Archive for July, 2010
There has been rather a lot of heat, and some light, about Welsh media this week. Good. It needs it.
Dr Andy Williams lit the touch paper with an article on Open Democracy about the decline of Trinity Mirror in Wales. Williams cited the drop in circulation of Wales’ Western Mail from 94,000 in 1979 to below 30,000 in 2010. Wales’ other ‘national’ daily, the Daily Post has also fallen, from 41,000 in 2004 to below 34,000 now. Though structural problems such as the internet are partly to blame, Williams said, the declines are also the result of ‘sustained mismanagement’ by Trinity Mirror.
Alan Edmunds, editor of the Western Mail, attacked Williams in response, saying the Cardiff academic’s research was ‘full of ill-informed statements, old chestnuts, tired cliches and 1970s rhetoric’. It should be noted that Edmunds did not cite any errors in Williams’ research, despite the uncompromising language. Williams has since strongly defended his article and research.
But the spat between a Cardiff academic and a Welsh newspaper editor needs to be seen in the wider context of Welsh news media. This wider context is bleak. Very bleak. Yet it normally excites almost no debate within our London –centric media.
Very few people in Wales now read a newspaper with news about Wales. The Institute for Welsh Affairs found that 1,760,000 people in Wales (nearly 90 per cent of the population) are reading papers with virtually no Welsh content. ‘No London newspaper publishes a Welsh edition’ (IWA). The combined daily circulations of the Western Mail and Daily Post are less than 65,000 copies, equivalent to one copy sold to every 27 people in Wales.
The situation in commercial broadcasting is no better. ITV, which used to produce 624 hours of programmes per year for Wales now produces 286, 208 hours of which are news (from IWA). ITV has said it intends to withdraw altogether from regional news production. Since the proposed Independently Funded News Consortia have been scrapped by the coalition government it is far from clear what, if anything, will replace ITV Wales.
Therefore Wales is precariously reliant on the BBC for much of its news. Precariously because it is not even clear that Wales is a priority for the BBC. The current BBC Strategy Review hardly mentions Wales (a little embarrassing after Anthony King’s 2008 criticisms). Moreover, even the mighty BBC cannot be relied upon to gather and publish all the news in Wales.
There are parts of Wales that could now be considered news black holes. Take Neath Port Talbot in South Wales. It has a population of 137,400 people and a decent sized council, and yet there are now no professional news organizations based out of Neath Port Talbot or focused on the area. The Port Talbot Guardian and the Neath Guardian, both Trinity Mirror newspapers, closed down in 2009. The South Wales Evening Post, based in Swansea (owned by Northcliffe), adjusts its daily edition slightly for the Neath Port Talbot area (though most of the paper remains non-local news). There is also a weekly insert, the Neath Port Talbot Courier. The South Wales Evening Post had a total circulation, in early 2009, of 46,000. There is a free monthly paper, the Neath & Port Talbot Tribune (Tindle). The Western Mail, regarded as the national newspaper of Wales, is printed out of Cardiff (owned by Trinity Mirror). It carries occasional news from Neath Port Talbot.
The BBC dominates in television and radio news. There are some commercial radio stations in the area, including Swansea Sound and the Wave (out of Swansea) and AfanFM. These are a mixture of music and talk, though there is very limited original local news gathering (Swansea Sound and the Wave take Sky News content).
There is some evidence of nascent grassroots journalism initiatives. Local News South Wales (LNSW) has been trying to set up a workers’ co-operative for journalists, photographers and other media operatives, although this is – according to newmodeljournalism.com – ‘struggling to get off the ground’.
There is also evidence that what most people would consider public interest news is not being reported. For example, a biomass plant is currently being built in Port Talbot. The plant is of particular interest for three reasons: it will be the biggest such plant in the world; it is an environmental experiment that could have significant impact on future energy policy; and it has evoked considerable local anger and protest.
Yet there has been almost no coverage of the plant in the news. Search for ‘Biomass Plant Port Talbot’ on Google and you find fewer than 10 stories since the plant was given the go ahead in 2007 – including just two on BBC news online and 3 short pieces on Reuters, This is South Wales, and Wales Online.
Of course if it is not reported it is not news, and if it’s not news then attracts no attention, and so news provision contracts further. So a bit of heat, as well as some light, is more than a little needed in Wales right now.
This post was originally published at PBS IdeasLab on July 8th 2010.
People in news don’t generally think of innovation as their job. It’s that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.
After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). “How’s it going?” I asked him. “Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?”
Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. “Here,” he said, “Call this guy. He’s our technical director — he’ll be able to help you out.”
Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.
So it’s not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia…I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.
Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a “thief” and a “parasite.” The U.K.’s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a “Facebook killer” (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let’s not even start to take apart various news commentators’ dismissive attitude towards Twitter.
When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it “is beginning to look like a liability.” The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.
Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn’t become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.
Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation
At last week’s Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. “Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted,” Schmidt said. “Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don’t continue to innovate.”
Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.
The problem for Schmidt — and one that is even more acute for news organizations — is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. “I’m surprised at how random the future has become,” Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.
As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that “allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline.” It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.
He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world’s academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup “most likely to change the world for the better.”
The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. “The future is harder to predict,” Shirky said, “but easier to see.”
That’s why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee’s hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it’s why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.
There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.
The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up “Euston Partners” under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the “Digital Futures Divisio
But mostly people in news don’t really do innovation. They’re too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn’t pay — it doesn’t even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.
News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it’s not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.
It’s good to be pleasantly surprised. I confess I was pretty sceptical about the ‘independent governance review’ of the PCC (whose report is published today). I wasn’t sure how ‘independent’ it actually was, and was concerned by the very limited publicity for written submissions and that oral evidence was taken in secret.
But it turns out to be a carefully thought out and reasonable response to the many calls for reform over the last 18 months. This includes, of course, the calls by the Media Standards Trust since February 2009 (‘A More Accountable Press’).
It’s clear from the report that they’ve been listening. By my count the review appears to have accepted, in whole or in part, 19 of the 28 recommendations we made in our submission earlier this year (‘Can independent self-regulation keep standards high and preserve press freedom’) in addition to those of others like Peter Preston and MediaWise. The real challenge now is to see if the PCC and the newspapers embrace the recommendations and use this as an opportunity to revitalise self-regulation, or ignore them and leave the current system frozen in aspic.
The recommendations are detailed (I think I counted about 75 in all) though mostly in plain English. They include:
- Greater openness about the system – for example, being open about funding (it still seems remarkable that an industry that recognises the importance of knowing where the money comes from doesn’t make clear how its own self-regulation is funded), making sure the PCC statistics are ‘consistent and clear’, and providing more information about complaints
- Codifying the sanctions and telling people about them – this could mean providing a clear ladder of remedies so people understand what the penalties for breaching the code are and have a better idea about the seriousness of a breach
- Making the PCC more proactive – emphasising the importance of taking action where there is a clear sign of public concern
- Introducing more ways to judge the effectiveness of the PCC – including targets for the year, and polls that measure not only confidence in the PCC but also in the press (this way hopefully we won’t get the Commission claiming success each year whether complaints go up or down)
- Clarifying the purpose of the PCC – including making plain ‘how it considers standards issues’ and ‘what it means by – and what it wants to achieve through – proactivity’.
On some of the big issues – particularly the all-important one of sanctions – the review pushes most of the responsibility back to the PCC and the industry. This makes sense from the perspective that the industry would balk at any ‘outside’ pressure on them to introduce new penalties for breaching the code. However, if this becomes an excuse neither to strengthen existing sanctions nor to explore new ones then people will still not take the PCC seriously as an independent self-regulator – as it aspires to be.
It should also be said that this review leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. The Commission could, if it wanted, do not much more than publish minutes of its meetings, and alter the appointments and compliance process. Equally, the industry could ignore recommendations to divulge their contributions, and fail to become more involved in the promotion and discussion of standards. Hence why this review is a good start, but certainly not an end point.
One subject on which the review didn’t go into much detail is funding. The PCC has a much smaller budget than organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority or Ofcom. Taking on the additional responsibilities recommended in the review will cost more. Though the review takes note of this it thinks costs can be kept down. This could be tricky and other funding mechanisms ought to be explored. In our submission we suggested the PCC start charging for investigations – like the Financial Services Ombudsman. Alternatively the industry could throw more money in the pot, though given the parlous state of news organisations this seems unlikely at present.
The ball is now squarely in the PCC and the industry’s court. The PCC has made positive noises about the review and has already made some commitments – for example around transparency (it said in its annual report it would adhere to the principles of the Freedom of Information Act). PressBoF, which has been fantastically opaque to date, seems to be raising its head slightly above the parapet. We await the response of the Editorial Code Committee. But it remains to be seen what the Commission, the Board of Finance, the Code Committee – and most importantly the industry – will actually do.