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Tories steal a march in fight to colonise cyberspace

If the Conservatives’ plan was to set the news agenda on the eve of their conference, they scored a spectacular success this morning. The Guardian leads with a puff for the party’s new website, webcameron.

But if webcameron does turn out to be a significant step in moving political debate away from the mainstream media agenda, “puff” may turn out to be too strong a word.

The Guardian intro reads: “David Cameron will today unveil radical plans to harness the power of the internet by reaching out to a blogging generation that is disaffected and disconnected from mainstream politics.”

All the parties see the web as a way of re-engaging with the electorate long after they gave up on the big rallies and even local hustings meetings. They gave up on meetings partly because of fear that hecklers would steal the TV airtime but largely because they realised that it is a very small number of swing voters who affect the results.

Now they are realising that not only are voters fed-up with being ignored but they have lost much of the power they had to influence the news agenda that the rallies used to give them.

So all the parties are looking to the web as their salvation where they hope they can set their own agenda and, at the moment, the Conservatives are ahead of the game.

Webcameron with its home video quality is impressive. David Cameron, filmed at the kitchen sink with background interruptions from the children, even forgets the name of his own website. Whether that is an artful contrivance or an honest mistake, we do not know.

There is a link to an “open blog” but that is not yet operational. Nor can I see anything about how it will be moderated. In other words, we need to see whether the spin doctors and control freaks in the party HQ are going to allow the “hecklers” back into the political process.

The Guardian story talks about the site taking on “ideas on sharing video and images from YouTube.com and flickr.com, and also social networking sites such as MySpace.”

That sounds rather like trendy political hype for the new site. But the Conservatives have been giving us a lot of surprises in recent months. The Labour party which faces many more months of stagnation before it can have clear leadership and strategy is allowing the Tories plenty of time and freedom to colonise cyberspace.

In the meantime mainstream media also is going to have to give a lot more thought about how it can engage the electorate in political debate.

Beware the stray apostrophe

With Colchester United in the Championship, the Ipswich-based East Anglian Daily Times has the obvious headline problem of how to abbreviate the name of the new rival to their home team. Yesterday before ther first local derby, the EADP put up the headline “Beware the U’s”. It turned out to be perceptive as the score line read: Colchester 1, Ipswich 0.

But what was that apostrophe doing? It could not indicate possession, nor could it mark a contraction. On the other hand “Beware the Us” would be ridiculous.

Time to think again. Manchester United is often cut down to Man U and Col U would have fitted. With supporters of both teams (the towns are only 14 miles apart) among the EADT’s readers sports headline looks like becoming more interesting.

If you want journalism that enables local democracy please say so

The British trades unions have only a shadow of their previous power and influence but the Journalism Matters campaign, given the backing of the TUC earlier this month, deserves every bit of support it can get.

The National Union of Journalists campaign got underway this week with a meeting in Bristol, attended by only about 100 people. But every campaign has to start somewhere.

Hold the Front Page reports that after Jeremy Dear, the union’s general secretary spoke of the “huge profits” being made by newspapers and cutbacks across the industry, David Drew, the MP for Stroud said:

These cuts are not about providing news for a community; they’re an asset-stripping, profit-grabbing attempt to destabilise our democracy.

I don’t believe the intention is to destabilise democracy but that is the effect in many communities where the coverage of local politics has been downgraded by a loss of experienced staff with a real knowledge of the places where they live and work.

It is too easy to say the decline in local and regional coverage is an inevitable result of the move away from print to the web, social change, TV and radio. They are all true but the “bean counters,” as Dear described the press owners, have to take a lot of the blame. They are not investing in the quality of journalism we need either in print or online.

They are not the only ones to blame. I have said before that local government has been emasculated by centralising government, making local coverage of councils less relevant to the readers. So it was good to see that there were two MPs at the Bristol meeting. Kerry McCarthy, the member of Bristol East was there as well as Drew who is a member of the NUJ’s parliamentary group.

Conservative, LibDem, and Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs should attend further meetings. These parties have all been critical of the loss of local power so it would be natural for them to support “Journalism Matters”.

The ripples of this campaign need to spread out and become waves. A very small way for every reader of this post to show their support would be to leave a comment. Please do that.

Telegraph has younger web audience

The Telegraph’s web audience is 14 years younger than the elderly readership of the paper, Edward Roussel, its online editorial director, told a NewsMarket breakfast debate.

The Press Gazette reports that he said that a third is based in the US and that there is only a 13% overlap between online and paper readership. Roussel examines what this means for editorial decision making.

Catering for a new and wider audience without destroying the voice which attracted them in the first place is going to be a fine balancing act for the men and women at the hub of the Victoria newsroom.

In defence of the editorial

Jeff Jarvis, the high priest of what he now calls “networked journalism”, believes the leader column is as “outmoded as the medium”. Being a believer in collaboration, The death of the editorialist, at BuzzMachine is a sort of draft encyclical in which he shares his thoughts before writing his definitive opinion.

If he questioned the need for editorials on the grounds that few people read them I would have said that he had a case. But he misses the point. He complains that leader writers “rarely report”, “work anonymously” and “issue opinions as if from the mountaintop”. Jarvis has misunderstood the role of the leader.

The leader is a statement of the evolving position of the newspaper. It is not a piece of reporting and if the writer was named it would become simply another opinion article.

In the leaders we create a position for the newspaper as a corporate body providing the context within which a range of opinions can be expressed. The editorial page, although it may be little read, provides the cement which holds the rest together. It is the attitude of the the paper: its definition.

This differentiates newspapers from broadcasters and news agencies. I see no reason why the leader should not continue on the web. Newspapers will probably survive in print for longer than many believe and they can take their varied attitudes onto the web.

But Jarvis seems to be on a revolutionary rampage, to destroy the old before the new can be created. This is part of what he says:

News organizations should no longer define themselves by the ink on their paper. And publishers may no longer assume the prerogative of telling us what to think just because they buy that ink by the barrel. Now we all have our barrels of bits.

There I think Jarvis has it. If we remove the common opinion from a newspaper. whether it be on paper of online, all we will be left with is a barrel of bits.

Time for ‘digital visionaries’ to take control of newsrooms?

Newsroom re-organisation to bring online and traditional media staff together seems to have suddenly come to the top of the agenda. In the UK, the Telegraph’s announcement of a new integrated “spoke” newsroom, spiced by the in-fighting, has set people thinking.

In Texas, research at the TV station News 8 Austin, suggests “convergence would go more smoothly if stations would integrate their Web producers into the newsroom”.

Two researchers from the University of Texas, found that some newsroom systems and policies actually make convergence more difficult than it might be otherwise be, according to a summary at Newslab.

The researchers found that the TV station’s web producers did not participate in editorial meetings and felt they had no authority to suggest stories or approaches. The reporters resented the extra work involved in writing stories for the web and the lack of extra pay for it. And sometimes those stories did not get posted until the following day because web staff had gone home.

Roy Greenslade asks Is it time for on-line editors to run newspapers? picking up Steve Outing’s radical solution of putting the “digital visionaries” in charge of the whole operation.

Outing quotes a suggestion that it made sense for the editor responsible for a 24/7 news product to oversee the one-daily print version. He writes:

That’s perhaps a radical thought to many newspaper executives. It argues for putting online at the top of an organization, with the print edition being but one delivery channel for the company’s editorial and advertising content, and thus underneath a central news operation that is responsible for “the news” and distributing it out to various channels.

I suspect that most news executives would agree that this is the direction the industry eventually must go. But the crux of the problem is that for many newspaper executives, it still seems to them as though it’s too early to put online at the top of the corporate heirarchy. After all, the industry is still in a position where print revenues — even though they may be on a slow decline — remain massive, while online revenues continue to grow nicely but still represent a minority percentage of the overall business.

There is an important debate to be had here. And it could be underway at the Telegraph although all we have to go on are the rumours. As Kim Fletcher asked in the Guardian last week: “Who wears the trousers?

Time for 'digital visionaries' to take control of newsrooms?

Newsroom re-organisation to bring online and traditional media staff together seems to have suddenly come to the top of the agenda. In the UK, the Telegraph’s announcement of a new integrated “spoke” newsroom, spiced by the in-fighting, has set people thinking.

In Texas, research at the TV station News 8 Austin, suggests “convergence would go more smoothly if stations would integrate their Web producers into the newsroom”.

Two researchers from the University of Texas, found that some newsroom systems and policies actually make convergence more difficult than it might be otherwise be, according to a summary at Newslab.

The researchers found that the TV station’s web producers did not participate in editorial meetings and felt they had no authority to suggest stories or approaches. The reporters resented the extra work involved in writing stories for the web and the lack of extra pay for it. And sometimes those stories did not get posted until the following day because web staff had gone home.

Roy Greenslade asks Is it time for on-line editors to run newspapers? picking up Steve Outing’s radical solution of putting the “digital visionaries” in charge of the whole operation.

Outing quotes a suggestion that it made sense for the editor responsible for a 24/7 news product to oversee the one-daily print version. He writes:

That’s perhaps a radical thought to many newspaper executives. It argues for putting online at the top of an organization, with the print edition being but one delivery channel for the company’s editorial and advertising content, and thus underneath a central news operation that is responsible for “the news” and distributing it out to various channels.

I suspect that most news executives would agree that this is the direction the industry eventually must go. But the crux of the problem is that for many newspaper executives, it still seems to them as though it’s too early to put online at the top of the corporate heirarchy. After all, the industry is still in a position where print revenues — even though they may be on a slow decline — remain massive, while online revenues continue to grow nicely but still represent a minority percentage of the overall business.

There is an important debate to be had here. And it could be underway at the Telegraph although all we have to go on are the rumours. As Kim Fletcher asked in the Guardian last week: “Who wears the trousers?

BBC: ‘Impartial but not informative enough’

The BBC may be impartial but it is not informative enough, argues Sunny Hundal, editor of AIM, the Asians In Media web magazine,

Commenting on a piece in the Guardian where Michael Grade, the BBC’s chairman, examines the issues surrounding impartiality in the digital age, Hundal writes:

The problem isn’t that the BBC is insufficiently impartial, but rather it is not being informative enough. The corporation, in a desperate bid to keep its audience, is contributing to the death of debate by seeking to entertain rather than inform its audiences, even in current affairs and news.

I am not going to try to summarise the arguments of either Grade or Hundal as they would inevitably be distorted. They are both worth reading in full.

BBC: 'Impartial but not informative enough'

The BBC may be impartial but it is not informative enough, argues Sunny Hundal, editor of AIM, the Asians In Media web magazine,

Commenting on a piece in the Guardian where Michael Grade, the BBC’s chairman, examines the issues surrounding impartiality in the digital age, Hundal writes:

The problem isn’t that the BBC is insufficiently impartial, but rather it is not being informative enough. The corporation, in a desperate bid to keep its audience, is contributing to the death of debate by seeking to entertain rather than inform its audiences, even in current affairs and news.

I am not going to try to summarise the arguments of either Grade or Hundal as they would inevitably be distorted. They are both worth reading in full.

‘Government is hiding the true story of fighting in Afghanistan’

Censorship (by denial of access) of the fighting in southern Afghanistan is political, not military, Alex Thomson, of Channel 4 News, says in Guardian Media today. He writes:

The Paras in Helmand want their story told on TV. The army media people on the ground and commanders in theatre have few, if any, objections to that happening. Their mandarins back in the MoD are, from what I am told, equally keen – but the politicians, terrified of “bad” news, are shutting them down.

The pictures we are getting of the fighting are from military camera crews and, sometimes, blurry cameraphone video from the soldiers themselves.

It seems to me that the the government is damaging its own case with unsubstantiated claims of high numbers of casualties among Taliban fighters. To maintain its position that British troops are doing well in a country which has seen off the British army (and the Russians) before, the Government is going to have to let us see the evidence.