Dean Starkman’s long read on ‘the news gurus’ in the Columbia Journalism Review starts out with the story of the remarkable Ida Tarbell, a template for the modern investigative reporter, whose work in 1904 took on Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil. He tells us about Tarbell to remind us how different journalism has become – and inevitably so. Whilst acknowledging that those days have past, the piece draws a line between institutional support and individual journalistic power which, argues Starkman, has been recently undermined by a school of thought which elevates and promotes the idea of networks ahead of professional journalists and institutions.
Occupy Wall Street is the perfect framework for understanding what is happening to news dissemination in an internet age. If there is a journalist or journalism student left in New York who has not yet been down to Zuccotti Park, they should feel uncomfortably ashamed. The park itself has become a striking metaphor for the internet; it is a space which is privately controlled but to which the public have access, giving the impression of freedom of association without the assurance of continuity.
It is also a story with some complexity, a nebulousness some find irritating, and others find refreshingly nuanced. It is also an overwhelmingly visual story. Go to the Park, read the signs. Here is a post from academic Dr Alison Trope at USC Annenberg on exactly this subject. It is a theme which is as relevant to news reporting as it is to political and media theory.
The movement itself bamboozled the mainstream media and government with what was perceived as a lack of purpose. ‘They don’t know what they want’ being the generic complaint from mainstream outlets such as CNN. Again, if you visit the square, and read the dozens and dozens of signs it is clear what the complaints are, but they are not expressed in a way which is readily interpreted by packaged media. For those of us who attended plenty of student marches in the 1980s, the mass-produced signs, run off in a student union or by a fringe political organisation, bore one short message with a simple solution; ‘Coal Not Dole’, ‘Ban the Bomb’, ‘Thatcher Out’, ‘Rock Against Racism’. These messages were created, knowingly or subconsciously, with the medium in mind. One minute on the evening news and one shot in the newspaper, the unitary message is vital, but in the world of the real time social web it is over too soon, it lacks the conversational tone necessary for engagement of audiences. At last year’s good humoured but largely ineffectual Rally for Sanity, the signs were the principal output of the movement, grabbing the coat tails of the rise in photo sharing through easy to use tools like Facebook, Twitpic, Yfrog and flickr.
If you follow the latest cache of diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks and reported by the Guardian, The New York Times and others it is impossible not to conclude that this is a pivotal moment for journalism, its teaching and its practice. In a masterly piece on The Guardian’s website, John Naughton writes that :
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.
Two years ago I gave a talk at the LSE where I predicted a ‘catastrophic’ phase of decline for the UK press. It is, I believe, always beneficial to revisit your public mistakes, given that five national newspapers have not closed, that the BBC is still accompanied by ITV and Channel 4 and, for now, BSkyB as British companies. But part of me is still surprised that despite high job losses, closures and newspapers changing hands, not more has shifted.
The two years between the beginning of the recession in the UK (longer in the US) and now, have seen frantic activity in newspapers to trim costs and innovate, but still within very limited boundaries. The overwhelming weight of discussion has centred around the idea of paywalls, or charging for news in some format, even though there is, and has always been, significant evidence that this is a limited strategy for success. Read the rest of this entry »
For those wanting a comprehensive and comprehendable guide to the current issues which are dominating debate around the web as an interoperable platform as opposed to a walled garden, the latest precis from the Economist is pretty good. The liberal with a small ‘l’ publication, comes out in favour of a genuinely free market for the internet, which is no surprise given its over arching philosophy towards markets of all types. But at least it has a clearly expressed opinion on an important issue. Read the rest of this entry »
It is a great privilege to be asked to be a visiting professor to University College Falmouth, and I would like to thank Geoffrey Smith, Paul Inman and the faculty for bestowing this honour on me, and I really look forward to being involved in the life of the college and helping in whatever ways I can. I look forward to visiting a beautiful place I’ve been visiting since I was 3 more often – and most of all I look forward to pontificating in front of a captive audience.
For my first talk, I thought I would address the subject of the future of journalism, not because I can tell you what it is but because, a bit like the feature in the front of Heat magazine, it is the thing which ‘everybody is talking about’.
First though I wanted to give you a bit of background about me. I have been working for either the Observer or the Guardian for the past 20 years, mostly covering media from a business angle, and for the last decade I’ve been involved in running the Guardian’s websites, I do some media commentary stuff, which is easy as my day job does involve examining the entrails of the industry and trying to guess what might happen next, the scary bit though is then persuading the company to spend money on it.
Ian Jack wrote a piece for the Guardian at the weekend, which is a little bit like Clay Shirky’s “everything is broken” piece though less well projected. I think this piece on the rise of the gifted amateur (again, echoing Clay’s by now fairly ancient essay on the fame vs fortune model) is a significant piece, in particular this conclusion about educating creative writers and journalists in a “dying craft”:
‘A great paradox of the age is that while newspapers continue their inexorable decline and publishing cuts its costs, journalism and creative writing degrees have never been more popular…
…Why do young people apply? Because they think they can be the next Zadie Smith. Why do universities encourage them? Because money can be made from fees. Is this responsible behaviour? We need to weigh the smashed hopes of creative writers against the financial needs of their tutors, who are themselves writers, and earning the kind of money that writing would never supply. A closed little dance: tutors teach students who in turn teach other students, like silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world.’
This is a very good and thought provoking piece and I know nothing about the employability or commercial viability of writers, which Jack talks eloquently about. He could be right, but I feel it bears a weight of discouraging pessimism which could be overdone. He is right if for instance journalism courses do not adapt to the future rather than reflect the past, their courses will not be worth taking. But as a counterpoint I was struck by the students in Falmouth, where I gave a talk this week, who were engaged in highly entrepreneurial activities, some setting up their own sites and businesses, one impressively training journalists at ground level in Iraq in basic multimedia skills. I’m sure there are dozens of examples of similar thinking among the trained ‘digital natives’, they won’t save the old business model but they can create their own.