Archive for the 'Serious Post' Category

NightJacking anonymity

Earlier today, Mr Justice Eady [1] ruled that the author of the NightJack blog could not stay anonymous. This will probably mean nothing to most people, but could be a significant case law ruling when it coming to blogging and, potentially, whistleblowing.

If you’ve never heard of NightJack, he’s a policeman who blogged anonymously and candidly about his job. It was an eye-opener and a great read that made you emphasise with hiss job. The blog won an Orwell Award for the quality of it’s writing.

That blog is no more and the author has been disciplined after The Times ‘outed’ NightJack. One of their reporters worked out the bloggers identity, the blogger took out an injunction, the Times challenged that injunction and today’s ruling is the end result. Bloggers cannot expect anonymity.

The Times says of the ruling: “Today newspaper lawyers were celebrating one of the rarer Eady rulings in their favour.” I’d beg to differ. It leaves me with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach and a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

Let’s go, if I may, on a slight tangent before getting back to the case in hand. Generally speaking, for both blogging an the internet, I think moving away from anonymity is a good thing. We’re moving to an era, especially with social media, where identity is more open and the internet is all the better for it. It cuts down on trolling for a start.

I’m also a big fan of openness and accountability. If somebody asked me about starting a blog, I’d suggest they do it under their own name, or at least made it clear who they were. It clears up any misunderstandings from the off – setting out your stall so people know who you are.

Let’s also be clear, when we’re talking about anonymity, we’re not talking about identities created around blogging here. NightJack was very different to the likes of Devil’s Kitchen, Chicken Yoghurt, Doctor Vee, Bloggerheads or many of the other well-known bloggers. They have their online identity which sites alongside their real name. Anybody can find out who they are in a matter of seconds – their pen names are their blogging personas.

Moving onto the judgement, I can see why Mr Justice Eady came to his eventual judgement. It’s still a bit of a mess but can be fitted into the letter of the law, by and large (although, and this is one of the wonders of the vagueries of the English legal system, you could easily have seen him ruling the other way).

But the judgement: the reasoning, the logic and the whole lead-up to this just doesn’t feel right. As Paul Bradshaw says:

“… this is a ruling that has enormous implications for whistleblowers and people blogging ‘on the ground’. That’s someone else’s ‘public interest’.

And that last element is the saddest for me.”

Let’s leave aside the judgement itself for a minute (the judge can only really rule what’s in front of him) and look to The Times and their role in unmasking NightJack. This is the part that leaves me uneasiest of all.

Their journalist pieced together who NightJack was and then went to publish. And the question I have is why? [2]

NightJack is a public servant, true, but in the grand scheme of things he really isn’t that important. Certainly, going to all this effort to unmask him seems a little, well, excessive.

He’s a blogger. A well-read blogger, yes, and an award-winning one. But is it really in the public’s interest, as opposed to being merely interesting to the public, to know who he is? If he were a Chief Constable, a high-ranking BBC employee, an MP or a civil servant, I could understand this. But a Detective Constable in Lancashire? It’s hardly a high-level scoop is it? Or, indeed, a high-profile and significant victory for openness, as they portray the judgement.

[The other thing that sits uneasy with me here is The Times have previous in this area when they unmasked Girl With A One Track Mind for no other reason, seemingly, than they could. That, more than NightJack, seemed like a particularly pointless act for the sake of a story].

Justin McKeating makes a very good point with regard to The Times’ victory today: that of anonymous sources for journalists. They may not be bloggers, but you can see where Justin’s coming from – the principle is very similar (and apologies for copying a large chunk of his text here, but it helps place his argument in context:

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.
It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…
Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.
From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.
The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.
What could be more in the public interest than that?

 

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.

It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…

Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.

From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.

The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

What could be more in the public interest than that?

This comes back to Paul Bradshaw’s earlier point about whistleblowers and ‘on the ground’ bloggers.

When it comes to the majority of bloggers, it probably doesn’t matter too much whether they’re anonymous or not. It’d be nice if we knew who they were, as I said earlier, but, at the end of the day, most of the time it’s not really a huge issue.

But those bloggers who write detailed and informative posts about their profession are much rarer and are worth treasuring. Blogs like NightJack, PC Bloggs, Dr Crippen and The Magistrate’s Blogs are essential reads.

They are candid and often eye-opening and enables you to get a better idea of the problems facing our police force, judiciary and NHS. They lift the lid, often a very small lid, on the inner workings of these professions. If anything, they give the public a remarkable insight into the inner workings. And to my mind, this is largely a good thing, as Tom Reynolds points out:

 

“What bloggers do is humanise and explain their section of the world – public sector bodies do well to have bloggers writing within them, after all these are the people who careabout what they do, about what improvements should be made and about where the faults come from. They highlight these things in the hopes that, in bringing this information into the public consciousness, they can effect a change that they would otherwise be powerless to bring about.

Anonymity provides a protection against vindictiveness from management who would rather do nothing than repeat the party-line, or lie, that everything is perfect, there is no cause for concern. Having seen management do, essentially illegal things, in order to persecute and victimise staff – anonymity is a way of protecting your mortgage payments.”

 

You can understand why they are anonymous [3]. The blogs probably contravene the terms of their employment. Yet, in their own small ways, they are important for the public to read, more so than the person writing them (in all honesty, the writer of NightJack could have been any Detective Constable). [4]

There are very few bloggers for whom anonymity is a near-necessity, and if it stops others coming forward to give their insights then the internet will be poorer for it. And for what purpose. One article that doesn’t really amount to much.

Not everybody will agree with this. David MacLean makes some very good points as to why NightJack shouldn’t remain anonymous, although even he calls The Times’ decision to publish “a tough one”.

In the grand scheme of things, The Times’ unmasking story by itself really isn’t overly big. The legacy of if could well be.

 

[1] A name familiar to anybody who’s studied media law.

[2] Anton Vowl asks the same question.

[3] Not all are. Tom Reynolds from Random Acts of Reality, who has some fairly strong words about this case, and Suzi Brent from Nee Naw are more public examples. But I’d wager they’ve had some awkward conversations with their line managers at some point.

[4] One of The Times’ arguments was NightJack was committing Contempt of Court with his posts, and there is an argument here. Certainly if the blog had collapsed a trial there would be little argument against naming the author. That said, the internet is a hideously grey area when it comes to contempt. A reasonable amount of time on Google would probably produce enough to piece together extra information on any significant trial covered in either the national or local press. You’d probably have to do a fair bit of work to piece together events from a trial and link them back to the blog, and the level of threat the blog posed to a fair trial… possibly minimal. It doesn’t make it right, but I’d be surprised if anything NightJack wrote would have led to a trial being abandoned.

From despair to where?

Otherwise known as a quick, likely-to-be-ill-thought-out, ill-informed pondering on the state of the media industry.

Everywhere media-related seems to be making cutbacks. Even places that you would normally have put down as safe are tightening their belts. Friends, colleagues and people I don’t know but have heard of are all getting laid off, and many of these have surprised given, given their jobs.

It’s not just that we’re in a global recession. It’s also that this industry really doesn’t know where the hell it’s going. Journalism. Broadcasting. PR. None of them safe. Or with any real idea of where they meant to be going.

If this were an interview and the media was asked where it would be in five years time, it’d have a hard job in answering. If it were then asked where it saw itself in ten years time, it’d find the question impossible to answer.

You do wonder if the skills you’ve been trained in, and others you’ve picked up along the way, will be completely redundant in the not-too-distant future.

Everywhere seems to be in trouble. We’re constantly told online is the future – and it IS the future – but it just doesn’t seem to be entirely sure how it wants to be the future.

I have an inkling things will pick up. Not in the sense of green shoots of recovery, but more to do with the fact that when this recession, and downturn and general media crisis of identity is over, there will be a need for quality journalism, PR and broadcasting.

Sadly this need will be because there will probably be huge holes in the market by this stage and, as with any good market, where there’s a hole and a demand, something will inevitably plug it.

So, yes, there will be an upturn. At some point. But when is anybody’s guess. If this were a Hollywood war movie, the sergeant would turn his face away and to the ground and sadly say: “We lost a lot of good men out there.”

At this stage it’s common for a blogger to offer his twopence worth on “hey, but this is how you can get through it.”

If only it were that easy.

All those of us in the industry – be it journalism, PR, broadcasting or a combination of some or all of these – can do is watch, learn, adapt to developments (both online and offline), try innovative stuff, and never ever compromise on quality or belief that nobody else, to quote Carly Simon, nobody does it better, no matter what we do. There, by the grace of God, we will survive. Hopefully.

(Then again, you do wonder if any print papers will survive when you read something like this.)

If anybody has any idea what they think this industry will look like in five to ten years type, please do leave a comment below. I’ll post my own thoughts at some point in the near future.

The NUJ and online media

Adam Tinworth’s two posts on the National Union of Journalists and their attitude to blogs and social media in general makes for rather depressing reading.

I’m well aware that this is just one discussion on one blog and isn’t necessarily representative of the whole organisation, but it’s illuminating on the (one) mindset of NUJ.

It all started when Adam’s colleague Martin Couzins wrote an impassioned plea for better online training from the NUJ on his personal blog.

The chair of the NUJ’s Professional Training Committee, Chris Wheal then responded in the comments, starting with the opening of “Try to be more constructive.” Not exactly a great start to addressing the question, although, in fairness he did offer a list of what was available.

Adam then picked up on this despairing that the response was rude and not overly helpful, and followed up a day later noting he’d had traffic to his blog from an NUJ internal email entitled “Effing blogs”.

What’s followed in the comments in both blog posts is uncomfortable to watch as it shows some very basic (wrong) assumptions on the behalf of Wheal and an attitude to blogging that, at worst, has the potential to alienate digital journalists the country over (please note: that says at worst.  And potential).

I don’t want this to seem like I’m picking on Wheal [1] but while he comes accross as web-savvy, his comments in both pieces just don’t seem to grasp how social media (God, sorry) operates.

Now, it’s certainly the case that there’s a massive grey area in the whole blogging / journalism arena. There are many blogging journalists and many journalists who blog (there is a difference), as well as many bloggers who do journalism and bloggers who just blog.

It can sometimes get a little tricky to sort out which shows how difficult it is to define what constitutes journalism in a Web 2.0 world, which, in turn is probably one huge problem the NUJ face. I don’t envy them trying to sort that definition out, as it often escapes those of us who work in the online medium on a daily basis.

But, if you’re really insisting on a straight definition (if such a thing is possible) then a blog (usually a group blog) that’s set up with the intention of making money through articles and opinion that resemble traditional journalism, kind of comes under the first.

That’s a completely imperfect definition, I know. It’s the best I can do on a Friday evening. It was rewritten half a dozen times before I gave up.

But then plenty of journalists blog on a personal level in their spare time. Adam’s One Man And His Blog is clearly a personal blog musing on the industry and other things he finds interesting, just as this blog is a personal blog. What I do elsewhere, mostly at Soccerlens, I classify as journalism.

Does that rough definition make sense? It’s the best I can give.

The reason for going into this somewhat lengthy and winding discussion on what classifies as journalism on a blog, his because Chris (and apologies if I’ve misinterpreted what he’s written as this is how it reads to me) seems to think all blogs should be lumped into the principles of journalism while at the same time utterly dismissing the notion that blogs have journalistic worth.

Now, there’s undoubtedly a point to be made on the standards on blogs. If blogging wants to be taken seriously as journalism then it should certainly hold it up to the same standards as offline journalism [2].

But, by and large, I think the best blogs do that. Why are, say, like likes of Shiny Media or Techcrunch any different from Roy Greenslade blogging at the Guardian, or a non-professional blogging for a local newspaper site on a community issue? Or Ben Goldacre who writes for the Guardian and blogs on the same topic and is VERY passionate about journalistic standards.

Or how about my writing for When Saturday Comes and Soccerlens. They’re on the same issues (slightly different audience) but one is print and one is online. Does the fact that you can’t hold a copy of Soccerlens in your hand make my articles have less worth?

But, by the same token, if you’re clearly writing personal thoughts on a personal blog, should you contact the subject of your thoughts (often personal posts are written on a whim in a spare moment) as Chris indicates?

I’ll leave that one hanging, if I may.

But, no, what has really got the digital journalism and bloggers fired up is not just the rather dismissive and condescending attitude in the comments (sorry Chris, that really is how it comes across) but this following comment:

“The NUJ fails to maintain standards in blogs because bloggers themselves rejoice in having lower standards.”

Ouch.

And Chris had earlier complained about huge generalisations in Adam’s post as well.

I honestly think that any points or arguments Chris made about encouraging bloggers to contact the NUJ have been undermined in that one sentence.

How many blogs actively make a point of celebrating the fact they’re, well, a bit shit? One of the joys of blogs and the internet in general is that it’s far easier to call out bad writing and journalism than ever before.

But let’s put blogs to one side for the moment and go back to the NUJ and the future of journalism itself, starting with a quick detour on my own quick history and thoughts on the organisation.

I’m not a member. This isn’t out of any conviction or protest on my part. I was a student member when I was at university in Cardiff. The Cardiff branch were excellent at keeping in touch and keeping me informed even though I never got in touch with them. That was comforting.

When I left Cardiff and moved from student to full-time journalist, I had a quick go at upgrading my details and signing but didn’t get anywhere.

A couple of emails went unanswered and I couldn’t get hold of anybody on the phone and it wasn’t high on my list of priorities, and I forgot about it. I’ve thought about joining over the years, but again, it’s always slipped by the wayside. No bitterness, just absent mindedness on my part coupled with no real pressing need to join.

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Dave Lee, who, a few weeks ago, asked what the point of joining was. If anything, I think Dave’s given them too much of a harsh ride, although he has several valid points as well.

If I were freelance, I think joining the NUJ would be top of the list of my priorities, as I know they’re excellent in supporting that area of the profession.

The NUJ also offers excellent legal protection and help, from what I’ve read (thankfully I’ve never needed this) and if you’re a journalist facing redundancy, I’d imagine their support is second-to-none. They’re also very good at protesting against job cuts.

However, as Dave points out, it can sometime feel with the NUJ that the protests against job cuts fail to take into account the rapidly-changing nature of an industry that is all-too-often desperately short of money and facing an uncertain future.

It’s all too easy to say job cuts = bad. But, and this comes back to the point I think Martin was making that originally sparked this little brouhaha, while protesting about job cuts is one thing, giving efficient practical training and advice to help make journalists more employable in a digital age is quite another.

This isn’t to say that the NUJ is necessarily behind the times. After all, with a membership that vast, there’s plenty of online evangelists [3]. They had a very good article on Twitter in the Journalist magazine about nine months ago, showing they were very much awake to the potential of the microblogging site as a newsgathering tool. General Secretary Jeremy Dear has a blog, which is a good thing.

Again, in fairness to Chris – and without ever having been on the courses listed – from his list on Martin’s blog there looks like a good basic level of online training.

But, again, Chris’ comments on Adam’s blog combined with the Effing blogs email combined with the NUJ really don’t having a great reputation in the online and social media community really doesn’t help things.

Adam is (or perhaps soon to be was) a member of the NUJ and is a different generation from me, who could see the usefulness but never got around to joining, and we’re both different generations to Dave, who can’t see the point and hasn’t joined.

Ok, now three out of God knows how many isn’t representative. I know that. But it highlights a couple of issues, I think.

Dave and I have both grown up in an era where unions aren’t as influential or prevalent than they used to be [4]. We’re not expected to join a union. Indeed, of all the people who I trained with, I don’t think that many joined the NUJ.

Now, to bring in Adam, we’re all working in a digital age and environment (although, in my case, my day job is now in PR). The NEXT generation of journalists will have grown up not only without unions but immersed in that online environment.

They will blog, Twitter, podcast [5], vodcast and whatever else comes along between now and then. They will work for web-only publications, some of whom probably haven’t even been conceived at this point in time.

And if you’ve got their professional representative body taking a dismissive attitude to blogging on Adam’s blog and throughout the web (and this will all show up in Google when they search for the NUJ) then it’s hardly going to encourage them to join.

Putting my PR hat on, I could easily tell Chris that one of the quickest and most surefire ways to damage your brand online is to lash out in blogs comments, especially on blogs of respected people in their field, like Adam (who is well-known and highly regarded in his field).

No matter how wronged you feel your organisation has been, getting angry doesn’t help the cause. If there are any perceived errors, politely point them out. Offer to help with any of their gripes (which Chris did try to do at various points).

Above all, don’t get drawn into a slanging match. Your brand will be better off for it. If you feel the blog is that influential and the matter is that important, then you can always drop the author a polite but firm email and ask for corrections.

I love the openness and transparency of blog comments, both as a PR and whenever I turn my hand to journalism again. I can correct and acknowledge mistakes, enter into debate and learn things I didn’t know. What’s not to like?

The fact that the NUJ’s Chair of their Professional Training Committee doesn’t seem to understand blogs and comments – one of the most basic aspects of social media that has been around for ages – does not bode well for the organisation’s future. And it does not encourage me, or, I suspect others that work in an online or digital environment, to want to join the organisation. God alone knows what it says to young, digitally aware journalists of the future.

This is a personal view. It’s not written as a professional article (although if it were an opinion piece for a media industry publication, the sentiment would be the same).

But if anybody – and that includes Chris and anybody from the NUJ – wants to disagree with me, correct me, or add something to the discussion I’ve not thought of, then I’d love to see the comments used for this purpose. Because that’s what they’re their for, regardless of who I am or what I do.

[1] Who, again, does seem to have a good grasp of the tools available on the net. He’s already a better man than me if he can use Yahoo Pipes to their full extent – something I’ve never really tried, and something I know I should try.

[2] Offline journalism is, in itself, a ridiculous notion, as very few ‘old’ media don’t have a web presence. And those who don’t probably won’t be around for much longer if they don’t.

[3] Yuck, sorry, hideous terminology there.

[4] Not saying if this is a good or a bad thing, but certainly Thatcher and Murdoch did their best to get to this state of play.

Quick, probably not very well-thought out post about law and teh interweb

Putting to one side the majority of the unpleasantness surrounding the Baby P case, one of the interesting aspects – from a media point of view – has been the problem of the online world and any court orders relating to reporting.

Without having delved too far into the story, it’s obvious that there’s some form of court order in play here, otherwise we’d have had Baby P’s name by now, along with the names of two of the accused [1].

The crime led to an outpouring of rage on assorted sources on the internet – blogs, forums, and Facebook groups, among other places.

Because of the way the internet is – huge swathes of information all quite easy to retrieve – it’s not exactly hard to find out the names of those involved, hence the naming and shaming that followed in the aftermath of the court case.

It doesn’t take a genius the piece together the information in the press reports, crossed referenced with a bit of smart Googling. Some of the older articles with names are in assorted caches.

Much of the ire seems to be focused on the fact that that the media hasn’t named the couple who were jailed over Baby P’s death, but as Judith Townsend at Journalism.co.uk points out, naming Baby P isn’t about any notion of justice (whatever that may be), or about the Facebook campaign. It’s about confronting the reality of an online world.

Everybody who joined the Facebook group or named them online is in contempt of court. But they’re not to know the ins and outs of contempt law. Why should they? Even journalists can be a bit fuzzy on some of the laws, unless they regularly work on court reporting or in a specific field.

Most laws relating to contempt were created to ensure a fair trial; to ensure that no matter how horrific the crime, no matter how apparent the guilt, the defendant gets a fair, unprejudiced trial.

Much of the law (I’d imagine) around the Baby P case are to protect other children involved in the case, not the accused or the guilty. The law is surprisingly clear on this.

That was fine when print and broadcast were the only ways of getting your news. The judge made the order, the journalists would sometimes contest it, but if they failed then the information didn’t get printed or broadcast. Simple.

Today, it’s never been easier to join the jots, the access cache, and to publish the names (or other relevant information online). And the orders don’t apply to non-UK websites.

As the law stands, there’s been a lot of Contempt of Court committed around the Baby P case. But who should be served with any action? Facebook? Blogger? WordPress? Google? Forum administrators? Individual bloggers? Individual posters? All of the above? None of the above?

Libel and the internet may not be perfect, but in this regard the law is streets ahead of Contempt of Court and the internet. The Baby P case has demonstrated that it’s virtually impossible to enforce Contempt laws in an online world (although I wouldn’t go as far as saying its impossible to get a fair trial).

Clearly, the laws surrounding Contempt and a fair trial need an urgent and serious overhaul. Quite what that should involve will take a far better legal brain than I, and probably about 99% of the country, have.

[1] It’s (thankfully) been a VERY long time since I’ve had to deal with child cases and courts, my immediate guess was a Section 39, although as that doesn’t apply to dead children, it might be a different court order. Section 11? I’ll have to pick up my copy of McNae’s again here as I think I need to reacquaint myself with the assorted orders to do with children and young people.

Chris Todd

Certain news really puts football in perspective. Fans are fond of quoting Bill Shankly’s famous phrase about the sport being more important than life and death, but that gets put to one side when you hear some genuinely upsetting news that actually does deal with life and death situations.

This news concerns Torquay United defender and former Exeter City club captain Chris Todd who has just been diagnosed with Leukaemia.

Chris arrived at Exeter City after being released in Swansea City, via a brief spell in Ireland. He was brought to the club by Neil McNab in 2003, one of the few decent things to come out of the much-maligned coach’s short-lived reign at St. James’ Park.

Although he couldn’t stop the Grecians’ relegation from the league, the happy-go-lucky Welshman became a mainstay of Exeter’s defence during their time in the Conference. First he formed an impressive partnership with Santos Gaia, then Gary Sawyer. Other defenders came and went but Toddy remained at the heart of the back four.

When Paul Tisdale took over as manager of the club in 2006, there was always very little doubt who he’d pick as captain. Chris was a popular player in the dressing room and a strong leader on the pitch and as one of the few players who’d stuck with City through the lean times, his appointment was appreciated by the fans.

As captain, Chris helped lead the Grecians to their first trip to Wembley at the end of the season, although the side lost to Morecambe.

At the end of that season, Chris followed Exeter’s former assistant manager Paul Buckle down the A380 to Torquay United, where he again became a mainstay of their defence as they mounted a challenge to bounce straight back into the league following their relegation.

The disease was only picked when when a nurse recommended he have a blood test after he struggled to recover from an operation. He was told the news on Monday. Part of the complications of the disease includes an enlarged spleen, which could easily rupture on contact and Chris was lucky to get through a 5-a-side game unscathed on the morning he found out about his disease.

I’ve met and interviewed Chris on many an occasion and he’s genuinely one of the nicest guys you could wish to meet in football. He’s always cheerful and, unlike many modern footballers, is happy to chat to anybody – fans or journalists. Many an interview would finish with both of us in fits of laughter.

Typically, the defender is taking the news in his usual good-humoured manner:

“Obviously it’s a bit of bad news for me.

“I’m very pleased to be at a club where they are giving me 100% support and I’ve got my family behind me, who are amazing. It’s hard to accept but I’m a fighter, as anybody who knows me will tell you. I have had upsets in my career and this is just another step. I will deal with it and I will be back.”

You can hear further reaction on Gemini FM’s page here.

Chris will learn on Monday at what stage the disease is at – at best, it could still be in its early stages and he could be back on the pitch within a few months.

What makes it, to me, even more shocking is Chris is, at 27, still a young man. He’s only a month older than me, but also has a fiancee and a young daughter to care for.

Chris Todd is one of football’s good guys. He’s also a fighter, and I hope that the fighting spirit that you always see from him on the pitch will see him through this dreadful time.

Get well soon Chris.

Rethinking the embargo

The embargo is a strange beast. In essence, a contract between public relations people and journalists that says: “Here’s the information for [what we think is] a great news story. But we’ve set [an often arbitrary] time delay for publishing this story and if you break it we’ll get angry.”

Ok, so the above does a bit of a disservice to the embargo, but in this internet-centric world where any news organisation or website or blogger can, and often does, break the embargo, perhaps a rethink to the humble STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 WEDNESDAY line is necessary.

The embargo today still feels like a very traditional media concept (albeit one that still has a time and place) that, like smoking, is a hard habit to give up. Ostensibly, it still feels wedded to the pre-internet days and specifically tailored around print deadlines.

The journalists I’ve met and worked with have mixed feelings towards embargoes. One old tutor from my training days positively encouraged the breaking of embargoes, while another editor was fairly respectful of them as they believed that, in the long run, you’d get some good stories first from the PR as they knew you could be trusted.

Ultimately, though, embargo breaking leads to a weird situation. The press office are likely to get annoyed and, in the worst case, stop working with the media organisation for a period of time. But if the company really wants to work with said media organisation, there’s little option but to start building up that relationship again.

But with the internet, it’s never been easier to break an embargo. Hell, the material can make it from email account to the web in around 10 minutes if the journalist is so minded and feels there’s worth in doing so.

And with no real evidence, other than increasingly common conversations with other PR people about embargo-breaking online, the gut feeling is that journalists and bloggers are increasingly disregarding the stern words at the top of the press release.

Now – admittedly basing this assumption on anecdotal evidence and then declaring it thus – if that is the case, the embargo needs a bit of a rethink.

Should we go as far to scrap the idea of the embargo [1]? Perhaps not completely. After all, the point of the embargo is, from a publicity point of view, to retain an element of control to the story. There are perhaps a couple of advantages to embargoing information:

  • Timing the embargoed information to coincide with something else – perhaps even to take the attention away from elsewhere.
  • Preparation time for journalists. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to give the media time to digest what they’ve read and produce something relevant for their audience, and this can actually enhance the coverage.
  • Co-ordinating an announcement that makes the nation’s collective jaw drop. But, again, how easy is this in an online world?
  • Giving the embargoed material to a few trusted places so the announcement can be coordinated strategically.

But even with these (rather vague) exceptions, there’s still an argument for doing away with the embargo. If you’ve got a jaw-dropping announcement, the chances are the collective journalism jaw will also drop, so why not just announce it there and then? More control, less chance of an early leak online.

And if the news isn’t going to get jaws dropping, then perhaps that negates the very need for an embargo. Chances are that if you send it out in the middle of the day, it’ll get filed in the ‘to do’ file, then make the papers the next day.

And if it’s one of those wonderfully pointless surveys that flood into newsrooms on a regular basis with a stat that 76.2% of households in the South East would continue to use canned fruit in the event of a nuclear holocaust, an that tend to end up as space-filling churn, then may I humbly suggest that this news isn’t so exciting that it needs to be sat on until a certain time. The world will, you suspect, keep turning.

But if you’re still wedded to the idea of the embargo or want to give the journalist time to prepare, if there any way the embargo can work in a Web 2.0 environment.

The short answer is probably not. But the longer answer includes a maybe. The most draconian and time-heavy solution would be to lock the material behind a password protected area and include further password protection and lockdowns behind this to make it as hard as possibly the get the info out. This seems slightly too much effort on the part of the PR and irritation on the part of the journalist. Can’t quite see a future for it myself.

The second idea goes back to one of the bullet points  – working with a few specific, trusted outlets – perhaps a couple of leading websites or a paper – and offering the information as an exclusive.

Again, it’s not without its problems or dangers. The information better be good – good enough for organisation A wanting to have it, even under embargo, in the first place, and good enough for everywhere else to want to republish and not get annoyed that they weren’t first in the queue.

In some respects, this is an approach that could find more success with bloggers than traditional media. Web 2.0 loves to share and if the right blogs are targeted, then there’s the potential for a bit of a buzz.

But, again, the story has to be good enough to create a buzz in the first place. And it’s not something I’d be especially fond of doing more than once in a blue moon. Web 2.0 loves linking and sharing, but doesn’t like the feeling of being manipulated, which, done wrongly, this could be viewed as.

Is there a place for embargoes? Do we need them anymore? Could we work a more social media solution in via Social Media Press Releases? Or even wikis? Or is this just a pointless attempt to preserve something not needed? And do you have any thoughts on this that are more coherent than the above? I’ll now throw this to the floor…

[1] Is the embargo dead? Oh, the irony, THE irony!

The report of blogging’s death is an exaggeration

The weblog is dead, long live the blog. Or, if you’re Paul Boutin, who wrote an obituary for blogging at Wired magazine the other day, blogging is just dead and we should bury it now:

“Thinking about starting your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”

Blimey, that’s a cheerful start to the day, and the prognosis just gets worse:

“Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.”

The article has caused quite a stir both on and offline and it looks as if BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones will be doing a piece on this on Radio 4’s Today programme tomorrow, asking if blogging is dead.

But the question itself seems somewhat tautologous. A blog post about blogging has got other blogs and non-blogs talking about the death of blogging. For a medium that, last time I checked, definitely wasn’t six feet under, it’s doing a remarkably good job of still getting itself noticed.

As the old saying goes, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and nobody’s stopped talking about it yet, so writing epitaphs seems a trifle premature.

The cynic in me suspects the post was written largely to get a reaction (and has succeeded), but rather than taking it to the extreme of death, it’s worth asking what’s different between blogging in 2008 than blogging, say, four years ago when citizen journalism was the new buzzword.

It’s certainly true that there are more professional blogs, corporate blogs and group blogs than there were back then. Indeed, it seems like you’re not a proper web 2.0-ed up company unless you’ve got yourself a company blog and are down with the proverbial kids.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Far from it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s a positively encouraging one, as it shows the evolution and maturing of blogging.

Brands, companies and traditional media are starting to move to the same level as bloggers – interacting, acknowledging and treating some of them as they would any other source. That news can be broken almost instantaneously via the web, and that spurious claims can be easily disproved, should continue to excite.

It also continues to highlight the power of the web or, more accurately, the power of Google. Get negative comments on your service and this will have a significant impact on your brand name’s Google juice – the last thing any company wants to see is the front page of results all criticising the product.

But get it right and a quick Google will produce pages of praise, which is as valuable to a brand’s reputation as any offline campaign. By placing blogging at the heart of this, it further increases the democratisation of the web. Again, this can only be a good thing.

I’ve said before that I see blogging as a medium that fits neatly into Habermas’ ideal of the public sphere. You have discussion about current events and those blogs that are the best informed, best written, or most entertaining will rise to the top. Those that sit ranting badly written rants will continue to attract just a small portion of readers. It is a free market in the currency of opinion.

A quick word about the negativity and vitriol Paul Boutin highlights in his article. This has been around since, really, day one of the internet and won’t change. Trolls won’t go away and there’ll always be that slightly odd group of people who take a perverse delight in sitting in the comments spewing hatred.

But we can live with that. What they most crave is attention, so by ignoring them they’re not getting the reaction they desire. And, if anything, the net seems to have increased in politeness.

Bloggers – and brands, companies and the like – are more willing to go into the comments and forums and politely put forward their point of view while there’s an informal online etiquette that is still evolving. People are getting more willing to engage, and the nuttier online element can be ignored.

Although the Technorati State of the Blogosphere 2008 noted a fall in the number of blogs, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re seeing the death of blogging. There are, perhaps, a few explanations for this:

  1. Many of the original bloggers are getting older, so are moving to more high-powered positions of responsibility in the real world and have less time to blog, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less committed or enthusiastic to using blogs outside of a personal setting.
  2. A few of the really good bloggers – in whatever field – have been snapped up by bigger companies and have started blogging there instead, be it for traditional media sites, or overseeing company blogs.
  3. Many of the niche bloggers have pooled resources. Why have five blogs about a topic when you can come together in a group blog, where there’s less chance of lack of posting time and content, and a greater range of debates. Ultimately, every blogger wants to be read and joining forces to improve the Google juice increases the likelihood of this.

But Paul’s certainly got a point when he alludes to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr being the future. However, it’s worth pointing out that these aren’t blogging and blogging isn’t Twitter, Flickr or Facebook. Blogging is well-established enough not to be a passing fad.

Yes, all three offer a more concise immediacy that blogging, perhaps, can’t offer. But while Flickr could be described as photoblogging, it’s still different from blogging with words. They’re too very difficult entities. Nobody said the rise of photography led to the death of journalism.

Facebook is, again, different from blogging in so many ways. Sure, you can publish your blog to Facebook, but it seems to have settled into a niche as a networking, email exchange and event organiser. If people blog in there, they’re doing it for a specific audience.

And, more importantly, they’re still engaging in blogging, even if it’s in a more locked-out audience specific environment. But then, you could argue, this is just a more grown up version of Live Journal.

Finally, Twitter, which is the closest thing to blogging. It’s even described as microblogging, to which it is. But it’s still fundamentally different.

Twitter has probably been responsible for a decline in brief, one line blog posts. But take a look at the links being shared on Twitter, and then look at how many of them are, in fact, sharing ideas via blogs. Blogging and Twitter is symbiotic.

All of the above contributes to the conversation, and blogging is still very much a part of it. So the early adopters may not blog. So there are more personal blogs than ever before, and it may well be difficult to get your voice heard. That still doesn’t mean it’s a dying medium. Far from it.

This final snapshot may not be entirely reflective of the health of the blogosphere, but it, I think, provides a decent enough conclusion: in both a work and personal environment, I estimate I must get about half a dozen queries a week about blogging – how to set up a blog, what’s best blog practice, how to pitch to a blog, how to write a blog, and the rest.

That, to me, shows a medium that’s in rude health.


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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