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Personal musings of a young journalist in London

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Financial Times bursts out of Apple straitjacket

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Screenshot of FT HTML5 web app announcement

Well, will you look at that. Techdirt and All Things D are reporting that the Financial Times is the first major media organisation (in the UK, at least) to figure out that Apple doesn’t have publishers’ best interests at heart and that apps for individual platforms might not be the best way to get their content out to their readers. They’ve launched an HTML5 web app and are encouraging users to switch to using it in preference to the installable variety – calling it a “new, faster, more complete app which is available from your browser rather than an app store”. The web app even keeps content accessible when the device has no connection.

This does ever so slightly echo the themes of a couple of blog posts I’ve written here and over at the Graduate Times, arguing that Apple is a poor choice of gatekeeper and one which will have an adverse effect on news content, to the detriment of readers’ and viewers’ understanding of and access to the news, and that development time spent on platform-specific apps is a money black hole that news operations would be better off avoiding in favour of HTML5.

Here’s hoping all the other papers and broadcasters who seem to think that the only mobile users who matter are clutching an iPhone or iPad follow suit sooner, rather than later.

And here’s hoping the Almighty Steve will be comforted by the Bond-villain-esque new headquarters he’s asking the city of Cupertino to give him planning permission for.






Written by Tom Barfield

June 8, 2011 at 7:18 am

Newsnight and the EDL, or why Murdoch can’t own all of Sky

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Rupert Murdoch with logos of Fox News and Sky

Image of Rupert Murdoch from World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Charlie Brooker’s article on the Daily Star in yesterday’s Guardian, I came across Newsnight’s report on the EDL and subsequent interview with their leader, Stephen Lennon/Tommy Robinson, helpfully uploaded to YouTube by somebody or other. I’m not going to address the EDL’s policies or beliefs here -I think that’s been dealt with in lots of other media and everybody has more information and opinion than they need to make up their minds. The EDL highlights the risks we’re running in the UK as government considers a bigger issue which it is within our power as citizens to influence – the takeover of BSkyB.

What really worried me about the report was the way in which EDL leaders were shown attempting to explain to reporter Catrin Nye and to Jeremy Paxman just what it was they were organising themselves against. It’s unpleasant enough to realise that our educational system has left some people almost unable to articulate their political views. It’s even more terrifying to realise that that gap is being filled by talking points handed down from further up an unreliable chain of information.

Seeing EDL supporters speaking on camera reminded me of the US Tea Party movement. In TV interviews with their rank and file, you often find them parroting exactly the same bite-size tidbits of incomplete or downright wrong information fed to them by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin. A key moment for me in the programme was when Lennon/Robinson told Nye that he’d “never switched on a computer” before he started organising for the EDL.

Computer and internet illiteracy is something that makes people increasingly manipulable as political discourse becomes more and more exclusively web-based. Just a few weeks ago, Glenn Beck was asking people to Google an obscure academic article from the 1960s about the possibility of crashing the US economy by oversubscribing the welfare system. Academically and technologically literate people would probably recognise that believing 78-year old professor Frances Fox Piven is intent on subverting the US from within is ludicrous. It’s comparable with believing that a cabal of government officials is covering up alien encounters, or that the American government orchestrated 9/11.

That “information” and more is available on the Web – and for people who have no cause or context to question the gesticulating man on the TV or the words written in black and white on their computer screen, it can be compelling enough to galvanise them to action. That’s certainly what has happened with the EDL – just look at how quickly they latched onto Jack Straw’s widely-reported but unfounded comments about “grooming” by Asian gangs, to the extent that it was one of only two or three coherent points Lennon/Robinson could make to Paxman. EDL leading light and token Sikh Guramit Singh was shown receiving detailed breakdowns of objectionable verses in the Koran from some anonymous source – begging the question of what is motivating his benefactor to provide this information.

All of this should be providing a huge store of ammunition for people opposed to Rupert Murdoch’s takeover bid for BSkyB. Murdoch owns Fox News, the platform most of the misleading and misguided Tea Party demagogues appear on regularly. He doesn’t appear to have any qualms about presenting poorly-researched, emotionally-charged calls to action as “Fair and Balanced” news reporting, and there’s no reason to believe that he’d behave any differently in the UK. Sky isn’t subject to the same restrictions or public service remit that the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are – there’s no obligation to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, or that what is presented as news is even true.

Cover of a report, "Misinformation and the 2010 Election"

Link to report which showed Fox News viewers were the worst informed in the 2010 midterm elections

If we want British people watching Sky to be as misinformed as Fox News viewers in the US midterms last year, the government should go right ahead and give Murdoch full control of Sky. Fox News is massively popular and hugely profitable, and the very existence of the EDL, and of the Daily Star articles Brooker’s been fulminating about, proves that there’s a ready-made audience out there.  Just be prepared to see a lot more groups like the EDL in future if the buyout goes through.

Why Apple can’t be trusted with the future of news

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Steve Jobs (Picture: Acaben, via Flickr)

So Apple has decided that it’s not going to let publications offer free iPad access to print subscribers (at least for some European publications, although when everyone affected inevitably rolls over and plays dead it’ll doubtless extend to other markets).

This is yet another glaring example of why the media industry’s favourite tech company can’t be trusted with the hopes and dreams for the future that everyone from Rupert Murdoch to The Guardian seems to be investing in it. If you’re Big Media and you haven’t got an iPhone and iPad app of some description, no-one is taking you seriously at the moment.  This is a huge mistake for people who want to make news profitable again and for people who want to keep the news free of undue influence and bias.

First, the profitability side of things: if you’re investing huge amounts of your developers’ time and energy developing an iOS application, that is a massive amount of investment that’s going to be lacking in your offerings for other platforms. It doesn’t matter how many millions of iDevices Apple has managed to ship in impressively short amounts of time; your target market for an iPad app is laughably small compared to the number of people who could potentially access your content using smartphones on a different operating system, lesser phones that still make up the vast majority of handsets available worldwide, desktop and laptop computers, netbooks, and the coming avalanche of tablet computers that was announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Not only that, but the drive to get content onto iDevices means that media organisations are going to be failing to perform their basic function of informing people about events. Ownership of such gadgets, as well as online services like Twitter that are constantly endorsed and reported on in news media, is overwhelmingly concentrated among a young, metropolitan demographic who are likely to be media workers of one kind or another themselves. News produced to interest and animate these people isn’t going to be the news that gets the rest of the country, or the rest of the world, to reach for their wallets – and that’s even if they had the chance to buy it in the first place, which they won’t.

Large media organisations are yet to succeed in finding a sustainably profitable model for making content available on the web, accessible to any kind of device with a browser. The big experiments are ad-supported Mail Online and paywalled-off Times Online – and the jury’s still out on whether they’ll still be around in five or 10 years. The one thing that’s not going to turn things around is artificially limiting the audience to those who think that an iPad is a good investment.

The second reason to reject the iPad as the saviour of the media is Apple business practice. As the Register article I linked to earlier notes, the company isn’t just forbidding print/iPad bundles just to get the 30% cut of subscriptions it gets as part of the App Store arrangements. What it really wants is to interpose itself between media companies and their customers, making it the middleman in the information transactions going on. It can earn 30% of customers’ money this way, but it can also go back to the newspapers, the TV channels and other businesses and sell them the demographic data on their customers that they need to get advertisers interested in their publications and programming.

Not content with extracting money out of its role as informational middleman, Apple has its sights on controlling the public discourse as well, at least as far as it takes place through the medium of their devices. The company has been repeatedly accused of censorship, rejecting dictionaries and James Joyce’s Ulysses from the App Store – with Jobs declaring that Apple offered “freedom from porn”. This is all done in the name of retaining Apple’s image as a family friendly computer company, the computer company that understands that you want everything done for you and served up on a plate without you having to think about it.

This might be fine for a company that is selling people what is ultimately hardware. They can’t have their products associated with the idea of children using them to access unsuitable material online. But that’s not how the news should work. Current events TV pictures and photographs, and even textual descriptions of events, can be harrowing and horrifying experiences, totally unsuitable for children and rightly so. If the news is squeezed through the Apple child-friendly filter, it’s going to provide us (or at least Apple users) with an even more sanitised, family-friendly, Western-centric and politically vacuous picture of the world than the one we make do with now.

Apple is a business. It wants to sell as many products as possible in as short space of time as it can, and to keep customers coming back for more. If we think that the news is more than a business, that it should aim for something more than sales figures, then jumping into the Apple embrace is the wrong move.

Written by Tom Barfield

January 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm