Archive for May, 2007
Give me a second to suck the oxygen back into my lungs. I’ve just been submerged in ‘MyTelegraph‘, the newspaper’s new online service that allows its users to write blogs and form blogging networks. I say ‘submerged’ because after you’ve delved through a few bizarre, stacato, non-linear, largely incomprehensible conversations you start to feel as though you’ll never get out (some of Phil Slocombe‘s audience seem particularly nonsensical and yet prolific).
This is terribly judgmental since the service has only just launched. Once it matures and its community of active bloggers increases I’m sure it will become less introverted.
But is this the future of newspapers online? The service has some nice features, like being able to add a blogger to your network easily, giving you the opportunity to agree or disagree with each blog – then showing the level of agreement and aggregating these in ‘agreement indexes’, as well as allowing you to navigate by most viewed, most commented etc.
And, if Telegraph readers want to talk to one another and express their views this could be a great way of making them more loyal to the newspaper’s website, of finding out what they’re thinking and even using them as news sources.
Yet the mytelegraph section, despite the consistent branding, seems oddly separate from the rest of the paper. You would have thought that once you’ve set up your page, you’d be able to feed stories in from the paper, tag them, save them, comment on them and recommend them to others in your community. Or even that you could tailor your page to include the features you most like from the paper. But right now mytelegraph bloggers are definitely considered a subspecies and cordoned off from the rest of the content. The closest you get is a top tab to Telegraph journalist bloggers – although they too are effectively walled off.
I think I can see what the Telegraph is trying to do, but if wants to get closer to what Jeff Jarvis called ‘networked journalism’ and see ‘stories as a process rather than a product’, it’s going to have to work out a way to make those walls more permeable.
Choice is now seen as one of the defining characteristics of a free society. But choice isn’t much good without information. Having a choice of five hospitals to go to is pretty useless unless you’re able to distinguish between them. Being told we have to be more green is unhelpful without advice as to how we do it.
Hence the exponential increase in labelling. The government has just announced the food we buy could soon have a ‘carbon footprint’ label – a traffic light indicating how much carbon was consumed in its production and distribution (see Evening Standard). This will presumably go beside the traffic lights telling us about salt and fat content.
Ignoring for a moment the lack of imagination and increasing profusion of reds, oranges and greens, this has implications far beyond food. Already there are labels on most consumer goods and services and, since the majority of us now buy into the democratic notion that we’d rather make our own decisions than allow them be made for us, one can only assume labelling will continue to grow.
Where we don’t have much labelling, oddly, is media content. Yes, films are given a rating, but generally we still rely on brands to give us editorial guidance. This feels increasingly anachronistic. When I search Google and get 1.28m results I don’t want to have to plough through them trying to work out which one is just PR material, which one is written to look like an article but is actually an ad, which one is written by a highly partisan political blogger etc. I’d like to be able to screen out certain content in my search criteria, get editorial guidance from people and organisations I trust, and understand what the context and sourcing of the content I’m reading is.
We need tools to enable us to search for specific types of content and assess it quickly. There have been attempts at this (see www.newstrust.net, and, for a different purpose, www.creativecommons.org) but they’re still very nascent.
An unspoken implication of choice is the need to be informed, and part of the answer to this – media content included – must be labelling, just as long as it doesn’t mean yet more traffic lights.
How can the BBC overcome the perception that it’s biased against business? Sir Alan Budd’s report, ‘On Impartiality of BBC Coverage’, published last Friday, made it clear that this perception wasn’t accurate. The BBC’s coverage ‘meets the required standards of impartiality’ Sir Alan said, and the BBC takes the genre seriously.
His only two substantive criticisms were that when the BBC interviewed ‘doyens of industry’ it tended to veer from scathing to sycophantic, and that BBC news coverage was too prone to present business stories only from the view of the consumer (rather than the employee, the shareholder, the investor etc.).
However, if you look at the submissions from industry a different picture emerges. The British Retail Consortium, for example, accuses the BBC of bias against large retailers, of a failure to balance stories, of a willingness to accept NGO claims as fact, and in some cases of deliberate misrepresentation (they cite a piece on Countryfile last December). C John Brady submits that the BBC sees business as ‘big, bad and nasty’. And the CBI suggests the BBC has an ‘in-built bias against business’.
Why should business think this, especially since Sir Alan’s report found it to be untrue?
Well, the BBC partly has itself to blame. When it first appointed Jeff Randall as business editor it told people in industry that the BBC was reversing its previously hostile attitude. Profits would no longer be reported ‘as if a murder has been committed’ (according to the British Retail Consortium). Having confessed to being ‘anti-business’ the BBC dug itself a hole which it’s been climbing out of ever since.
Indeed, there is just as convincing an argument that the BBC is now not ‘anti-business’ enough, and that, given its non-commercial status, it is one of the only UK organisations that can scrutinise commerce free from conflict of interest. Especially since in this country, as John Cole remarks in a later submission, ‘regulation of business, including competitiveness rules’ seems much less rigorous than in the US.
Reading the New York Times on my way back from the US yesterday I was struck again by how different our two journalistic cultures are. One aspires to distance while the other flirts with emotion. One prides itself on its objectivity, while the other flaunts its advocacy.
To get a better idea of the differences I compared yesterday’s NY Times front page with today’s Telegraph (the only popular quality daily still broadsheet and so, I figured, a fairer comparison).
The NYT has 6 major stories and 5 teasers (single paras leading to inside stories): 2 of the major stories are economic, 2 are political, 1 is social and 1 is international. The Telegraph has 6 major stories too (7 if you cound the photograph and three sentences about Madeleine McCann), although fewer words in each: 2 are economic, 1 historical, 2 social, and 1 fun.
But compare the headlines:
Economic: ‘Oil industry says biofuel push may keep gas prices higher’ (NYT) vs. ‘Households to face £30 fine if they fail to recycle rubbish’ (Telegraph). ‘Insurers in deal to pay billions at Ground Zero’ (NYT) vs. ‘Pensioners suffer as councils drive up fees for care at home’. The former written in a neutral tone, the latter written to provoke a response.
Dig a little deeper and the differences become even more apparent. The NY Times’ lead – the biofuels story, is 1,500 words long – 500 on the cover, 1,000 inside. It has more than 15 separate sourced facts (a conservative measure), substantial quotes from 9 different named sources, 2 data intensive graphics, and 3 photos.
The Telegraph’s lead (‘Judges call for divorce review after record £48m payout’) is about 600 words long, has 8 separate sourced facts, substantial quotes from 4 named sources, no graphics, and a photo of Mrs Charman (who has just been awarded £48m).
These are different types of stories but I’d be surprised if the numbers changed significantly on other topics.
There are downsides to the NYT approach. It can be heavier, more boring, and less liable to animate / annoy / distress / depress or inspire you. But, rather than leaving its news articles with an opinion, you do leave them feeling better able to form your own.