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:

Friday, 21 May 2010

Soggy swan song

On a remnant of the old Lancaster to Kendal canal, near Crooklands hotel, is a pair of swans who breed every year and are superbly successful parents. Last year they brought six out of six to maturity.
This year they had eight signets which they took for their first swim earlier this week, just at the time I pass by the nest, over the other side of the canal from the tow path, while on the early dog walk.
Today the adults were hanging around a culvert that takes overflow from the canal underneath the M6 near a huge 24-hour garage. The signets were nowhere to be seen.
On inspection I heard a forlorn tweeting and saw one of the signets trapped in the culvert, of the other seven, there was no sign.
I ran to the garage to call the RSPCA who said they would do what they could. As I went back to the culvert I was joined by the garage’s night mechanic Steve.
Together we managed to lift the lid off the culvert and retrieve the one signet which seemed surprisingly well. We lobbed it back to the parents who were predictably furious hissing and flapping at their attempted benefactors.
Steve and I walked round the other side of the M6, where there is another stretch of canal, to see if the signets were being flushed clear through, but there was no sign. So we went back and started delving deep into the water channel. We found one body of a dead signet, but two were just about breathing, although they had collapsed and were like drowned rats.
We got them onto dry ground and Steve gave them mouth-to-mouth by blowing into their beaks. They responded and we tried drying them with tissues.
When we returned them to the canal however they just flopped over onto their backs and head went beneath the surface. They were obviously water-logged and had lost their buoyancy.
So we carried them to the warm of the garage, put them in a box and surrounded them with garage kitchen roll to help them dry off. They improved quickly, started preening themselves, and by the time the RSPCA inspector arrived after two hours from Carlisle, they looked right as rain.
So we took them back to the canal and popped them into the canal opposite the swans’ nest, where rescued signet one was happily nesting with its parents. One of the two was quick to swim over the canal to join the family. The third was still too weak and flopped over, so the RSPCA man and I took it round to the council depot over the canal and put him through the fence as near to the nest as we could.
Last I saw the dad was calling to it to return to the family fold. So, that made three saved out of eight.
I persuaded the RSPCA inspector to try to convince British Waterways that they need to put a guard over the sluice, as apparently ducklings and signets disappear down there every year.
After spending the previous two days in London, it was back to rural Cumbria with a vengeance.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Caesar sparks war of words

A WAR of words has broken out in the blogosphere over an article in The Sunday Times magazine over why tens of thousands of journalism hopefuls graduate every year and then find themselves clamouring for increasingly rare jobs.
The article was by Ed Caesar, a feature writer and reviewer for the Sunday Times. He is 30, was educated at Wellington College, Edinburgh University and The Independent newspaper. In 2007, he won the Press Gazette British Young Journalist of the Year award.
His point was well argued if a little contradictory, in that he was obviously happy with his own career, yet worried that the decline in the printed media means that unpaid posts as work experience could lead to lowly paid staff positions. How he started in fact.
Adam Tinworth on his blog has a go for Caesar’s article being totally London-centric and focussing on the national media, while there are far more journalists employed by the regional press.
Roy Gleenslade sprang to Caesar’s defence (see by pointing out that journalism students he met were only interested in the nationals.
Well they would say that to Greenslade as he is in the same London goldfish world as Caesar.
Adam Westbrook had a far better point. See He is a distinguished advocate of what he calls New Age Journalism.
He objected that Caesar had totally ignored the opportunities of the new technologies, arguing that it was better to work for yourself than one of the old dinosaur media corporations.
There are opportunities for entrepreneurs to create their own niche markets, invent applications on their chosen subjects for mobile phones and then make money directly.
Well, up to a point. First that ignores the fact that the attraction for many journalism students is working for printed products, whether local or national.
Furthermore, if 30,000 journalism students a year set up their own businesses, the market may become saturated rather quickly.
My beef with the article was its incestuous nature: London-centric, yes; national media obsessed, undoubtedly; old media thinking, absolutely.
Would the Sunday Times use its precious space publishing a similar analysis on apprenticeships in the building trades or even the pressures of trying to start a career in accounting, banking, teaching, nursing or any other trade or profession?
The national press is getting further away from its markets, partly because of its obsessive London bias. Just because a few Hampstead media folk have to subsidise their over-educated offspring during their work experience in the media, is this really worth four pages in a Sunday magazine? I don’t think so.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Sneaky media beat the count

THE Media turned out in force to witness the remarkable feat by the Liberal Democrats when they not only held on to the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat on a disappointing night for the party but actually increased their majority significantly.
For those that missed it the sitting MP Tim Farron (Lib/Dem) polled 30,896 (60 per cent of the vote); John Mander (UKIP) – 801 (1.5%); Gareth McKeever (Conservative) - 18,632 (36%); Jonathan Todd (Labour) - 1,158 (2%). With 82 spoils there was a 77% turn-out overall.
Mr Farron narrowly gained the seat in 2005, with 22,569 votes and a majority of 267 (0.5%), over the then Conservative Education spokesman Tim Collins. It had previously been a Conservative seat for almost 100 years.
In this election, the Conservatives put the seat at 14 on its list of those they would have to win if they were to have a chance of regaining power.
Mr Collins had resigned after his defeat and after a false start with another prospective candidate, who also resigned, the Tories finally found former financier Gareth McKeever, an Ulsterman from a farming family.
He was seen by some as a bit of a Tim Farron clone. He is a charming, sincere and hard-working man. The local Tory party shook off its lethargy and got behind him with a vigorous and noticeable campaign. The national big guns arrived for support.
But it was swiftly clear to the party members who witnessed the count at Lakes Leisure Centre that it was going to be Mr Farron’s day.
The constituency was one of those with a huge rural area for whom the geography and the burden of sorting postal votes was too great to manage the usual Thursday overnight count. Instead the army of counters gathered at a civilised 9.30 a.m.
It took three hours to validate that the votes matched the numbers recorded at each polling station.
During this process the army of party faithful who witness procedures can tell which party is doing well.
The count proper had hardly started when Liberal Democrats started clapping each other on the back and the Conservatives descended into doom and gloom. Mr McKeever, who had given up his job in the city and moved home to Kendal to fight the seat, seemed close to tears.
His bid to regain the seat had been hit when computer and paper records of membership, voting intentions and leaflets were destroyed in an intense blaze that ripped through the offices and roof of Kendal Conservative Club on February 19 this year.
Mr McKeever described the fire as devastating, and the election campaign headquarters had to be moved to an edge-of-town business park. Two men were arrested by detectives investigating the fire and they are due to respond to police bail later this month. A political motive is not suspected.
But there was no attempt to blame the fire for Mr McKeever’s apparently appalling performance. His party colleagues said they just couldn’t break through the tremendous personal following Mr Farron had built up during his five years as MP.
When acting returning officer, Debbie Storr, finally put the other three parties out of their misery, Mr Farron said “blimey” and then after the usual platitudes warned his party supporters that he would work as hard to protect his majority of 12,000 as he had with just more than 200.
This was all played out in front of BBC radio and television, with Nick Higham who usually reports on media and cultural affairs in London, independent radio and local, regional and national print journalists.
It was fascinating to see how busy the reporters were on twitter, blogs and web-site updates, even when there was nothing to say. See Another media guest was well-known Lakes-based cartoonist, Colin Shelbourn, who twittered away. See and http://radiocartoonist.blogspot.
But the most remarkable media moment was seeing the BBC going apoplectic when Ms Storr refused to give them the result when it was known five minutes before the announcement.
Mr Higham cried it was the only constituency in the country where this was the rule. When asked why it mattered he said that it was to help provide instant graphics for the viewers.
Anyway Ms Storr relented and the BBC got their way. A few other sneaky journalists looked over shoulders at the slip of paper that gave the information, which is why some media outlets actually had the results before the people at the count.
Such is the power of the media in a modern democracy.