Archive for the 'The Meeeeja' Category

The old ones are the best

Anybody not from Britain looking at the Twitter trending topics today would have probably been baffled to see Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy near the top. Thanks to the British sense of humour, the catchphrase from 70s sitcom Are You Being Served was all over the microblogging site in tribute to the death of comic actress Mollie Sugden [1]. Jonathan Ross was one of those responsible for getting the topic to the top of Twitter charts.

Sure enough, other countries were a bit puzzled by the trend, so much so that both Techcrunch and Mashable wrote stories complaining that Twitter was getting infected with spam again [2]. They were soon put right in the comments.

I’m not an overly big fan of the show, but this little Twitter trend and the reaction does appeal to my sense of humour. You’d like to think that Mollie Sugden would have found it funny as well. It’s a fitting tribute.

But among all this there is a serious point to be made, with regard to the old blogs v journalism arguments. Especially in light of TMZ’s Michael Jackson scoop, there seems to be a general reluctance to trust blogs ahead of traditional media, even if the blogs have a long and trusted record. Sadly, this little snippet gives the journalist a nice easy own goal.

As many comments in both articles have said, a very quick bit of research would have shown that this was a genuine trending topic and not a story, bar one of those ‘aren’t Twitter users funny’ filler pieces. As it was, both writers immediately jumped to the conclusion that they had a Twitter spam story on their hands and published, seemingly without any checks or approach for comment. Plenty of ammunition for the blogging naysayers.

[But then again some newspaper journalism can't claim to be a great deal better].

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said here for the fact that both writers visibly corrected their copy very quickly after being called to account, and were prepared to brave the comments. And that’s something you cannot imagine the many newspapers doing, period. Plus, it did bring up the small but interesting question of how Twitter blocks certain phrases from trending.

It doesn’t excuse the rather sloppy research (and desire to pull out a quick post) in the first place [3]. But it does show how news can be more democratic and accountable, and quickly corrected, and that’s got to be a good thing.

[1] For anybody not familiar with the sitcom, it was a running joke where Mrs Slocombe, a very prim and proper lady, would constantly refer to her pet cat in a variety of ways laced with innuendo.

[2] Although it’s easy to forget that pussy has much stronger connotations in the US than it does here.

[3] And I’m writing this as both a fan and a regular reader of both blogs. I think they’re better than a lot of traditional news sources. But when they do mess up, it’s a lot more public.

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.

This is the news and this is why we did it

One of the joys of the web is it opens up the thinking process behind news values decisions to, well, everyone.

Take the Birmingham Mail’s exclusive letter from Gareth Barry to Aston Villa fans, for instance. The Mail didn’t post it up until after lunch, despite it being an exclusive and something, I imagine, that would have sent a fair amount of traffic in their direction.

Like Joanna Geary, I would have assumed it was a bit of a missed opportunity for the paper. But then the editor, Steve Dyson, enters into the comments and explains exactly why they held back.

Having read his explanation – and the amount of publicity they got out of the letter – I can see his reasons. And I can’t blame him either. It’s one of the few times you can make a convincing argument for holding back from publishing online. Then again you could also say the increased traffic would have been worth it. But would they have got the credit? It’s a fascinating debate.

But I do like that Steve took the time to enter into the comments and explain the paper’s thought process. Ok, it probably helps that Joanna is an ex-employee, but then her blog is quite widely-read in the industry, so it makes sense to get involved.

The more readers can understand editorial decisions, the closer the bond they have with the paper, and that can only increase if journalists will take a bit of time now and then to chat about it.

Ok, it doesn’t make sense to actively hunt down every comment about every article (although there are probably some journalists who do this), but the odd comment on the odd relevant blog, even if it’s negative, goes a long way. In the old days, the blogger would have probably got a rather stern email instead of a comment.

If traditional media is to survive in these choppy waters, we all need to befollowing Steve’s lead and having conversations like this across the web,

Who wags who?

Martin Moore’s discussion around the death of Ian Tomlinson and the subsequent investigation and unearthing of footage by the Guardian raises some interesting points about the place ‘old media (for want of a better phrase) have today:

“Would the ‘truth’ surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death have come to light had it not been sought out by journalists, and then published as the lead story in the Guardian? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.”

Then there’s the Damian McBride email scandal that may have broken in the blogosphere but still needed the traditional media to completely take it into the scandal it has now become. Would McBride have resigned if the accusations had just appeared on Guido Fawkes’ blog and nowhere else [1]?

But, by the same token, these stories wouldn’t have become as big had it not been for the work of social media, with videos of Tomlinson and alleged police brutality at the G20 protests circulating around the internet. And in the midst of this, the Guardian showed how a mainstream media’s website spread this using social media tactics.

Then, on a lighter news story, Pete Cashmore muses at Mashable on Ashton Kutcher’s passing of the 1 million Twitter followers mark:

“And yet this assumes that social media needs mainstream media to justify its existence: that without its blessing social media is not confirmed. But mainstream media is increasingly becoming an echo of social media, allowing YouTube’s masses to define what matters (Susan Boyle, the Domino’s Pizza scandal) and mirroring that public sentiment.

For now, Twitter needs mainstream media more than mainstream media needs Twitter. But Ashton has an audience of 1 million at his fingertips: how much longer will the talent need its mainstream middleman?”

Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail? Or just a case of having a double-headed, double-tailed canine?

Chris Applegate makes an interesting comparion between the coverage of Hillsborough twenty years ago and the coverage of the G20.

Back in the 1980s, it was much easier for the police (with a little help from The Sun) to get out their version, deflecting blame and smearing the innocent. Today, the police’s account of the G20 was quickly contradicted by the wealth of material available. One wonders if the families of the 96 would still be campaigning for justice if Hillsborough had happened today.

At the moment, both social media and traditional media are probably wagging each other. The footage of Ian Tomlinson would probably have gained traction without the Guardian, but the newspaper’s work meant it was disseminated much quicker. McBride’s emails may well have just stuck to the Westminster gossip blogs  if the papers hadn’t run with it [2].

Certainly with significant news stories that originate in niche communities, then it probably does require a helping hand from the traditional press to take it that step further. But the lines are getting increasingly narrow between the two.

If you have an interest in an area, mainstream or niche, you’ll probably hear the news before it makes it to the mainstream media, but it’s also never been easier for journalists to keep tabs on what’s getting the internet buzzing – and if that’s beyond the usual geek or early adopter buzz, there’s a good chance it’s a story that more people will be interested in.

And then you’ve got somebody like Susan Boyle, who was on a primetime show like Britain’s Got Talent and got the traditional media and the social media talking, and social media helped turn Susan Boyle into a global superstar, which, in turn, became a story for traditional media.

My brain hurts.

Both sides still need each other still, but it remains to be seen for how much longer. Journalists are still gatekeepers, sorting the wheat from the chaff in the internet world, albeit with no small amount of help from places like Twitter. And when they do manage to come together, like the Guardian’s excellent work with the Ian Tomlinson story, then it can really take off.

And one final note that’s probably significant in some small way. When news broke that Tomlinson didn’t die of a heart attack, as was originally though, thenews was all over Twitter. But the most retweeted user on this was Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the Channel 4 News anchor.

Like I say, both sides still need each other.

[1] Ok, this is being very simplistic. No blog is an island and that’s one of the joys of the web. If people like what’s blogged or Tweeted, it soon finds its way onto other blogs.

[2] It’s worth remembering that while the likes of Gudio and Iain Dale are seen as influential within Westminster, once you leave this behind, recognition of their names probably diminishes. You can be interested in politics without having heard of either, especially if you don’t spend a great deal of time reading blogs. There is a world beyond the blogs.

If you’re a (radio) journalist, Audioboo is dead exciting

Occasionally a service pops onto the internet that’s just brimming with potential for journalism (and the rest of the media). It doesn’t need any complicated explanations – you just plug and go and start having a lot of fun. Audioboo is one of those services.

Ostensibly it’s a very simple app for the iPhone that allows you to record a ‘boo’, which gets sent to the Audioboo website, where there are also the standard social networking functions. You can also embed it into your own website. This boo can literally be anything, but it’s normally short and snappy – rarely over two minutes. It’s a bit like an aural version of Seesmic or Twitter, although that’s not entirely accurate.

The Guardian used this to good effect on their liveblog during their coverage of the G20 summit and the accompanying protests. Mix with text and video, it gave you short, snappy reports from journalists on the ground.

This, to me, is exciting.

Let’s backtrack to when I was a radio reporter. It’s not a million miles away from what I would be doing for assorted news stories – often standing near a breaking news story (usually in a cold and/or wet place. Big news stories always seem to break when the elements are at their worst, just to torment news reporters) with a microphone in hand, describing what was going on for the benefit of our listeners.

Depending on what equipment was available on the day you’d either get a radio quality OB unit (although this would inevitably decide not to work or be in use when big stories broke), a mobile phone, or you’d just end up doing an ‘as live’ report into your recording equipment.

This is why Audioboo excites me. The quality, as far as I can tell, is decent – certainly better than using a mobile. Sure, it has limitations – you can’t do a two-way, for example. But the principle of just sending a quick report of where you are and what you’re doing… hell, that’s no different from standard radio journalism and opens up a wealth of possibilities.

If I were still in radio, I’d be getting onto our technical and website bods to make sure we could send Boos direct to the newsroom. How liberating would it be if you can send an immediate report back in decent quality without having to do a pre-record or even take up precious time from the journalist at the other end who’ll be recording your call.

And if a radio journalist found themselves somewhere without any recording equipment (maybe during off-duty time), it’d be easy to get a report back to the office.

But Audioboo goes way beyond that. Citizen journalism is usually, these days, a fairly vague term that’s just used to lump ‘the internet’ together but in this case it suits Audioboo perfectly. If newsrooms encourage listeners to send in their ‘boos’ from news stories, there’s a whole wealth of material that can be collected freeing up precious time for the journalist (and please God, meaning that we have to do less vox pops. I’ve yet to met a journalist who enjoys vox popping. That said, there is a time and a place and they do make for good radio).

Then there’s the radio shows themselves. Audioboo can add another easy, interactive aspect to any DJ’s show, or any podcast as well (it’s certainly something I’d like to play with in the future for the twofootedtackle podcast when I get a moment). Given how simple it is, there are so many possibilities.

Of course, it’s not just radio journalists this can be useful for. It should be reasonably easy to work them into TV news (I’d imagine), and the Guardian have already shown how any news website can work them into coverage. Again, any newspaper – be it national, regional or local – should be looking to work this into their site.

Inviting ‘boos’ from the public is essentially opening up audio is the same way camera phones and the like did for pictures, and that’s now a staple part of any news coverage.

The only downside. I don’t yet have an iPhone so can’t Audioboo myself. But it’s a concept that really excites me and it’s been a long time since I’ve said that about any web service, no matter how much I love or use them.

Alas poor Press Gazette

When the trade magazine for an industry closes, it’s a sure sign that things aren’t looking good for said industry. When the trade magazine for an industry that includes magazines closes… well, you tell me what that means. Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The Press Gazette has been bumping along, barely getting by, for a while now so while today’s announcement is somewhat of a shock it can’t be said to be a surprise.

The publication will be mourned by those in the media and rightly so. Not too long ago it was still essential reading. Even when it switched from a weekly to a monthly and got by on reduced staff it was still worth reading, if only as a place where you could get a reasonably comprehensive roundup of national, local and regional and it still provided food for thought.

But the writing has been on the wall for a while, as illustrated nicely by Dave Lee’s anecdotal post. It was still important reading but not vital reading. It was useful but the website wasn’t a daily must-read.

If anything its demise acts as a pretty good barometer and illustration of the industry itself. It was struggling with declining revenues, cutting costs, struggling with whether it was a print or online publication and, most importantly of all, struggling to stay relevant in an online world. It was just about managing this, but having mediaguardian.co.uk as a competitor didn’t help.

More worrying is what this means – and says – about the media itself. We’ve already seen other big name publications, most notably Maxim, disappear from our shelves.

And while we’re not quite at the levels of the US where several big names have gone, local press is seriously struggling to keep going here. Plenty of people I’ve trained with, worked with or have got to know have been made redundant or have been asked to work shorter hours. The prognosis is not good.

Roy Greenslade asks if anybody will be willing to save the Press Gazette. But we’ve been here before and the publication has just lurched from one owner to another, struggling to stay alive all the time.

And this is, let’s not forget, a media industry that, for whatever reason, cannot make a magazine about media aimed squarely at them work [1].

The industry will be much the poorer without the Press Gazette, especially as it seems their online offering won’t actually offer any proper journalism after the start of May (which kind of defeats the point in keeping it going). Hopefully somebody will give it the proper send off, the celebration of its life that it deserves.

It’s going to be a long hard year for the media, sadly. I still maintain that the cycle will come back round at some point (whenever that may be) and the industry will pick up.

But quite what the industry will look like at that stage is anybody’s guess. That the business model has to change is beyond doubt, but if anybody had a clue on how best to change it, it would have happened long before now.

Ouch.

[1] Although this is a slightly simplistic way of looking at it and the various owners can be said to play at part in this.

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.


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