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incorporating New Life


Where do you get your news?

Coverage of events like the Virginia Tech shootings, the London transport bombings and hurricane Katrina would not be complete without a rush to predict the end of news as we know.

Robin Hamman at his Cybersoc blog put it like this yesterday:

The past few days have pointed to a future where audiences are likely to look first to blogs and other forms of participatory media for first hand accounts of emerging stories before turning to the mainstream media. Of course mainstream media will still have a role to play – confirming those stories, providing thoroughly researched facts, and gathering comment from credible sources.

Dan Gillmor
, author of We the Media, did not switch on his TV until the evening on the day of the shootings in Blacksburg. Instead he “used the online media — including the major news sites — to get the latest information, sifting it, making judgments about credibility and reliability as I read and watched and listened. That, too, is the future in many cases.”

He points out that the “citizen media” component is not new and writes of the home movie footage of the shooting of President Kennedy which became an essential part of the historical record. He continues:

In 1963, one man with a camera captured the event on film. In a very few years, a similar situation would be captured by thousands of people — all holding high-resolution video cameras — and all of those cameras would be connected to high-speed digital networks.

That is different.

Gillmor says, “We will still need journalists to help sort things out” and concludes:

We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft. This is not a worrisome change, not if we are appropriately skeptical and to find sources we trust. We will need to retool media literacy for the new age, too.

Giving everyone with an internet connection access to much of the raw material of news is new and changes things. It opens up traditional journalism to more, valuable scrutiny and challenge.

But I find it difficult to believe that the mass of people will turn first to blogs, YouTube and Flickr as first sources of news. This takes me back to Pew Research’s latest report on what What Americans Know (figures below are taken from the questionnaire) released this week.

One of the options in the question about sources of news, was “Read online blogs where people discuss events in the news”. The figure asnwering “yes” was 11%. Only listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show scored lower(8%). By contrast 55% read a daily newspaper, 46% watched nightly network news and 39% CNN.

I doubt very much whether people en masse will ever choose to go to unmediated material as their first source of news. It is simply too time consuming and too difficult to make sense of it.

The work of journalists covering any big story is essentially to find, aggregate and select. It is work that requires a team of people, reporters, photographers, news editors, copy tasters… It is not just the reporters on the ground but those in the office who hit the phones trying to find eye witnesses, experts, officials, friends, relatives and anyone else who might contribute to the story.

Added to that mix we now have blogs, YouTube and flickr which produce dramatic stories and pictures. They help to build up the overall picture. Unlike the traditional reporter’s interviews everyone has direct access to the material.

Mainstream media’s websites are also soliciting videos, stills and personal experiences of major events. This “participatory media” is certainly changing the way journalists go about assembling the story.

But that does not mean it is going to take over. Journalists have always had to try to make sense out of the noise of conflicting information, multitudes of sources and confusion. Now there are more sources and that makes the job tougher yet.

It was hard enough when the volume of material was restricted by the capacity of the teleprinter feeds. Then electronic transmission to desktop computers increased the volume and now the internet produces even more material to be read.

Dan Gillmor as a journalist, has the experience to sift information and make judgments on credibility and reliability: most people do not. Neither do they have the time.

The value of exclusives

Maybe its the old hack in me but I still think exclusives are worth having. Jeff Jarvis does not. “The value of an exclusive today lasts about 30 seconds,” he says at Buzzmachine.

I find his reasoning rather hard to follow. It centres on CNN paying for a campus video of the Virginia shootings — long shots of police, noise of gunfire and lots of pavement.

Jarvis raised the question at a conference he was attending with someone from CNN asking whether they had paid for it. It had, apparently been uploaded by the creator who was then contacted by CNN who negotiated exclusivity. He says: “I criticized the notion of exclusivity and argued that they’d be better off putting the video out there with a CNN ID to take credit for having gotten it and to get the idea across that one can submit news video to them.”

He seems to be suggesting that they should have put their logo on it and then distributed free to anyone who wanted it. I cannot see how they could have done that without negotiating with the creator over rights and probably making a payment.

The video was certainly distributed and not held for exclusive use by CNN. I saw it on either BBC or ITN news, I forget which. It is also on YouTube.

Ok, an exclusive does not last long these days. Newspaper tricks like waiting for the second edition to stop others following-up are little use in a 24/7 media world.

But the reputation brought through exclusives does last. They build the reputations of broadcasters, newspapers and websites. By helping to build audiences they have commercial value.

And what would journalism be without the excitement of getting exclusives?

Giving the story its rightful space

Andrew Marr in the Telegraph nicely summed up my feelings as I quickly scanned pages of coverage of the Virginia Tech killings. He writes:

One of the endless problems of journalism is the awful, big event which is basically resistant to analysis, as in the Virginia university massacre. Rightly, any newspaper or TV organisation thinks it should show respect, and “proper news values”, by describing the killings and the killer at some length. But it’s also one of those stories which, frankly, tells us absolutely nothing about the human condition we did not already know, and has nothing to say about life here in Britain.

…Yet because of the awesome number of deaths we will now have printed acres and broadcast hours of journalism scrabbling for something to say.
Perhaps we need a new typeface which announces: dreadful, nothing to add.

Have I Got News For You viewers best informed in UK

I have no evidence for this headline, but it is probably true. Why? Because the people who watch Paul Merton, Ian Hislop et al are more likely to be news junkies than the rest of the population.

I base my assertion on the latest Pew Research report on What Americans Know which shows that the best informed people there are viewers of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

Dig down into the research and we find that 16% of the sample watch the Daily Show. The chances are that these same people are among the 55% who read a daily newspaper and the 46% who watch network news. Without the raw data there is no way of cross-checking.

The Pew survey also shows that the 43% who said they watched Fox News were almost the worst informed. Perhaps that is their main source of national and international news.

It is all too easy draw misleading conclusions from survey research: it can prove some great headlines.

It is not surprising that 93 percent could identify Arnold Schwarzenegger when movie star and governor of California were both counted as correct. Where have the other 7% been?

What is really worrying is that only 65% could identify Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. But for a politician it is good to be a percentage point ahead of Beyonce.

The Pew Survey which has been running since 1989 has its real value in comparisons. Those suggest, perhaps, a disengagement from news. The number who could name the vice president was down 5% to 69% since’89, state governor recognition fell even further, and those able to name the president of Russia fell from 47% to 36%.

On the other hand more people were able to correctly answer questions about national politics. But the most worrying finding is that “despite the fact that education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly”.

The PCC, sailors stories and the Commons

Politicians often complain that the press focuses on the personality of a minister rather than what he (or she) is doing in office. Yesterday, as defence secretary Des Browne faced MPs over the sale of the sailors’ stories the boot was on the other foot.

The Press Complaints Commission chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, became the issue when Gerald Kaufman asked about the commission’s offer of assistance. Here is the uncorrected Hansard report of the exchange.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab):

Since the shadow Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the offer from the Press Complaints Commission to advise the 15 young service people who were risking their lives for their country but were totally inexperienced in dealing with the press, canmy right hon. Friend say whether the PCC cited the example of a public servant—the chairman of the PCC—who as ambassador to Washington broke every rule in the book in selling his story to the press? There was no PCC investigation of that.

Des Browne:

Somewhat surprisingly, in the short e-mail received from the PCC no mention was made of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. However, the offer should be seen in its proper context and in its terms. I am grateful to the PCC, which helpfully reminded the MOD on Thursday 5 April that it was on hand to help, should the need arise. That was the actual offer. As a matter of fact, early on, the MOD had put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that each family was properly protected from media intrusion, and that protection, which is part of our duty of care, continues. Our media minders report that, despite the media pressure on the families, to date none of the 15 service personnel or their families has complained about media harassment. I remind Members that the rules of the PCC require the commission to satisfy itself that any complaint has first been dealt with by the editor of the newspaper involved before the PCC can take and exercise its jurisdiction.

The government was very unhappy with Sir Christopher, UK ambassador in Washington from 1997 to 2003, when his book, DC Confidential, was published late in 2005 and serialised in the Daily mail and the Guardian. There was criticism of a public servant rushing to sell a story that was critical of ministers.

Sir Gerald points out that there was no PCC investigation. The answer to that is in Browne’s response: there was no formal complaint.

However, to dismiss the offer of assistance over the sailors’ stories in such an off-hand way does not hold a lot of water. Last month Sir Christopher gave evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee hearing on self-regulation of the press. He made it clear that the PCC was now acting proactively, without formal complaints. He said:

We do this time and time again to anticipate events where indeed vulnerable people may feel themselves under threat. We have the ability through the so‑called desist order to stop harassment. You have had an extensive discussion about Kate Middleton and one of the things that we did immediately after her birthday scrum was to make sure that the desist notice went around all the newspapers and I think there was direct cause and effect there. Most of the time we do this for people with who lay no claim to celebrity at all, I think we had about 30 which we did last year.

It is inevitable that having taken the role of PCC chairman Sir Christopher’s own record should be examined, but it must be rather uncomfortable. Whether the PCC could have done anything really helpful in this latest cast is open to question but it is important that self-regulation is seen to be effective and robust.

UK online publishing revenue heading towards £1bn mark

Online publishing now accounts for an average 12% of revenues according to a survey of some of the biggest newspaper and magazine groups. They believe this is set to rise substantially in the coming year.

The Association of Online Publishers say turnover from members’ digital operations reached £575m in 2006, up from £344m the previous year. And they are forecasting a 72% increase this year. That would take the figure to close on £1bn.

Simon Waldman, director of digital strategy at Guardian Media Group and chairman of AOP, said:

This is a remarkable set of figures. 2006 was a year of spectacular digital growth, innovation and investment by the UK’s media industry – and our forecasts show there is no sign of this letting up.

Three-quarters of the turnover comes from advertising with display contributing four times more than classified. The numbers of sites charging for content is increasing, from 37% to 47% over the year, and contributing 12% of revenues.

Members of AOP include: AN Digital, BBC, BSkyB, Channel 4, CMPi, CNET Networks, Condé Nast Interactive, Dennis Interactive, The Economist Group, Emap, FT.com, Future Publishing, GCAP Media, Guardian Unlimited, Haymarket Publishing, Hearst Digital Network, Incisive Media, Independent Digital, IPC Media, ITV Online, News International, Reed Business Information, Reuters Group, Telegraph Group Limited, Trinity Mirror Group and Which?.

Ad revenue fall plus sales drop add to print gloom

Media researcher Jim Bilton, in a review of the latest ABC figures for the nationals, adds to the gloom with a startling figure on advertising revenues. He says, in a Media Guardian article, that advertising now makes up 51% of the revenues of national newspapers, down from 60% in 2000.

Bilton points out that this drop is in part due to the cyclical downturn in advertising, but combine it with a 4.5% year-on-year fall in circulations and the stark reality becomes clearer.

His figures include considerable variations, with advertising making up only 44% of the revenue of popular Sundays compared with 61% for their quality rivals.

What this means is that newspapers are having to chase sales revenue from a declining market. Hence, he says, the publishers’ drive to “develop new routes to market, often at a range of cover prices”.

Journalists have long worried that British newspapers were too dependent on advertising but at the moment every penny is needed to cope with transition to a world with the internet.

In August last year when the Evening Standard hiked it price from 40p to 50p, declaring itself to be London’s quality paper, circulation stood at 313,181. In February this year it was down to 266,037.

If every paper was sold at full price, the total retail value last August was £125,275 and in February this year £133,037. That is a modest increase but the promotion costs have been considerable. And what has a fall like that done to ad revenue?

A trading update from Daily Mail and General Trust last month does not shed much light on the performance of the Standard but does say that in the five months to February: “Classified advertising revenues, including those of the Evening Standard, are down by 8% for the same period.”

The arithmetic of newspaper revenues is much more complicated that that but of the face of it picture does not look good.

The view from Independent House is rosier

Sometimes subs do not serve authors well. The tone of the standfirst on Peter Cole’s On The Press column in the Sindy today suggests a tone that is not reflected in the copy. It reads: “Rumours of the death of print media are not only grossly exaggerated, they’re irresponsible and wrong.”

None of the words “grossly, exaggerated, irresponsible or wrong” are among those Cole uses.

While he is not saying everything in the garden is blooming for print he does look for the bright side and takes a swipe at the “prophets of doom”. He believes what is happening to print sales is neither terminal nor catastrophic. He bases his argument on the latest ABC figures for the broadsheets that have moved to more compact formats. He writes:

It [the Berliner Guardian] is selling 3.4 per cent more than its broadsheet counterpart of July 2005. Next to downsize was The Independent on Sunday, selling last month 12.3 per cent more copies than in its last days as a broadsheet. And finally, The Observer is selling 4.3 per cent more copies than it did as a broadsheet in November 2005. The Telegraph titles, which have remained broadsheet, have lost sales over the period since The Independent launched as a compact – the daily 4.1 per cent down, the Sunday 10.5 per cent down.

That is a rather selective list and over at the Observer, Peter Preston takes a rather different view concluding: “There now. Everybody sitting uncomfortably and feeling pretty miserable? Because that, in short, is the story.”

If only sales figures were the only indicators there might be room for optimism that the figures could be turned around. But they are not. The advertising landscape is moving and newspapers, even with the aid their online versions, cannot hope to retain their share of the past.

Printed newspapers are not going to disappear suddenly. Some will survive for a very long time while those that go first will be probably those that would have been vulnerable if the internet had never been invented.

Cole draws encouragement from last month’s publication of a survey by the World’s Editors’ Forum. It found that 85 per cent were “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about the future of newspapers.

When I looked at this survey my first caveat was that it was international and included Asia and Africa where much of the print media is booming.

I have another worry. It is whether the term newspapers is being used for the print versions or or is the term extended to include the online offerings. I tend to use the wider definition of “newspaper” and put “printed” in front of it if I mean the paper version only. But in various statements and reports it is not always clear.

And for the benefit of Cole and others in their grey bastion of Independent House which daily grows to more closely resemble the battleships which are often parked outside, cutting editorial staff is not what anyone else sees as a solution. It is worth repeating the words of Bertrand Pecquerie, director of WEF, commenting on the survey:

Eighty-five percent of senior news executives see a rosy future for their newspaper, and it’s quite a surprise.
Editors recognize competition from online sources and free papers, and in turn are making efforts to adapt to 21st century readership. They know how to effectively make the transition to online journalism without reducing editorial quality. Editors-in-chief realise that content matters more than ever and cutting newsroom resources is not at all an effective solution: the reshaping of news will take place with journalists, rather than at their expense.

Columnist calls UK press ‘worst in the west’

Hyperbole is a useful tool for columnists so perhaps Polly Toynbee’s assertion today that the British press is the “worst in the west” should be left to rest. Perhaps, it is best to celebrate the variety of voices in the pages of the Guardian, including Max Hastings who she castigates for an article in the Daily Mail, John Pilger and Harriet Harman as well as Toynbee, and pass on.

Yet there is something about the venom with which Toynbee writes that does need comment. Here is her final paragraph:

What is so squalid about these newspapers is their use of figleaf sermons to cover their real business, done with corrupting chequebook, threat, intimidation, invasion of privacy, paparazzi aggression and vicious cruelty. Labour should use this disgrace to reign in chequebook tell-all by public servants, from those at the top such as Christopher Meyer to those at the bottom such as these sailors. It’s time to look again at privacy legislation, a quid pro quo for the Freedom of Information Act the press abuses with petty assaults on government. The media is in danger of making government by any party impossible.

Without examples she accuses the press of abusing the Freedom of Information Act and suggests tougher privacy laws. The Government — present and future — would love that. It is in line with her recurring theme in recent months that the media is being unkind to the Blair ministry.

And she singles out from among those civil servants, ministers and military officers who have been criticised for writing too soon after the event, Christopher Meyer, our former ambassador in Washington who wrote DC Confidential.

Why is he the one person named if it is not because he is now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the print media’s self-regulatory body? Possibly some explanation has been edited out.

As for the claim that we have the worst press in the west, it is a sweeping statement. There are probably no reasonable criteria on which it would be possible to draw up a table of countries with the best and worst press.

British newspapers are highly competitive because of the predominance of a powerful London-based national press. This commercial pressure does lead to unseemly behaviour. Toynbee is right to point out the hypocrisy of papers that failed in their bids to interview sailors and marines held in Iran and then attacked the government for allowing the interviews.

Few other countries have a similarly dominant national press. The idea of a national press is scarcely known in the US and in France the two biggest selling nationals, Le Figero and Le Monde, together are outsold by Ouest-France, based in Rennes.

Our system results in some nasty battles over stories but it also provides the competitive environment in which government is held to account. And yes, the FoI Act is one of the very valuable tools for which we can praise the present Government (provided it gives up the plan to restrict its use).

Putting the focus on ‘news you can use’

Media executives have been beating a path to Tampa, Florida, for several years to see the future: the converged newsroom that brings together the Tampa Tribune, WFLA TV and tbo.com. This week the Tribune announced that it was cutting 70 jobs of which “fewer than 10” will be from the 280-strong newsroom.

Lucas Grindley who works not that far away in Sarasota and is an advocate of convergence, says, “Not even convergence was a strong enough tactic to overcome the continuing drop in revenues felt across the industry.”

We need to be very careful about drawing any conclusions for the UK from what is happening in Florida where there are 42 daily newspapers serving a rapidly growing population of around 18 million.

The Tribune faces fierce competition from the St Petersburg Times across the bay and smaller newspapers in the region. Its plan is to withdraw from some fringe areas, focus on “hyper-local news” and trim half-an-inch from its page width.

President and Publisher Denise Palmer is quoted in Editor and Publisher saying:

Our newspaper is experiencing the challenges of changing reader needs and fundamental shifts in spending by our traditional advertisers. We are reducing resources in areas that are in decline and investing in areas of growth, including local news and the Internet.

Some neighbourhood editions are to be merged with weekly papers owned by the group. Palmer told her own paper:

We know from research that our readers want news that is hyperlocal and useful to their daily lives. We plan to provide more focused products to better serve changing reader and advertiser needs. At the same time, we will accelerate efforts to operate more efficiently.

While news markets are very different in the US even there the Tampa operation is unusual in owning both the paper and the TV station. But the emphasis on practical local “news you can use” is relevant to the UK.

A couple of weeks ago one of my oldest friends in journalism visited us in Suffolk, picked up a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times and said: “This is what all newspapers will be like in a few years.”