Archive for March, 2009
Whatever local news funding model you support, if we don't know what's out there, we won't know what's working
Arguments are starting to solidify. Camps are starting to coalesce. Policies are being set.
Now that many people have realised the seriousness of the crisis in local journalism in this country, we are – finally – moving briskly into the ‘what can we do about it?’ phase.
And already there are three camps forming:
1. The ‘Free the Corporations’ camp, as represented mostly by the senior executives at news corporations and by the recently created ‘Local Media Alliance’ – set up to make sure the government is aware of the desperate need to liberalise competition and ownership rules (though the Alliance stresses it is not a lobbying group). This week the F-the-C camp gained a considerable filip when the Conservatives came out in support of such liberalization and the CMS Select Committee announced it would look into ‘the desirability of changes to the regulatory framework for print and electronic local media, including cross-media ownership and merger regulations’.
2. The ‘Don’t Free the Corporations Camp’ as represented by the NUJ, 90 MPs who signed an Early Day Motion, and assorted others. Their argument is that deregulation would simply allow the Corporations to continue what they have been doing for the last few years, i.e. reduce editorial resources, make more journalists redundant, and centralise editorial and production. It’s not clear exactly what this camp wants as an alternative (the NUJ has called for politicians to come up with ‘big ideas’), though some are starting to argue for government subsidies. Roy Greenslade, for example, has proposed the State commit funds to a central pot which can then be distributed by a semi-independent body (similar in some ways to OFCOM’s ‘Public Service Publisher’ idea, dropped back in 2007). But the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport has, for the time being, rejected the possibility of subsidies.
3. The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ camp, as represented mostly by people like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis. They take the Darwinian evolution line – experiment and experiment then let the free market decide. This approach doesn’t necessarily exclude future public or private subsidies for news, but argues strongly against government support for ‘old industries’.
Needless to say the three camps are not necessarily mutually exclusive (though (2) and (3) would probably have a hard time agreeing).
Given the urgency of the situation it seems highly likely that this government and/or its successor will liberalize to some extent. And with or without liberalization, number (3) will necessarily happen by default – some newspapers will die, and some news organisations probably will too.
Which leaves (2), and this is where we really do need some more thinking. One of the most interesting ideas so far is Matthew Taylor‘s suggestion building on Martin Bright’s plan for a ‘New Deal for the Mind’. Taylor has proposed providing small scale start-up funds, of around £30,000 each, for hundreds, if not thousands of new journalism ventures. This way you not only take advantage of the low start up costs of the net, but you release enormous amounts of creativity at relatively little cost (everything’s relative, of course).
But if this idea, or others like it, are going to happen, we need to know more about what is and isn’t working now. We need to explore new, small scale models in this country and abroad. We need to do some research, and fast.
A fascinating study – ‘Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinatti Post’ – suggests the loss of a local newspaper can advantage a sitting politician and damage democratic engagement (hat tip Greenslade).
Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido, who wrote the discussion paper, examined voting patterns and political candidacies in Cincinnati, southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, following the closure of The Cincinnati Post on 31st December 2007. The Post was the smaller of two papers covering the area. The other, the Cincinnati Enquirer, is still in business.
The authors concluded that the loss of the newspaper ‘made local elections less competitive along several dimensions’, notably ‘incumbent advantage, voter turnout, and the number of candidates for office’. Although this paper was focused on a single city, it also cites another study, still in manuscript, that finds, based on 7,000 US towns and cities, that if a town has its own daily or weekly paper the political incumbent has less advantage than if it doesn’t (Jessica Trounstine, Princeton, manuscript, 2009).
‘Do Newspapers Matter?’ is primarily about measuring the correlation between newspaper closure and democratic engagement, but the writers do speculate on some of the reasons for disengagement.
One, of course, is that there is less critical coverage of the politician in power. A town with a single paper will find it more difficult to be persistently critical, especially if much of its advertising comes from the public sector. In a town with no paper at all people will have to find criticism of the local politician on the net – hard to do unless you’re looking for it – and then how do you know what to look for?
Another is that there are even fewer opportunities for rival candidates to get noticed. As it is, it is becoming more difficult for local politicians to get press coverage. For candidates, especially those from the smaller parties, it is more difficult still – unless they do something ‘newsworthy’. This helps to explain Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido’s finding that there are fewer candidates putting themselves forward for public office following the newspaper closure.
With less coverage of politics and fewer candidates it is understandable why a lower number of people would turn out to vote – feeling both less informed and more poorly represented. The result? The person in power stays in power, no matter how good or bad a job they have done.
It would be rash to extend the findings of this single study too far, particularly given it is trying to demonstrate a highly complex correlation and attempting to measure the effect of an absence rather than a presence (always notoriously difficult). But, if we want to understand what we will lose, as a democracy, if large sections of the local press decline and die, then there should be a lot more studies like this.
FAQ #13, www.pcc.org.uk: ‘I am not the person directly involved in the report that I want to complain about. Can the PCC still help? The PCC does not generally accept complaints from third parties about cases involving named individuals without the signed authorisation of the person concerned’.
Sir Christopher Meyer: “The point of principle is fairly clear, I don’t think it has changed. We have never said no to third party complaints… What we have always said is that what you can’t have is a third party trumping the rights and wishes of a first party”, Media Guardian 18-3-09.
PCC spokesman to Media Guardian regarding complaints about OK! tribute issue: “As things stand there will be no investigation. If people want to present arguments why the commission should disregard the usual third-party rules then we would listen to that argument and obviously if Jade Goody’s family should wish to complain then we would listen to that.” Media Guardian, 19-3-09.
Response to complaint from Martin Belam: “Dear Mr Belam, Thank you for your email. I should emphasise that the PCC will normally only consider complaints from people who are directly affected by the matters about which they are concerned. Indeed, only in exceptional circumstances will the Commission consider a complaint from someone not directly involved. In this instance, an initial examination of your case suggests that you are a third party to the complaint.” currybet.net 11-2-09.
‘The solution to the overabundance of information’ David Weinberger writes in Everything is Miscellaneous, ‘is more information’. Long live metadata!
In Porto, I’ve spent the last couple of days at an official IPTC conference (the International Press Telecommunications Council). The folk at the IPTC have been thinking about information and metadata for over 40 years. These are the high priests of news metadata.
For a long while this was, as you’d figure, rather a minority pursuit (though mighty profitable for those that went to the trouble to do it).
Now, in our age of ‘infobesity’, it suddenly has significant new relevance and urgency.
Why? Because describing your content in a consistent, machine-readable way (through metadata) makes searching for it an awful lot easier. It also means you can label it so people know where it’s come from. It also frees up the information so it can be used in creative, unanticipated ways (like journalisted, or dipity).
Problem is, almost all the rich IPTC metadata is stripped out before it gets to the end user. Once it has served its purpose – i.e. as a means of fast data transfer between different content businesses – the metadata is lost. By the time you and I see an article on a website we’ll be lucky if it even has a date stamp (e.g. see United Airlines story from last August).
Should you care? Well, if you want to know when and where a story was first published, yes. If you want to be able to search for stories by a specific journalist, or news organisation, then yes. If you’re interested in knowing where the news you’re reading has come from, then yes.
Which is why the Transparency Initiative – the MacArthur and Knight funded news project – and IPTC metadata standards, are so complementary. While the IPTC worry about labelling data at source, we’re concerned with how to make sure those labels (or at least those ones that are relevant to the public) don’t get lost along the way. Which is why we’re hoping to work with the IPTC to see how we can retain just a little of this rich metadata and carry it all the way to you and I, the end user.
This will be in addition to the main aim of the initiative which is looking to create simple conventions for highlighting the basic provenance of a news article in a clear and consistent way – i.e. who wrote it, who first published it, when it was first written, when it was updates, where it was written from (for more see www.newscredit.org).
By learning from the IPTC’s 40 odd years of experience and working with them make sure news’ basic provenance doesn’t disappear, we hope we can help people find news and assess it more easily – before we all get swamped by the information tsunami.