Is blogging journalism?

February 21, 2011

I should start by pointing out that I do not believe this blog constitutes journalism by a long shot. The only thing you could reliably infer about me from this blog is that I am incurably lazy.

But what about Ed Yong? He’s extremely well respected in his chosen field, writes an excellent blog on Discover called Not Exactly Rocket Science which won a big award, has 6,000 followers on Twitter, and he’s been published in places like the Guardian, Nature, the Telegraph, the Economist…

So he’s a journalist. Except someone in the University of Manchester press office didn’t think so, and bad things happened when it all got a bit personal. I’m not going into it here, because a) loads of other people have done so already, and better than I would be able to; and b) Ed himself has had an apology from the guy, and has generally been very level-headed about it. Everyone learns – although it did end up as a Wired article as well.

But the crux is that when more information was requested, there was a perception gap between an illegitimate request from ‘amateur’ blogging and a legitimate request from ‘professional’ journalism. This seems like a clash that is going to have to resolve itself pretty soon.

In this example, Ed is clearly a professional with a valid mandate to ask questions – the press officer had just never heard of him when he plainly should have done. But what if he wasn’t – was on no payroll at all, and his only outlet was a blog he set up & publicised himself? Would the University have been justified in telling this hypothetical individual that it was none of their business?

From the perspective of a press officer, this surely boils down to the available audience that the blogger/journalist is a gatekeeper for; if the blogger had no press pass, but a site traffic greater than a few thousand a day – which would now literally make them more influential than the Times website – then it surely would be worth the Uni’s while to manage them as a contact.

So, looking further ahead, I can imagine a world in which your ‘social score’ defines how companies and individuals respond to you. In the brave new dawn of IPv6 (more on this in another blog at some point) where every single thing with electricity could have its own IP address, then your digital ID online could be matched with your digital output; Amazon or eBay already know what you like to read or wear – now they could also know how many people listen to you online across all social spaces, and they could treat you accordingly.

And with near-field communication and other intrusions of the digital sphere into the real world, it wouldn’t have to only be online; imagine Selfridges kicking Madonna and 10,000 other people out of the shop because Stephen Fry walked in and they wanted to make his experience as positive as possible?

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Money for old hope

July 12, 2010

So the Times paywall has finally gone up, a month or so beyond the original planned date of introduction. It’s looking fairly slick too, although there have been a few teething issues with their own journalists getting frozen out.

The media & advertising industry have adopted their standard attitude to anything new; an initial flurry of excitement, quickly followed by complete apathy until either:

a) It is proven to be successful in one of a few hundred possible ways, in which case it simply becomes the new normal and no-one questions it (recent examples: anything to do with Twitter; user participation in the news – “record snow here in London, and to prove it here are some of your 44,000 photos of ruddy snowmen”).

b) It doesn’t really work for one of a few hundred possible reasons, in which case it becomes the new Betamax and no-one learns from it (recent examples: CEROS e-mags; Adrian Chiles)

I think media paywalls will eventually fall into category a) – but not in this precise guise.

Newspapers currently cling to a space in our collective heads that they no longer have the wherewithal to occupy. Firstly, scale – we still think of newspapers as categorising people, whether by class or political view (Guardian-reading communist, Sun-reading football hooligan, and so on). But the reality is only 20% of the UK adult population ever read a daily newspaper. To put that in context, more than twice as many people agree that, ‘yes I eat mature cheese regularly’ (a staggering 50% of the country), than do with the statement ‘I rely on a newspaper to keep me informed’.

The Guardian now circulates at almost precisely the same level as Marie Claire magazine. So why do we still treat one as an active political force and the other as passive entertainment? Why isn’t the editor of Women’s Own (with more readers than the Guardian) ever on a panel with Jeremy Paxman?

The other factor at work here is value. The Daily Mail in particular spends large chunks of its sweaty waking existence in attacking the BBC, constantly (jealously?) bemoaning any apparently slipshod use of license fee-payer’s money. And yet by any reasonable calculation you’d have to say that the BBC offers extraordinary value for money at just £142.50 a year – or 40p a day. For that you get everything from iPlayer to the Antiques Roadshow, the Today programme to a re-animated 6 Music. All with the recent added benefit of no Adrian Chiles. Amazing.

It certainly seems better value than the Daily Mail, which if we assume a regular purchase of 3 issues per week plus the Mail on Sunday, adds up to £156 a year. Which seems a lot just to find out the next instalment of Mail’s ongoing mission to categorise every object in the world as either causing or curing cancer, and even more so when you consider that all of their content is available online for free.

And so to paywalls. It may appear from the above that I don’t like newspapers  – but actually I love them. I love reading Charlie Brooker & Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, occasionally check out Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times, Oliver Kamm is brilliant in the Times, I like the Telegraph’s editorial leaders & sport coverage, and if I’m ever depressed then Richard Littlejohn never fails to make me feel better about the fact that almost no-one else on Earth is him.

But clearly I can’t/don’t buy every newspaper, and so to suit my snacking approach I just read each individual element, as well as all of those recommended to me by friends or linked in other articles, for free online – whenever I want & not just when  some people decide to roll out some dead trees really flat and stamp it on there, early in the morning.

I don’t want to pay £2 per week for the whole of the Times – but I probably would pay £5 per week for a syndicated collection of my choosing; this column from the Guardian, this from the Times, this cartoon from the FT (they have cartoons, right?).

The blanket paywall system is old media thinking applied to new media content.

Sorry for the massive delay in posting. I’d love to be able to say I won’t do it again.

Clifford Stoll wrote a an essay in 1995 explaining why the internet will fail. This has been unearthed recently by the ThreeWordChant blog, and discussed on BoingBoing – and most likely elsewhere too, especially in the form of the accompanying contemporary book ‘Silicon Snake Oil’.

Obviously, this kind of stuff is fun and common grist to the tech press mill – it being eminently satisfying to us sat in the future, looking at the internet. But actually, there something more interesting in this as well.

Stoll was an internet professional before most people knew that existed as an option; he caught hackers. In other words, he was pretty close to the technological coalface.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look at what he actually said – along with the developments that have negated his reasons for pessimism at the time:

“Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading” [search engines – Stoll is writing at pretty much the exact launch of the consumer-facing search tool, starting with Lycos then AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and then Google in 1998]

“You can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure” [fundamentally, the relentless downsizing of components is the key here, but also the development of Amazon from its launch at this exact point in 1995 to becoming America’s biggest online retailer]

“Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee” [everything from Skype & IM to blogging and social networks]

“And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?” [about a billion people – as of October 2008, about one quarter of employees visit Internet porn sites during working hours according to Nielsen Online]

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. ” [this covers pretty much the whole internet, but certainly PayPal, Lastminute.com, eBay, Toptable.com.. all the obvious e-tail candidates]

Now imagine that instead of a negative article, decrying the lack of these things, instead Stoll had written a positive one – listing the necessary waypoints the internet would need to accomplish on its journey to omnipotence.
He would rightly be considered the father of internet commerce, and there would be statues of him in every town. OK, maybe not every town – but certainly Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps in Second Life too.
My point is – he actually understood very well the physical specification of a successful internet. He listed precisely what would need to happen in order for it to embed completely into peoples lives.
As Jonathan MacDonald says, assumptive certainty is more dangerous than unpredictability.
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