The new journalism

Abandoned newspaper racks via

Last Saturday, James Harkin published a ‘Facebook is rubbish, let’s go to the pub’ column in the Guardian which, six days latter, looks pretty tattered:

Last week, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Dunblane massacre, a reporter from the Sunday Express managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles. The blogosphere went ballistic, but it was too late.

What use, then, are imaginary friends like these? Set up to pass information speedily from one place to another, it is hardly surprising that electronic networks turn out to be a very potent way of ferrying our information around. Very few of us had been in the habit of phoning up numbers from the telephone book at random to impart information, for example, but now we are more than happy to pass it on to our network of weak electronic ties.

But not all of our imaginary friends are out to stitch us up and sell us to the Express. My friend Rachel is imaginary friends with comedian Chris Addison, and he’s friends with Father Ted and IT Crowd scriptwriter Graham Linehan – so when Linehan tweeted the link to his plan of direct action against the Express, his followers (including Addison) re-tweeted it, and their followers (including Rachel) retweeted it, and I read it, retweeted it, blogged it, signed the petition and wrote my letters of complaint. And this quick dispersal of information through a collection of loose affiliates had an effect: 6000 signatures, and whispers that an apology is on its way. Which is not the reform of journalism or anything, but it’s a start.

So if social networking facilitated both an intrusion and a response, then it seems like a pretty neutral creation. Invasive journalism and reader kerfuffles weren’t born with web 2.0 – it’s just that now they can both be bigger, faster and more aggressive than paper and telephones allowed. And bloggers have done some pretty impressive digging recently – Ben Goldacre lists some of their triumphs in his talk “in praise of puerile, chaotic, disseminated investigative journalism.”

The only thing is that all of the examples he comes up with (and the Express outrage could be added to them) seem to cohere around a mainstream media outlet. Yes, the newspapers and radio stations often look slow and stupid, but they’re still a point of contact for lots of people who are otherwise frisking information from hundreds and thousands of disparate sources. And for every blogger who cautiously tries to extract some truth from the sources, there’ll be another one carelessly inciting fear, and little incentive for the reader to go anywhere that challenges their prior assumptions. There are journalists online who easily outpunch some of the big names on the nationals, but if newspapers really are on the fade, I wonder how long it will take for culture to stop organising around their mastheads.

7 thoughts on “The new journalism

  1. Found myself discussing this sentiment… perhaps unsurprisingly on Twitter… during the week…

    There is this odd assumption, by people who aren’t perhaps native to the internet, that the population is just desperate to get away from these clunky paper-based news distribution methods, and start sourcing all of their current affairs information via blogs and such.

    It’s an assumption that’s quite often followed by moans that this will mean the death of Journalism, and that people will lose out with the absence of reporting with professional journalistic integrity – The “You’ll miss us when we’re gone” paradigm that Clay Shirky mentions.

    The problem is that none of the people voicing these thoughts seem to be taking a walk along the shelves at the newsagents or Tescos, and looking at their own output. Or as I put it in that conversation, just before I really read about the Dunblane thing, there seems to be an absence of hardnosed and demanding authority figures slamming the product down on a table and loudly asking the question “Why would somebody buy this crap?”

    (That’s not an issue that’s unique to papers, actually… despite all the talk in recent years of being customer centered, it’s the one question that doesn’t really seem to be asked that much anywhere.)

    What I never hear anybody mention is that the industry started quietly complaining that the internet was stealing it’s business at around the same time that most of the stories in the papers started being sourced from the internet. The Dunblane fiasco is only the latest example of this.

    So if traditional news organs aren’t providing much more than barely edited, unchecked, instantly ubiquitous and under-researched scuttlebutt, and then filling out their pages with opinionated columnists – on the internet, we call those “bloggers”! – the question isn’t why aren’t people reading the papers… it’s why SHOULD they?

    Clay Shirky really nailed it recently when he said that people don’t need papers, we need journalism. At the moment, we’re not really getting it, and the organisations best set up to facilitate it are spending their energy on other stuff instead.

  2. Paper journalists may indeed too loudly decry the standard of reportage on the internet while simultaneously ripping it off, but they do have a point. While accountability and fact-checking are increasingly absent from print, there’s certainly even less incentive to apply them online, and this will remain the case until the internet finds a better way of monetising content. People champion the internet’s democratising power, but I’m not convinced that there is a broad spectrum of people who can afford to apply a rigorous standard of journalism.

  3. I don’t think amateur journos are going to replace the important constitutional role professional ones. But I think that print and broadcast media are failing substantially and bloggers are able to act as an essential corrective, digging out the facts that get trampled on the way to a story and putting them online where they can be Googled up by people who need them. And I think there will probably be people who carry on doing this for free, even after the problem of how to monetise online content has been solved.

    I think newspapers have got a bundle of related problems. They responded to the internet by acting as an audience delivery service for advertisers and putting all their content online, for free – now they need to work out how to get people paying for it again. Judging from Flat Earth News, papers have cut back heavily on the areas that provide quality (investigative units, regional reporters, subbing) and increasingly offer press releases and muck raking as news stories. If papers aren’t doing their job – telling the truth, explaining the facts – then who’s going to want to pay for them anyway?

    The absolute worst case, as far as I’m concerned, would be newspapers failing to solve their problems and bloggers flapping about trying to fill the void. But a press that produces stories like the Dunblane one and doesn’t acknowledge that they’ve betrayed the public interest twice – by invading the privacy of people who should be left alone, and by filling their pages up with this instead of proper reporting – a press like that doesn’t deserve to survive.

  4. Harkin’s piece wasn’t just stupid, it was wrong on facts as well.

    But yes; I have to say a lot of people really need to stand in front of a newsstand and look at the egregious dreck the public is offered for a while, as well as losing the inkie snobbery. Yes, online reporters do real reporting. Yes, print journalists do a great deal of “friends of politician X will today brief against the Y camp”, “my sekrit source says BE AFRAID!!”, and just rewriting press releases. Hell, I know – I was a print journalist for a while as well as being a blogger, and for all the good stuff, we surely printed a lot of reworded press releases.

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