Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

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.

 

 

 

 

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Written by Tom Barfield

June 8, 2011 at 7:18 am

The article: future of journalism or vestigial relic?

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Picture of Ignacio Ramonet

Ignacio Ramonet. Photo: Ludovic Péron

I spent a pleasant couple of hours on Sunday afternoon reading an essay by Ignacio Ramonet, former editor of French-based international newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique; he’s called it L’explosion du journalisme: Des médias de masse àla masse de médias (The explosion of journalism: from mass media to a mass of media).

The essay takes a fairly familiar course through recent history and ongoing debates to anyone who’s been following the media’s coverage of itself; if you’ve got an inkling of some of the thinking behind and around online journalism, Wikileaks, Nick DaviesFlat Earth News, and the recent spate of paywalls, you’ll not find much new here. Falling print sales; desperate attempts to turn online readership figures into revenue; increasing amounts of work for fewer journalists paid less money; an increasing level of PR and spin finding its way into journalism; potential of the internet to create a “new kind of journalism”; whither the newspapers, the television stations and the radio broadcasters?

(I must add, lest it sound tiresome, that Ramonet does an admirable job of putting all of this together in the space of 130 sparsely-printed pages, and that if you haven’t read everything on the above list, been to a few debates and lectures with interested parties and read a bunch of stuff online about it then the essay will give you a welcome overview of the state of the media).

Where it gets interesting is right at the end. Ramonet takes a tour around some of the responses to the ongoing media viability crisis and settles on Germany’s Die Zeit as the shining harbinger of things to come. Zeit has succeeded in getting its print readership back up above the 500,000 mark in the last few years. Here’s what Ramonet has to say about why, in a closing remark subtitled Les avions ne remplacent pas les bateaux (aeroplanes don’t replace ships):

Comment son directeur Giovanni di Lorenzo explique-t-il cette réussite? C’est fort simple. Il a d’abord étudié en détail les besoins des lecteurs, puis il a decidé d’ignorer tous les conseils des experts en médias, de refuser les modes et de continuer à publier des articles longs, documentés, serieux et même difficiles. Persuadé qu’il faut aller à contre-courant des tendances médiatiques actuelles (urgence, brièvité, simplicité, frivolité) dictées par la panique, Di Lorenzo estime également que les gens veulent des “informations estampillées”, c’est-a-dire dont la tracabilité remonte à une source en laquelle ils ont confiance.

 …

Die Zeit et tous les journaux qui n’ont pas trahi leurs lecteurs, qui on su conserver leur crédibilité et qui maintiennent leur exigence de qualité, ne sont nullement menacés d’extinction.

(How does boss Giovanni di Lorenzo explain this success? It’s pretty simple. He first studied the needs of the readers in detail, then he decided to ignore all the advice of media experts, to resist fashions and to continue to publish long, sourced, serious and even difficult articles. Persuaded that it was necessary to swim upstream against the current media trends (urgency, brevity, simplicity, frivolity) which are dictated by panic, Di Lorenzo believes also that people want “pressed information”, that is to say information which can be traced back to a source they trust.

Die Zeit and all the papers which haven’t betrayed their readers, which have realised how to retain their credibility and who maintain their demand for quality, are not at all threatened with disappearance.)

This might look like a bit of wishful thinking from today’s US or UK perspective, where the papers which offer this kind of long-form investigative reporting tend to be in straitened financial circumstances of one kind or another. Ramonet would probably argue that those circumstances are a temporary blip and that these papers will at some point work out a way to make quality journalism pay.

Picture of Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis. Photo: Robert Scoble

But this isn’t the question I want to raise about Ramonet’s conclusion. Reading the last chapter of this esssay put me in mind of a post on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine I read on Saturday, called “The article as luxury or byproduct”. Jarvis cites a few recent rolling news successes where journalists have moved away from the traditional article form, and then drops the bombshell:

 …when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I think Jarvis is on to something here. I get fed up very quickly trying to read whole articles on some newspaper sites, because the standard style journalists are trained to write articles in is one which assumes the reader has been disconnected from civilisation for the last six months and has no idea of what anything referred to in the article is. Jarvis does accept that not all readers will have been following closely all the complex stories that are going on, and that an article might be necessary then; that some stories are just other stories bundled together; that investigation and analysis require more than a Twitter feed.

But for the people who are following the story closely, who know the name (and Twitter handle) of the reporter their preferred news outlet has on the case, who have Google Alerts and RSS feeds and who are watching 20 blogs waiting for fresh developments, writing articles is an attempt to ossify and make static what is ultimately an ongoing flow of events. Sure, have a guy back at base writing everything up and putting the pieces together and making it look nice so you have something to stick in the archives, to help out the general-interest reader and so on, but that shouldn’t be the focus of what your reporter on the ground is doing.

Does this make Ramonet wrong? I don’t necessarily think so. As more and more of us begin to get the raw stuff of news in the way Jarvis describes, there will be more room for the insight, the analysis and the reflective objectivity which journalists in traditional media organisations are always telling us they add to news coverage (and they have some justification when talking about, for example, Wikileaks). The Indy‘s been doing this for a long time; the paper sells itself on the analysis and the commentary that you can’t get anywhere else, not on the articles cobbled together from wire reports or from the same press conference that everyone’s political editor and his dog went to.

So I think there’s space for both of these old journalistic hands to be right. As the news article loses its importance (and hopefully we stop seeing the horrible, horrible <Newspaper> reporter or by our <topic> staff bylines that are code for we-cribbed-this-from-a-wire-service-or-worse-a-press-release) there will be space for the printed papers to offer a product worth buying. The online news freaks can get their fix without having to wade through all the exposition and explanation first, and hopefully everyone will be a bit happier than they are at the moment. Sound realistic?

Photo credits: Robert Scoble and Ludovic Péron

Alan Rusbridger, libel reform, and Wikileaks

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This evening I attended Alan Rusbridger‘s Anthony Sampson memorial lecture at City University, at which he addressed the hot topic of libel reform (today’s media law news has included Max Mosley losing his case for prior notification at the European Court of Human Rights, Evening Standard and Independent chairman Evgeny Lebedev’s remarks about press freedom, MP Zac Goldsmith’s call for a privacy law, the Telegraph being censured by the PCC for its secret recordings of Lib Dem MPs, and continued back-and-forth about superinjunctions).

You can read the text of Rusbridger’s lecture here, or a Guardian article that gives the gist of it here.

I’m not going to weigh in on the topic of libel reform itself, as far more learned and experienced people than myself continue to publish reams on the subject all over the press and online. What interested me about the lecture were the inevitable references to the ongoing impact the Internet is having on media law. Instances that cropped up included the Guardian‘s simultaneous publishing of material obtained via Wikileaks with the New York Times, as a means of covering itself against possible legal action, and the breaching of superinjunctions over the weekend by an anonymous Twitter user.

These two examples made me question whether the campaign for libel reform will be something we look back on in two centuries’ time, as with the example of the North Briton used by Rusbridger. My first instinct was to say no – in two centuries’ time, the idea that publication could be constrained by any one country’s laws will seem laughable. Whoever the anonymous tweep who exposed the superinjunctions was, he could have covered his tracks by such simple expedients as spoofing his MAC address and using a public wireless network to post the updates. Short of a 24-style trawl of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, he would be almost impossible to find.

Equally, Wikileaks’ distributed structure, broad appeal among people with access to the resources to mirror the site,  and multiple fallback hosting options in press freedom-friendly jurisdictions meant that it could defy the world’s most powerful government with impunity. Wikileaks seemed to represent a form of asymmetrical information warfare; where large multinationals could say what they liked and be confident of soaking up any fines or small loss of reader-/viewership, the Internet affords individuals and small groups of activists a similar freedom to publish and be damned. What price Britain’s libel laws and threats of contempt of court if the offending information sits on a server in the US (which recently introduced legislation specifically to prevent UK courts chasing libel infringers there) or Sweden?

I was fortunate enough to collar Rusbridger at the post-lecture drinks, where I asked his opinion about this. He pointed out that even if people are able to publish what they like, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be read or believed by people in the country at which it is aimed. Even Julian Assange agreed to the conditions, including pre-publication redactions, imposed by Bill Keller, Alan Rusbridger and the journalists at Der Spiegel (and later Le Monde, El Pais et al). This was because he needed the credibility (and the concentration of journalistic and editorial skills) that only large, traditional media organisations could provide if his material was to have the impact he desired for it.

It’s interesting to note that as Assange has been edged out into the cold (or quite possibly strode out there himself) he’s gone in exactly the wrong direction to get himself taken seriously, making strident, unfounded accusations of CIA meddling in the British press and Swedish criminal justice system. Assange may be able to publish what he likes, but without the discipline, fact checking and associated credibility of a Guardian or an NYT he is reduced to an irrelevancy.

And that’s an argument strong enough to convince me of the need for libel reform to protect the ponderous, traditional media institutions a lot of people online seem keen to see the back of. Without reform, and without the continued relevance of longstanding, trustworthy institutions, we won’t enjoy the full benefit of the centuries spent fighting for press freedom in this country.

Written by Tom Barfield

May 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm

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 WorldPublicOpinion.org report, "Misinformation and the 2010 Election"

Link to WorldPublicOpinion.org 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.

Journalism’s trouble with technology

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Coverage of BAE systems’ Future Protected Vehicle programme illustrates how writing on new technologies often falls between two stools

Disclaimer: this article isn’t intended as an attack on the Telegraph or Sean Rayment – this kind of problem pops up in every media outlet all the time, and this was one instance that just happened to catch my eye.

As part of the International Journalism course at City University, I’m taking a technology specialism class with Telegraph Head of Technology Shane Richmond. One of the first topics we covered, maybe even in the first class, was the problem that editors face when deploying their journalists specialising in technology: so many stories, from medical to science to defence to motoring to media, can turn on an understanding of a particular piece of technology, but don’t necessarily fall into the tech journalist’s purview. There’s no easy answer about how best to use the editorial resources available to cover these cross-over tech stories properly, as is illustrated by this story from the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago.

On the face of it, it looks like a no-brainer; have the defence correspondent, who has all the right contacts in the military and the armaments industry, cover the story about BAE’s new tanks. The trouble is that this is almost entirely a story about the technology that will make these tanks different from the ones that have come before, and most notably the E-Ink camouflage they’ll hopefully be benefiting from. If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest consumer gadgets that use E-Ink (a lot of e-readers like the Kindle do) then you might have only the fuzziest idea of what it is and what differentiates it from other display technologies.

E-Ink is useful for e-readers (and for tanks) by virtue of its low power consumption; it only draws a significant amount of power when the information displayed changes. That’s why the Kindle battery has such a long life compared with devices like smartphones or tablet computers; unlike them, it isn’t coping with the demands of big, bright, colourful screens with all kinds of activity going on at the same time. Using that technology to adapt tanks to the local flora is a nifty idea, and I’ll be following the story with interest to see how they develop it (as an obvious question, what happens if the tank is hit by bullets or shrapnel?).

The trouble with the Telegraph story is that the defence correspondent in question, Sean Rayment, hasn’t been keenly following the tech blogs (and rightly so) and so was forced to rely on the press release provided by BAE for an explanation of what e-ink actually is – and the press release somehow managed to get it totally wrong. BAE said:

eCamouflage will allow a vehicle to match its camouflage to its surroundings by using electronic ink – rather like a squid.

This is the helpful-looking simile that later turned up in Rayment’s third paragraph, and unfortunately it’s totally misleading. E-Ink camouflage will probably be more chameleon-like than anything – squids don’t use ink to camouflage themselves, but rather as a screen or a decoy to fool predators about their true position. Tanks do have a system that allows them to use similar tactics, but it’s the humble smoke launcher, which has been around for decades and is well-demonstrated in this clip of a French Leclerc battle tank:

Launching smoke allows a tank to obscure its position after it’s been spotted by the enemy and withdraw to a different one while out of sight. The point of BAE’s eCamouflage will presumably be to make sure the tank doesn’t get spotted in the first place.

This story demonstrates a couple of the problems that journalists are facing at the moment. The first is that as technology infiltrates further and further into all other areas of human activity, having a dedicated “technology” correspondent on a newspaper becomes problematic; either he’s twiddling his thumbs and writing the occasional article about iPads while his colleagues struggle to explain technologies they don’t understand themselves, or he’s got a finger in every pie going and is likely to be massively overworked. I’d propose running tech-centric stories across the tech reporter’s desk as part of the editing process, but that would hold them back from doing their own work; maybe dedicated technology sub-editors are needed? That’s unlikely to happen at a time of shrinking budgets.

The other problem is very closely related to this question of editing and checking to make sure the facts are right. At the moment, mainstream media is so desperate to keep up with the web that their regular journalists are often posting content to the website throughout the news cycle – and it often looks like there hasn’t been time for it to go past another pair of eyes before going out. You can notice on a lot of newspaper websites that online stories often have far more typos, or leftover bits of cannibalised paragraphs, than would ever be allowed to appear in the paper. There’s no easy or cheap solution to this one either, but having the subs come in in the afternoon to edit material for the paper seems a bit outdated when much of the unedited content will already have been read by a big portion of the audience.

Hopefully tech coverage will develop to meet these challenges, but until then readers are likely to be left feeling confused by technology stories journalists weren’t fully equipped to understand.

Written by Tom Barfield

January 18, 2011 at 10:11 am