Category Archives: braindump

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Who takes the risk in changing journalism?

I’m spending the next few days in a research symposium about journalism. Lots of great people with interesting things to say about the changing face and challenges for journalism.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about what’s being discussed -that’s partly because a lot of it is related to ongoing research and the usual form, and often contractual obligation, is stuff doesn’t make it out until its been in a journal (I know, don’t get me started on that one).  But regardless of the topic one of consistent questions has been how we and students respond to this.

One example of this was a conversation around entrepreneurial journalism.

The idea that we as j-schools, should be encouraging more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking is not new.  A number of schools now have modules and courses exploring just that.  But how we ‘sell’ that has been and remains a tricky proposition when the demands of the industry we serve are set against an education market ‘disrupted’ by the same things.

Like most universities in the UK we are coming to the end of our ‘open days’. They are a chance for prospective students to see the campus, meet the staff. Well, I say students; a big part of open days is for parents.

I find that it’s often quite hard to talk to the prospective students as you’re answering questions from parents. How many modules? What’s your contact time? What are your employment statistics? I’m not being critical of this at all – who wouldn’t want to be  sure that they are getting the best. The best experience and the best value.  But I does feel like the questions that editors and accrediting bodies ask me – how many hours do they go to court? Can they do shorthand? Can they do facebook?

Under the idea of a service economy (serving students and industry) J-Education is not just being asked make a lot of commitments. We are being asked for guarantees!

I was pondering that during the presentations when we talked about entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism and it struck me how much I feel we are at (or very, very close to) an inflection point when it comes to the value proposition for developing journalism education.

The truth is entrepreneurship is about risk.  I have enough crappy motivational tweets appearing in my timeline about ‘daring to fail’ to know that.  But I’m across two industries  – education and journalism –  that don’t do risk well.

It’s clear that most of the journalism industry isn’t prepared to take that risk (with notable but not consistent exceptions) The model for the industry is for buy-innovation not nurturing it. Yes, there are some exceptions but lets not kid ourselves that they are the norm  (yet). That’s a culture that reaches across all aspects of an organisations work including training.

That’s why, in the same way media has shifted the responsibility (and risk) for training and skills to education, we now see the demands for a more innovative and entrepreneurial journalist are placed at educations door.

At the same time education is coming to terms with a market driven model - compare-the-market parents looking at our stats.  That culture doesn’t really suit risk.  I couldn’t sell a journalism course on the kind of failure stats we see in startups these days.

Theres the decision driving me to feeling close to the inflection point. Which of those ‘markets’ is the ball and chain?  Which one of those is going to drag me down past viable? As a J-school educator, how do I balance the demands of industry to deliver what they tell me they want with the demands of consumers for guarantees of a return on investment?

My gut reaction is that the response to industry is pretty simple – we are not going to take risks on your behalf unless you invest.   But that’s the easy bit. It leave us with more to  do in educating students to the idea of risk and the broader landscape of opportunity that digital offers.  Risk and opportunity – not easy terms.

I happen to think there is no better place to take a risk than university – independent thinking and challenge are what we are supposed to do.  I also believe that there is no better industry in which risk can pay off – innovation is really valued, even if (or perhaps because) it doesn’t really know what to do with it – everyone wants a pet unicorn even if they don’t know how to look after it!

But it does feel like we are getting to a point where, to really enable us to make good on that opportunity,  J-schools are going to have to make a  choice.  Journalism education is  already at a point where we are thinking about how we unhitch ourselves from many of the structure that some believe  makes them the de-facto suppliers of skilled workers for industry.  A position that I’ve always thought of as moving from  giving them what they want to what they need.

But that feels like the easy part.  When it comes to selling the alternative it’s easy marketing speak to say opportunities but it’s risk – plain and simple.

That feels like unchartered territory for all of us and I wonder if it should and why.

Image from Ben Sutherland  on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/6764509451/ 

Restarting news: Will Journalism have much say in what journalism becomes?

Prof George Brock has an interesting post as a prelude to his talk at the international journalism festival in Perugia which is well worth a read.  He ponders an incomplete list of things that might shape what comes next in journalism.  There are a couple that stand out for me.

First off he cites ‘impact’. By impact he means the way that the digital landscape dilutes the impact of even the biggest stories. Much as it’s an interesting way of describing one of the negative effects of the networked environment. It’s concept that suggests news has a finite impact; With so many routes for news to travel it eventually, well, runs out of steam.

I think there is some merit in the idea – impact is neat phrase –  but I do think it stems from a slightly institutional (print) perspective.  What its really saying is the value to the producer is harder to conceptualise (and monetize). In that sense I don’t think that ‘news’ has any less impact. In some ways it can have more.  We can’t really think that news is a stone to throw and then measure its success by the size of the splash! In a digital world we are measured  against the ripples.

In that sense  I think ‘reach’ is a better word than impact. Impact is the same mentality that still demands we recognise the word breaking or exclusive. The challenge of reach suggests there less of a problem with the ‘news’ and more a problem with the industry’s capacity to inhabit the broader landscape and connect with the audience.

Restarting news

That’s not to criticise Brock. He clearly sees the impact of impact!

Even if a single outlet has something big and releases it first, a scoop is not quite the event that it was. Partly because a revelation will spread a long way very fast and won’t be “broken” by being published to many people simultaneously at a set time. What we used to call “news” was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time; if it was big news, its release was an event.

Brock says that means ” ‘news’ is an idea which is being bent into a different shape.” I like that phrase. But I’d go a little further. News is broken as a concept.  What news is has been changed (a factor Brock also identifies) But the news as an object (something we distribute) is also broken apart by the network. People chop it up and repurpose it for their own use.  

I think what we are seeing is people, just by expectation and consumption habits rather than any discrete motivation, pushing against attempts by media organisation to control (own, whatever you like) the structure, purpose and shape and importantly the life-cycle of news.  I see a lot of parallels with the Restart culture which wants to move beyond…

…the culture of constant upgrades and disposal, The Restart Project reconnects people with repair, preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair. We are supporting groups across the world which would like to replicate our community work.

People getting together to bring those dead electronic and electrical devices back to life.  It’s all about sustainability and usefulness. Digital means people are beginning to restart news in the same way.  

For me that presents interesting challenges the process of Brock’s suggestion that in making clear the ‘value of what journalist do’ journalists can:

insist that verification and investigation will not happen naturally in a ceaseless flow of data, conversation, gossip, rumour and manipulated misinformation; someone must make a choice to do these things and find the resources to support them. They can insist that big ideas depend on long passages of written words to spread and be debated. They can insist that a space to establish what is most likely to be accurate and true in the midst of what is now a marketplace for noise is something of value to democracies and worth fighting for.

I worry that we think we can/should insist anything.  I think that’s less about insisting and more about (a) proving it and (b) about being connected enough for the community who might value that to be able to tell them.

Funding Journalism or the journalism industry 

The last part that stood out was Brock’s assertion that:

While everyone thrashes around looking for a business model, philanthropy has a crucial role to play in bridging the gaps between a dying business model and a new one. 

I bristle slightly at that one. The idea that large, profitable organisations should benefit from “charity” rubs a little. I know that in the context of this conversation (and others) we are using it in the ‘fourth estate’ context rather than ‘where did our profits go’ sense.  But I don’t think you can split the two that easily.  And anyway plenty of rich individuals seem prepared to invest in journalism already. That seems to have worked well over the years!

As I say Brock’s piece is worth a read. Definitely (as the post proves) food for thought. It’s a good stager for his presentation (if you’re lucky enough to be in Perugia) and an indicator that his book “out of print” is worth checking out.

But, and this is no criticism of George,  but you have to wonder if  the biggest factor that is going to change the shape of journalism next is not going to be the journalism industry.

Educating the competition out of journalism

Over the last month my department has had a number of accreditation visits. Two of the training councils that, in the UK at least, inspect, accredit and generally rubber stamp what we do, the BJTC and the NCTJ,  have both been in looking at our courses. Thanks to a lot of hard work by colleagues all of our courses get the seal of approval. Hurray!

Both visits included a lengthy session of questions for the course team around the why and how of what we do. For the most part, they are always useful and constructive; lots of things to reflect on and change to keep improving what we do. But sitting through the process raised a bit of a point to ponder for me.

Given the relative focus of each of the accrediting bodies (Broadcast for the BJTC and print for the NCTJ) it was interesting that both asked about the public facing provision and 24/7 nature of our output. The question really amounting to ‘do you have a 24/7 public facing news operation?’

Opportunity

Learning by doing is something that we pride ourselves (and something we are told to do more of) on but when we learn we make mistakes and mistakes in journalism, in public, can be a learning experience. It has real impact on people and, well let’s be frank, it can cost money – not one of the learning outcomes of our course the last time I looked! So we try to give as many public facing opportunities as we can but often keep what we do, though with no less of demand that the stories are real and newsworthy, internal.

Within the university world there are also opportunities for people to engage in other media – student newspapers and media have always been traditional stomping grounds for our students. But as a division, apart from the usual advice and support for those working on stories, we don’t have any involvement in the paper. It’s (rightly so in my view) a student union publication and independent from us.

More recently we have also come under pressure to make what we do more entrepreneurial. Making students aware of the opportunities of social media and how they can use things like blogs etc. to promote themselves and reach a niche is, I think part of that.  We’ve seen that work (and all credit to the students here) in things like blog preston, the preston messenger and more.  The burgeoning hyperlocal/local media market could and should be a rich vein for students to explore and develop their carrear chances.

Just because we can…

So when I hear the question about 24/7 news operations here is what I ponder – should we really be doing that?

  • Should we as a public funded body (unless the government really get the claws out) plonk ourselves in to that landscape and risk flattening or at the very least skewing the local media economy? Even a relatively small journalism school represents an effective staff far in excess of most local newsrooms.
  • If we make it self-sustaining and sell ads (and measure success in a business like way encouraging that business focus many say we lack) then don’t we simply add more weight to that flattening effect? If I added our marketing and business courses to the mix of numbers….

What I’m also pondering is why organisations that claim to represent the interests of media organisations are also advocating that education organisations do that. Yes, on the face of it students will gain experience (although I don’t see that it’s the only or best way to do it) but at what costs to the organisations or media landscape the students are looking to work in?

Having sat in many a room listening to regional and local news orgs bemoan the impact the BBC has on competition, it feels like a very strange day when I sit in a room and hear more than one regional news editor advocating the setting up of direct competition.

On blogs and social media ennui

Image from http://www.smbc-comics.com/

My social media habits have changed over the years. I’ve never been particularly organised or disciplined so I tend to drift in and out of things – I have no strategy for my social media use.  That may come as no surprise to some but what little impression I give of being consistent with this kind of thing really comes from the fact that I’ve been doing this a (relatively) long time. That more than anything else has helped smooth some of this scattergun approach and focus my attention.

I was lucky enough to start blogging, at least in the guise you see it now, when there wasn’t much journalism blogging going on. I’ve been around for the start of many of the platforms that are now common place. (it was all fields in my day) That means that I’ve developed my online presence over time  – it was allowed to evolve. It took me a while to get to where I am but no one was really telling me how I should use it. Ironic given what I do!

During all of this, I’ve seen ‘waves’ of people appear in the j-sphere and each wave has had to work that bit harder.  So I saw (and was influenced by) loads of good people, in the industry and those entering it, old and young, using blogs to build their profile.  People like Jo Geary, Alison Gow, Josh Halliday, Dave Lee, Sarah Hartley, Ed Walker in the UK, people like Dave Cohn, Richard Koci Hernadez, Marc S Luckie in the US. There are of course so many others.

They felt like simpler times. But I saw that, as each new ‘wave’ came through they had to be that little more on the ball; across the debate as the community grew. Pretty soon there was an established community; a legacy newcomers had to get to grips with. Not much room for quietly finding your voice.

A place for blogs?

The new-waves of journos appearing online have a much richer and dynamic pot to call on. First port of call for most is now Twitter; get the profile, engage in the debate and engage with the individuals. Blogs, with notable exceptions like Wannabe Hacks, don’t really feature in that thinking. If they do, they tend to be as platforms for CV’s and work.

That shift away from blogs is something that I think about a lot, but it was reading Martin Belam’s excellent post on the guardians facebook app that motivated me to post. It made me realise just how vital a blog is in giving a place to step back and reflect and how much I miss that in the face of the realtime debates that demand our attention.

Social media ennui

I think it’s that real-time element that is partly responsible for my intermittent engagement with social media these days. The fact that the debate is so dynamic means that it is often repetitive. The same issues and debates get stirred up as new people enter the discussion; a kind of social media ‘what are you guys talking about’ kind of thing.  Often the debates and the views are depressingly familiar. I’ve found myself thinking ‘didn’t we sort this one already?’, ‘why is this still an issue?’.

The best way I could find to describe it is social media ennui (I’m not alone in that).

Of course all this existential pondering is self-indulgent – picture me retiring to my digital loft with a wet flannel over my eyes.  In a dynamic conversation, newcomers are going to express ideas that have been expressed – and there is little time for the context that old debates give to be raised. That’s not their fault at all. It reflects more on me than the tone or quality of the debate or any of the people who engage with it.

Blogs are the new….

That’s why blogs are still important to me. Just when I get fed up with the fast but often shallow debate in the realtime sphere, they are little moments of calm reflection and inspiration. They add depth to the person I see tweeting. They tell me what they think as much as twitter tells me what they say.

I never forget that, for the new-waves, it must be really hard to pitch in to the j-conversation. More challenging is now you have to come out of the traps fully formed. You have to have a strategy and, to be frank, work your arse off across a whole range of platforms to get a profile. You have to listen to people like me telling you how you might do that.

When I started, there was an opportunity to find a voice because, well, not many people were listening. Now, just maybe, there is that chance again because everyone is distracted by that real time, ever demanding river of content that is the statusphere (status as in update not reputation). Get a blog in whilst no one is looking!

I’d love to see more newcomers to the j-sphere blogging. It’s not just that it may be the cure to my social media ennui. A blog might just be the kind of thing that gets you noticed. again.

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Journalism is not a profession, it’s a diagnosis.

 

Conditions for the subs had improved considerably

Thinking about Journalism as a profession just doesn’t work any more for me. That’s why I’ve been thinking that Journalism is not a profession, it’s a diagnosis. 

Stick with me…

Large media organisations are traditionally where those ‘with’ journalism have been kept – a bit like the TB wards of old – in a strict regimen that helped control it. The problem is that over time, journalism has become an industrial disease; spreading through the large media organisations replacing the more benign, older strain.

Now, new technologies and the changing media landscape that have broken down the walls to let the community in, have let journalism out. Now we can see the symptoms everywhere and the diversity might mean that the damaged, industrial strain could be wiped out.

The symptoms will vary – a commitment to telling a story about and for a community not just for yourself might be a common symptom. Some might get the more objective strain. Some the subjective, activist stream. But there will always be a desire to show sources – to be transparent.

Those who are still responsible for running the large media hospitals companies are worried. If lots of people get it, they might say, how are they going to look after these long-term sufferers; the ones who have it really bad? After all, we all know how expensive healthcare is. Lots of people running around with it would overwhelm the system.

But letting journalism loose has had some surprising results.

Although journalism is quite difficult to manage, handled with care, journalism can exist in a community. In fact, injecting it in to a community actually seems to improve its health.

So it isn’t important that a person is working for a large media organisation or not. We should think of the future of journalism as a support group. People who have recently caught journalism (no matter how mild) can come to longer term carriers for support. Everyone is welcome to share their experiences and ways of managing the symptoms.

Those who know me know how much I love to mangle a metaphor, so I’ll stop. The metaphor may not work for you (in fact it may not work at all) but I’m convinced that, until we can release some of the baggage around the term, we need to find new ways of explaining what we do to make it more inclusive. Something that allows for what it is and who does it to both be important rather than at odds.

Afterthought - Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that by letting journalism free that the mainstream media is going to die etc. There will always be a place for those who support and protect the really serious cases of journalism – getting a serious case can be dangerous. But it shouldn’t be an asylum :)

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Do we need a journalism merit badge?

 

So Ivan Lewis has suggested that journalists who ‘break the rules’ should be struck off. A move which, as FleetStreetBlues blogs:

..by implication, that there should be some kind of register or licence for all journalists

A license might be a bit strong. What else could we consider…

Journalism Merit badge

What about a boy scout style merit badge system? They have one for Journalism. They also have them for law. I couldn’t find one for PA or shorthand.

Or maybe we could go the McDonalds star route. You could lose a star for each ‘transgression’ of regulations. Gain one for an exclusive.

But seriously, do we really need to be thinking about this at all?

Fleet street fox rounds off a good response to Ivan Lewis with this:

No-one’s needed a licence to be a journalist in the 300 years since the first paper was printed in Fleet Street. You just have to be nosy and a little bit mad, the kind of person no-one else wants in their club.

A good headline? A storm in a teacup? All of that and more.

License or badge?

O'Reilly's code of conduct badge

In 2007, Tim O’reilly suggested that we needed a blogging code of conduct. A suggestion that was roundly turned on in some quarters . His reasoning was there needed to be some way of controlling the increasing amount of poor behaviour on blogs.  Blogs that followed the code and enforced it got to be deputised in to the code and wear a badge – yep, a sheriffs badge.

In the same way that we can argue that Lewis’ suggestions amount to an attempt to license, you could also argue that would legitimise professional journalists. beyond the NUJ card. This would be legally sanctioned journalists.  Yes, state sanctioned but it would give them rights and access above all others.  Especially the simply nosey or mad or worse still, those “Local nosey parkers with mobile phones

Given the attitude of the industry to regulation, the public and citizen journalism, be forgiven for thinking that many journalists  already consider themselves to be licensed already. I would imagine there are some who would welcome the differentiation.

 

 

Visible not critical: What next journalism?

I read a few interesting posts over the last few days. The first was I’m Glad We Didn’t Have Facebook or Twitter on 9/11.

That’s the real problem with attempting to make sense of 9/11 using social media: The former requires deep thought while the latter feeds on immediacy. Ten years and millions of articles after 9/11, we’re still trying to come to terms with what happened that day. We’re still sifting through the debris and our collective emotions in order to find whatever it is we lost, or to explain why things are the way they are now. I have a hard time believing 9/11 tweets or Facebook updates would have changed any of that for the better. And by now they’d be forgotten anyway, buried under 10 years of more shouting into the abyss.

The second was (a trail for) a piece in the press gazette by the Guardians Paul Lewis on the way the riots have proved the need for paid journalists

“Some people argued the digital era would see paid journalists replaced by an army of citizen reporters,” he said.

“The riots proved otherwise: people might consume news differently, but they still want it told straight, and by reporters on the ground.”

I found myself agreeing with both posts but was a little uncomfortable about that.

The 9/11 post made so much sense given the recent experience of the coverage of the riots on twitter. Not that I am, for one moment, equating the events. No, its more the position that the rumour and hearsay where dangerous, pervasive and perhaps even a distraction from more important stuff.

Perhaps Lewis’ point about the need for journalists in that is even more valid but that in itself makes me feel uncomfortable.

What next, Journalism?

I suppose I can sum up my discomfort in terms of a question. “Ok journalism,. What are you going to do next?”

If you are that important and social media needs your influence and control what are you going to do to keep your place at the table? Do we have to wait for another riot or MP’s expenses or wikipedia to prove that you are doing journalism? All great work but not a huge hit rate given the number of you out there.

Visible not critical

Of course the truth is that there are loads of journo’s doing loads of great things at every level. Really good journalism. But we don’t hear about them. At least we don’t hear about them because we are often too busy telling people why all the other stuff is not as good.

So maybe I feel uncomfortable because, whilst twitter would have had a roll to play the rumour and lack of facts would have been a nightmare. But maybe it would have been a necessary evil. Maybe it would have had to be there to fill a gap.

 

Pyramids and the shape of news

I saw a tweet a few days back from my good friend Paul (@digitaldocs).

If the news was a shape - what shape would it be?
@digitaldocs
PaulEgglestone

I replied that it was either a square or ‘a messy blob’

Thinking about it later I wondered why I didn’t immediately say pyramid. My immediate thought was box. So much for thinking outside of it!

Talk about burying the lead!

In that way the web has, I felt an echo of that as I read this article on the BBC website

Seventeen lost pyramids are among the buildings identified in a new satellite survey of Egypt.

Perhaps it was the idea that new technology would unearth these monuments to an older way of life. Maybe it was the irony that these seemingly impervious icons of an older way of life would just dissapear without anyone knowing.

All that effort, all the reason for them being there in the first place, forgotten.

 

Communities and the “big enough” society.

Launch of Big Society programme
Small committee makes big society - Image by The Prime Minister's Office via Flickr

I’ve been listening to and talking with a lot of people about community lately. All kinds of communities and all kinds of projects. One of the things that comes out of the discussions was the connection/tie-in/albatross-round-the-neck that is the “big society”.

A general embargo on political commentary on this blog means I won’t tell you what a none-sensical, keep all the blame away from politicians excuse for a concept it is.  But it has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons for those doing real community engagement stuff who genuinely have to worry about the way their work is seen/critique in a political context.

By real, I mean something other than the virtual – the twitter community or the community of readers –  we often talk about in social media circles.

Social. Theres another word that means something else now. In my world, social often means social networks or collaboration. In the world of big society communities it means poor (and costly to the state) rather than the cash rich time poor that make up most of the demographic.

Social housing isn’t connected to facebook and social security isn’t just using  backupify.

Despite the differences, what struck me about a lot of the discussion was the parallels between how media talks about community and the growing discussion in the broader ‘social’ arena; the idea that working with communities is a sure fire way to solve the big problems. Not because those small communities couldn’t help with that – they can. But because of the belief that there is a big solution out there to be found.

It’s not enough for a good community strategy to simply help and develop a community. It has to scale and have a model (preferably a business one).

But maybe they don’t have to be.

Maybe a local community group doesn’t have to be an exemplar of how ‘big society’ can work. Just like your hyperlocal community site doesn’t have to be the business model for others. Maybe they just need to be big enough to do the job. Big enough to sustain one journo rather than the business plans of many.

More importantly when we talk about community, maybe we should be looking at how we can make that word social mean the same thing for both sides of the digital divide.

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If you saw you on facebook would you give you a job?

Superman, Clarke Kent or drunk traffic cone molester - what does your facebook profile
Superman, Clarke Kent or drunk traffic cone molester - what does your facebook profile. Picture by shaun wong (flickr)

Okay, that has to be the worst English I have written (even by my standards) but think about it.

This post may appear more relevent to the students who occasionally look at my blog or who will find their way to this post via Twitter. In fact it was a chat with some first-year students that prompted the post and this link to a guide for setting your profile on Facebook, which I thought would be useful. But I think there is a broader issue.

My point to them was that their Facebook profiles where often not the best advert for them. That wasn’t a reflection on them at all. Just that some people don’t use Facebook as a social network. They use it as a way to ‘use’ those social networks and the information they generate. That could be a prospective employer or, to be honest, a journalist stacking up a story.

One student said they planned to delete their profile before they began applying for jobs, whilst others claimed that their profiles where already secure. But many were unaware that Google can search Facebook (and does a pretty good job of it) and that the privacy settings could be tweaked to the level they could.  This is before you get in to a discussion about whether you really can delete anything on the web.

But the point, and here’s the wider issue, was not the appropriateness of the profile. It was  that Facebook is a public facing service and as someone who plans to be in the public eye as a journalist, you should exercise some control over your professional image online just as you would offline.

Work/life balance.

The idea of public/private persona is not just limited to Facebook. Dilyan Damyanov asks a similar question in his post “Should professionals have separate work accounts on Twitter?” which replays a twitter debate about the much mentioned Twitter outburst by David George-Cosh. Like Dilyan, I’m looking forward to Mark Comerford’s take on this.

Update: Just caught up with Mathew Ingram’s take on this

My first years are setting out on the what I call the change from “poacher to gamekeeper”. They know how to take what they want from the web as consumers but now they are working to another standard (I’ll avoid the word ethic there).  Alf Hermida’s recent article underlines why this is important.

But they are not alone. There are hundreds of journalists moving online and whilst we explore this new media (or whatever we end up calling it) we all need to think  about what trail we leave.

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