Category Archives: Media

Student journalists take note

It’s been a stressful week.

Not only have I been setting up my own website (similar content to this, but with a proper url + a better display of posts) but also got to work on a hyperlocal news website with my friend Andy Halls.

Safe to say I have html coming out of my ears, my visual lexicon presently formulated entirely by lines of code.

Despite all the hard work, a couple of things struck me regarding potential journalists.

A lot of them simply don’t know how to report news.

(tumbleweed)

Objectivity is constantly emphasised, almost as a threat. Woe betide the student whose article takes on a subjective slant. Furthermore, students are also asked interminably: “what news angle are you going to take?”. Even so, once someone has chosen an angle to run with for a news story, they are already disregarding facts, glossing over particular details and only recording one part of a wider state of affairs.

This is at odds with the incessant focus on objectivity. One cannot pick a story angle and then lay claim to total objectivity, and vice versa. Telling budding journalists to be objective has its merits in a legal arena, priming them to avoid pitfalls like libel, defamation and contempt of court. But what it also does is suck any kind of soul out of a story, increasing the likelihood of churnalism and stifling creativity.

The second notion that entered my mind was that of a news story.

A story, an anecdote, an account. News is a developing narrative with endless twists and turns, heroes and villains, and occasionally a nail biting final chapter. It’s my view that a lot of student journalists aren’t being given the necessary drive and desire to create stories.

At student newspaper meetings, I saw time and time again editors hand out stories, almost ready made for print, just needing a few rewrites and possibly quotes. Student journalists are sidelined to being like ancillary press officers, simply reduced to moving phrases around and adding a few minor embellishments.

If “news” constituted something to be handed out on a plate like this, then the profession of journalism would never have existed in the first place. Individuals who have dogged determination, a keen eye for when things don’t seem kosher, and a drop of self-importance have become our news emissaries over time.

This resolve to uncover facts and stories is at the root of journalism. The inherent qualities that make up a journalist are also those which encourage creativity, not to toe the line, and not to take things at face value.

Part of the reason I started a hyperlocal site was to foster a sense of community and news gathering. Reporting on news in a small community instantly gives you a connection to your environment, physically and mentally. This local knowledge and ability to present stories that create an interdependence between news consumer and news publisher is essential.

Through my work with hyperlocal news, I hope to at least encourage a few students to begin operating like working journalists. If we can inspire students to self-generate and follow up news stories, then the job is already half done. I’m aware that there are many who’ll disagree with me, but sometimes to uncover discrepancies and wrongdoing in journalism one has to be bloody-minded, provocative and yes, the dirty word: subjective.

Hyperlocal is taking off in a big way this year. While a clear business model still doesn’t exist, I believe that if sites like this can be maintained they could help ameliorate once lost communities. In the age of Web 2.0, perhaps hyperlocal can help reform neglected neighbourhoods, helping them rediscover what makes their area geographically and culturally unique, and halting the further homogenisation of the UK.

An sanguine statement, maybe. But like I said, it’s been a stressful week.

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Re:Brand

Change is in the air.

Barack Obama’s mantra may have gone stale, but it has now been adopted by the media world. The widespread economising and downsizing of newsrooms has even affected the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Two weeks into its slimmed down relaunch, it has cooked up a storm with the extracts from Andrew Rawnsley’s new book, End of the Party.

It’s easy to look at the measures implemented at The Observer (voluntary redundancies, scrapping of music and sport magazines) and surmise that this is a newspaper sentenced to failure. However, look more closely, and what you’ll see is a newspaper that is down, but not yet out. John Mulholland and his editorial team have clearly realised that there is little place for breaking news in print. Consequently they have slimmed down the news section and expanded the analysis, features and comment to be found in The Observer.

Will Sturgeon, founder of The Media Blog agrees:

“They’ve boosted the prominence of opinion and comment. Relaunching with revelations from Andrew Rawnsley’s book signalled this intent most clearly. That is the only way the papers will mitigate the fact the news game is entirely lost to online”

Find your niche. That’s what writers are incessantly told. Now it seems newspapers will have to do the same. Those who value breaking news will always find it somewhere on the internet, something that paywalls cannot stop. But what newspapers can offer is good content in abundance. Well written commentaries and adventurous features are to be found primarily within newspapers, and not exclusively online.

Will Sturgeon:

“The Telegraph’s expenses story and the subsequent spike in its circulation shows us the value of quality content. Anything where speed is a pre-requisite will break first online. However, quality content will never go out of fashion”

A media prediction, if I dare be so bold: We’ll see organisations focusing solely on what they’re best at. For The Observer, this is investigation and opinion. For Sky News, this is, and always has been, breaking news. We’ll see the breakdown of newspapers as an universal authority, instead visiting a variety of outlets for what tickles our fancy.

So where to go now? The Guardian is one newspaper who’ve broached the subject of paywalls more than most. Alan Rusbridger and Emily Bell (Director of Digital Content) are resounding in their opposition of paywalls, believing them to be against the core principles of what the paper stands for.

Guardian.co.uk receives 37 million users a month. If half of those could be persuaded to pay a paltry monthly subscription fee…well, the finance department at Guardian News & Media would look a lot more chirpy. Frequently hailed as a design success, The Guardian now need to convert this brilliant layout into a viable commercial model. Being one of the first nationals online brings merits in the form of knowing what works and what doesn’t, but where they go from here is anyone’s guess.

The NYT iPad application

The second big publication to address the issue is the New York Times. It’s better positioned than most to tackle the issue of charging for content, having access to an army of commentators, reporters and analysts. The system that’s to be implemented would allow readers to access a certain number of articles free per month, and then request payment for more.

This crucially allows other websites and blogs to link to the New York Times without being blocked out by a paywall, something that interests Paul Bradshaw:

“This makes a link to the New York Times valuable in itself. If you run a blog, you’re more likely to link to the New York Times. Even if the paywall scheme doesn’t actually make them any money directly, it could drive valuable traffic to the website”

The message seems to be Adapt or Die, both on a personal and organisational level. A bleak future (as chorused by every other media blog ad nauseum) certainly, but it’s good to see a few well known publications taking their first tentative steps in addressing a new business model.

Investigative Journalism Masterclass, City University

To City University’s famed journalism department, for a day of lectures about investigative journalism, held by two of it’s leading lights, Nick Davies and David Leigh.

Considering all information received was regarded confidential, I can’t delve into specifics as to what was covered. Research strategy, sourcing contacts and legal minefields were all covered in the scrupulous detail you’d expect from such driven journalists.

The line between journalist and detective seemed to blur. as writing copy became secondary to a feverish pursuit of stories.

The crowd were a mixed bunch, containing a blend of old hacks with a fair amount of students. It seems that what Davies and Leigh do is push what it means to be a journalist to the very boundaries. That is, take all the skills required to be a successful inquisitorial journalist, and maximise them tenfold in order to uncover skulduggery wherever they can.

While no recording was allowed during the sessions, I managed to get a quick interview with Nick Davies, asking his views on the future of journalism, how the law affects practicising journalists, and his views on books like End of the Party:



Both men hold events like this fairly regularly, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to any potential, current, or former journalists.

A week in politics

My my, what an engrossing run up to the election this is proving to be.

Andrew Rawnsley, erudite journalist, author and The Observer’s Chief Political Commentator is to publish his new book, The End of the Party on 1st March. As expected, the allegations painting Gordon Brown as a violent bully have made big news. Let’s track the timeline of events which culminated in this latest mishap for the Prime Minister:

31st January: Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday Political Editor, reports that Rawnsley’s book makes allegations that Brown physically attacked members of his staff.

Rawnsley’s publishers were sure that this was leaked to the Mail by No.10, in order to weaken the impact of the story. It’s apparent that Downing Street has been preparing itself for weeks in anticipation of the book’s release.

20th February: Brown appears on Channel 4 News, telling them “I have never hit anyone in my life”.

21st February: Brown gives an interview to the Independent on Sunday, talking about his own personality traits, and the importance of standing up for what he believes in.

This is interesting timing by Brown. Only the week before he’d conducted a Piers Morgan interview, which for all intents and purposes, was an attempt to present himself as a likeable and trustworthy man. The Observer had been advertising it’s new look format with the promise of “extracts from Andrew Rawnsley’s new book”. Furthermore, Rawnsley never made the allegation that Brown hit anybody. Clearly alarm bells the size of the budget deficit were ringing at No.10.

21st February: The Observer publishes the first extract of the book, with more to be serialised over the coming weeks. The Labour Party is described as being a hotch-potch of opinions and agendas over whether Brown should seek a mandate in the form of a snap election in 2007. Brown is described as grabbing his Deputy Chief of Staff, Gavin Kelly, by his suit lapels and shouting “they’re out to get me!”.

Also released was a brilliantly melodramatic animation by Taiwanese TV, which portrays the PM as a Jason Bourne-esque tough guy:

22nd February: Peter Mandelson defends Brown’s character, saying: “No one tolerates bullying in this government or in any part of this government. Period. Full stop. That’s it. If you think we’re going to spend our time chasing around newspapers that want a splash on their front pages, let me tell you: we’ve got better things to do with our lives.”

All very well, but if the government aren’t concerned, why the constant vehement denials and continued appraisals of Brown’s behaviour?

22nd February: Rawnsley appears on Newsnight to defend his book. Facing criticism from many party members and an incredulous Paxman, he nonetheless sticks by his allegations. He names one source as “24 Carat”, and points out the three different denials of truth by No. 10 in 48 hours as a mark of how panicked they are. This edition was also notable for Paxman uttering the F-Word, (albeit whilst quoting).

If Mandelson stands by his line that the Government has “better things to do”, then why the constant media appearances? Three separate denials, along with a television and newspaper interview in a mere two days shows a No. 10 that is more shaken than it’d like us to believe.

25th February: New allegations come to light regarding the relationship between Brown and Blair, as well as Alistair Darling. David Cameron accused the PM of being “at war” with his Chancellor, to much schoolboy laugher in the Commons. Also revealed was another disclosure from the book, alleging that during their final confrontation as Blair stepped down, Brown repeatedly shouted “You ruined my life!”

25th February: Andrew Rawnsley appears on The Guardian’s Politics podcast, arguing that “the public feel more interested and refreshed when politicians are open”.

26th February: Rawnsley’s publishers, Viking, announce they’ve upped the initial print run from 18,000 to 26,000 copies. A minor point perhaps, but clearly blanket press coverage has provided an opportunity for publishers to cash in on a book which previously only garnered interest in political and media circles.

All this is very gripping, and high drama indeed. Those who wrote off this election as a grindingly slow, insipid process have been proved wrong. Despite all this, polls show that the Conservatives only lead by 7 points in the polls, their lowest point in over two years.

I’ll update this entry as new aspects introduce themselves, possibly with a comment piece once the whole thing has come to a conclusion.

Interactivity Vs Freedom

‘Bzzzz’

That’s the sound of yet another social networking site crashing into the online community. Google Buzz was released earlier this month as the latest attempt by the San Franciscan technology giant to saturate the market. What originally started as a search engine has spawned a map service, a phone, a web browser, email and countless other gadgets to negotiate the internet. But the way in which Google has constructed Buzz is a fundamental misunderstanding of the unwritten rules of the web.

In early February, Gmail users were given the option to get the Google Buzz add on with minimum hassle. Those who clicked to accept were immediately directed to a screen showing their “followers” and contacts. Google say that the system aggregates information from who we email most, and instantly designates these people followers.

Scroll down to see a stream of posts by your followers, a la Twitter.

Startlingly, you have no memory of asking to follow these people. And you’d be right, because Google made that choice for you. “Big Deal” I see you shrug. The web has created a laissez-faire attitude towards privacy, but in this case Google has cut you out of the agreement. When we put personal information on Facebook or Twitter, for better or for worse, it’s at our own behest. Google taking email contacts and making them public is something altogether more sinister. For example, imagine you’re conducting some potentially controversial research via your Gmail account. Sign up to Buzz, and suddenly your contacts are laid bare for millions to see, with the possibility of undermining and even endangering your reputation. After waves of complaints, Google have now changed their policy, and quickly redesigned Buzz to stop this from happening.

I am loathe to sound like a luddite on this topic. I think Twitter is fantastic, the idea of convergence intriguing and blogging the perfect platform for free thought and expression. But is the web really free? Why is there so little competition amongst social media? No one uses MySpace anymore, a smattering use Twitter, with the majority of the herd plumping for Facebook.

If social networking is to be truly taken seriously then competition must be encouraged. Car manufacture, mobile phones and high street stores all compete for the consumer, so why not online? Because the main social media platforms hold a monopoly, it means that progress and improvements are at the discretion of a handful of CEO’s, dictating how we communicate with each other online.

Much is made of the so-called democracy of the web. In a column last year, I waxed lyrical about “an army of bloggers”, willing to blow apart the structures of traditional media. Now I’m not so sure. Much of the web still focuses on the marketing of a product. That product is you. When you tap in a phrase to Google, it automatically throws up a list of suggested search terms, based on the most popular results.

This auto suggestion not only restricts your own searches, but is telling you what’s best to search for, instead of vice versa. An advertising technique called Behavioural Targeting also plays a huge role in this. As you skip merrily around the internet, visiting a range of sites, data is collected regarding what you’ve been looking at. Consequently, future web advertising is targeted with you in mind, matching with a unique set of searches on your computer.

This targeted marketing simply goes against any notions of a democratic web. We are stratified into types of customer stemming from our likes, dislikes and hobbies. Advertising and marketing is based on selling a product to a particular demographic.

If you don’t fit with a particular type, you’ll be shunted into one. Love the Coen Brothers and books by J.D Salinger? Well, take a look at these novels, Amazon proclaim. Companies who work on this idea of targeting argue that by providing these suggestions, the customer is empowered, being directed toward the films that make them laugh most, and reading the books that entertain them. Instead, it restricts free choice. We end up consuming only a very small range of information, based on our supposed wants and needs.

So why aren’t we concerned about this? Because the reward is greater than the risk. We’re prepared to sacrifice individual power over convenience, take the good with the bad. Yes, the web can be a playground for extremist views, vicious scamming and other unsavoury material. But it’s also a global network, where people can communicate like never before.

That, I think, is good enough for most.

Era of mass miscommunication

So, we’re nearing the end of 2009. By the end of 2010 it’ll be 10 years since all the hassle about the Y2K virus, remember all that? The terror that threatened to bring civilisation to a standstill because the ticking clock wouldn’t be able to handle the date ending with “00”.

Computers and technology back then were a contradiction. On the one hand, they were innocent compared to todays powerful behemoths. Slow chugging processors powered us through cyberspace, and hard drives were filled up by the presence of one or two games. Dial up internet gave particularly sinister access to the internet, I always thought it sounded like a character from Doctor Who being murdered in an air shaft. However, on the other hand, computers were endlessly more frustrating and jargon based than they are now. To us “normal” people, techies like to make computers deliberately complicated, in order to keep their kudos, and moreover, their jobs. Web 2.0 has democratised and de-cluttered the internet, to the extent that even an idiot like me can make an online magazine: http://thefzine.com

Of course, “social networking” “micro-blogging” and the rest of the idiot terms applied to Web 2.0 do come at a price. That is, it’s a lot like a lifetime membership. Once you’ve signed up, it’s very difficult to get away.

Take this example: I must be one of the only people in my age group to not watch The X Factor, judging by the endless Facebook updates. Opting out of watching the program isn’t enough anymore. One has to turn off all radios, computers, phones, and just about any other piece of technology that looks shiny enough to pick up a signal to get away from it all. Instead, idly minding my own business, I cheerfully click the “refresh” button on my browser. Suddenly I’m hit with a torrent of updates:


can’t actually believe that jedward are still in xfactor!!!!!”


“JEDWARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! whhayyyyyyy” 


“hope lloyd goes!”


I remember fondly when my dad would coincide his bike rides with England’s efforts to progress through the World Cup. Time after time, the streets would be deserted as he joyfully cycled around in peace for 90 minutes. Whenever there was a penalty shoot out he got an added bonus. A few years ago, I could’ve been him. I could’ve turned off the television when Simon Cowell and his Will Smith circa ’91 haircut hove into view, and that would’ve been that. Now because I’ve signed up to a whole range of mailing lists, networks and websites, I have to turn all of those off aswell. “But that’s your fault!” you’re screaming at the screen. Yes, of course it is, but do people really have to tweet and exchange such bland information? If the technology is there for Alan Rusbridger to tweet about Trafigura and overturn an injunction, it’s a massive waste of resources if we’re using this to talk about deluded fools singing their hearts out with all the melody of an irate chimp.

Essentially the banter which was previously only privy to the seats at the back of the bus have been brought forward onto the internet. Meaningless chat and general idiocy dominate the feeds. I’d love it if people thought before typing a bit more, but what can I do about it? Simply watch the conversations unfold, and subscribe to the X Factor Twitter page…


Sub prime steak

Just thought I’d weigh in on the ridiculously over-emphasised and boring topic that is the economic crisis.

It’s difficult to understand the logic that led to an enormous economic downturn. Of course, it was primarily driven by greed, and the need to constantly up the risk factor in order to reap the rewards. I know very little about economics. What I do know, is that the banks’ strategies were always madness. New Labour further encouraged this culture of high risk lending, partly because City Boys have been in and out of Downing Street for 10 years, on the basis of donations, but partly because they believed that this was one area of industry which might just work, no questions asked, without regulation.

I am loathe to delve into specifics here. While there are a myriad of reasons and theories about why the economy went belly up, (sub prime market lending and endless amounts of other financial jargon) as I’ve already mentioned, it was all inevitably caused by increasing greed. I have a bone to pick with building societies that turned into banks too. The behaviour of banks is now to lend more than their asset base. HBOS changed the business model from an old-fashioned, slightly boring banker who gave you some money and then lent some money to someone who might pay it back, to someone who decided that leverage was a cool-sounding word and borrow several times what the bank owned, then lend it to anyone!

When there was a remarkable shift from the slightly jaunty, thrifty “credit crunch” to a more serious economic downturn in September 2008, Gordon Brown said “I’ve been worried about this for a long time”. REALLY? Which British politician opened the Lehman Brothers building in the City in 2004, saying: “Lehman Brothers is a great company. Let me thank you for the privilege of being here, I look forward to its future” It was Gordon Brown. That’s what happens when you are complacent in the face of recklessness and greed, and you don’t realise that markets are not moral, they’re amoral, that’s why you regulate them. What’s so stunning here is that I’m no economist, yet I am flabbergasted at the ridiculous nature of the situation. One can’t punish the banks too heavily, because after all, it’s our money that they rely on. The Catch 22 is that we need them as much as they need us, thereby to a certain extent they can afford to do what they want.

Still, it’s not the end of the universe just yet.