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The rights and wrongs of cyber-doorstepping

Every big story that affects a community has brought complaints of press intrusion by reporters who descend on the place or use the phone searching for accounts and opinions. It has always been so and is again with the Virginia Tech killings.

Yet there is a difference: the internet. Not only are people blogging and putting personal accounts and pictures on social media sites, but the numbers of reporters looking for a piece of the story is multiplied.

What we will never know is how many people complain about intrusion and how many welcome the chance to tell the world of their experiences. Some reporters behave insensitively pushing people who clearly do not want to talk.

The new issue is the use of blog and social media material and the cyber-doorstepping that goes with it. Once you had to be there, camped outside a house but now now anyone can do it.

Papers and broadcasters covering an overseas story had to wait for whatever their own staff and agencies could provide. If it was big enough a fireman would be flown in.

One of the people looking for new information from a computer terminal in the UK was the BBC’s Robin Hamman. He has reflected sensitively on what he did both on his own blog and in comments made to Media Guardian which devotes two pages to the debate today:

BBC new media journalist Robin Hamman discovered a blog entry, claiming to be an eyewitness account, and was asked to verify its accuracy. He chose to approach the author by instant message, but as the day wore on many journalists – including one from the Guardian – simply added comments saying “talk to me, please, here’s my number”.

The onslaught angered many other surfers, who saw the torrent of media requests as invasive. The reaction made Hamman reconsider his objectives. “My approach was, I think, professional and sensitive,” he said. “But now, after seeing the way the press descended upon him, I wonder if I should have made that approach, primarily for confirmation purposes, at all.”

The Media Guardian spread asks: “Were reporters were right to solicit information from students’ web pages? Patrick Barkham answers “Yes” in the first part of the web story followed by Jeff Jarvis saying “No”.

Barkham, a Guardian feature writer, justifies the approaches writing:

In terms of invasiveness, asking questions on a blog is the equivalent of a reporter approaching a group of people having a conversation on a street by the site of a tragedy. A blog is not a private home; posting questions or invitations to talk further is not as intrusive as knocking on a victim’s door.

Many bloggers don’t realise that the fundamental reason for asking questions on blogs, or on streets, is to better establish the authenticity of eyewitness accounts. There are plenty of fantasists and hoaxers in the real world and online. Sometimes witnesses agree to talk to us; at other times we retreat in the face of these familiar “vulture” jibes.

And he concludes:

To those bloggers, I’m sorry: big media is here to stay online – for as long as audiences want information created by the rigorous questioning and testing for truth undertaken by responsible professional journalists.

Jarvis, who is a journalism professor at New York’s City University as well as a Guardian columnist and blogger, believes the journalistic wish to verify will become increasingly impractical in the new architecture of news where anyone can publish. He writes:

Increasingly, they will share what they know on their own sites – often intending not to publish to the world but simply to inform their family and friends. Because this is on the public web, we get to listen in; we learn more.

Yet it’s doubtful that these witnesses will want to – or should have to – field challenges from scores of reporters, each exercising his journalistic duty to vet, or his business reflex to negotiate exclusives.

He continues:

It will become increasingly difficult to vet every story, link, or source. And it’s rather anachronistic to believe that the press can verify and edit all news, when the public can and does go around the press to find sources directly – via links and searches – on the web.

He advocates linking to blog posts which have not been vetted. I find the Jarvis approach disturbing. It is consistent with his belief that readers will become media literate enough to find their own way though large volumes of unmediated material.

Last week when I challenged his view that exclusives were no longer important, he responded that I was “looking at this from the perspective of the journalist rather than the readers.” On the verification of material from blogs I also take the perspective of a journalist. It is that while some readers may wish to plough though unchecked raw material, most still want news which has been vetted by a trusted media organisation. To start linking to web sites with the warning “We have no idea whether this person even exists or whether what they say is true” would only confuse the readers and viewers and undermine trust.

Hybrid alternative to freesheet war

Could the Manchester Evening News’s paid/free model provide a way out of London’s increasingly futile-looking battle of the evening freesheets for Associated Newspapers? Peter Preston puts it forward in his Observer column today, writing:

Why go through the sweat and cost of producing a 64-page Standard (for 50p) and a 42-page Lite (for nothing) when you could give away real Standards in the West End and City, knocking off the cover price inside a fixed area and delivering hundreds of copies to selected office blocks? To an extent that happens already: the Standard adds 62,000 bulks on top. But a more coherent mixed offering of 500,000 Standards, free and paid, would surely have more clout (and advertising allure) than an ailing 50p paper and a separate freesheet running second to Rupert.

Warming to his theme, he applies lateral thinking to the Guardian, pointing out that technology allowed both the Times and Independent to produce tabloid and broadsheet editions at the same time. So the Guardian could follow American models and produce a half-price digest tabloid aimed at busy young readers on the train.

Monty’s UK approach to European newspapers appeals to investors

Scandinavian journalists who feared the introduction of a British newspaper culture when David Montgomery’s Mecom business bought Orkla Media last year are being proved right.

The evidence is in a glance at Mecom’s preliminary announcement of results (link to pdf) for 2006 — a loss of £21m. The second slide shows the empire in creation in an arc from Norway, through Denmark, Germany and Poland to outposts in Lithuania and the Ukraine. The objectives are spelled out in four bullet points:

  • To optimise performance using techniques tested in the UK
  • To replicate the benefits of consolidation seen in the UK and elsewhere
  • To exploit our 1.4 million strong subscriber base to generate new revenues
  • To accelerate the growth of online revenues

The next slide includes an approach to business which will strike fear in the heart of every journalist: “Improving profitability through short-term cost reduction.”

To investors who have put another £580m into Mecom’s coffer (share placing and 7 for 10 open offer announcement on April 12) this is music. They are seeing the possibility of the high levels of profitability achieved by British regional paper groups becoming available in Europe.

Journalists in Britain remember Montgomery’s time running Mirror Group. When he faced opposition from journalists in Germany last year a Guardian report included this paragraph which sums up what many British hacks feel about him:

Montgomery is used to such antipathy. Andrew Marr, in his book My Trade, quotes a former editor of the Independent, which was owned by Montgomery’s Mirror group, as saying: “What he [Montgomery] did showed a breathtaking disregard for keeping his word and a merciless savagery unheard of even by Fleet Street’s blood-soaked and hypocritical standards.” Marr adds, with tongue only partially in cheek: “Some of us would put it a little more strongly than that.”

This week Montgomery suffered a slightly bruised nose when his freesheet in Denmark, Dato, merged with Urban: A sensible decision in an overcrowded market where the speculation now is over which will be next to go (via Kristine Lowe).

In both Denmark and Norway journalists are up in arms about redundancies with Danish staff striking. Tastes of the Montgomery approach or, as Kristine Lowe puts it, “Journalists feel something is rotten in Mecom’s Danish and Norwegian fiefdoms…”

Getting that first job in journalism

It is the time of year when journalism students are looking for jobs. So advice on putting together a CV and supporting material is timely. The best I have seen comes from Mindy McAdams who teaches in Florida.

As well as her advice there are links to examples including a well laid-out one page CV. English English speaking students just need to know that résumé = CV, and clips = cuttings. Every graduating student looking for advantage in a tough job market should read what McAdams has to say.

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?.