Value of Journalism: Different motivations for journalists

I’m at the Value of Journalism conference at LSE right now. I didn’t live blog the panels, but there were a few things that stood out for me and spurred some thoughts. There were discussions about paywalls, which I think largely reinforced my view that a very polarised, noisy media fracas obscured a much more nuanced reality in the paid content strategies of news organisations.

I did want to flag up the comments of Joanna Geary, a friend of mine, who spoke about her journey into journalism. UPDATE: Like many people, she stumbled into it. She told me afterwards that the move “was planned but knew it wasn’t perfect for what I wanted”. She says that on entering journalism she wasn’t a newspaper reader, and she definitely wasn’t someone who had specific loyalty to one newspaper. She is an information seeker. Now, she says that she regularly visits about five sites a day.

They are full of people I find interesting. They stimulate my thinking. Those are the sites that I visit the most.

This is very much the way that I consume information. I’m interested in subjects and topics, and as a networked journalist (the topic of this conference), I use personal networks and other tools to get as much information and gather as many sources about a subject that I can. As a journalist, I then try to sift, filter, highlight and verify. I also try to draw connections between these sources and bits of information. It’s very similar to traditional newsgathering, but the tools are different.

At conferences, I’m often asked about my news consumption patterns, and my standard response is: “My reading habits are voracious and promiscuous.” I find the idea quaint that I would choose a single news source for my information. Every source has it’s point of view, some more prominent than others. I feel the need to read several sources of information to get a complete view of a subject or topic.

I used to think that I was in the minority doing this, especially seeing as as a journalist, it’s part of my job to sift through a lot of information. However, this might represent a broader shift in news consumption. Gina Chen at the Nieman Lab at Harvard looked at a recent Pew Research Centre study in the US. (Caveat being that US studies aren’t necessarily applicable to all markets.) She interpreted the findings as:

But the important point is that the loyalty isn’t to the platform, the application, the delivery system, or the brand. The loyalty is to the need for the information.

That succinctly describes my relationship to news and information. I’m still not ready to generalise my news consumption patterns, but I do think that there are elements of my news consumption patterns that I share with digital audiences. I think that people are filtering information, consciously and unconsciously. Editorial choice and voice used to be the only filter for news, but I think that is changing. People have other tools that are proving to be better vehicles for relevance than the traditional news outlet and its manner of bundling information.

Teasing out Trust

Back to the conference which has the overarching theme of the Value of Journalism. It’s important to draw a distinction between societal value and economic sustainability. Speaking of teasing out issues, Joanna also drew a distinction between legality, accuracy and trust:

If it was illegal to be untrustworthy and wrong, a lot of journalists would be in jail.

Joanna also talked about her motivation for getting into journalism. I’m writing this part of the post a little after the panel, and I don’t want to put words into Jo’s mouth. However, it is safe to say that her motivations going in were different than the motivations that she found other journalists had. Jo said that she found that many journalists just wanted to write, to have influence and be recognised. Jo’s motivations were more based on a desire to inform. (I’ll check with Jo just to make sure that I’m not misquoting her. She did say to me after the panel that she is finding more people in journalism like her.)

Jo’s comments resonated with me. As I’ve said before, in my rather brief career thus far I’ve had the honour of working for international journalism organisations including the BBC and The Guardian. However, I got my start at a small newspaper in western Kansas, The Hays Daily News. When you’re writing for a newspaper that sells 14,000 copies to people spread across a few thousand square miles, one is aware of the limits of one’s influence.

Of course, we all want to be read or viewed. However, in terms of influence, it’s not really something that I’ve sought nor is it what gets me up in the morning. My goal is to provide people with information so that they can make decisions in a democratic society. I know that trust and credibility is the bedrock of what I do.

Engagement has been key to building trust in the journalism I do, and Jo spoke very eloquently about that during the panel. It is one of the reasons why I have been such an advocate of social media journalism. It is a chance to directly engage with our audiences and to build (or in some cases rebuild) our relationship with people.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Mohamed Nanabhay The Al Jazeera model

Some more live blogging from the Al Jazeera Unplugged conference. Previous caveats apply. I am sure that there are grammatical errors. I have tried to be true to the essence of the comments.

Mohamed Nanabhay talked about what is news. He first quoted the legendary editor CP Scott of The Guardian that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” EH Carr, the historian, said that facts do not stand on their own. They are called upon to tell a story.

How do we constitute news in this online world? When we look at news, what impact is the internet having? What is a news story? Fundamentally, it’s news because we say it’s news.

Over the last 10 years, we are seeing a shift in our industry. Now that we have the internet, everyone has a voice. We need to ask ourselves, how has this changed? Has writing news, setting the agenda changed?

In 2006, Rupert Murdoch said that the power has moved from away from the press, the media elite, the establishment. “Now, it’s the people who are taking control,” Murdoch said. Mohamed said that this was a utopian view. Murdoch bought MySpace based on this thinking. He thought that Murdoch’s view has probably changed. In November 2009, Murdoch said, “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change…” Mohamed said that the editors are taking over again.

As news organisations, we can’t do everything anymore. That’s not viable anymore, he said. Quoting Jeff Jarvis, you have to focus on what you do best and partner with your audience to do the rest. (At the conference, Al Jazeera announced an initiative to provide support such as cameras for people to do their own footage.)

He talked about Al Jazeera decision to use Creative Commons. Wikipedia, film makers, music video producers, artists, students, indy media, activists and video games makers were all using the video.

Every form of media that you can think of used this footage. It spread across the internet. It was quite powerful. People decided to use it in ways that we never thought possible.

Once you remove barriers, you see this creative expression flourish. It enhanced our distribution and reputation. It did provide financial benefits to Al Jazeera. It helped empower the community, which is quite important in the Arab world. They hope it will inspire the next generation of journalists and documentary film makers. It showed respect their audience, Mohamed said. They also wanted to challenge their competitors.

What we really do is constitute and reconstitute culture and knowledge. This is how culture diffuses, how it is created. If you look at culture in the Middle East, people travel through it. People move. People interact. There is no such thing as a stagnant culture. In this globalised world where everyone interacts with each other, the act of this spreading culture is important, he said.

Al Jazeera took this open posture. They put their content on YouTube while other broadcasters were taking their content off of YouTube. These audiences are on YouTube. Audiences (often young people) saw Al Jazeera content, many who had never seen this before. They spread our content on their blogs or Facebook. Some might become loyal readers or viewers.

Social filters have replaced professional ones

Chris Anderson, of Long Tail and now Free fame, is obviously getting peeved at the questions he’s getting from journalists. He says as much in this interview at Frank Hornig at Probably the most important line in this rather tedious interview is when Anderson says:

I read lots of articles from mainstream media but I don’t go to mainstream media directly to read it. It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We’re tuning out television news, we’re tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news. It’s news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.

[From Who needs newspapers when you have Twitter? | Salon News]

Like Anderson, I have developed filters to tune out much of what is in the media. A few years ago journalists were decrying the loss of the all (self-)important gate-keeping function that they said they performed. I got to a point where I thought that if that is what journalists think is their unique selling point then they’re doomed because they are doing a lousy job of determining what is really important.

I spend a lot of time sifting through, while ignoring, much of the garbage produced by media to find a few, small nuggets of information that are useful. I can afford to do that. It’s my job. Not only can I not imagine most people doing this, I think they stopped quite a while ago. They realised that the signal-to-noise ratio was so low that they were better served by just tuning out.

I can ignore most of the childish nonsense that obsesses the mainstream media. Honestly, if it weren’t my job, I would pay to filter out much of this noise. I don’t need to read the professional trolls aka columnists who try to tell me what I should be outraged about. I can figure that out for myself, thank you very much. I do pay for insightful analysis. Most of what obsesses the media is remarkably juvenile, and as the media’s fortunes have waned, they have becoming annoyingly shrill in trying to reassert their role in society. Watchdogs? Defenders of democracy? I wish. Mostly of the media operate as little more than professional gossips and hypocritical scolds.

For the last several years, I have said that the network is my filter. Through blogs, social bookmarking services like Delicious, Twitter and even simple things like email newsletters, I am passed incredibly relevant and high quality information. It’s not that I think professional journalists are superfluous. I just find that social filters are providing an extremely valuable service in recommending the best, most relevant information available.

We’re coming to an economic point where we as journalists have crossed a Rubicon where we can’t do more with less, we’re simply going to have to do less. We just don’t have the resources to create redundant content that provides little value to our audiences. We need to start looking to ways to filter the best information. We need to do it soon. We’re running out of time. Our audiences ran out of patience long ago.

Congratulations to a friend: Bill McKenna

I just found via Twitter (of course) that a friend and former colleague at the BBC, Bill McKenna, has won White House News Photographers Association ‘Editor of the Year’ award. Bill is more of an artist than an editor, and it’s great to see his skills recognised like this. Watch this piece and you’ll get just a small sense of what an incredible video editor can do. His ability to tell a story in pictures is amazing, and he also breaks the mold of television news editing. Most of the time, news video is simply a disjointed collage of pieces to camera, a couple of poorly framed shots and agency footage. He uses pictures to make you stop and pay attention to something that might otherwise have passed too quickly.
Bill is also a musician, and it shows not only in the way that he uses music in his editing, how he starts, stops and slows the action to the beat of the soundtrack he’s chosen but also how he uses music to bring an emotion to news video that usually isn’t there. He works with the excellent camera men and women at the BBC bureau in Washington and creates stunning pieces that are a joy to watch. He spends hour after hour in the edit suites producing these pieces. I’ll let Bill and this small sample of his work speak for itself. I just wanted to say congratulations to a great friend! Bill, it’s so glad to see your talent and dedication recognised.

Overcoming journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience

Like many blogging journalists, I now find myself spending more time with Twitter and seeing the conversation take place there instead of on blogs. I suspect it is down to time constraints. As Stowe Boyd said last week at the Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle, blog rhymes with slog because blogging is a lot of work and has produced a natural barrier to entry. Yes, anyone can blog but few people have the time to devote to maintaining a vibrant blog. I find myself now often wanting to capture some of those Twitter conversations.

Today, Adam Tinworth said on Twitter:

I think that journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience may be the most difficult challenge to overcome in jobs like mine.

Andy Dickinson, who teaches Digital and Online Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, asked:

do you think it’s entitlement or just institutional blinkers?

To which Adam replied:

Entitlement. “I’ve made it as a journalist. Hence, I have an audience.”

I think the problem is actually deeper than that. I think the institutional belief is that if we work for a major publication or broadcaster that not only do we have a de facto audience but that we deserve an audience. It’s the height of institutional arrogance and self-importance, and it’s obvious to anyone who even has one foot outside of the bubble of institutional journalism that this is the case. But therein lies the rub. For many journalists, we never get outside of this bubble. I think it’s one of the reasons that journalists are bewildered by the fact that viewership and readership numbers are declining. Journalism matters, we say, and it does. But we are too often the authors of our own increasing irrelevance. We trivialise the important and amplify the trivial. In this noisy age, we don’t help our audiences find the signal but instead make a vain attempt to drown out the noise, often with self-serving arguments about our own importance.

Our audiences understand this more than we’d like to admit. I still remember as a cub reporter having a member of the public tell me I was full of shit because I was a journalist and that he wasn’t going to talk to me. I said fair enough and talked to him about the weather until he opened up and answered my questions. Put another way, if journalists’ relationship with our audiences was a marriage, the audience is filing for divorce.

This isn’t a bout of professional self-loathing. I am still very proud to be a journalist and, if anything, I am someone clinging to my journalistic ideals as I too often see my industry making a joke of them. I believe strongly in the public service that journalism can provide, but too often recognise that instead of a public service, our audience sees us a public nuisance, nothing more than professional gossips and self-appointed scolds. We don’t hold power to account. We don’t seek out facts and cut through opinion. Too often, we are playing a bit part in a what can only be called a high-stakes but low budget soap opera. We are nothing more than supporting and enabling characters to the drama queens of political and entertainment celebrity. Yes, in the UK, we have uncovered MPs abuse of the expenses system, but the journalism is all the more exceptional because it has become the exception.

This is also not about being liked but about being relevant and earning respect rather than assuming it. We don’t deserve an audience. We aren’t owed a living. We might think that we provide a valuable public service, one essential to democracy, but the public doesn’t buy it. We have squandered the public’s trust.

The issues as I see them:

  • There is no clear division in the industry between fact-based analysis and commentary. I find well researched analysis valuable. I rarely take the time to read commentary, no matter how inflamatory.
  • There is over-reliance on a few sources throughout the industry with very little original reporting.
  • We live in an age of information abundance. We need to seek information that is rare and valuable for our audiences, or we have no reason for being.
  • Finely crafted prose is no substitute for reporting. Our audience sees through our attempt to write around what we haven’t found out.

We live in an era of information abundance. As Andy says in a follow up to Adam, “the expectation is more that the audience comes as a given not earned or nutured.” We’ve taken our audiences for granted, and now we have to do a lot of hard work to earn them back.

Simple questions can create a great debate

Steve Peterson at The Bivings Report pointed out a post on National Public Radio’s The Bryant Park Project that posed a simple question: Who Are Ron Paul’s Supporters?

For those of you who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Representative from Texas running for president as a Republican, although he ran as a Libertarian in 1988. The political outsider broke a one-day fund-raising effort, pulling in US$6m on 16 December. The Republican establishment and the mainstream media are a bit baffled by his candidacy. However, listening to some of his political statements, he reminds me sometimes of Warren Beatty’s character Bulworth, a suicidally disillusioned liberal politician who becomes bluntly honest. (UPDATE: Just to clarify. Warren Beatty’s character was liberal. I didn’t mean to say that Ron Paul was liberal. Personally, I think his politics doesn’t fit tidily into the liberal-conservative spectrum.)

The response to the question was overwhelming, so much so that they had to shut off comments after 4,000 flooded in. The show’s producers called it Ron Paul-valanche. As I said to Steve via e-mail and he posted the Bivings’ blog:

I have often said to our journalists that only a fraction of our audience will respond to [a] traditional article, and often those responses won’t add much to the story. However, by guiding the discussion with a simple question or some framing of the debate or issue, I think participation not only increases but it’s also broader and more diverse.

Ron Paul’s supporters, well known for being vocal and very active online, swarmed the post, but answered the question in quite some detail, providing a great snap shot of the presidential candidate’s supporters. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Representative Paul’s supporters have a Google alert-driven flashmob system set up that directs them to blog posts, videos and other discussions online to show their support.

But this is still an amazing response, and as I told Steve, they might be able to take this one step further. You could try to extract some of the information in the comments, probably by mining the underlying database that runs the blog. They could extract information such as age and location of the commenters in this thread to do some interesting mash-ups showing supporter distribution by age and state. It would provide some structure to that information and help to show patterns in it.

This idea is so simple. It is a great use of a programme blog. As I say to Guardian journalists, blog posts are great in framing a debate around a piece of traditional journalism or in reflecting a debate online or off-line. A traditional piece of reporting ties together as many threads as possible, but a great blog post teases out threads for a discussion.

This post asked a simple question and got a great response. To me, this post is an act of journalism, but instead of asking a handful of people on the street or over the phone a question, you’ve posed the question publicly and heard from thousands of people.

‘Working at the speed of news, not the speed of the press’

As I recently wrote, newspapers can break news again, but some journalists are resisting the shift. Here in the UK, there is a feeling amongst some that this would turn them into little more than ‘wire reporters’. Their words not mine. They think that breaking news has to be sensationalist, shoddy and often, wrong. But why?

Alan Mutter took Omaha World-Journal to task for its poor online coverage of a recent shooting at a shopping mall. Alan wrote:

Even though newspapers are no longer part of everyone’s daily information-consuming routine, they still rank among the first places many people will turn during a powerful and emotional event like the Omaha shootings. If the newspaper delivers a timely, compelling and sensitive report, it has a good chance of winning new fans and influencing advertisers to ship more dollars their way. When it fails, as Omaha.Com did, it reinforces the concept that newspapers are irrelevant has-beens.

But the comments demonstrate some of this bias against breaking news, even though Alan took care to say that the coverage should be sensitive.

Chuck Kershner, who says that he spent 25 years as a photo-journalist with Reuters and UPI and now publishes a weekly in New York, said:

However, to confuse a newspaper with a wannabe wire service version on the internet is I believe unfair if Omaha’s ‘core’ business is newspapering not interneting.

Surely, their core business is journalism, not interneting or newspapering? And also, doesn’t it make sense to grow your business by smart use of the internet as a publishing and participation medium, doing things you can’t do in print?

Chuck also asserts that the New York Times has suffered as a paper since its focus has shifted to the internet. Have I got news for you Chuck, their focus has shifted to the internet because their business is shifting to the internet. I met the publisher of the International Herald Tribune last year, and their strategy was to grow the online business as quickly as possible. If they have five to 10 years to make that happen, he said the New York Times was OK. If they only had three to five years to do that, well, they might just be out of the journalism business, not just the ‘newspapering’ business.

I can understand the bias against breaking news, especially in the US where on screen graphics shout BREAKING NEWS and television news, especially local TV, can be really poor. But instead of breaking news – a term which comes with baggage – think timely, accurate information, and I think it puts a different cast on things. And let’s be clear and get away from the binary thinking of breaking news versus in-depth investigations. The internet allows both immediacy and depth. Breaking news does not have to be exploitative or sensationalist. You don’t have to engage in ‘breaking rumour’, as some of my former colleagues at the BBC called it. Credibility is still our greatest asset.

From the negative to a positive example, Mindy McAdams pointed out a great piece from the Carol Goodhue, the readers’ representative at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In the piece, Gathering news not only for the next day but for now, she said other news organisations asked of their breaking news team: “How do so few do so much so quickly?” The answer is:

Team members confer with their editors frequently, but they often edit postings for each other, and they don’t wait for assignments or debate whether to head out for a promising story.

Karen Kucher, one of the original members of the team and an assistant editor, said, “Our default is supposed to be to go.” …

She and another team member, Angelica Martinez, both said they’re constantly educating sources accustomed to the slower pace of newspapers. Martinez said, “It’s not a 5 o’clock deadline, it’s now – right now.”

On top of that though, they challenge the tawdry image of breaking news.

(Editor Tom) Mallory said, “I’ve never experienced more gratitude from readers for anything we’ve done in journalism than for the simple postings on the news blog, three or four paragraphs at a time, of reliable, confirmed information, sortable by area.”

They also use their blogs to improve their journalism, scanning comments for follow up questions. This is a must read piece chock full of not only the how’s but also the why’s of creating a breaking news team.

Mindy was tipped off to the Union Tribune column by Michael Grant at the blog The Moderate Voice. He was gobsmacked that journalists would ask the question of how can so few do so much so fast. Michael says:

For 500 years, newspaper journalists had 24 hours to work with in any given news cycle, and it was unthinkable to expect them to do more. Morning papers had their staffs, and evening papers had their staffs. With all that time, it was reasonable that newspaper guys would forget exactly how fast journalism is designed to work. … To journalists now working for online news teams – the U-T’s was created in May, 2005 – it must be like a really cool rediscovery of their natural speed, and how easy it is to do journalism at 150 mph.

As a journalist, the possibility of doing journalism at 150 mph was one of the things that excited me about blogging and the technology that supports it. Granted, just as with a car, the margin for error is less the faster you go, but that is why you have editorial standards and process in place, and the Union-Tribune shows hows it’s done.

Blogging technology allows almost friction-less filing from the field. I’m pushing to use blogging APIs for remote access for our new CMS because it will ease publishing for field journalists and speed publishing for all of our journalists and we can use light-weight off-line blogging tools like Flock, MarsEdit or Ecto, which I’m using to write this.

Veron Strachen, a digital native and colleague of mine at the Guardian, said that in the past, newspaper journalists used to work at the speed of the press. The Guardian is moving to 24/7 working, which is a major shift. Now, with the internet as a global publishing platform, Veron said that we’ll be working not at the speed of the press, but at the speed of news.