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Inaugural lecture, City University, March 3 2011
Related bookmarks at http://www.delicious.com/paulb/inaug Presentation slides at http://www.slideshare.net/onlinejournalist/is-ice-cream-strawberryinaugural-lecture-city-university Contents: Inaugural lecture The myth of journalism and the telegraph Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and Lovelace Cars, roads and picnics Disintermediated, disaggregated, modularised The production line has been replaced by a network. Human capital Journalism’s conflicted future Culture shift Corporatisation of the public sphere Everything I’ve just said in 7 easy to remember soundbites: This talk was originally called “I’m not going to talk about technology” but I changed it for reasons that will become apparent. When I am invited to talk about something it’s invariably about technology. But this lecture is not about technology . This is about people, institutions, and cultures. And I'm going to start with one particular person: Samuel Morse.
The myth of journalism and the telegraph
Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. And he invented the telegraph. The telegraph is probably one of the most mythologised technologies in journalism. The story goes that the telegraph changed journalism during the US Civil War - because telegraph operators had to get the key facts of the story in at the top in case the telegraph line failed or were cut. This in turn led to the objective, inverted pyramid style of journalism that relied on facts rather than opinion.
This story, however, is a myth. The story was investigated by David Mindich, in his book on objectivity in journalism. He found that the inverted pyramid style didn’t actually become anywhere near common in newspapers until after 1905. In fact, he credits a government war secretary with the innovation: Edwin Stanton, a sort of 19th century Alastair Campbell who wanted to manage news of President Lincoln’s assassination. (By the way, he was also the first US lawyer to use the defence of temporary insanity) But in addition to Edwin Stanton, there were other key factors in the rise of modern journalistic style: in particular, institutions such as the Associated Press - which explored the new business models made possible by the newswire - and cultural change, such as the rise of the scientific method. The telegraph didn’t change anything about journalism. Instead, it was the culture of journalists who had experienced higher education, changes in the culture of education itself, and the commercial demands of wire services, who over a period of decades changed their style so that news stories could be adapted by dozens of regional clients. So: people, culture, and institutions. Not technology. Fast forward a century and the world is still riddled with mythology about technology's effect on the media. We ask if Google is making us stupid, if the iPad will save newspapers, if Twitter can save democracy. We seem to forget that it is people who invent technologies - and that they generally invent technologies to solve problems. Then, once we invent the technology, we use it to try to solve those problems. And that creates new problems, and so we have to invent more technology to solve the new problems. And so it goes on, and on, with new problems replacing old problems. And boy does the media industry have problems.
Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and Lovelace
The media’s current problems begin with two more people: Gottfried Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician credited with inventing the binary system. And Ada Lovelace, who helped develop the first computer program in 1843. They were solving problems of their own, and identifying new problems, which in turn were solved again, and so on. Now at some point people in the media industry came across the legacies of Leibniz and Lovelace. And they thought: “Hm, this looks interesting. Perhaps we can use these technologies
to solve our own problem?” And their own problem was the same as that of every company: how can we make more money? How can we produce our product more cheaply? How can we sell the same thing twice? The solution, they decided, was to digitise as many of the processes in news production as possible. They wanted convergence. And at first, it worked. Production costs went down, productivity went up. (I’m reminded here of a small fact about Gutenberg - that the earliest known examples of printing using Gutenberg’s technology are indulgences, suggesting that the church - or at least individuals within it - saw printing as a way to solve their own problem of raising funds. Of course by flooding the market with these indulgences, the Roman church found itself with a new problem: Protestantism) But over time new problems came up - and the news industry is still trying to solve them. Here’s the thing:
Cars, roads and picnics
Throughout the 20th century there were two ways of getting big things done - and a third way of getting small things done. Clay Shirky sums these up very succinctly in terms of how people organise car production, road building, and picnics. If you want to organise the production of cars, you use market systems. If you want to organise the construction of roads, you use central, state systems of funding - because there is a benefit to all. And if you want to organise a picnic, well, you use social systems. In the media industry these three line up neatly with print, broadcast and online production. The newspaper industry grew up in spite of government regulation The broadcast industry grew up thanks to government regulation And online media grew up while the government wasn't looking. Now some media organisations have generally organised along the lines of car production, and others along the lines of road construction. And there were some examples of alternative media that were organised like picnics. Different media organisations got along fine without treading on each others’ toes: The Times wasn’t too threatened by the BBC, and the NME wasn’t too threatened by the fanzine photocopying audiophile. But digitisation and convergence has mixed these businesses together in the same space, leading to some very confused feelings from publishers and journalists.
This is how news production used to be: a linear process, limited by physical constraints. You went out to get the story, you came back to write it up, or edit it, and then you handed it over to other people to edit, design, print and distribute. Production was the first part to become digitised, turning a physical good into an intangible one - this saved on transportation time and costs but it also meant that there were limitless, identical copies. And it lowered the barrier to entry which had for so long protected publishers’ businesses from competition. Newsgathering was the next element to become digitised, as an increasing amount of information was transmitted digitally. In fact, in some cases journalists began to write computer programs to do the grunt work while they got on with more important business of investigating and verifying leads. Then finally, media companies simply lost control of distribution. This has gone through a number of phases: initially distribution was dominated by curated directories and portals like Yahoo! and MSN, which then gave way to search engines like Google, and these are now being overtaken by social networks such as Facebook. And this is not over: the net neutrality issue could see distribution dominated by telecomms companies - an issue I'll come on to later. This move from a linear physical production process to a non-linear one online is one of the bases for the Model for a 21st Century Newsroom that I published three years ago.
Disintermediated, disaggregated, modularised
As the media went online, three things happened: It was disintermediated by the web, Disaggregated by links And modularised by digitisation. Put in plainer language, once newsgathering, production and distribution became digital they could be done by different people, in different places, and at different times - including nonjournalists. It’s important to point out that there is no ‘natural’ way to do journalism. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story, to investigate a question, or to distribute information. Institutions and cultures have grown up out of compromises over the years as they explored those possibilities and their limitations.
When you remove physical limitations you remove many of the reasons for the ways for making those compromises.
The production line has been replaced by a network.
The problem is that most media organisations still think they are manufacturing cars, and they still see journalists as part of an internal production line. Even the most progressive simply expect existing staff to become multiskilled multiplatform journalists, doing more work - but still on the same production line. But we can redraw that diagram of the overlapping of newsgathering, production and distribution as a network diagram. And the problem with the production line approach becomes more apparent. The news industry is caught trying to straddle the gap between the physical, and the digital. It also highlights an opportunity for new, collaborative ways of organising production. Who’s doing this already? Well Simon Rogers at The Guardian is doing it with their data blog. The Huffington Post did it with their operation. Slashdot do it with technology news. Reed Business Information do it with Farmers Weekly. Most other traditional news organisations that try to do this immediately hit a cultural problem. Many journalists would like to see themselves like this: But most people see journalists like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U4Ha9HQvMo&t=0m06s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eBT6OSr1TI&t=0m35s And sources who have had bad experiences with journalists and publishers are talking about them to larger and larger audiences. Like this. And this. And this. And this. Now, wanting to be a great journalist and wanting to create great journalism used to amount to the same thing. But in a networked world, those two desires can come into conflict. And as journalists it is our egos that are our biggest weakness. It is ego that leads us to report on a story without linking to our sources. It is ego that prevents us from reading the comments on our articles and updating the original accordingly.
And it is ego that leads us to ask questions like 'Is blogging journalism?' or its latest variant: ‘Is Twitter journalism?’ Asking 'Is blogging journalism?' is like asking 'Is ice cream strawberry?' It is to allocate qualities to technology that it simply doesn't have. Is writing journalism? Is printing journalism? Is broadcasting journalism? In the 19th century Soren Kierkegaard made the same mistake when he said of newspapers that: “It is frightful that someone who is no one… can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility & with the aid of this dreadful disproportioned means of communication” And 50 years ago journalists were making statements like this: "TV newspeople ... have the intellectual depth of hamsters. TV news can only present the “bare bones” of a story" In my first class here at City a student asked why they should waste time engaging with people online. I rather testily replied 'Why publish your work at all? Why bother dealing with editors and subs and your colleagues? Why bother talking to sources and experts? Why not keep your precious piece of journalism locked away in your basement where it will never be sullied by the dirty gaze of other people? If you don’t want to engage with people, write fiction. But if you want to tell great stories - and have them be heard; if you want to hold power to account - and have power listen; if you want to empower readers and viewers and listeners, then you have to engage with them. It is the height of arrogance to believe your journalism cannot be improved, and it is the height of ignorance to fail to care if anyone engages with the issue you are reporting on.
So here’s person number 4: Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist. Fifty years ago he used the phrase 'human capital' to refer to the economic value that companies should ascribe to their employees.
These days, of course, it is common sense to invest time in recruiting, training and retaining good employees. But at the time employees were seen as a cost. We need a similar change in the way we see our readers - not as a cost on our time but as a valuable part of our operations that we should invest in recruiting, developing and retaining. Any online operation that does not incorporate its users in production is not only democratically deficient, it is commercially inefficient. Of courses some are inclined to see user generated content as a mass of ignorance, abuse and waffle. Those people should ask how much work has been put into attracting good contributors? Into developing a healthy commenting culture? And how much has been invested into giving the good users a reason to keep coming back?
Journalism’s conflicted future
Journalism, however, is going through an identity crisis, which will become increasingly problematic as it tries to reinvent itself for an uncertain future. And as always, this is nothing new. In the 1920s journalism faced a similar conflict: between the journalism of information and the journalism of stories. Should we, as journalists, perform a role of providing citizens with the information that they need to make informed decisions? Or are we just in the business of great stories? The source of that conflict then was the rise of the scientific method, as I explained at the start of this lecture. The source of today’s conflict could be traced to institutional change in news organisations becoming part of larger entertainment empires - and the melting pot of online publication. Where you stand on the role of journalists will likely depend on whether you think you’re in the business of building cars, constructing roads or organising picnics, and what role you think journalism should perform in a democracy. Is journalism part of a deliberative democracy, in which the media provides a public forum for debate and consensus? Is journalism's role is to provide citizens with information - as part of a liberal democracy? Or should the media encourage participation and engagement as part of a participatory democracy? The institutional history of journalism kept those views somewhat separated - as Lokman Tsui explores in his ethnography of Global Voices.
But as these cultures of journalism clash in the online space it is more important than ever that we reflect on our own views of where we stand. And as educators we should be teaching our students to be aware of their positions and how that affects what they report on, how they report it, and who gets a voice in its coverage. If objectivity is to remain a journalistic value, then it should be true objectivity, not this construction that passes for objectivity in most newswriting: the construction of an arbitrary fence, and the selection of a source from each side of it as an indication of ‘balance’.
You might argue that culture is the way that people and institutions communicate with each other. But just as institutional culture shapes the journalism that we create, for the last couple of decades there has been a growing movement outside of news institutions that sees democracy as both participatory and information driven. The campaign for Freedom of Information, the work of MySociety in opening up voting records and debate transcripts so the public could see what their representatives were doing and saying in their name. The Free Our Data campaign - which sought to give the public the right to use information that was paid for with public money. And the Linked Data and Open Data movements which have campaigned to make public bodies publish data in a form that makes it easier to interrogate. What these people - and I want to name some of them here: Tom Steinberg & Tom Loosemore Heather Brooke Charles Arthur Tim Berners Lee and Chris Taggart What these people have done - and are still doing - is making power accountable, promoting a cultural expectation that we should have access to information about how our money is spent, and that most publicly funded information should be available to the people who paid for it. This of course is one of the first steps to 'holding power to account', the great argument that publishers make for their existence. That is what the Telegraph did with the MPs' expenses; what The Guardian have done with Wikileaks data. But too much of this groundwork is lying ignored and unsupported by the mainstream press.
When Walsall Council released their spending data last year the webpage received more visits than the rest of the council website. They received several enquiries from people like Chris Taggart asking for information about why particular items had been redacted - but they received only one enquiry from the local newspaper. And that was to ask: 'Why have you released the data early?' For comparison I want to show you a video of Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation in the US talking about their government’s transparency initiative. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNQteT9Bu2w#t=2m08s Where is the news organisation in the UK that is lobbying like this? A similar cultural shift is happening around public meetings and hearings, with hyperlocal blogs who want to make processes of law and democracy transparent. Simon Perry of the Ventnor Blog was ejected from a coroner's court last year on the grounds that he was neither a member of the press nor a member of the public. Richard Taylor was investigated by Cambridge City Council for recording public meetings - he was not told what the grounds of the investigation were. In Brighton a councillor was disciplined for posting clips of council meetings to YouTube. And Heather Brooke was told that she could not make an audio recording of a hearing because the tribunal could not “maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.” When Brooke asked for a copy of the ruling she was told that there was to be no written record of it. This is one area where journalists and news organisations can be investing in their users. It should not just be bloggers pushing for these changes.
Corporatisation of the public sphere
The public sphere used to be our territory, but we are failing to protect it online. The difficulties experienced by Wikileaks last year were the most visible demonstration yet of just how far the corporatisation of the public sphere has become. Some people described it as the beginning of the first Internet war. They’re just being over-dramatic of course, but it was one fight in a whole series of turf wars over who controls online spaces. We are thankful that our printing presses are not shut down without due process. But from Mastercard and Visa to Apple, Paypal, Amazon and even data visualisation tool Tableau company after company pulled out of the production chain without a court order in sight. In that case national security was given as the reason. In other - less publicised - examples
relating to other content producers and distributors it has been copyright, where the mere accusation of infringement can lead to legitimate content being taken down. But the issue that should most concern journalists is the net neutrality debate. Net neutrality refers to the fact that the internet does not privilege one type of content over another. Many internet providers would like to charge to give priority to particular sources of content - or charge users to access certain services. The possibility of regaining a former oligopoly may have some appeal to journalists, but we should again ask ourselves the question: do we want to be Journalists with a capital J and bathe in the glory of our guild, or do we want to help journalism happen? What role do we have in a democracy? If Apple can remove the Wikileaks app from their store without appeal, or pull a newspaper from the app store because of minor nudity, do we want to give that power to telecomms providers? The public sphere was our territory, we should be defending it. Now, this lecture said that I would sketch out the two paths that I see journalism taking in the next decade - so here they are: The first path is a self-interested profession that sees value in users beyond their eyeballs. The second path is a self-interested profession that allows others to control the public sphere. I would obviously not expect the industry to be anything but self-interested. In either case, technology will not change journalism. People will. You will. I want to end by summing up what I’ve been saying for the last 40 minutes in a simple list. Lists are of course notorious for working well on the internet, and as humans can only remember 7 things at any one time, here is...
Everything I’ve just said in 7 easy to remember soundbites:
1. Stop trying to recreate the old, closed market of print and broadcast, and address the gaps and opportunities in the new one. Our ways of doing journalism are the product of a culture that has grown up over centuries, created by people within the limits of institutions. As that culture changes, and new institutions take shape, we need to reassess what our core purpose is. As part of that, there are obvious areas where journalists can make a difference. Firstly, to verify and contextualise what’s online - rather than merely repeating it. Secondly, to digitise what’s offline - what Ulises Mejias describes as the ‘paranodal’ - and make it findable. Thirdly, to empower communities and make connections between them. 2. See users as an asset, not a cost. If you are searching for a new business model to support journalism, it starts with this: that your balance sheet begins and ends with the users. You need to invest in attracting the best ones, supporting them in what they want to do, and giving them the resources to defend themselves against attack. 3. Get over yourself. I thought I had heard the last of the ‘citizen brain surgeon’ argument until it resurfaced a few months ago at a Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism conference I attended. No, you would not let a ‘citizen brain surgeon’ operate on you. But journalism is not brain surgery. Journalists have always been jacks of all trades, and masters of none. Now that the masters of each trade can publish themselves, it is our connections across differing worlds that is our strength. But to maintain those connections we need to put people before stories. 4. Make power accountable. Continue to push for regulatory, legal and institutional change that makes it easier for people to access information relevant to their lives. By doing so you are investing in users, and you can then focus your efforts on investigating what they find. 5. Hold power to account. Data doesn’t do anything alone. Journalists must be scrutinising both the data and its sources, and asking questions of both. 6. Protect the public sphere
I have talked about censorship but internet propaganda and electronic surveillance are equally important issues for journalists. We also need to be aware of the implications of issues such as net neutrality for journalists and for journalism. 7. Stop confusing ice cream with the flavour. Don't perpetuate the myth that technology causes things to happen. People do. Google Maps does not create terrorism any more than roads, or pencils - both of which are technologies. If a politician or corporation seeks to ban or control a particular technology, whether it's for national security, the poor musicians, or the children, be sceptical. Technology - whether the internet, newspapers or the English language itself - is a tool. It does not want to do anything. It does not want to be free. It does not want to make you stupid. You choose the flavour of the ice cream. You have the power, and the responsibility that comes with it. Take that responsibility, and make journalism better. Thank you.