The no-budget way to make BBC Instafax style video for Instagram

How to make fancy visual news videos on the cheap
How to make fancy visual news videos on the cheap

Last week I spent a very pleasant day at the Newsrewired conference in London.  I was moderating a panel on short form video. It prompted a lot of thinking about what that actually was. But one example of what it could be was the BBC’s project Instafax. I’m still a bit skeptical as to whether this a ‘new form’ as much as a nice use of a platform. (I’ll maybe blog more about that issue)

Actually I’m just more impressed that orgs like the BBC, Channel 4 and The Guardian are experimenting with visual story telling online. They aren’t alone.  A number of startups like NowThisNews are experimenting with using micro-video on platforms like vine and instagram to reach that much-desired mobile audience.

Anyway, above what I might think of the rhetoric around the experiments, I did think that it was an interesting idea to show to students. It struck me as a fun way to introduce images etc. and think about telling stories in different ways.   So I set about working out a way to do instafax style video on the cheap (well, free).

One of the things that was clear in the panel discussion was how much a lot of orgs still rely on quite expensive kit and infrastructure to make video happen. (The key seems to be in getting your initial settings right) Now we aren’t short of kit at the uni but we do have some restrictions on the tools we can use and things we can install.  So I was looking at a solution that was pretty much web-based and as universal as it could be.

So here it is:

Instafax on no budget.

The ingredients

  • Some nice images of news stories (make sure you have cleared their use before you start)
  • Access to an image editor. Photoshop and gimp are fine but in this recipe we will be using
  • Access to a youtube account
  • An instragram account
  • A phone with the instagram app to  upload your video.

The method

Making the image

  • Open up a new image in Pixlr.
    • Set the width and height to 640pixels.
    • cut-and-paste the image you want to use in to the image


  • Open up the image you want to use in your video.
    • Select the crop tool
    • Set the Constraint option to Output Size
    • Set the output Width and Height to 640px . Note. Be careful how you use this tool. The crop will resize to 640×640. If you highlight a small part of the image or your image was small to start with, it can ‘blow-up’ the selection and leave you with a blurry, pixel-ly image.
  • Use the text tool to add a suitable caption. It’s worth thinking about where you put your caption. It seems to be common practice to add a caption at the top or bottom but never in the middle of the image. I’m guessing that’s to avoid it being obscured by a play icon on some platforms.
  • Save the image(s) as a png file

Making the video

  • Open the
  • Click the camera icon and click Add Photos to the project
  • Upload the images you created
  • Add the image to the timeline. Remember your video has to 15 seconds so stretch or minimize to fill. A guide of 4 seconds a slide is not a bad starting point. It depends on the amount of text.
  • When you’re done, publish the video
  • When the video has been processed go to your video manager ( or click video manager on the video page)
  • Click the edit dropdown next to the video
  • Click Download MP4

The video looks something like…

Getting it on instagram

  • Copy the mp4 file to your device. Email is good or maybe dropbox would help here.
  • Upload using the instagram app as normal

When you add your video to Instragram, don’t forget the caption. You can get quite a lot in there are it works well as a kind of summary/intro/cue for the story.


As a process it’s a bit clumsy and the rendering up and down from youtube doesn’t leave the crisp edges that you would get from using better kit (or the whizzy transitions). But I think it does the job and with some music (which you could add using youtube’s own editor) I think it’s a viable, entry level way to explore image slideshows and mobile audiences.

What about adding video?

Instagram will crop out the sides of any video so framing is important.
Instagram will crop out the sides of any video so framing is important.

You can easily add video using the youtube editor but Instagram will crop the outer edges. So make sure you frame the video with the key elements in the middle. Also the youtube editor text tools are (very)very limited.


The big gap here is the ‘transfer to your phone’ bit.  There is site called Gramblr that will allow you to upload from the desktop but it wants your username and password. If that’s a price you’re prepared to pay (and I’ve no reason to assume that it isn’t safe) then it’s a workable solution. But I think Dropbox or email is just as easy and if you use the native app to upload you get all the other stuff like tags etc.

I’m convinced there is always real value in playing around with platforms. It isn’t just geeky tinkering. As I said, fair play to organisations that are experimenting in the way the BBC are.  For me, this was as much an exercise in something interesting for the students to try – exploring new platforms and playing with kit – as it was any attempt to prove it could be done.  But I think, like slideshows, this is an opportunity for those with plenty of image s to explore new narrative styles.

Let me know what you think.

Oh and hey BBC!  if you’re looking to drop the insta bit, how about something that sums up what it is. Facts that you can see. Maybe, seethefax…seefax…something like that.


Data journalism: Making it real

The following is an edited version of a chapter I contributed to  a new book Data Journalism: Mapping the Future, published  by Abramis academic publishing. The fact that I’m in it aside, I can heartily recommend it as a great mix of practical and contextual information. Go and buy one. Go on!

During the 2008 summer Olympics, the Beijing Air Track project took a team of photographers from Associated Press and used them to smuggle hand-held pollution sensors in to Beijing. Using their press access to the Olympic venues, they gathered pollution readings to test the Chinese government’s data that a series of extreme emergency measures put in place in the run-up to the games had improved the cities notoriously poor air quality. They were not the only organisation to use sensors in this way. The BBC’s Beijing office also used a hand-held sensor to test air pollution gathering data that appeared in a number of reports during the games.

AP’s interactive report visualised the level of air pollution

Clean air. Clean data
The Air Track project and AP’s interactive report  are now cited as a:

 “prime example of how sensors, data journalism, and old-fashioned, on-the-ground reporting can be combined to shine a new level of accountability on official reports”.

In contrast to the Chinese data, the level of transparency displayed in the way the data was collected vividly illustrates how sensors can play a part in reinforcing data journalism role in the process of accountability.

Testing the context, provenance and ownership – where our data comes from and why – is a fundamental part of the data journalism process. If we are not critical of the data we use (and those that provide it), perhaps becoming over-reliant on data press releases , we can risk undermining our credibility with data-churnalism or, worse still, data-porn! . As data journalism practice evolves, whilst the basic critical skills will remain fundamental, it would seem logical to explore ways that we reduce our dependency on other sources all together. The Beijing project, with its use of sensors, offers a compelling solution. As Javaun Moradi, product manager for NPR digital, succinctly put it:

“If stage 1 of data journalism was ‘find and scrape data.’, then stage 2 was ‘ask government agencies to release data’ in easy to use formats. Stage 3 is going to be ‘make your own data’”

Crowdsensing data
The three stages that Moradi identifies are not mutually exclusive. Many data journalism projects already include an element of gathering new data often done using traditional forms of crowdsourcing; questionnaires or polls. As much as involving the audience has its benefits, it is notoriously unpredictable and time-consuming. But as individuals we already make a huge amount of data. That isn’t just data about us collected by others through a swipe of a loyalty card or by submitting a tax return online. It’s also data we collect about ourselves and the world around us.

An increasing number of us strap sensors to ourselves that track our health and exercise and the “internet of things”  is creating a growing source of data from the buildings and objects around us. The sensors used by the AP team were specialist air pollution sensors that cost in excess of $400 – an expensive way for cash-strapped newsrooms to counter dodgy data.  Since 2008 however, the price has dropped and the growing availability of cheap computing devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino and the collaborative and open source ethic of the hacker and maker communities, have lowered the barriers to entry. Now sensors, and the crowd they attract, are a serious option for developing data driven reporting.

Hunting for (real) bugs with data
In 2013, New York braced itself for an invasion. Every 17 years a giant swarm of cicadas descend on the East Coast. The problem is that exactly when in the year the insects will appear is less predictable. The best indicator of the emergence of the mega-swarm (as many as a billion cicadas in a square mile) seems to be when the temperature eight inches below the ground reaches 64 degrees (18C). So when John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor for data news and journalism technology, met with news teams to look at ways to cover the story, he thought of the tinkering he had done with Arduino’s and Raspberry Pi’s . He thought of sensors.

Keefe could not find a source for the data that offered any level of local detail across the whole of New York. He took the problem of how to collect the data to a local hackathon, organised by the stations popular science show Radiolab, who helped create a “recipe” for an affordable, easy to make temperature sensor which listeners could build and send results back to a website  where they would map the information

Developing collaboration.
Whilst sensors play an enabling role in both examples, underpinning both the Beijing AirTrack and Cicada projects is the idea of collaboration. The Beijing project was originally developed by a team from the Spatial Information Lab at Columbia University. Combining the access of the media with the academic process and expertise of the lab gave the project a much bigger reach and authority. It’s a form of institutional collaboration that echoes in a small way in more recent projects such as The Guardian’s 2012’s Reading the riots. The Cicada project, on the other hand, offers an insight into a kind of community-driven collaboration that reflects the broader trend of online networks and the dynamic way groups form.

Safecast and the Fukushima nuclear crisis
On 9 March 2011, Joichi Ito was in Cambridge Massachusetts. He had travelled from Japan for an interview to become head of MIT’s prestigious Media Lab. The same day a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a devastating tsunami and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, starting the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Ito, like many others, turned to the web and social media to find out if family and friends were safe and gather as much information as he could about the risk from radiation

At the same time as Ito was searching for news about his family, US web developer Marcelino Alvarez was in Portland scouring the web for information about the possible impact of the radiation on the US’s west coast. He decided to channel his “paranoia” and within 72 hours his company had created, a website aggregating and mapping information about the level of radiation .

For Alvarez and Ito the hunt for information soon developed into an effort to source geiger counters to send to Japan. Within a week of the disaster, the two had been introduced and became part of project that would become As demand outstripped supply, their efforts to buy geiger counters quickly transformed into a community driven effort to design and build cheap, accurate sensors that could deployed quickly to gather up to date information.

SIDENOTE: It will be interesting to see how the experiences of Beijing and Safecast could come together in the coverage of the 2020 Olympics in Japan

Solving problems: Useful data and Purposed conversations
Examples such as WNYC’s cicada project show how a strong base of community engagement can help enable data-driven projects. But the Safecast network was not planned, it grew

“from purposed conversations among friends to full time organization gradually over a period of time”

There was no news conference to decide the when and the how it would respond or attempt to target contributors. It was a complex, self-selecting, mix of different motivations and passions that coalesced into a coherent response to solve a problem. It’s a level of responsiveness and scale of coverage that news organisations would struggle to match on their own. In that context, Moradi believes that journalism has a different role to play:

Whether they know it or not, they do need an objective third party to validate their work and give it authenticity. News organisations are uniquely positioned to serve as ethical overseers, moderators between antagonistic parties, or facilitators of open public dialogue

Building bridges
Taking a position as a “bridge” between those with data and resources and the public who desperately want to understand the data and access it but need help  is a new reading of what many would recognise as a traditional part of journalism’s process and identity. The alignment of data journalism with the core principles of accountability and the purpose of investigative journalism, in particular, makes for a near perfect meeting point for the dynamic mix of like-minded hacks, academics and hackers, motivated not just by transparency and accountability. It also taps into a desire not just to highlight issues but begin to put in place solutions to problems. This mix of ideologies, as the WikiLeaks story shows , can be explosive but the output has proved invaluable in helping (re)establish the role of journalism in the digital space. Whether it is a catalyst to bring groups together, engage and amplify the work of others or a way, as Moradi puts it, to “advance the cause of journalism by means other than reporting” , sensor journalism seems to be an effective gateway to exploring these new opportunities

The digital divide
The rapid growth of data journalism has played a part in directing attention, and large sums of money, to projects that take abstract concepts like open government and make them tangible, relevant and useful to real live humans in our communities. It’s no surprise, then, that many of them take advantage of sensors and their associated communities to help build their resources. Innovative uses of smart phones, co-opting the internet of things or using crowd funded sensor project like the Air quality egg.  But a majority of the successful data projects funded by organisations such as the Knight Foundation, have outputs that are almost exclusively digital; apps or data dashboards. As much as they rely on the physical to gather data, the results remain resolutely trapped in the digital space.

As far back as 2009, the UK government’s Digital Britain report warned:

“We are at a tipping point in relation to the on-line world. It is moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without”

The solution to this digital divide is to focus on getting those who are not online connected. As positive as this is, it’s a predictably technological deterministic solution to the problem that critics say conflates digital inclusion with social inclusion . For journalism, and data journalism in particular, it raises an interesting challenge to claims of “combating information asymmetry” and increasing the data literacy of their readers on a mass scale .

Insight journalism: Journalism as data
In the same year as Digital Britain report appeared, the Bespoke project dived into the digital divide by exploring ways to create real objects that could act as interfaces to the online world. The project took residents from the Callon and Fishwick areas in Preston, Lancashire, recognised as some of the most deprived areas in the UK, and trained them as community journalists who contributed to a “hyperlocal” newspaper that was distributed round the estate. The paper also served as a way of collecting “data” for designers who developed digitally connected objects aimed at solving problems identified by the journalists. A process the team dubbed insight journalism .

Wayfinder at St Matthew's church (Image copyright Garry Cook)
Wayfinder at St Matthew’s church (Image copyright Garry Cook)

One example, the Wayfinder, was a digital display and a moving arrow which users could text to point to events happening in the local area.

Bespoke's Viewpoint Contour Homes' office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook
Bespoke’s Viewpoint Contour Homes’ office in Callon, Preston (c) Garry Cook

Another, Viewpoint was a kiosk, placed in local shops that allowed users to vote on questions from other residents, the council and other interested parties. The questioner had to agree that they would act on the responses they got, a promise that was scrutinised by the journalists.

The idea was developed during the 2012 Unbox festival in India, when a group of designers and journalists applied the model of insight journalism to the issue of sexual harassment on the streets of New Delhi. The solution, built on reports and information gathered by journalists, was to build a device that would sit on top of one of the many telegraph poles that clutter the streets attracting thousands of birds. The designers created a bird table fitted with a bell. When a woman felt threatened or was subjected to unwanted attention she could use Twitter to “tweet” the nearest bird table and a bell would ring. The ringing bell would scatter any roosting birds giving a visible sign of a problem in the area. The solution was as poetic as it was practical, highlighting not just the impact of the physical but the power of journalism as data to help solve a problem.

Stage four: Make data real
Despite its successes sensor journalism is still a developing area and it is not yet clear if it will see any growth beyond the environmental issues that drive many of the examples presented here. Like data journalism, much of the discussion around the field focuses on the new opportunities it presents. These often intersect with equally nascent but seductive ideas such as drone journalism. More often than not, though, they bring the discussion back to the more familiar ground of the challenges of social media, managing communities and engagement.

As journalism follows the mechanisms of the institutions it is meant to hold to account into the digital space, it is perhaps a chance to think about how data journalism can move beyond simply building capacity within the industry, providing useful case studies. Perhaps it is a way to help journalism re-connect to the minority of those in society who, by choice or by circumstance, are left disconnected.

Thinking about ways to make the data we find and the data journalism we create physical, closes a loop on a process that starts with real people in the real world. It begins to raise important questions about what journalism’s role should be in not just capturing the problems and raising awareness but also creating solutions. In an industry struggling to re-connect, it maybe also starts to address the issue of solving the problem placing journalism back in the community and making it sustainable. Researchers reflecting on the Bespoke project noted that:

“elements of the journalism process put in place to inform the design process have continued to operate in the community and have proven to be more sustainable as an intervention than the designs themselves”

If stage three is to make our own data, perhaps it is time to start thinking about stage four of data journalism and make data real.


Alba, Davey (2013) Sensors: John Keefe and Matt Waite on the current possibilities, Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, 5 June. Available online at, accessed on 12 August 2013
Alvarez, Marcelino (2011) 72 Hours from concept to launch:, Uncorked Words, 21 March. Available online at, accessed on 12 August 2013
Ashton, Kevin (2009) That “Internet of Things” thing, RFiD Journal 22 pp 97-114. Available online at, accessed on 25 September, 2013
Department of Business Innovation and Skills (2009) Digital Britain: Final Report, Stationery Office
BBC (2008) In pictures: Beijing pollution-watch, BBC News website, 24 August. Available online at, accessed on 12 August 2013
Blum-Ross, Alicia, Mills, John, Egglestone, Paul and Frohlich, David (2013) Community media and design: Insight journalism as a method for innovation, Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 14, No 3, 1 September pp 171-192
Bradshaw, Paul. and Brightwell, Andy. (2012) Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: Help me Investigate: A case study, Siapera, Eugenia and Veglis, Andreas (eds) The Handbook of Global Online Journalism, London: John Wiley & Sons pp 253-271
Ellison, Sarah (2011) The man who spilled the secrets, Vanity Fair, February. Available online at , accessed on 13 September 2013
Gray, Jonathan, Chambers, Lucy and Bounegru, Liliana (2012) The Data Journalism Handbook. O’Reilly. Free version available online at
Howard, Alex (2013) Sensoring the news, O’Reilly Radar, 22 March. Available at, accessed on 12 August 2013
Kalin, Sari (2012) Connection central. MIT news magazine, 21 August. Available at, accessed on 22nd August 2013
Knight, Megan (2013) Data journalism: A preliminary analysis of form and content. A paper delivered to the International Association for Media and Communication Research, 25-29 June, Dublin
Livingstone, Sonia and Lunt, Peter (2013) Ofcom’s plans to promote “participation”, but whose and in what? LSE Media Policy Project, 27 February. Available online at, accessed on 23 September 2013
Moradi, Javaun (2011) What do open sensor networks mean for journalism?, Javaun’s Ramblings, 16 December 16. Available online at, accessed on 9 August 2013
Oliver, Laura (2010) UK government’s open data plans will benefit local and national journalists,, 1 June. Available online at, accessed on 12 August 2013
Rogers, Simon. (2011) Facts are Sacred: The Power of Data (Guardian shorts), Cambridge, UK: Guardian Books
Safecast History (no date) Available online at, accessed on 25 September 2013
Sopher, Christopher (2013) How can we harness data and information for the health of communities?, Knight Foundation, 16 August. Available online at accessed on 10 September 2013.
Taylor, Nick, Marshall, Justin, Blum-Ross, Alicia., Mills, John, Rogers, Jon, Egglestone, Paul, Frohlich, David M., Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick (2012) Viewpoint: Empowering Communities with Situated Voting Devices, Proc. CHI 2012 pp 1361-1370, New York: ACM (don’t understand this reference)
Taylor, Nick, Wright, Peter, Olivier, Patrick and Cheverst, Kieth (2013) Leaving the wild: lessons from community technology handovers. in CHI ’13 (don’t understand this reference)
Waite, Matt. (2013) How sensor journalism can help us create data, improve our storytelling, 17 April. Available online at, accessed on 28 August 2013

The commercial blindspot:Funding news

The idea of the weekend – a £2 levy on broadband that can be used to pay for journalism.

There are almost 20m UK households that are paying upwards of £15 a month for a good broadband connection, plus another 5m mobile internet subscriptions. People willingly pay this money to a handful of telecommunications companies, but pay nothing for the news content they receive as a result, whose continued survival is generally agreed to be a fundamental plank of democracy.

A £2 levy on top – collected easily from the small number of UK service providers (BT, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk etc) who would add it on to consumers’ bills – would raise more than £500m annually. It could be collected by a freestanding agency, on the lines of the BBC licence fee, and redistributed automatically to “news providers” according to their share of UK online readership.

The logic being, I suppose, that all these big broadband companies make all this money from our hard-earned content, isn’t it about time they paid. Oh, and you consumers need to get that idea of free out of your mind as well.

Roy Greenslade thinks it’s a great idea but there are problems.

Of course there are problems to overcome, such as persuading the various service providers – BT, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk et al – to become “tax collectors” for news outfits. But a case can be made that they benefit from news production.

The other concern is about big media getting benefits unavailable to start-ups. But I imagine there could be a mechanism to distribute a portion to them as well.

I’m not surprised by the prevailing argument – the web is stripping journalism of it’s inherrent value so they should pay. As much as people would love to think we are beyond it, the anti-digital curmudgeon class still exists in journalism.

I’m more surprised. No staggered by the willful act of ignorance required to simply dismiss the issue of what would essentially be a bail out .

It’s a chilling thought that some of the best, most respected and senior journalists around can still flick a switch in their heads that separates the ‘journalism’ that they do from the organisations that they work for. That somehow journalism transcends the reality of money.

I’m not sure if it’s a blindspot (so steeped in journalism they fail to see the building and infrastructure around them) or blinkers (that many still have a hard-on for making evil digital pay). Whatever it is the idea is as sad for the attitudes it highlights as it is misguided.

Update: Dominic Ponsford has decided that David Leigh’s broadband tax plan is bonkers . But his article is just as bad. Instead of taxing broadband he wants to tax Google.

How well would Google do without all the free editorial content which it is indexing I wonder?

I think (and I might be wrong) they’d be ok, but I digress. Yes, the media benefits from Google…

But with Google UK ad revenues set to top £3bn this year the newspaper industry owners are increasingly looking like householders who, having been woken in the night by burglars, rush downstairs to make them a cup of tea before helping them into their van with the flatscreen TV and the silverware.

The logic might appeal if you are frustrated at the lack of solutions to the complex issue of sustaining journalism. But replacing broadband with google is just as simple and transparent.

More: This response to the original idea is brilliant.


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Taxing community engagement and other thoughts from the BBC’s connecting communities conf.

I spent the day at sunny media city in Salford for the BBC College of Journalism’s connecting communities conference ( #BBCscc12). I had a few observations/thoughts that I wanted to get out of my head.

  • Social media verification is the new community management –  It was clear that the amount of time, effort and commitment, needed to validate social media leads and content is out of the capacity of most MSM outlets. Citizenside co-sponsored the conference and there was a good showing from Stroyful as well and, as services, they get a lot of traction in MSM. That’s a lot like the outsourcing of community management (comment handling etc) we used to see. Another opportunity outside the MSM mothership for social savvy journalists.
  • Hyperlocal is a mixed message – I’m not sure if it constitutes two types of hyperlocal or just competing motivations but there seemed to be some conflicting demands from hyperlocals. All claimed a connection to community (which is fair) and many spoke at length about altruism and affinity. But there was also a strong sentiment in the room that large MSM (the BBC ) should a)recognise (even validate) the ‘journalism’ and b)promote (advertise) them to keep them going. Neither seemed to me a particularly attractive proposition for any MSM.

    In reality I know, it’s a complex mix, profile is important as is revenue. But I just got the sense that, given that more ‘pro’ journos are starting hyperlocals, that more thought needs to be given to the purpose of a hyperlocal proposition Vs where journalists seek validation for the impact. The question I asked was ‘why do you want recognition from the MSM?’. That wasn’t meant to be critical. Think it’s something that needs more thought if you’re going to have a coherent proposition to ‘sell’.

  • Organisations who use communities should be none profit or pay a fee – I was listening to a panel debate on money and resources. At one point I closed my eyes and it seemed like two of the panel members could have been interchangeable. They were all talking about how their engagement with communities ‘changed lives’. It was a bit of an x-factor moment. But when I opened them again only one of them (community media association) was, by law, a not for profit. The other was Archant.

    I wondered if, given the positive value of community involvement, organisations would be happy to operate in part as a none-profit just like community broadcasters. After all they claim the same impacts (Perhaps community broadcasting would like to be released from those rules. Who knows.) Maybe we could release MSM from a need to credit etc as long as they are clear at the point of collection UGC that they don’t and in return take a community media subscription fee from them each year.  Lets say 15% of profit. Maybe a percentage worked out on the amount of UGC in their publications; .5% for every 2% of UGC content.  That could go in to a foundation style pot to encourage innovation.

  • Sometimes the community say it better than any journalist can 
Other perspectives

Journalism is not shorthand for defunct thinking.

I spent the last two days in a room with lots of arts and humanities academics at the Creative Exchange, talking about the digital public space(DSP). There was a great talk from BBC archive boss and DSP guru @tonyageh which set up a pretty passionate (if a little utopian) position for ‘releasing’ archive and how that can build a space where everyone can benefit from access to ‘stuff’

What I found interesting and frustrating in equal measure was the way some of the debate around the idea took on a negative frame because it came from a broadcaster.

It wasn’t that there was a problem with it being the BBC. Quit the opposite. The fact that it wasn’t a commercial thing was seen as good.  It seemed that, a large number in the room didn’t like broadcast as a term. It was mass media, mass consumption, untargeted and uncritical. Not what we do at all. Almost the antithesis of the creative and arts ethos in the room.

That mutually agreed dismissal of the term and the generally accepted anti-cultural interpretation seemed unnecessarily self-serving to me; relegated to the position of ‘mainstream’ simply to be something to kick against and give an idea momentum.

I think the level of frustration was not really because of the debate. Put a room full of academics in a room with the promise of funding and everyone is going to start pushing their own view. No, I think it built on a residual frustration that I have been feeling about the arbitrary way terms are taken up as shorthand for everything that is wrong or creatively moribund.

Journalism is one of those words. 

Journalism is not broken and it isn’t a word that sums up everything that is wrong with the way we make stuff relevant and meaningful to people. But people are using it as if to say, “well, that didn’t work did it. Let’s find another way to do this”

So when I hear people talking about needing to find new ways to engage people (as I have over the last few days in really positive and seductive ways) particularly those who see digital not only as part of the solution but as a diagnostic device, I grit my teeth and wait to see who gets it in the chops to show how fresh and new the thinking is.

Thankfully many (in fact most)people I heard today didn’t. But it happens.

As someone who is involved in journalism I’m happy to admit that there is a lot wrong but let’s not write it off as some outmoded practice to be replaced by robots or simply a failed experiment to be cited by new thinkers.

Much as I like to be iconoclastic, it’s actually quite tiring and, in a world made more pragmatic by a broader cultural and media landscape, a bit like tipping at windmills.

Maybe we should be investing in changing peoples understanding of the phrase. Perhaps linguists will disagree but it strikes me there is more to be had from changing peoples understanding of something than there is in trying to educate them in to new ways of thinking using new, made up terms.

So I think I’ll be hanging on to journalism. I’ll be trying to think of new ways to explain it and make it relevant and you don’t get to co-opt it or dismiss it without joining the debate.

Journalism doesn’t get off the hook that easily. I don’t think we’re quite done with it yet.


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The responsibilities of the journalist in the internet age.

This the text from my lecture to the undergrad and post grad journalism students for their Ethics module this week. It’s slightly amended to:

  1. make sense  
  2. stop me from getting punched in the face if I ever meet Joey Barton.
  3. to add some links, refs etc.

In writing this I wanted to be a little provocative to try and generate some discussion and add some stuff to the mix in the students seminars (hence the ref to their seminar reading). 

Oh and I posted a version of last years lecture, where I kicked around a few of the same ideas, which you can read and see if I manage to contradict myself. 

I want to start with a few examples. Let’s start by me borrowing from your seminar reading…

The Vanity Fair article – The Man who spilled the secrets  –  by Sarah Ellison looks at the story surrounding the iraq war/wikileaks/Guardian saga.  Nick Davies, having heard that wikileaks may have something really interesting pursued Assange to Brussels to get him onside:

Davies made the case to Assange that the documents would effectively evaporate if they were put up as raw data on the Web—no one could make sense of so much material.

The suggestion was that journalism would give a reliable mechanism both to get the content out to a broader audience and to keep it there. It underlines the importance of journalists in bringing context to huge amounts of data. In fact you could say that the wikileaks data (and MP’s expenses) where two of things that pushed data journalism in to the current journalistic conciseness. 

The use and role of social media was highlighted by the riots in the UK last year. It bought home (by proximity if nothing else) the sheer rate of flow of information that social media can generate. It also underlined the importance of trusted voices in an network; people who could become points of reference. These where often (but not exclusively) journalists.

On an international scale, the use of social media during the Arab spring gave us an almost constant stream of examples of the value of social networks . Tweets, youtube videos, facebook updates all provided journalists and audience alike with a steady flow of information when the sheer dynamic nature (and inherent danger) of the event as well as no small amount of (traditional) state censorship cut off traditional reporting.

Both of these events also highlighted the opportunity, inherent in social media, for individual journalist to harness new technology to report events.

It also showed how that combination of means and motive pushed a number of journalists in to the limelight. Working round practical (and political) limitations to report on events and taking to the streets as self-publishing ‘war/riot correspondents’. Capturing the action with mobile phones and ‘broadcasting’ across and to the social network.

The direct nature of the connections between journalist and audience, built up through events like the UK riots and the Arab spring, did a lot to enable as well as highlight the positive aspects of the changing relationship between journalist and audience. It was sometimes an uneasy relationship but an increasingly symbiotic (rather than the traditionally framed parasitic)one.

But this isn’t a lecture about what social networks can do. The question this lecture poses is what responsibility do journalists have in the internet age?

The simple answer could be none that they don’t have already.

Let’ me give you a simple example…

Late last year the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Judge!) made good on interim judgement allowing tweeting (and other electronic communication) from court. Not long after, but by no means the first trial to be covered, Guardian journalist Jamie Jackson allegedly commits two acts of contempt causing problems at Harry Redknapp’s trial

Was that because he was using twitter?

Contempt is one of those fundamentals in journalism law. One that you are constantly reminded to be wary of.  So maybe we can just say that regardless of the medium  ‘ it’s the responsibility of a journalist not to do things like that’. They know the rules and should stick to them. Many would agree. Especially those that bang on to me about the importance of core journalism skills.

But this is in danger of becoming a very short lecture!  and in many ways that’s a cheap shot; too simplistic. A mistake is a mistake regardless of medium.

Maybe I need to switch the question round a little a bit and ask who are journalists responsible to in the internet age? Let me try and explain.

In the first example one of the (many and complex) reasons that was cited for the breakdown in the relationship (or at least a consistent cause for concern) between The Guardian and Assange was his apparent unwillingness to commit to redacting information from the Iraq memos; names and other details of individuals who might be undeservingly harmed in someway by the release of the information.

The biggest gulf between WikiLeaks and the traditional news outlets lay in their approaches to editing. Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one. “Neither us nor Der Spiegel norThe New York Times was ever going to print names of people who were going to get reprisals, anymore than we would do on any other occasion,” says David Leigh. “We were starting from: ‘Here’s a document. How much of it shall we print?’ Whereas Julian’s ideology was: ‘I shall dump everything out and then you have to try and persuade me to cross a few things out.’ We were coming at it from opposite poles.” The redaction of the Afghanistan files was a point of contention within WikiLeaks as well. Associates say that Assange dismissed the need for editorial care, even as they urged him to take the task more seriously. Smári McCarthy, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, told The Independent in October that there were “serious disagreements over the decision not to redact the names of Afghan civilians.”

We could take a step back look at that in the context of a broader debate about the driving principles of each party. Frame it as web Vs traditional.

On one side, Assange. Trusting the idea of transparency and the power of the network to filter and discriminate (but not trusting much else). Building layers of protection and redundancy like a computer network.

On the other Davies and the Guardian offering the special protections journalists have to protect sources and their responsibilities to those involved. Lending a level of credibility and context to the data.

I covered that clash of approaches in a bit more detail in last years lecture.

But regardless of your view of Assange’s or The Guardians alleged position or the relative merits of transparency vs the more traditional model of institutional balance, in this case it’s clear that the Guardian (and the author of the piece) measured it’s responsibility to the professional standards of journalism and not to the demands of Assange.

The Guardian and Davies were responsible to no body other than good journalism.

The concept of “good journalism” as a constant – something apart – is one we could argue about all day, especially in the light of recent events in the industry and Leveson. So maybe I can suggest (with no value judgment or implied criticism of the wikipedia approach) that, in this instance, good journalism was a collective effort of individuals sticking to core principles -being consistent with the standard of a professional journalist.

One of the challenges in trying to define what a journalist is (and in this context how they should behave) is breaking the link between the individual and the organisation they work for. But the coverage of the riots through social media did a lot to make the idea of an individual, professional journalist that can exist outside of traditional media structures a reality

The personal nature social networks means that individuals can rise in prominence quickly and there is good evidence that journalists, with their professional practice, are better suited to benefit from that than most. In fact it wasn’t uncommon for people to suggest that twitter uses should actively seek out journalists (or those with a track record of acting journalistically) during events like the riots (although, to be fair, it was often journalists saying that!).

I’ve talked in other lectures about how understanding and cultivating these personal relationships is valuable.But in this context it’s not without it’s problems and those stem from that unpicking of individual identity from corporate identity.

Just last week,  a Sky News email about use of social media by journalists was leaked to the Guardian. The memo, as it has been reported, places strict limitations on what a journalist may or may not share on social networks.

“So, to reiterate, don’t tweet when it is not a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work.

“Where a story has been Tweeted by a Sky News journalist who is assigned to the story it is fine, desirable in fact, that it is retweeted by other Sky News staff.

“Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter. Such information could be wrong and has not been through the Sky News editorial process.”

The email said: “1. Don’t tweet when it’s someone else [sic] story. Stick to your own beat. 2. Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks.”

One reading of the reported elements of the memo, was that it was typical of a large media organisation that doesn’t get it. Sadly another, depressingly common and depressingly puerile reason, was this was somehow all evil Rupert Murdoch’s doing.

Sky justified the move citing accuracy:

“Sky News has the same editorial procedures across all their platforms including social media to ensure the news we report is accurate.”

Who would want to get caught out tweeting something that later turns out to be wrong?

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that social media makes mistakes more common but it certainly makes them more visible. If they understand nothing else about social media , media orgs have an understanding (borne from bitter experience) that social media will take a mistake and (with no small amount of glee by some) amplify it. (live by the sword and die, again and again by the sword). Even the response to the memo (a mistake in the view of some) shows that.

The Arab Spring really showed the value and bravery of individual journalists risking life and limb to get content out because it was the right (as well as journalistic) thing to do. But, taking the value judgment out of it, the events in the middle east (and others like the Mumbai bombing) show how trust (and the connected idea of editorial selectivity) become more important – when the flow of content turns in to a torrent, people trust mainstream media to collate and filter the ‘truth’ for them. It’s even more important to have the checks and balances in place to maintain that trust as well as have it tested.

I’ll make a distinction between trust and select. Just because they don’t select them it doesn’t mean they don’t trust them or have an expectation (even a demand) that they get it right.  So any media organisation, would worry that their reputation could be undermined by a simple mistake.

There is some evidence to support this concern about trust. We know that whilst people will trust individuals, it’s often a shallow transactional trust. A trust with little at risk. We know that the trust in media organisations is a deeper, more invested trust. Why? because allegedly there is more at risk….

I can trust someone on twitter to show me interesting things but if they don’t, well, I haven’t lost anything. But I have to trust the media because if I don’t, well, we lose a vital protection and connection to the democratic process.  Failure of trust in one means I might say ‘meh’ and log off.  The other means the death of democracy.

We have structures in newsrooms to maintain trust by maintaining accuracy. Those structures tend to work through hierarchy. Though all journalists are responsible for their work, the level of oversight depends on you place in the foodchain. So we see more senior members of a newsroom getting more autonomy – on screeners, columnists etc. – under the assumption that they have the experience not to make mistakes.Those down the food chain have to work their way up and learn the ropes like everyone else.

But this also puts boundaries between journalists and the audience. They deal with recognisable faces. I think that’s why broadcasters often rate higher in the trust ratings than print journalists – they are less anonymous.

Social media is does two things to upset that. It gives  the anonymous a name, a face and a way to interact and it flattens hierarchies.

When the details of the mail where posted on Twitter (in a splendid piece of social media trailing by Josh Halliday ) the twitter community interpreted the ‘rules’ as an attack on one of their own – singling out Neil Mann (@fieldproducer) as a possible casualty of the new rules.

Actually, just as aside, I wonder if the powers that be at sky had a look through Josh’s twitter feed to see which of his followers or followees worked at sky. But I digress.

In his official capacity Mann works for Sky News but, like many other journalists, tweets in a personal capacity.  He does it very well and has rightly been singled out for particular praise (by Sky as well as the broader journalism community) as an exemplar of social media use – He was actually named the most influential UK journalist on twitter).

I think we can also safely say that Twitter has made Mann, anonymous to most people outside the industry, more visible. I think a good part of his credibility online comes from the journalistic way he uses twitter. People follow him for what he does and how he does it, rather than who he works for.

But it’s clear that for Sky News (and they are not alone in this) the distinction between personal and professional is too subtle and the ‘this is my personal feed’ distinction is not enough.  If you are paid to be a Sky journalist then you can’t be a journalist for anyone else. Not twitter. Not even yourself. Personal or professional accounts are all the same to them

But is that really fair?

If a journalist is using twitter ‘unofficially’, as a punter, their feed is likely to be as full of the same collection of “the mundane, the fleeting, the inconsequential, or the just plain ridiculous.” as anyone else’s feed. What about when they aren’t being a journalist? Is it right to consider it all journalistic output and fair game to control?

That line about the mundane and the fleeting isn’t mine. It comes from a paper by Wendy Wyatt who identifies the two ways in which a journalist uses a social platform like Twitter – to distribute facts or to ruminate and ‘muse’.

She suggests that if a journalist uses Twitter as a tool for reporting news, that journalist’s followers will view the posts simply as an extension of the journalist’s news outlet; reading tweets is just another way to get news. On the other hand,she says,  expectations differ for journalists who use forums for ruminating, for sharing personal stories, and for simply relaying things that seem interesting or otherwise worthy of passing along.

Wyatt suggests that, because it is the journalist who creates these two contrasting purposes, they “are obligated to be clear about their purpose with their followers”.

She even goes a step further and suggests the development of a kind of tag that indicates that something a journalist is posting falls in to the ‘musing’ not reporting; something such as “UVBI.”- “unverified but interesting”

In developing the idea Wyatt is actually playing devils advocate. In reality, her gut reaction from a media ethics standpoint, is that:

“standards for social networking sites, for blogs, and for any other platform where journalists connect to audiences should be no different than standards for traditional reporting”

Maybe we are back to our ‘good journalism transcends the medium’ idea.

Of course that doesn’t really answer the question of who ultimately checks that the journalist is sticking to those standards. And as much as the journalist may try and separate their ‘normal’ activity from their journalism, in social media terms, perhaps that’s a wasted effort. It’s the audience who decides on which side you fall.

In that respect you could see any attempt by a large media organisation to control the way their journalist use social networks as a way of controlling access to the audience.

That’s what media wants –  an audience – and it’s OK that they have to fight competitors for that but they don’t expect one of those competitors to be you.

You could read that as a very old media, commercial way of looking at things (control the flow, control the audience). Social media savvy critics may say it’s a false economy. The company lose the ‘value’ and audience that individual journalists using social media interaction brings.

Right or wrong we live and work in an age of big brand journalism and when they spend their money they don’t do it to fund brand “you”.

It’s not as if individual journalists don’t benefit from being associated with large news organisations. In fact is not as if that association with a large media company is the way that professional journalists separate themselves from that mess of cit-journalism people online.

And isn’t it maybe also be a little dishonest to claim a distinction. If you happened to see a story of value in your ‘personal feed’ would you ignore it as as if you were ‘off duty’?

Being part of ‘the media’ gives you special rights, responsibilities and protections.  The powers may make for a really boring super-hero (and a pretty underwhelming costume) but they are powers none the less.

So what does  that tell us about what our responsibilities are, or who we are responsible too in the internet age.

Truth is that it’s complex.

We could take a purist approach, step back from the market forces and commercial issues, just like our predecessors who set up journalism codes and standards, and say have a responsibility to a higher ideal. An ideal that motivates (maybe compels) us, enabled by new platforms for conversation, to strengthen our responsibility to the audience (whatever platform they may be on) resisting all other pressures. Even if that is from our employers.

But we also have to be realistic about where the power inherent in that responsibility comes from. Large media organisations with their complex mix of commercial, editorial considerations, like it or not have their part to play and we can’t easily unhitch the journalist or the publics perception of what that means from that train. That’s where public trust lies.

You can see the frustration (and inherent contradictions) of trying to unpick that in the Leveson inquiry at the moment. Day after day we have journalists and editors trying to defend that mix in the face of dwindling trust – yes, we’ve bollocksed things up but don’t destroy the whole thing otherwise the whole fourth estate thing goes out the window and we’re all in trouble. That big risk I talked about.

It paints a grim (and opportune) picture for those who always believed the web was a threat.  Whilst government and vested interests are trying to kick the front door of journalism down, people are still leaving the back door wide open to the internet and all its challenges.

But we know that the insular approach can’t continue.  New media/the web/the internet, whatever you want to call it, is opening up what we do in journalism like it or not.

At the moment that’s a battle fought on the boundaries of an industry built on closed ethical principles. Maybe it’s trapped by them. Maybe it’s entrenched in them as they feel they are under threat. But I firmly believe that doing what we do as journalists online, under the scrutiny of (and working with) our audience will slowly build new levels of trust.

Ironic isn’t it that the idea of transparency, so doggedly pursued by someone like Assange and so at odds with traditional editorial values,  should be seen by so many as key to the survival of journalism.

There’s a risk though. Taking away the traditional structures and making it personal online means that professional identity is all we have to take with us and we should never lose sight of the broader responsibility to society and our audience that entails.

In the face of the fractured communities the web creates, it may seem old fashioned to talk about our responsibility within the public sphere – a homogenous thing. In fact academics now talk about public sphericles (Gitlin et al) – small communities and collectives of people – each with their own norms and ethical limits.  (try this for more)

It’s easy to see how that idea can work for things like social media (I’m being simplistic here, some understanding where the idea fits in to the concept of a fifth estate adds better context). Maybe twitter is a little public spherical, where rules and discourse are different. Where we can do things we can’t do ‘officially’ as journalists. Think about what the Guardian did busting the Trafigura super injunction.

The danger is that we fall in to the trap of being different within each of those spheres. We become inconsistent – we end up being a journalist on the page following all the rules and regulations and the something else on Twitter where the norm seems to be different, still claiming to be a journalist on both.

Or maybe you think that’s a load of public sphericles.

I think that if we believe that good journalism, practiced with an eye to a strong ethical framework is of value to society, even of we think that it’s only of self-serving value; If we want to be a journalist and work on the web, taking some of that power and status that being a journalist gives us across spheres. Maybe we don’t get to choose when we are journalist and when we are not.

Perhaps we need to accept that we can’t be like normal people on Facebook or Twitter because, well, we aren’t normal people.

We are journalists. The web is 24/7 365.

If we want people to put their trust in us as individuals, underwritten by the long standing tradition and ethics of professional journalism, then perhaps we have to a responsibility to be journalists 24/7 365.

Aftermatter: When I asked the class about what they saw as a professional journalist I got a surprising response. I say surprising because it was a very broad and fluid definition – they certainly saw the distinction between the act and the person and the organisation. That’s in contrast to last year who were pretty set on the idea that a professional journalist was one that got paid to do it (more often than not by a large org)

I appreciate that one of the holes in my argument is that I have assumed that definition but as I said, its meant to be argumentative in that respect and as I (hope) began to argue, whilst it may be shifting, for most people that is still the definition. 

Ivory tower dispatch: A tale of two websites

Across a number of classes this week, two websites have stood out.

To start the week I had this from China

Worst headline of the week!

Shoddy! Which thesaurus did they drag that one up from!

This was paydirt for me as I talked to the class (a group of chinese students) about writing headlines, seo. Something that “Shoddy railway project closed down” fails at in every measure.

Worse still the story is really good:

The 74.1-kilometer railway project [Jingyu-Songjianghe Railway project in Changchun], with a total investment of 2.3 billion yuan ($360 million), was recently found to have illegally contracted a fake company and a couple of laymen who barely know anything of building bridges.

Two blokes stroll up and blag $360 million! Come on!

The week ended with a lot of talk about video and a chance for me to roll out my favourite example of the use of online video

Visceral video at its best

It’s an old story but for me it perfectly illustrates the way that video can enhance a story.  This is clip video at its finest – the text tells the story and the video shows you the visceral experience. It enhances the story and works with the text in a combination of media that’s unique to the web.

When I play this in a class I know that one minute in I will get a reaction, a big ooooh that underlines what video is great at. Watch and see what I mean.

BBC Social media guidelines updated.

The BBC editors site has a post on the update to the BBC’s social media guidelines for journalists and for ‘official’ social media streams for correspondents.

The reasoning for that distinction was interesting:

We label the Twitter accounts of some presenters and correspondents as “official” – and are also today publishing some specific guidance for them [64KB PDF]. This activity is regarded as BBC News output and tweets should normally be consistent with this, reflecting and focusing on areas relevant to the role or specialism, and avoiding personal interests or unrelated issues. A senior editor keeps an eye on tweets from these accounts after they’re sent out.

Given some of my recent posts about tweeting as a journalist during the riots, this stuck out. I agree with the idea of consistency; if you are a BBC person then always tweet like you are the BBC. I think that is a point worth taking further. If you are a journalist, always tweet like a journalist.

Another point that caught my eye was

Finally, we remind people that programme or genre content – like @BBCBreaking andBBC News on Facebook – should normally be checked by a second person before it goes out. The guidance also urges people to think carefully about the practicalities and editorial purpose of this activity. It shouldn’t be started “because it’s what everyone does these days”.

The statement actually suggest that it should only be started if you have the resources to see it through. In principle, sound advice. In practice it could be a charter to simply not do it.

Credit where credit is due

The guidelines are pretty much concerned with output – what BBC people put out on social networks. But it’s the area of attribution that generates the most comment (when people are not bemoaning the character limit). The BBC came in for a bit of stick during the riots for crediting platforms not people for pictures from social networking sites. Pictures where from Twitter and not the person who put them there.

It seems that some people think that the ‘undue prominence’ argument is a suitable lever to get the BBC to change their approach. I think that’s a red herring. In this context they are sources first and commercial entities second. Taking that approach would suggest that no commercial company could be mentioned during the news. Perhaps the best you could argue is that there is an ‘undue reliance’ on social media instead of putting journalists on the street.

But I digress. FishFingers flags the issue asking:

if a comment is sent to the BBC and it is read on air or posted as part of “live” coverage, why are we told that it came from Twitter? Why does the communication medium have to even be mentioned? Why not simply say that the person sent a message?

It’s a good point but I think you do need to say where it came from as well as who said/posted it. Credit where credit is due but as journalists we should where possible, always cite our sources – makes it a bit more transparent doesn’t it?

What is a digital native?

Yesterday I chaired a session on Digital Natives as part of the BBC’s Developing Talent conference hosted by UCLan.  We pulled in two of our second years, Joe Stashko and Daniel Bentley, who we think are digital natives(even if they don’t!) to talk to the audience about how they do what they do and my colleague Paul Egglestone gave his perspective from a community and digital immigrant perspective.

They did a great job and some interesting points came out of the too-and-fro. As ‘chair’ I made some notes that may or may not define a digital native based on the panelists views and the audience questions.

A digital native:

  • Buys in to the implied funding model. You pay to use this service with your information. Right or wrong.
  • Understands and is part of the social graph
  • Over-shares but doesn’t over promote (themselves)
  • Will over-share your content – whether you want them to or not!
  • Will give stuff away for free as long as you come and get it
  • Doesn’t read terms and conditions but then who does!
  • Won’t sign up for a BBC ID (as it doesn’t play well with Facebook)
  • Thinks about community, not readers
  • Makes connections
  • Is ‘almost’ as popular as the local newspaper
  • Like fragments rather than the whole
  • Aggregates and curates(rather than edits)
  • Knows where to get good fish and chips
  • Is young but embraces technology again when they get over 40.
  • May grow-up in to an uber geek.
  • Attracts funding for new ideas
  • Tries to connect those around them
  • Isn’t always that interested in quality – whatever that is.
  • Is less bothered about how you use their data than you are. Or, at least, doesn’t think about it.
  • They have no fear. They don’t worry about what the do being public

What do you think?

No such thing as free money to save the local press

As I was leafing through the Guardian on Saturday morning I came across an article with the rather alarming headline

Google news tax could boost local papers, report says

Google and other websites that carry news they do not produce should be taxed and the money generated used to prop up local newspapers, says a report which warns control of the media is concentrated in too few hands.

I tweeted it and got a number of interesting replies:

The report comes from the Carnegie trust UK’s commission on Making Good Society. It does indeed set out a suggestion for Industry levies citing Institute for Public Policy Research research that a 1% levy on pay TV providers of 1% “bring in around £70m a year”

A similar fee imposed on the country’s five mobile operators could generate £208m a year. Making Google meet its full tax liability in Britain would boost the pot by a further £100m.‘ The same IPPR report argues that ‘such sums could save many local newspapers and web sites from closing down, could stop the destruction of local and regional news on ITV and could help new media start-ups to plug these gaping holes in public service provision – all without the taxpayer having to stump up any more cash and without having to raid the licence fee.’

But the report also makes it clear that the money would come with something of price

Levies on the use of aggregated material have the potential to generate significant revenue to support the production of new public service and local content, involving civil society associations. If this form of funding were to be explored, changes in regulation would be needed to ensure that revenues go to original news producers and not just to those who present and disseminate material. Original news reporting needs to be supported so that it is financially viable; this could require charging those who are not authorised to use and distribute this material.

Not quite free money from a google tax.

The whole report makes for an interesting read (I mean genuinely interesting not that other academic definition of interesting)

It’s pretty wide ranging but it singles out “democratising media ownership and content as one of it’s four main areas where “a stronger civil society could make the most difference”

A whole chapter (chapter 3) is devoted to trying to understand the pressures on and drivers of news production and the impact that has. They are clear that technology plays a key part citing radical cultural shifts associated with pervasive technology and the rise of ‘digital natives;’ as an uncertain driver of change. But the discussion is a bit more broad ranging:

…[D]espite the proliferation of online platforms, more of the news we receive is recycled ‘churnalism’ and aggregated content. Trends of concentration in media ownership and increased pressure of time and resources have narrowed the sources from which original news derives. Moreover, the centralisation of news production and neglect of local issues has particular repercussions for access to information across the UK and Ireland, especially in the devolved nations.

And it’s clear where the problem is:

…the central issue affecting traditional news providers is not the decline of audiences or interest in news, but the collapse of the existing business model jeopardising the democratic role of journalism. According to the National Union of Journalists: ‘The media industry is essentially profitable but the business model is killing quality journalism.’

Media concentration.
When I first read the Guardian article I bristled at the idea of a google tax of newspapers. Why? Because we would essentially be propping up commercial organsiations who still work at a profit. It would be akin to a bail out. So I found myself drawn to the areas of ownership and centralization in particular. The report is pretty robust here.

The challenge of creating original content and the diminishing number of newspapers is further compounded by the concentration of media ownership in relatively few hands…..with four dominant publishers controlling 70% of the market share across the UK

That concentration of ownership and the influence it exerts is cited as a “key obstacle to transparent policy-making which incorporates a sustainable role for civil society associations” Which comes from the ‘continuing and intimate relationship between key corporate interests and policy-makers; a relationship whose bonds are rarely exposed to the public’

Their suggestion seems to be that the Scott Trust/Guardian model is more likely to serve the development of a pluralist media landscape than a purely commercial one. But it sounds a note of caution

While independent funds directly supporting journalism can come with strings attached and endowments are not immune from economic pressures, philanthropic funding can help preserve journalistic independence and secure guarantees on public service content.

General suggestions.
The big ticket suggestions like tax breaks and levies are balanced by some more specific suggestions that form the main discussion of the chapter.

  • Growing local and community news media.
  • Protecting the free, open and democratic nature of the internet.
  • Strengthening the transparency and accountability of news content production.
  • Enhancing the governance of the media.
  • Protecting the BBC.
  • Redirecting revenue flows to promote diversity and integrity.

Their ideas for strengthening transparency include the suggestion of a Kite mark that shows no dis or mis-information. Good luck with that one.

But back to funding, the last three points are interesting in themselves.

When they talk about enhancing the governance of the media they say that”

“All news organisations in receipt of public funding should actively engage with the public and with civil society associations, through their governing bodies as well as through their daily practice.”

Which could only really mean the BBC right? But in developing the suggestion of redirecting the revenue flow they:

…want to see new funding models explored: for example, tax concessions, industry levies or the direction of proportions of advertising spend into news content creation by civil society associations, or into local multimedia websites.

The price of public money.
My reading of the report was that nothing comes for free. In an earlier chapter the financial sector comes in for a real battering. But though the media orgs are more delicately handled the implicit message is still the same. All the money that could come from tax breaks, funding and other sources comes at a cost. That cost is de-centralisation, openness, stronger regulation and in transparency (a phrase that seems to disappear mid report to be replaced by integrity)

Would be nice but I can’t see it happening.

The full report is available here.

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