The media, the internet and the 2010 British election

Last night, I went to a panel discussion at the Frontline Club here in London looking at the role that the internet and social media might play in the upcoming general election. I wrote a summary of the discussion on the Guardian politics blog. As I said there, the discussion was Twitter heavy, but as Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes of said, Twitter is sexy right now.

The panel was good. Staines made some excellent points including how the Conservatives were focused on Facebook rather than Twitter for campaigning. Facebook has more reach and was “less inside the politics and media bubble“, Staines said.

Alberto Nardelli of British political Twitter tracker, Tweetminster, said that the election would be decided by candidates and campaigns not things like Twitter. No one on the panel thought the internet or the parties’ social networking strategies would decide the British election. Alberto said that Twitter’s impact would be more indirect. People are sharing news stories using Twitter, which is causing stories to “trickle up” the news agenda.

Chris Condron, head of digital strategy at the Press Association, made an excellent point that so many discussions of social media focus on its impact on journalism and not its impact on people. Facebook and Twitter allow people to organise around issues, which is another form of civic participation. As I said on my blog post at the Guardian, I would have liked for the panel to explore where this organisation around issues might have an impact in marginal constituencies.

Like so many of these discussions, I thought the questions were binary and missed opportunities to explore the nuance of several issues. The moderator, Sky News political correspondent Niall Paterson implied in his questions that if social media didn’t decide the election that it had no relevance. It was an all or nothing argument that I’ve heard before. Change is rarely that absolute. In the US, the role of the internet has been developing in politics for the past decade. Few people remember that John McCain was the first candidate to raise $1m online, not in 2008 but in 2000.

Paterson portrays himself as a social media sceptic, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate taking a contrarian position for the sake of debate. However, some of his points last night came off as being ill-informed. The panel was good in correcting him, but he often strayed from moderating the discussion to filibustering.

His portrayal of the Obama campaign was simplistic. Alberto said at the Frontline Club that Obama had a campaign of top down and bottom up, grass-roots campaigning, and as British political analyst Anthony Painter pointed out, Obama’s campaign was a highly integrated mix of traditional campaigning, internet campaigning and mobile. (Little coverage focused on Obama’s innovative mobile phone efforts. Most people don’t see the US as a particularly innovative place in terms of mobile, but it was one of the more sophisticated uses of mobile phones in political campaigning I’m aware of.) I love how Anthony puts it, Obama’s operation was “an insurgent campaign that was utterly professional”.

Paterson also implied that Twitter would tie journalists to desks. The only thing tying journalists to desks are outdated working methods. I’ve been using mobile data for more than a decade to stay in the field close to stories. During the 2008 election in the US, my Nokia multimedia phone was my main newsgathering tool. It allowed me to aggregate the best stories via Twitter and use Twitpic to upload pictures from my 4000 mile roadtrip and from the celebrations outside the White House on election night. As I said on Twitter during the discussion:

moderator makes assumption that social media chains journalists to desk. Ever use a mobile phone? It’s mobile!

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. Technology should be liberating for journalists, and more journalists should be exploring the opportunities provided by mobile phones and services like Twitpic, Qik, Bambuser and AudioBoo.

You can watch the entire discussion from the Frontline Club here, and here is Anthony Painter’s excellent presentation on the state of internet campaigning in the US and the UK:

11 thoughts on “The media, the internet and the 2010 British election

  1. Having read both this and your Guardian article, I felt best to respond here – where you really do get stuck in.

    As you mention early in your blog, this was an event to examine the effect/role that social media will play in this election. Digesting your remarks here and elsewhere it appears you were labouring under the misapprehension this was a discussion of the effects the election will have on social media.

    Of course, we approach this subject from different starting points. I’m a political correspondent, you are a social media journalist, so I can understand your frustration that we didn’t delve more deeply into your area of expertise (as deeply as one can in an hour and a half discussion). But to suggest my questions “implied” that if SM is not a game-changer it is an irrelevance is a gross misrepresentation.

    Here’s the rub – you can neither quantify the true reach of social media nor give any kind of accurate appraisal of its influence in British politics, and this was a point I feel needs to be drawn out. As on Tuesday, there are plenty of “could”s, “might”s and “perhaps”s – but little hard fact. After all, as we would both concede, this is the first British election in which social media will have some influence. It would be interesting to have the same discussion the other side of May 6th.

    My view is NOT that unless SM decides the election we should ignore it or disparage it – simply that it is unclear whether focusing resources on SM, rather than traditional forms of electoral communication with proven reach, is tactically sound. One can, of course, do both – but the parties have finite resources, as do the hacks. And as David Wright has shown there are plenty of negatives to be unearthed as the parties get all web 2.0 without thinking first.

    You’re right to say I am an SM sceptic (loved your use of “portrays himself”, though), but one who uses a variety of SM tools in his day job. The fact remains that whilst other changes to journalistic practice have taken place organically, the advent of the internet has forced abrupt, often limiting, revisions of our role. The net is ubiquitous, the argument goes, and if they’re all doing it… well, we must too.

    Well, no. We shouldn’t, necessarily. I’m a political hack who broadcasts on TV and radio, produces pieces for online, blogs and even twitters – as many do in the Lobby. But ask around and you’ll find that many, if not most, of my colleagues remain to be convinced that any of the SM is having a significant effect on the political process.

    You may well accuse them of being dinosaurs who use “outdated working methods”. I’d argue they are better placed that you or I to determine the effect social media will have on the election.

    It would have been interesting to see the response to the talk from an audience not almost entirely composed of digital media hacks, communications experts and web 2.0 afficionados. Such was the shock in the room when a PR man admitted he was not on Twitter, I was pleasantly surprised when approached afterwards by others who had failed to have this most 21stc of tool at their disposal when deciding how to vote. Do the sums and the majority of the British public still have v little SM contact. The echo chamber effect in the political blogosphere which I mentioned on Tuesday is mirrored by a similar phenomenon in the world of social media – with perhaps one difference: social media hacks, for now at least, speak only to those involved in their sphere.

    Leaving aside your remarks about the Obama campaign (you chose not to respond to my tweet where I pointed out that I didn’t say their digital strategy was entirely responsible for their success, more that the political parties in the UK seem to have arrived at that conclusion – and hey, we could have spent all night on the topic), I’m struck by your remark “Paterson implied that Twitter would tie journalists to their desks” (another “implied”? as a responsible hack, you might have paid me the courtesy of asking what I meant). In fact, my point is broader than that, and, I admit, could have been made more eloquently: that time spent using social media is time a hack cannot use for other tried and tested methods of obtaining and disseminating information (in this, as in all the other points I make above and below, I speak as a political journalist, not a general news practitioner). You’re right, technology should be liberating for journalists but that often isn’t the case and we find ourselves serving as guinea pigs for the latest web “innovation”.

    You argue that journalists should be “exploring the opportunities” but your bio to the left makes my point for me. You “are responsible for keeping pace with the latest innovations in social media and digital technology and helping to integrate them into Guardian journalism” but isn’t that the wrong way round? Shouldn’t we determine whether or not there is anything to be gained BEFORE integrating them into an already busy day? You pick the tool to suit the job – you don’t change the job to suit the tool, or indeed the latest set of new clothes for the Emperor.

    You say that I adopted a contrary position for the sake of debate (not true, but what’s the use…) and that several of my points came across as ill-informed. That’s as may be (and not entirely surprising given the audience’s composition) but I’m hardly a luddite nor social media’s equivalent of a climate change denier. There are plenty who share my views. As I’ve written elsewhere I’ve lost count of the times a web 2.0 guru tells me that I just don’t get it… but hell, isn’t that a failing on YOUR part as the social media hack, a failing on social media devotees in general?! If you can’t convince me…

    You sigh, and say you feel like a broken record. Right back at you.

    Let’s be fair, you have a vested interest in pushing social media; all I’m interested in is reporting politics, and I’m willing to look at alternative methods of doing so and am intrigued by the possibilities that SM affords both the public and politicians. Yet as regards the Holy Trinity of this election, the hacks, the politicians and the public, social media is thus far less significant that myriad other factors in determining its outcome.

    Look, on occasion all hacks tend to the myopic when it comes to our subject matter. There have been plenty of stories I’ve pushed that perhaps had little resonance outside the Westminster bubble. But it seems that this is not a failing limited to political reportage.

    Perhaps I was the wrong choice as moderater. No doubt you feel you could have done a better job. But perhaps the panel might also have benefitted from having a politician, or a party’s SM representative, to explain their position. It was strange, wasn’t it, to be discussing the election with nary a elected representative present… and I’ve had far more positive feedback, both to my blog and to my remarks during Tueday’s event, from them than from social media experts like yourself.

    As for my “filibustering”, I do honestly apologise; moderating debates, rather than railing against money-grabbing MPs, is new to me and I take both your comments here and on twitter on-board. However I don’t remember you pulling me up on it, nor asking a question, during the various opportunities to do so.

    Perhaps you were too busy tweeting?

  2. @Niall

    * See filibustering.

  3. Yes, you’re right Kevin. In engagement with social media experts one should limit one’s contributions to 140 characters or less.

  4. Niall,

    First off, props for actually leaving a comment. Apologies for the brevity of my previous response, but I’m a working journalist and I was on deadline.

    You wrote:

    As you mention early in your blog, this was an event to examine the effect/role that social media will play in this election. Digesting your remarks here and elsewhere it appears you were labouring under the misapprehension this was a discussion of the effects the election will have on social media.

    No, actually, I was curious what impact social media would have on the elections, both in terms of influencing voters and rallying party activists and volunteers. Obama’s efforts were very much about transforming online enthusiasm into real world action, whether that was fund raising, virtual phone banking or knocking on neighbours’ doors. What’s happening here?

    Paul Staines said that the Conservatives were focusing on Facebook. It would have been nice to have gone into a little more detail.

    You wrote:

    Here’s the rub – you can neither quantify the true reach of social media nor give any kind of accurate appraisal of its influence in British politics, and this was a point I feel needs to be drawn out.

    Apart from blogs, this is the first time that many of the tools are in use because five years ago they didn’t exist. We won’t know the impact until after the election and even then we’ll struggle because research about the impact of the internet on British society is really difficult to come by. What we will have is a lot of conjecture.

    No one on the panel thought that Twitter or any other social media tool would decide the election. I agree, and that’s pretty clear from what I’ve written. Most use of social media by the parties seems to be to energise and organise activists rather than sway voters. That’s not a pointless exercise.

    You write:

    “Paterson implied that Twitter would tie journalists to their desks” (another “implied”? as a responsible hack, you might have paid me the courtesy of asking what I meant).

    I see nothing inconsistent with my interpretation of your comments at the Frontline Club and your comments here. You blog. You use Twitter, but yet you say “we find ourselves serving as guinea pigs for the latest web ‘innovation’.” You wrote: “the advent of the internet has forced abrupt, often limiting, revisions of our role”. That’s hardly the comment of someone exploring and embracing opportunities.

    You wrote:

    You pick the tool to suit the job – you don’t change the job to suit the tool, or indeed the latest set of new clothes for the Emperor.

    Quite. I don’t use tools for tools sake, and I write about that often. It has been my job for 14 years as a digital journalist to assess editorial goals and determine not only which but if digital tools are appropriate. I have often been approached by journalists saying I want to use such-and-such digital tool, and my first question always is: Editorially, what are you trying to achieve?

    For instance, why blog? It can build loyalty and in this era of almost limitless choices for information and entertainment, loyalty is a rare and valuable thing. It’s a thing that will help build your business and pay for journalism. In journalism in 2010, we don’t have the resources to do things simply for the novelty of it.

    Why do we use Twitter at the Guardian? That’s easy and quantifiable. At the Guardian, Twitter now drives more traffic to our technology section than Google News. I’ve had more comments on Twitter to my post at the Guardian than I had on the post itself, although I’ve had some really interesting comments there as well.

    You wrote:

    However I don’t remember you pulling me up on it, nor asking a question, during the various opportunities to do so. Perhaps you were too busy tweeting?

    I had my hand up for about 15 minutes, and I even had the mic. But you were too busy talking. I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but the job of a moderator is keep the discussion flowing amongst the panelists and bring in participation from the audience. I simply gave up trying to ask my question.

  5. As I said to @gavinsblog earlier, I think on a number of points we are in complete agreement. But I notice you don’t address some concerns:

    – that, in the absence of quantifiable evidence of the efficacy of SM, its use (and the emphasis on its use) at this election, given the parties’ finite resources, is questionable
    – that as a working journalist there are circumstances in which the push to use SM is limiting (I’d take your point when you say “hardly the comment of someone exploring and embracing opportunities” had I NOT explored, embraced, and then discarded)
    – that time spent using SM is time which could be spent using other tried and tested methods of hackery
    – that, despite the fact that you are as interested in editorial outcomes as digital tech per se, many are not; there’s a prevalent suck-it-and-see attitude in the SM community which has trickled down into news and leads to those at the frontline, with an already hectic schedule, being used as lab rats because of a fear of being left behind
    – that for most not involved in the social media world it is largely an irrelevance heading into this election, and as things stand that is the majority of the British public

    Your point about use of twitter at the Guardian is valid – but again, a lot of the arguments used in favour of SM are not necessarily directly applicable to political journalism. I write only from that perspective. When I said “the advent of the internet has forced abrupt, often limiting, revisions of our role” do you honestly not see how that is true??

    Every election since 1997 has been described as “the internet election”; none have been. It’s getting tired. As am I. Yet plenty of people with similar job titles to yours make a pretty penny telling me that “you just need to be involved in this”.

    The fact remains I’m a political journalist working for a major broadcaster in an election year; I’m desperate to engage and make my coverage pertinent, accessible and distinctive, in any way possible. But I’ve considered social media and only use it in a limited fashion because I have yet to be convinced of its benefits. My point again – if you can’t convince me (and I’m hardly a dinosaur), and others like me working in print and broadcast, isn’t it time to rethink? Isn’t my opinion valid, or only that of those who share yours? Those who challenge the merits of SM are treated with utter disdain, and that I think is a huge problem going forward as there is increased uptake. As I mentioned, it was interesting to note that, amongst those I spoke with afterwards, were more than a few without a twitter account. They purposely didn’t stick their hands up when the question was asked.

    I’ll apologise again for not taking your question. If you were close to the back, given my eyesight, I might not have seen you. To be honest, panels I’ve been involved with in the past have focused far more on the interplay betw moderator and guests than audience participation. But no excuse not to have brought you in given your fifteen minute attempt to storm Fortress Paterson, and again I’m sorry we didnt cover in as great depth the topics you assumed we would. I think having someone there from the political parties would have assisted in this – when I did quiz the panel as to what the parties were doing I was met either with “I’m not a spokesman for the Conservative party” or similar… Having an SM moderator, rather than drafting in a pol corr, might better have satisfied you.

    Kudos for responding with little invective. Don’t worry about being rude; remember where I work. Thick skin comes as standard.

  6. Niall,

    Let me break down your response into two broad categories: Intramural issues to do with journalism and whether or not it will have a ‘quantifiable’ affect on the election.

    To both of those topics, let me point out the double standard that you have in terms of evidence. You want ‘quantifiable evidence of the efficacy of SM’ both in terms of its affect in the election and in terms of journalism. However, you don’t actually provide any quantifiable evidence, data, to support your ‘healthy scepticism’. I provide you some data – referrals via Twitter to our Technology section, which has traffic up 125% last year – and you reject the efficacy because it’s not relevant to politics. As you point out engaging with audiences directly is now part of our jobs and with good reason as I pointed out in my previous response. Why do you do it, even in a limited way? Did it help traffic to your blog?

    I’d also point out that you implicitly equate reach with influence, and that’s not accurate. Paul Staines was trying to make that point when he said that while his traffic figures might be a fraction of that of a traditional news site that his readers are ‘all you lot’ – political journalists, MPs and other political bloggers.

    We have plenty of evidence of blogs, Twitter and UGC playing a positive role in journalism on a national and international level. For instance, we have been using a crowd-sourced project to determine the dead and disappeared in Iran. It may not look like good old fashioned hackery, but it is journalism.

    I’ve been making and proving the case for social media in journalism for years now. One of my favourite examples was when I was working on a programme at the BBC World Service in 2006, World Have Your Say. We had a discussion amongst serving soldiers in Iraq. The editor of one of the main World Service news programmes burst into our office after we were off air asking how we got serving soldiers in Iraq on air. They had a bid in with the Pentagon for six months with no luck. I said, “Err, I emailed him.” Where did you get his email? “It was on his blog.” Bit of old fashioned hackery mixed with cutting edge tools. That’s what I do. Blogs, Twitter, Skype are just tools and a means to do better journalism.

    You wrote:

    When I said “the advent of the internet has forced abrupt, often limiting, revisions of our role” do you honestly not see how that is true??

    Some of the answer is clear from above. I don’t see it as limiting. I see opportunities to scoop the competition because of their lack of sophistication using these methods. Also, this has hardly been ‘abrupt’. While it might be for some members of the Lobby working for print, I’ve been doing multi-platform journalism for more than a decade. Working as the BBC’s Washington correspondent beginning in 1998, I often covered stories for the web, radio and television. It has hardly been ‘abrupt’ for me. I’ve been heading in this direction with purpose since I left journalism school in the mid-1990s.

    In terms of forcing journalists to be ‘lab rats’, that’s not how I work. I know the demands journalists face because I am one. If a tool or technique doesn’t save time, save or make money, build audience loyalty or – most importantly – improve our journalism, I’ll leave that to competitors chasing the latest digital fad. We check page views, response rate and rigorously assess whether the project improved our journalism before we commit further resources to it.

    The abrupt event was the Great Recession that has slashed budgets and staffs and forced ‘limiting, revisions of our role’. Besides, are increased demands just a by-product of the internet? I worked with several journalists who found the constant demands of live and continuous news on a 24-hour television channel to force a limiting revision of their role. If you’re constantly in front of the camera, you don’t have as much time for old fashioned hackery either.

    Also, you write:

    Yet plenty of people with similar job titles to yours make a pretty penny telling me that “you just need to be involved in this”.

    Honestly, job title aside, what I have I have been for most of my career, a digitally-focused journalist working across print, the web and broadcast.

    I want to address the ‘pretty penny’ issue. There is a misconception in newsrooms that because we work on the internet that somehow we’re part of the Sergey Brin internet millionaire club. When I was at the BBC, I was the Washington correspondent for the news website, and I also did tech and political coverage for radio and TV. I was 10 years into my career when I left in Washington in 2005. I made 23% less than a first year TV producer at CNN just out of university. Online journalists at the BBC make less than a radio producer, who make less than a TV producer, who make less than television correspondents and dramatically less than the ‘talent’. I know what television correspondents make, and before you try to lump me in with the lot of overpaid digital snake-oil salesmen, I’d simply point out that your pay packet dwarfs that of most online journalists, including me.

    Returning to data, you don’t provide any data apart from an informal poll of the Lobby. While I might consult the Lobby in terms of Labour’s chances in the next election, I’m not sure that’s a representative polling sample for forecasting the potential impact of SM in the upcoming election. Have you spoken to any voters, the other part of the Holy Trinity you mentioned?

    Will it have an affect on the election? Let me point again. You’re asking for quantifiable evidence of the affect of SM on an event that hasn’t happened. That’s not a call for data. It’s a call for conjecture. Let’s be honest, I have no data that SM will have an impact, and you equally have no evidence that it will little or negligible impact. Actually, we’re not really in disagreement and neither were the panel on Tuesday that SM would play a small role in the election, and as Chris Condron of PA has said, “It won’t be Twitter wot won it.”

    For a brief moment, let’s look at the other part of your arguments, the political one. The polls have been tightening for several months now, and the possibility of a hung parliament has increased. The electorate is angry after the MPs expenses scandal. Turnout may be reduced. It has been on a downward trajectory for the past 10 years, apart from a slight recovery in 2005. The possibility of low turnout means that small swings in marginal constituencies could well have an impact on the outcome of some races. Now, as the panel said, in terms of British politics, SM has been more effective in rallying around issues than in elections and party politics (although as I pointed out previously, apart from blogs, most of these SM tools didn’t exist 5 yrs. ago so we don’t data or precedent). Could a group of people organised around say climate change or immigration rally together using social media to swing some races? Plausible, but apart from some SM efforts in Brighton Pavilion where the Green candidate is ahead in the polls, I haven’t seen much. It would have been really interesting to hear from the panel if there were any other online issues-based organising that might have an impact on the election.

    I don’t treat those who don’t see the merits of SM with utter disdain. However, I will admit that I don’t have limitless patience for journalists who demand that we prove over and over again the efficacy of our digital methods from the safety and comfort of a received wisdom that relies less on quantifiable evidence than culture and tradition.

  7. Filibustering is now seemingly a contagious condition.

    Re double standards in evidence, and an absence of data. I’m not entirely certain I understand the logic of your position. I consider myself to be a reasonably effective political hack – why should I be the one to provide the negatives of a proposed change in working practice, rather than others provide the positives? After all, it’s not as if the lobby, until the advent of SM, has been entirely useless. I agree – there is evidence of the utility of SM. I use twitter to keep abreast of others in the lobby and drive traffic to the blog. It’s a tool. I remain to be convinced that the tool has broader use – although, as I’ve always said, I’m open to the possibility. Just show me.

    But let’s consider: what data could I possibly provide that would satisfy you in this regard? In fact, what data could I provide that would display the limitations of a tool which is yet to be widely used?

    Oh, hold on a minute. There it is. And let’s deal with the politics at the same time.

    You argue that reach doesn’t equate influence, but at the very least there is a strong causal link between the two. If you use twitter, only those on twitter can hear you. Ditto Facebook, and LinkedIn. Guido has less than 8000 followers and they may very well be the cream of government, industry and the media… But 8000 is an overturnable majority, a poorly-attended concert gig, a small town. If Guido does indeed have sway over his followers by the time it reaches them its effect must surely be minimal – or, at the very least unquantifiable. You might argue that the herd mentality will shape stories by the time they are presented to the consumer. I’d argue that is a retrograde step, no different to hacks agreeing a line for publication the next day on a Prime Ministerial trip.

    Contrast with direct mailing, door-step conversations, even public debates. If you’re not talking TO the voter, you cannot be certain that the message is being received… and that, I’m afraid, lies at the heart of my antipathy to your credo.

    I’m sorry to equate reach and influence with importance, but politics at its heart is a numbers game. He with the most, wins.

    You’re right that a natural concomitant of the internet is a more frenzied working day – doesn’t that mean that scepticism of yet more demands upon my time is a healthy position to adopt?! I’m rather suspicious of those who disparage simply because they believe I’m behind (their view of) the curve.

    You seem to have taken many of my general points as a personal slight – “labrats”, “pretty penny”, “those who challenge the merits of SM are treated with utter disdain”. That wasn’t my intention, and I’m well aware that the Guardian’s online work has been among that driving the rest of the industry. When I was referring to your job title it was the “social media expert” side, rather than the journalism. I’m well aware of how lucky I am to be working in broadcast news – although I’m fairly certain I’m earning nothing like the amount you assume. I’m not at CNN.

    It’s the evangelism of the SM world that perhaps annoys me the most, the arrogance inherent in people who think that they are better placed than I to decide how best to do my job – the “you just don’t get it” argument, shall we say. Let’s not dwell on the humour (am I the only one who finds it rather amusing that SM professionals need to gather at conferences worldwide, face-to-face, to talk about their discipline?!) and instead ask why so much time and effort is being invested in SM by the political parties? And the bigger question, is that wise? Again, resources are finite; had SM not been so seemingly ubiquitous over the past couple of years I’m not so sure that they would have acted so. It’s because of people who describe themselves as social media experts, couple with a desire not to look like they’re out of touch.

    This debate seems to be getting slightly skewed. I’m open to the possibility that SM will be a force in British politics before long, as I’ve written above and elsewhere. And, after all, I no more speak for the sceptical end of journalism than you do for the SM (Light?) brigade. But my perspective is based on personal experience, a desire for a legitimate reason to change tried and tested working practice before doing so, and above all else an appreciation of the fact that SM is not (for now, at least) as important nor influential as its proponents would have you believe. When one takes the population as a whole, it can hardly be described as a phenomenon. And there is little in what you’ve written above that would persuade me to change my mind.

    Actually, hold the bus. You wrote:

    “I don’t have limitless patience for journalists who demand that we prove over and over again the efficacy of our digital methods from the safety and comfort of a received wisdom that relies less on quantifiable evidence than culture and tradition.”

    Perhaps I did direct that “utter disdain” remark at you after all.

  8. For clarity, when in par five I talk about Guido having sway over his “followers” I of course mean the wider public.

  9. Niall,

    Just in case you missed it from the panel or my comments, we all seem to be in agreement that SM will have a rather minor role in the upcoming British election. Part of your argument seems to rely on trying to amplify a disagreement that doesn’t exist. I think there is a book to be written about the media entitled Manufacturing Conflict.

    As I’ve said, I think the focus on Twitter in the discussion on Tuesday missed opportunities to explore what’s going on in other social networks. I think you missed the sarcasm in Guido’s comments about anything related to Twitter being covered because it was the sexy thing. You also didn’t explore the comments Guido made about Conservatives targeting Facebook. The interesting point that I picked up is that the Conservatives thought they could better segment the electorate that way, and also it was less “inside the politics and media bubble”. And you want one argument for why the parties have to have at least some element of SM in their campaigns? The media is there, in force, and the parties have to have a presence there to ensure a right of reply to the media.

    Apart from Twitter and Facebook, what was all the noise earlier in the media of a ‘MumsNet campaign’? Is it a narrow focus to prove a point or a lack of knowledge of the parties’ campaign efforts that is driving your analysis?

    The social media affect will be negligible because the parties just aren’t doing it all that well. Anthony Painter’s points out that the SM efforts in the UK lack the integration of the Obama campaign. SM is more than Twitter, and whether SM has any effect in the election will be down to how well they integrate it with their other election efforts, which I’ve said here now several times. Obama was able to buy the hours of TV time he used because his online fund-raising was so effective. Obama used SM to help create an army of volunteers who knocked on doors, called up friends and voters in other states. There is nothing like that happening here.

    Again, I repeat for emphasis, I’m just trying to highlighting a few things going on in SM and the election. I completely agree with Chris from PA that Twitter specifically, and SM more broadly, will NOT win this campaign, and no one is saying that SM should replace traditional campaign methods.

    Alberto said on Tuesday with respect to the whole Wright ‘scum-sucking pig’ story:

    Journalists were asking questions from a point of view that showed they didn’t understand how twitter worked.

    And you wrote:

    If you use twitter, only those on twitter can hear you.

    While Guido only has 8000 followers, his profile is public. Anyone can see his tweets (which doesn’t mean they do). Also, have you spotted those Tweets in your Google results lately? Besides, in terms of Guido, he’s quoted so often in the media that is he really only speaking to a “poorly-attended concert gig”? Are Sky News’ viewing figures so low these days that they won’t top the gig of an unknown band in Camden?

    So many of your arguments are based on a view of social media (and the internet by extension) that is hermetically sealed from the rest of the media and the rest of society. As it was pointed out on Tuesday by Chris, the debates are the novel element in this election, but now, the Twitter backchannel will play a role in the media commentary surrounding it. Surely, Sky’s Twitter correspondent will be busy that night. One of the biggest challenges for any credible researcher trying to determine the affect of SM on the election will be to separate it out from other elements of the media.

    In terms of social media or even internet evangelism, I gave that up a few years ago. It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t about proof but about mindset. I’ve provided plenty of examples of how networked journalism can increase engagement with audiences and improve journalism. I’ve given you examples, linked off to sources to support my argument. I’ve given you statistics. I see one number and a lot of unsourced assertions in your arguments. What reason, what quantifiable proof are you really looking for before you change your ‘tried and true’ methods? That’s the double standard I was highlighting.

    You’re coming at this from a relatively narrow point of a view of a television political correspondent, which you admit. However, your comments about social media, the internet and journalism and those of us who are digital journalists have been broad-brushed attacks.

    You want reason and quantifiable evidence, but your argument is really only based on ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’. Why experiment and try new methods? The old adage says, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, but the business model of newspaper journalism is broken. The regional press in Britain is withering. Some national newspapers are now on the brink of collapse.

    As my friend Adam Tinworth said, most newspapers “botched the transition online” to the “single most efficient information distribution mechanism mankind has yet come up” – the internet. It’s clearly not enough for us to simply shovel our stories on the internet. It will take rethinking not only how we distribute news but also how we gather it. For many newspapers, it really is adapt or die. Sadly, many of them got the message too late.

  10. Given the unnecessary rudeness in your last comment I wasn’t intending to respond. But hell, it’s your house – so I’ll leave your blog with just a few final thoughts.

    The logical inconsistencies in your position are clear. As you say, we are all in agreement that SM is unlikely to have much influence on the election result – yet in the same breath argue the likes of political blogger Guido Fawkes being highly influential (despite having less than 10,000 Twitter followers). You rail against my demands for quantifiable evidence as to the utility of SM in the election campaign because the election has yet to happen, yet demand data from me to prove the contrary position. You scoff at the fact I’m restricting myself to discussion of the effects of SM on politics, when the title of the debate which precipitated this discussion was Social Media and the Election.

    I find it curious you conclude by mentioning the demise of the regional press. It’s true that a failure to adapt played a large part in that (although I’m more confident about the future of the nationals). But it is true, isn’t it, that the internet killed regional journalism? That’s hardly anything other than a matter of regret.

    I presume your last sentence was a (poorly-)coded warning. So let me finally give you a couple of stats – according to ComScore is the largest commercial news supplier in the UK. Also gladdening is the fact that 2.3m unique users a month access our news via the mobile, second only to the BBC. Strip away the travel, page 3, bingo etc and on a like-for-like comparison of straight news provision we have more readers than any UK newspaper website. I’m sure Sky will be fine, even with me on the payroll.

  11. Niall,

    I think we’re getting down to dregs of this discussion.

    Could you point out to me where I said in my response: “yet in the same breath argue the likes of political blogger Guido Fawkes being highly influential”? Noting that Guido’s influence might be larger than his Twitter following isn’t saying that he is highly influential.

    I never asked for your data about an event that hasn’t happened. As I pointed out that’s conjecture. I have, however, described relevant bits of the parties’ strategies that may or may not have an impact on the election. Pointing out social media and internet elements of this campaign isn’t the same as saying that they will have a significant impact. It’s only to point out that they exist. I’ve even said that I agree with Anthony Painter that the lack of integration of social media and internet elements in the parties’ campaigns means that their effectiveness will be lessened.

    I have asked you for data about your assertions with respect to the internet and journalism, which has been a sizeable part of our subsequent discussion. For that we have data. Did the internet kill journalism or, more specifically, regional journalism? No. Newspaper readership in the US and the UK has been declining since the 70s, long before the internet was open to the public. I can only find figures back to 1986 for the UK that are publicly available, but the argument still holds. The shift to the internet by audiences is only one factor in the decline of the press.

    The regional press in the UK had an over-reliance on advertising as a revenue stream. Advertising is recession sensitive so when the Great Recession hit, their primary source of income collapsed. It made sense to rely so heavily on advertising during the credit (housing) boom of the last decade, but when that boom bust, income for the regionals fell off a cliff. My colleague Roy Greenslade predicted the toxic mix that led to the collapse of the regionals in September 2008:

    Whether the figures relate to circulation, ad revenue, share prices, debts, pension fund liabilities, non-newspaper website user numbers, the picture is as gloomy as it could possibly be.

    The internet makes a convenient whipping boy, but returning to data, it’s not supported by the facts.

    No, the last sentence wasn’t a coded warning, which is why I was talking about newspapers rather than broadcasters. The newspaper business and the television business are in completely different places, especially in the UK. The BBC (where I worked for 8 years) has the licence fee, and Sky News has the cross subsidy of a dominant satellite television business. The last few paragraphs were an admission that the economic impetus for change wasn’t as strong in broadcasting as they are in print, which was to say that I can see why you have less reason to innovate and experiment.

    However, resisting change in newspapers is no longer an option. Some argue that we should retreat to print, but that is to tie your fortunes to a declining business to pay for the high capital costs of running a newspaper. (People say that running a website is expensive, but it’s a fraction of a capital costs of printing and distributing a newspaper.) Even a retreat to print will not sustain the newsrooms of old. As Alan Rusbridger pointed out in his Cudlipp lecture, even in the depths of the Great Recession, the Guardian made £25m in digital advertising. However, he also said:

    not enough to sustain the legacy print business, but not trivial.

    That’s the conundrum for newspapers. The old business has been in decline for decades. The new business took a severe hit in the Great Recession. Before the recession, digital revenues were almost close to making up for the decline in the print business. Almost, but that changed in the spring of 2008. (Ed Roussel of the Telegraph says March 2008 to be precise.) Things will recover a bit for both print and digital after the recession, but for the next year, the challenge is survive and regroup. Many won’t.

    I say all this with a lot of sadness, not triumphalism. I’ve seen a lot of colleagues go, and I’ve seen friends be forced into very difficult circumstances. I saw this coming a long, long time ago, and most of my career, I’ve been focused on trying to adapt to the changes personally and helping the organisations I have worked for adapt intelligently to these changes.

    Niall, I know you’re not an unreconstructed Luddite, and I won’t paint you as such. The resistance you’ve expressed in your comments is indicative of the resistance that many journalists continue to show to even minor changes in the way we work. I know I have to make my case for change, and actually, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to do so in this discussion. However, had more journalists decided to engage positively with the obvious changes in the industry, rather than dug in their heels, maybe things would have turned out differently.

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