[Guest post] The ultimate celebrity interview!

Mhairi McFarlane is a kirby-grip strewing angel of vengeance and you should follow her on Twitter if you’ve got any smarts at all.

I am so sick of reading this interview. You read it all the time, constantly, year in, year out, in every glossy magazine and Sunday supplement. It’s founded on the twin principles that A) people who act are the most fascinating beings on the planet, and B) that we, the readers are totally credulous, awed plebians. The dumbstruck interviewer acts only as a conduit to divinity, drinking in their shuddering magnificence and recording their sub-adolescent witterings as if it’s brainy gold. We’re now at the stage where an actor or actress would have to take a shit on the reporter’s notebook to get a less-than-howlingly-sycophantic write-up. (Or maybe not. HE’S WHERE IT’S SCAT!) I’m convinced by now there’s a template. It goes like this.

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Paper chasing

Guardian, Guardian, why did you desert Labour? Since The Guardian plumped its electoral backing behind the Lib Dems, there’s been a l0w cry of anguish from some Labour supporters, involving words like “betrayal” and “hypocrites” and “haha, look, David Cameron’s the prime minister anyway”. Kerry McCarthy MP goes for The Guardian again in a blogpost this weekend:

… with its ‘once in a lifetime chance to get PR’ line, [it] lost us the chance of winning several seats where the Labour challenger would have made a far better MP than the Lib Dem incumbent. See Lucy Powell’s campaign in Manchester Withington, where victory looked a dead cert until the Guardian stuck its oar in, and Bristol West, where the votes ebbed away after the Guardian came out for Clegg. And Labour was offering a referendum on AV anyway, which could have put PR on the agenda for discussion too (especially if Labour had been the biggest party, with the Libs holding the balance).

Shot By Both Sides, 22 May 2010, “Puttin’ it down”

One of the curious things about this election was how little the campaign seemed to matter. Back in October, when the feeling of inevitability for Dave was running high, I caught an episode of The Week In Westminster with a pollster and a psephologist discussing the relative standing of Labour and the Conservatives after conference season. Both of them called it for a hung parliament, on the grounds that the swing needed for a Tory majority was immense. Six months before polling day, before most of the papers had pinned on a rosette, it was known that the general election would come down to two things: how big the swing from Labour to Tory would be, and which party was most successful in courting the Lib Dems.

So did the papers’ support make any difference at all? Not really. After all, if The Sun’s Camobama fantasia and The Mail’s dire threats of a fiery doom couldn’t sway it for the Tories, it’s laughable to imagine (even in tentative brackets as McCarthy does) that The Guardian’s support might have made Labour the biggest party in Westminster. As it happens, the Lib Dems gained a measly 1% of the vote and lost 5 seats – hardly a triumph for tactical voting. This was a bad election for newspapers, and a combination of poor judgement and hubris served to underline the fact that newspapers really aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

But politicians still believe in the power of the press – still crave the cushion of a friendly new agenda. Which leaves the depressing spectacle of the Labour leadership contenders running around, chirping anti-immigration talking points back at the right-wing media that created them. This dedication to becoming BNP-lite seems more likely to undo Labour than any amount of disagreement with The Graun over electoral reform. Labour’s pursuit of press support will hurt it much more than the withdrawal of media backing ever could.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

“I do not think it means what you think it means”: valuing comments

This is not a comment...

Google’s Sidewiki project shows that commenting is a valuable part of the online environment – but do the people who invite comment always understand how they should interpret this sort of feedback? A pseudonymous local freesheet editor (blogging as “Blunt”) puts on a triumphant display of error as he abuses his readers for commenting on all the wrong pages (the “chod” he refers to is an earlier assault on PRs):

I am both upset and disturbed for the fact my chod got more comments than a recent tale on my newspaper’s website (unique users = many 1,000s a month) about a scrote getting just three years for kicking someone to death outside a pub.

It got more comments than a story about a kid getting run over by a drink driver who walked free from court on a technicality.

More comments than a council’s decision to evict five OAPs from the homes their families grew up in. The homes they thought they would live in until they died.

More reaction than our campaign to save a kid dying from leukaemia.

In the last two days more than a quarter of the total readership of my blog has come on to read and comment on what is, in essence, a load of made-up shit written by a self righteous, opinionated idiot.

Is this what really gets us riled? Is this the future of news? Why do you really give a shit? You don’t even know who I am.

Welcome to the internet’s world of meaningless shat [sic] and massive indifference.

Play The Game, “Fact versus fiction”

The comments on the PR piece continue the argument that Blunt comes out with: some come from offended PRs, some from sympathetic hacks, others from people who agree with the sentiment but take issue with the extremity. It’s a discussion, in which each participant is addressing an individual – the author of the original post.

A news story doesn’t offer the same incentive for response. The reader might feel appalled, outraged or supportive – but none of those emotions are likely to inspire a debate about the piece of reporting. They all come under the category of “reinforcing” in Tom Ewing’s taxonomy of reactions to information: “praising it without adding to it, sharing it, ‘liking’ it on Facebook or Tumblr, recommending it, etc.”

The opinions on the PR blog post are generally “refining” or “rejecting” Blunt’s characterisation of the journo/PR condition. And the preference for commenters to contribute to an argumentative blog post rather than a news story is explained by Ewing, in a summary of what he considers the best vehicle for the different types of reaction he describes:

“If pushed I’d say that you should reinforce via networks (sharing stuff), refine at the original site of the information (commenting), and reject by creating a new site of information (your own blog post).”

Blackbeard Blog, “Reinforce, refine, reject”

In other words, it would be inappropriate for the readers of Blunt’s newspaper to comment when they have the option of sharing this information instead.

What’s slightly alarming is that this shows the way in which a newspaper editor can mistake both the nature of the information he’s supplying through his paper, and the reactions of his audience – whom he apparently holds in contempt on the basis of his own confusion. If he doesn’t understand online communications, how can he make his product work for online consumers? And is Blunt representative of editors generally assuming that comments on a story are a good measure of its value to readers? Given the eagerness of news portals to encourage people to have their say – he’s probably not alone.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by suburbanslice, used under Creative Commons.

Into the money-making tent

tents crop

Simon Jenkins thinks that newspapers need to get into the festival business if they’re to continue. Alright, he doesn’t really think that: he’s arguing that newspapers can charge readers for the privilege of belonging to a brand (and he seems to be speaking for a chunk of his newspaper’s policy, as Liberal Conspiracy reports that the Guardian is looking into some sort of freemium members club).

That’s one side of the extra value that could entice readers to pay for their news. The other side is convenience – and on the Monday Note blog, Frédéric Filloux gives a quick breakdown of why news on your phone could be a service worth paying for. Mobile is the perfect vehicle for the micropayments some proprietors are itching to charge, because users are accustomed to paying a monthly bill already: whatever tiny fee the newspaper settles on per issue, or per article, could be gently folded into the direct debit at no extra hassle to the reader.

It’s not clear yet what the Sunday Times is going to offer their customers in terms of either convenience or community when they begin their paywall experiment. And, as this Radio 4 profile on James Murdoch points out in passing, the current chief executive of News Corp doesn’t have a sterling background in online: “He’s reputed to have persuaded Rupert to invest in a number of internet ventures which resulted in significant financial losses.”

It’s not enough to just decide that people should pay: you have to convince them that they’re getting something superior for their money. When we know what the Sunday Times is planning on charging for, we’ll have a better idea of whether it’s worth it – but whatever they offer, it will surely have to be something better than their current website with a moat dug around it.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by frozenchipmunk, used under Creative Commons.

Making the difference in reporting

Difference engine

Is journalism a matter of pouring out words to fill pages, or something more accomplished? Strangely, for a long time newspapers seem to have valued their least-skilled contributors the highest – reasoning that a Boris Johnson, a Melanie Philips, a Polly Toynbee or a Richard Littlejohn is a sufficient brand on their own that their photobyline is worth more to the paper than the accurate or reasoned reporting you could buy from several no-names for a columnist’s wage. “Every copy editor knows that publications indulge in stars, often columnists and critics but also reporters, who are not required to meet the standards expected of an intern. They don’t get things right, they can’t be edited, and they won’t be bothered”, is John McIntyre’s blunt assessment.

In fact, being aggressively inaccurate can be a key part of a polemicist-columnist’s job. When Don’t Get Mad, Get Accuracy made an abortive attempt to get misleading factual claims in the Daily Mail fixed through the Press Complaints Commission, they found that convention was up against them. From the PCC’s judgement on a fact-free Melanie Philips screed against adoption by gay couples:

While the column had been phrased in stark terms – the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by “the fact is”, for example – the author’s claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact. The columnist was entitled to present her particular views on the issue of gay adoption in robust language. Complaints about the accuracy of the columnist’s claims had to be viewed in this context.

PCC judgement quoted here

In other words: the PCC considers columnists to be a special case, exempted from accuracy by the force of their views. A paper hiring a columnist is employing a personality to drive engagement with the paper, and both positive and negative engagement are equally welcome, because whether the letters and comments are of praise or complaint, they’re still a measurable index of success in drawing readers and traffic. Cristopher Fray’s attack on Antichrist was a critical disaster, but it also drew eyes to the page and reinforced a certain worldview for core readers while attracting the attention of opponents.

Columnists have another advantage in a world of digital distribution, at least in theory: because it’s the form rather than the content that has value, the actual words can be protected by copyright and, in a perfectly law-abiding world, paywalled. (Maybe this was part of the NYT’s logic in the now-defunct TimesSelect programme.) But opinion is easy to generate – as evidenced by Boris Johnson and his knock-out-a-column-on-a-Sunday-morning routine – and there are plenty of blogs able to offer a bit of invective, often with even more traffic-driving extremity because they’re loosed from the bare civilities of print.

High quality, informed reporting is expensive, and unlike venting rhetoric, it’s something that professional news organisations can offer consistently whereas amateurs can only create it intermittently and opportunistically. The product of that sort of reporting is facts, and facts can’t be paywalled – legally or practically. But news organisations could, conceivably, develop a structure where readers are happy to pay for immediate access to breaking news, and for the privilege of supporting the valuable activity of newsgathering. The ability to get angry and type is near-universal; the ability to get stuff right is scarce, and if something’s scarce you should be able to find a way to make it pay.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Ric e Ette, used under Creative Commons.

Unlike a blacksmith

blacksmithIn a world where subs weren’t being stripped away to a rump, the “journalists are doomed like blacksmiths” cliché would be getting green-inked into oblivion. Sadly, we live in this world, with editing viewed as an expendible cost, leaving writers free to jerk out thoughtless comparisons on the future of their trade, and no one on hand to instill any quality. And so we find Chris Anderson talking to Der Spiegel, repeating the old journalist/blacksmith analogy:

In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part time job. Maybe media won’t be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby. There is no law that says that industries have to remain at any given size. Once there were blacksmiths and there were steel workers, but things change.

Der Spiegel, “Chris Anderson on the economics of Free”

Anderson’s problems with language start at the very beginning of the interview, when he rules out a bunch of perfectly servicable signifiers (“Sorry, I don’t use the word media. I don’t use the word news. I don’t think that those words mean anything anymore”) before helpfully declaring that “There are no other words.” But the blacksmith reference really riles me.

I’ve written before about why I find this trope unconvincing for journalism. Blacksmiths made a product which was muscled out by technical innovations that allowed functionally-identical (or better) items to be made cheaper. The work of a journalist can’t be mechanically substituted – it has to be performed by a person going through certain processes from research to writing to publication.

There are chunks of the print trade that have become technically obsolete, and as the move into digital publishing continues, more people are going to become unemployed: the paper and ink manufacturers, the warehouse employees, the newsagents. But journalism itself – the thing that is distributed – isn’t necessarily going to be stripped away by a change of format, and it’s rather embarrassing that journalists’ main angle on the electronic transition so far has been their own job security.

At the moment, newspapers and magazines are feeling pressure to retrench while they work out how to make money from electronic publishing. But one of the things that Anderson’s Free argument falls down on is that Free doesn’t seem to be quite the unalterable “force of gravity” he thinks – there are studies that show the people who make the most use of free stuff are also the people most willing to spend on similar material. And the people who spend are going to need something worthy of their cash, as John McIntyre writes:

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

You Don’t Say, “After the storm”

In fact, Anderson admits this much when he tells his interviewer that “If you have attention and reputation, you can figure out how to monetize it.” Media outlets that plan to retain their value had better retain – and pay for – their standards.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by caravinagre, used under Creative Commons.

FT’s Barber: the paywall dawns

false dawn by today is a good day(Photo by Today is a good day, used under Creative Commons)

Lionel Barber of the Financial Times has predicted that almost all news organisations will start charging for content within the next 12 months (reported by Journalism.co.uk). This sounds right, but sad – the interval between the expansion of news media online, and the realisation that free won’t pay for itself, has been a blissful window for information. Rather than buying one newspaper a day, I’ve had the option of reading all the stories that interest me as they’re reported across every publication, and while there will be ways to carry on doing this (probably for free) after the paywalls come in, it will be more fiddly and less appealing.

Barber said quality journalism would ‘wither’ if new revenue streams are not found.

“We should be under no illusions about the price we would pay as a result. It would not be measured in terms of jobs alone, but something more enduring and valuable,” he said.

“Journalism forms part of the lifeblood of free societies. Journalism is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be. By its nature, it is often uncomfortable, especially for those in positions of power.  But it matters – and I will defend it to the last.”

Journalism.co.uk, “Almost all news organisations will charge online in 12 months, says FT’s Barber”

One unintended (although maybe not unwelcome, at least to an industry that routinely resists self-scrutiny) consequence will be that writing a blog which criticises reporting will become a bit harder. But if your hope is to see reporting improve, and if you accept that it can’t get better without revenue, then opposing paywalls is a tricky position to take.

© Sarah Ditum 2009