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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Friday, May 23rd, 2008

The New New Journalism

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Last night, Kevin and I went to the POLIS/LSE Media Group event, The New New Journalism, a panel discussion with Charlie Beckett, Founding Director of POLIS; Tessa Mayes, campaigning investigative journalist; Bill Thompson, journalist, commentator and technology critic; and Julia Whitney, Head of Designs & User Experience at the BBC. Nico Macdonald chaired.

I’m always wary of anything around the subject of how journalism is changing, particularly if it’s called “The New New Journalism”, but Nico assured us that that was irony. Unfortunately, it did rather set the tone for an evening of hashing over old ground and getting distracted from the real problems that journalists face. Whilst an introduction to each panellist’s thoughts is up on the website, one could probably summarise it like this:

  • Charlie Beckett: Optimistic and positive, although not quite sure how we get from where we are to where we could be.
  • Tessa Mayes: Over-enamoured of investigative journalism and distracted by concepts of The Truth and Objectivity.
  • Bill Thompson: Interestingly pragmatic, believing that the market will always want journalists and will find a way to pay for them whilst also acknowledging that journalism isn’t a necessary part of society.
  • Julia Whitney: We need to pay more attention to user experience and design, it’s all one big ecosystem.

Charlie was by far the most hopeful, saying that new technologies brought with them great opportunities, particularly for creating a partnership between journalists and the public. He said we need more networked journalism. He also pointed at some local blogs, such as Kings Cross Local Environment. But although he painted a fairly rosy picture, he also said that he wasn’t sure how things would pan out, or how we’d get to his vision of a networked future.

I found Bill’s comments interesting. He’s not just an entertaining speaker, but he’s also very thought-provoking, especially when he talked about how, when you get right down to it, society doesn’t need journalism to survive. It’s something that bugs Kevin and me - this sense of entitlement that many journalists have, the attitude that they are owed respect and a living because they are journalists. It’s an attitude that is massively out of proportion to reality.

Indicative of that view was a comment from one of the journalists in the audience that even if people didn’t trust reporters, they still need them. That comment alone speaks volumes about what is wrong with journalism. Arguing that standards set journalists apart from mere citizen journalists and bloggers, but then arguing that a measure of those standards - namely, the trust of our readers and viewers - is immaterial, is itself a measure of the double standards rife within the industry.

It would be an overly simplistic reading of Tessa’s argument to say that she represents the attitude that journalists are owed a living, but she was attempting to elevate journalism to a lofty cultural standing as if it was like opera, classical music or the works of Shakespeare. She argued that the pursuit of The Truth was a noble and necessary goal for professional journalists, as if the hundreds of words written on tight deadline were somehow in the same vein, or even had the same goal, as Plato’s Republic.

These arguments go beyond rationalisations for the profession and actually strive to become justification for state or civic support of journalism to shore up its broken business model. It raises journalism to such a position that state support becomes necessary because it is “too important” to be left to the tastes of the public and the pressures of the market. However, whether or not this was Tessa’s intention, the cultural argument takes journalism down a post-modern rabbit hole that doesn’t address the issues that face journalism and journalists: Dwindling audience, dwindling trust and dwindling revenues.

Julia’s comments I thought were interesting, but in many ways were a little lost in journalistic navel gazing that went on. One point she made that was interesting was a quote from a study of teen attitudes towards sex ed information. (She thought it was a Harvard University study but wasn’t sure about the sourcing.) The teens assessed the validity of the information based on the quality of its presentation.

But overall, I don’t think that the arguments we heard last night have moved us on very far from a discussion that I participated in at the LSE in February 2005, called The Fall and Fall of Jouranalism (notes from Mick Fealty).

The straw men put forth last night, some from the panellists, but many from the audience, included:

  • The one about quality, wherein journalists apparently are the only people capable of producing quality content. Obviously this is a selective definition of ‘journalist’ which doesn’t include any of the tabloid hacks.
  • The one about the truth, wherein everyone gets sucked into a pointless philosophical discussion about whether or not the truth is exists, and if so/not, what should we do about it.
  • The one about technology being subservient to information, which is really code for “geeks and designers should be subservient to journalists”

But there are a lot of monsters under the bed that didn’t get discussed at all:

  • Integration. In an ideal world, integration would mean cross-discipline teams learning about each other’s medium and finding ways in which they can work together to best tell a story and engage their audience. In reality, this is too often about senior management in the legacy business fighting to retain their primacy and pushing digital staff and managers aside. Online journalists often have their digital experience deemed irrelevant because it’s not seen as “journalism”, but production, which legacy managers believe can be taught to anyone.
  • Dysfunctional management. I made this point at the very end of the evening, that much of the problem in news organisations is down to broken management structures and dysfunctional management techniques. Bad decisions are being made by people unwilling to listen to those with the knowledge, but who are several paygrades down the food chain. Good journalists do not always make good managers and, ironically, are not always the best communicators.
  • Owning change. There’s way too much squabbling over who owns the change in news organisations. There’s not enough emphasis on what that change is, and too much focus on turf wars.

Unless we start honestly addressing these issues, journalism isn’t going to go anywhere. We’re not going to solve these problems overnight, because they are self-perpetuating. Bad managers don’t just suddenly learn how to manage well. Bad decisions and policies don’t just suddenly come good. What’s needed is a radical shake up, but who in the industry has both the nous and the political weight to do it? Who’s got the brains and the balls to turn round to senior management and tell them they are doing things wrong, and can get them to listen? There are some very talented and smart people chipping away at the problem, but I don’t know if they can make a significant difference before it’s too late.

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7 Responses to “The New New Journalism”

  1. Dennis Howlett Says:

    I’m not sure I’m hearing an argument that allows journalism to survive.

    For all its flaws, the investigative journalist in particular still has a crucial role to play in exposing the things that corporations, governments and other interested bodies don’t want to see in the public domain. That takes time, effort and…dare I say it, money.

    There can of course be arguments that describe a tiered approach to reporting but that’s something I’m not seeing in this debate.

    Regardless of which models are chosen, there does need to be a level of professionalism in the sense of understanding what is and is not acceptable both in content and quality but again, I don’t see arguments that demonstrate how it gets funded.

    I have always been concerned about the conflict that exists between those who write and those who manage. In other words it is the model of advertising that hurts the writer, however spirited and independent that person wishes to be. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the US.

    What are the alternatives? Banner ads on websites is only a substitution model. What about complementary content that competes for real eastate? That’s what I’m playing with on my site and so far so good. But it is early days in figuring out the alternaqtives and to be honest, I don’t see a lot of invention coming from the advertising side of the house.

  2. Suw Says:

    There is no mention of business models or money in the discussion last night, apart from Kevin who did stand up and say that the current business model is screwed. But no one took up the challenge to discuss it.

    Without a doubt it’s something that needs to be addressed, and it should be on my list of things that we need to actually have frank discussions about. Although it’s less a monster under the bed and more a monster about to eat the bed, blankets, pillows and all.

    Part of the problem is that many journos just don’t like thinking about ‘business’, and even see it as a dirty word. They feel that they are above it. (Oddly enough, as do many software/web developers.) But if someone, somewhere doesn’t start having a serious thing about non-advertising sources of revenue, the bottom’s going to fall out of the industry and there’s going to be nothing there to replace it.

    It’s not an easy problem, and that’s exactly why we need people to experiment! So good on you for doing something a bit different.

  3. Charlie Beckett Says:

    Hi Suw,
    On business models: I didn’t stop going on about them! but never mind.
    I really agree with your analysis of the evening and the issues. I particularly like your formulaion of the crunchy issues that everyone (including me) avoids: integraton and management. I am not so sure that media managers are crap but the real issue now is not gadgets but systems. I think Julia was spot-on that design will define editorial quality but we need that design to be wholistic and integrated. And for that we need better managers.
    cheers
    Charlie

  4. Suw Says:

    Charlie: I don’t think that business models were adequately discussed, or really even discussed at all despite your and Kevin’s attempts to raise the subject. We need to get really down into the nitty gritty of how the news business works, how it could work, and what opportunities there are to change the way that money flows. That certainly didn’t happen, and has never happened at any news-related meeting, seminar or conference I’ve ever been at.

    Kevin tells me that that happened in Princeton, but that it was a truncated discussion. He also says that as long as journalists consider themselves essential, and because of that consider themselves to have a right to a job, we’ll never get the chance to talk business. I think he’s right. Journalism has to be paid for, but whilst journalists think they have some divine right to exist, they won’t think about where the money comes from.

    Regarding management, not all managers are crap just as not all swans are white, but I can happily sit down with you over a pint and point to many detailed examples. The problem is so widespread that it passes for normality within the industry. As you say, the problem is not the technology anymore - it’s the people, and it’s the culture. And in that sense the news industry is having the very same problems as all the others. And until people wake up and realise that they need to reassess the way that they are running the show, we’re going to be stuck exactly as we are.

  5. Sarah Says:

    Hi Swu,

    I am the journalist-now-researcher that was sitting by your side at the conference. First I would like to say that I appreciated you check for reality (”i heard all this 5 years ago and if we don’t do anything I will be listening to it all over again in 5 years”).

    Second, as a response to your question in the last line of this post — who will have the balls to go around to the manager’s room and say that they’re doing things wrong. I say ethnographers.

    Not to be too wide-eyed about the profession I am novice in, but my view is that companies are seriously considering what is wrong with them (newspaper in the first row) and they believe that part of the solution is related to design.

    Not (only) graphic design as in how things look on the pape, but as in “how can we design our system so it works more efficiently and makes life easier in this place?”.

    Bosses won’t go around asking you “what do you think is wrong here?” the same way employees won’t go around saying “you are missing the point”. But system designers and the ethnographers that inform these design projects are able to find out where the flaws are the flag it to management with the advantage of an “outsider”’s point of view. And this point of view is not based on beliefs, but on proper qualitative data gathering and analysis.

    Again, I might be too optimistic about it, but it is an answer that is worth trying. What do you think?

  6. Suw Says:

    Sarah, I think that’s a very good point. Ethnographers can help companies understand what they can do to change, and how they can become more effective, and able to innovate and adapt.

    The problem I see is that the companies that most need to hire some ethnographers are also the least likely to admit they have a problem. People in management get institutionalised and become blind to the flaws in the way their company functions. Unless someone in the company has an epiphany, I don’t think that ethnographers will get a chance to do their jobs.

    It is good to see an ethnographer taking part in the discussion though! And I’d love to hear if you have any examples of ethnographers working in the media to help media companies adapt.

  7. Sarah Says:

    To be honest, no, I don’t have any examples. I know editorial design studios that do that, with “newsroom organization consultants” but I am not sure about how accurate is their research — I’m not saying that it is not, what I am saying is that, opposite to ethnographers, what these consultants generally do is to find a way of realizing management’s dreams about what the solution to their problems is, rather than going and finding it out “in the field”. You probably know that better than I do if you ever been to a news company that has been restructured.

    Now, you are right about the attitude problem: the companies that hire ethnographers are the ones that acknowledge that they might need one and the ones that really need it will never dream of that.

    So maybe the solution is to be proactive: instead of sitting down and waiting for a company to say come and see what our problem is, ethnographers could be offer, … “sell” their skills a bit more, because, believe it or not, many people don’t even know this exists. And here I think the academia plays a major role.

    There are a lot of implications about what it means to do this “organization” or “business” ethnography though — some people say it shouldn’t even be called that — but that is a whole different discussion and I won’t bother you with that.

    As I mentioned in the conference, I will be looking into the relation of journalists, technology and the implications of the organization of work in a national newspaper in London for my theses. Maybe I will find it brilliant, or maybe I will come back here in a few months to tell you that it doesn’t work. Let’s hope for the first one. I will keep you posted.