Monday, 24 May 2010

Future imperfect for media

FOR some strange reason I was invited to a very high-brow conference in London.
It was convened by the Westminster Media Forum, which aims to provide an environment for policy makers in Parliament, government departments and agencies to engage with media professionals.
The subject was the Future of the News Media, an obsession with all the stakeholders in the media world as it struggles to cope with the threat, and opportunity of fast-developing technologies.
The scene was set by Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow, who set off at a ridiculously optimistic pace.
His theme was that this was the golden age of journalism.
He said that different media forms were fusing, creating “intersections of interest” and that TV companies needed to do more to harness the potential of the internet.
The development of new technologies he added, had led journalism to be in a “better place than it had ever been”.
He said: “Welcome to the golden age of journalism. This is the best time to be a journalist, without a doubt…because we can do a job that is both a pivotal element of the society in which we live and the political life in which that society functions.
“There is a greater degree of democracy in journalism than there has ever been. There are still many challenges ahead but at least there is something of a conversation going on that means there is no longer any dictatorial capacity.
“You can complain about ownership and dominance but you can’t complain that the citizen can’t rock the boat.
“The citizens are rocking the media’s boat every day. The idiots are falling off the deck, the incapable ones are being drowned but the good ones are surfacing and thriving.”
He was followed by Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, who endorsed the view that this was the best time to be a journalist, with endless opportunities. The traditional media had to accept that journalism was an expensive necessity.
And so it went on. Peter Bale, Executive Producer of MSN UK, complained that his usual role as supreme optimist had been usurped by Peter Snow, then went on about the proliferation of high quality journalism.
Steve Folwell, Director of Strategy at Guardian Media Group, said the Guardian had gone from 9th largest print medium in Britain to the largest in the world by reach, via the internet. That enabled a multi-platform approach with 20 revenue streams.
I was absolutely dumb-founded by this torrent of well-being. The Guardian, after all, had just sold the Manchester Evening News and its associated weekly newspapers for a derisory £7 million to Trinity Mirror.
As I prepared to leap to my feet to play the part of the little boy watching the parade of the Emperor in his new clothes, I was saved from my embarrassment by Dr Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications with Goldsmiths, University of London.
She pointed out that this stated democratic panacea was not what it seemed. A survey of 200 working journalists had shown fewer asked to do ever more work.
They had become desk-bound, hide-bound by administration, and reduced to cutting and pasting words they laid their hands on, in what she described as creative cannibalism.
Relying on market forces meant that the commercial imperative would produce journalism that was cheap and far from what the people entering the profession wanted to do.
There followed a separate debate about the future of training, and maintaining standards in a world of citizen journalism.
My clumsy attempt to ask the point of training journalists when bloggers and commentators on mainstream web-site stories were allowed to be racist, homophobic, contemptuous and prejudicial, was misunderstood or ignored by the panel.
A third debate about the future shape of news degenerated into an entertaining but not very illuminating spat between Matt Kelly, Digital Content Editor of Trinity Mirror Group, and Struan Bartlett, chairman and chief executive of NewsNow. Kelly accused Barlett, whose site aggregates links to other news organisations, of being a parasite. You could say the same about any web company, from Google down, that gleans material from other web-sites without employing front line journalists who actually go out and get the news.
Anyway, this exchange even embarrassed the combative chairman Ray Snoddy who challenged the panel to explain how they could maintain standards when it was the most dumb-downed content that drew the most downloads on YouTube.
May Hockaday, Head of Newsroom at the BBC, totally ignored the plummeting standards of her own organisation, and tried to defend 24/7 news with its analysis, niche content and engagement with its audience.
Overall the day proved that the media had no real answers to the impact of new technology on their financial models, established products or even standards of journalism. Dr Fenton was the only one who even came close to understanding the threats, rather than being dazzled by the opportunities.
See Dr Fenton's article on her survey here:

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