interests who have taken multi-million pound profits whilst cutting back on quality journalism.

“The Conservatives might see media regulation as burdensome red tape – but it is what ensures people have access to varied media and different voices. To throw that protection away in response to business demands without any plans to secure improvement in journalism is foolhardy and an insult to our local communities.”

Now I happen to agree that letting the big companies buy up more papers so they can centralise all the subbing and make them soulless press release factories is a terrible idea.

But this?

“Where are the big ideas? We need our politicians to come up with proposals for how local journalism can be saved – not surrendered to big business interests who have taken multi-million pound profits whilst cutting back on quality journalism.”

Why on earth would we leave the saving of local journalism, that thing we love and care about, to politicians? Why would  we, the people who talk to our readers, who work with and see the applications of new technology, who have strong opinions about what makes good local news and how we’d do things differently if we were in charge – leave the future of our industry to people who know nothing about how it works?

Here’s an idea, Jeremy. Why don’t we, the journalists, try and come up with some ‘big ideas’ of our own? Why on earth would any body want to ‘save us’ if all we do is bleat about how the owners have taken our toys away without making any suggestions about what we’d do if they gave them back?

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