Archive for the ‘Future of news’ Category

Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to Nextdoor.com – the private residents’ social network, or neighbor.ly – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or openplans.org – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am

Using the rhetoric of press freedom to thwart free speech

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On how the British press has denied the British public a proper debate on press regulation. This post was originally published on Free Speech Debate on December 12th 2013

It rarely takes long, in arguments about free speech, before someone refers to John Milton or John Stuart Mill. Most of us remember one particularly strong defence of free speech made in both Milton’s Areopagatica and Mill’s On Liberty. Any attempt to censor, suppress or constrain free speech, Milton and Mill argue, denies people access to the truth.

Truth and falsehood should do battle, Milton wrote, in a free and open encounter. Only in such circumstances could truth triumph.

Silencing an opinion, Mill wrote, either robs people of the truth, or – if the opinion is wrong – deprives people of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the heated, often fractious, debate about press regulation in Britain, the rhetoric of freedom has been widely deployed. Barely a day went by in October 2013 when a national newspaper did not publish a report, editorial or leader about the importance of our free press. This freedom was, most of those pieces argued, put in jeopardy by the system of regulation set out in the cross-party royal charter and agreed on 30 October 2013.

Yet it would be hard to find a debate in modern times that has been less free than the one about press regulation. Far from being Milton’s “free and open encounter” between different views, the debate in the press has been virtually monopolised by those with one perspective. The public have, to use Mill’s terms, been deprived “the clearer and livelier perception of truth” since they have, with notable exceptions, only been presented with one view.

The public have not been given the facts, the arguments, or the diversity of perspective from which to make up their own minds about press regulation.

On the facts, the public have been deprived of even the basic material from which to make up their own minds. During the Leveson Inquiry, for example, the press simply failed to report on potential alternative systems of press regulation. Though numerous proposals were put forward for new systems, including ‘A Free and Accountable Media’, from the Media Standards Trust. almost none were reported on. This is despite the fact that Leveson based many of his eventual recommendations on these proposals. By contrast, there were 56 articles about the press’ own plan (see our ‘Analysis: Press Coverage of Leveson, Part 1′)

When it came to the report itself, the misreporting of Leveson’s main recommendation was, as the renowned editor Harold Evans said in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, “staggering.” David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, said in his inaugural Leveson Anniversary Lecture, there was a party line amongst newspapers about what Leveson said which was “not really true.” Leveson wrote: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.” Yet this is exactly how they were characterised.

Leveson’s system would, many newspapers claimed, allow for state censorship. This is despite the fact that Leveson was adamant, throughout this recommendations, that the state should have no role in the system beyond its establishment, and that no regulator should have the power to stop anyone publishing anything.

Leveson’s recommendations would enable government interference, other papers claimed. Yet Leveson recommended the opposite, going so far as to say that the UK needed a law to prevent government interference. This recommendation was not even referred to in the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times or in the Daily Express. It was referred to only once in most other papers when the report was published.

Then there was the coverage of, or failure to cover, the process that followed the publication of the report. In January and February 2013  the Prime Minister David Cameron and two other key ministers, Oliver Letwin and Maria Miller, together had more than 30 meetings with senior executives and editors from the press. You would not know this because not a single one of those meetings was reported. In February, we – the Media Standards Trust – wrote to Lord (Guy) Black, one of the key figures drawing up the industry’s response to Leveson who attended at least eleven of these, requesting that they be made public. He refused. We only now know of them because of the official lists of Ministers’ meetings published in the autumn (Oliver Letwin meetings, January-March 2013; Maria Miller meetings, January-March 2013; David Cameron meetings January-March 2013). Yet they remain unreported in the press.

Instead, newspapers chose to fixate on a single meeting that was held on the evening of Sunday 17 March, at which representatives of the victims’ campaign group – and the author of this piece – were invited to view the agreed cross-party charter before it went before parliament on 18 March. At this meeting, newspapers claim, a royal charter was cobbled together over pizza. Except it wasn’t. What happened at this meeting, and context for it, has been described in detail by Oliver Letwin to a parliamentary select committee (Oral Evidence, 16th April 2013). Yet Letwin’s account has been ignored because it contradicts the press’ narrative.

Therefore by the time a cross-party royal charter was agreed on 18 March, a member of the public would probably have thought – based on what they had read in most papers – that Leveson concocted a new system from his head, that this new system allowed for state censorship and government interference, and that the agreed royal charter to implement the system was improvised by campaigners for the victims in the middle of the night in Ed Miliband’s office. None of this is true.

Members of the public have been similarly ill-served by much of their press when it comes to argument and diversity of opinion. There has not been “the collision of adverse opinions” as Mill argued there needs to be. In the lead up to the publication of Leveson’s report there were 28 leader columns about press regulation in national newspapers. 23 were wholly negative. Three had negative and positive comments. Two were neutral. Not one was wholly positive. Since publication of the report, editorials and opinion pieces have been just as consistently negative.

What is remarkable is that throughout this period, despite the consistently negative press coverage, public opinion has remained stubbornly steady. The public want tougher regulation of the press. They are in favour of a system similar to the one proposed by Leveson. They are comfortable with a system of regulation underpinned by law. In other words, the majority of the public disagree with the press (see this list of polls since May 2012). Yet their views are not represented in the papers.

Instead of representing the views of their public, much of the press have chosen to deploy the rhetoric of press freedom to stamp on dissenting voices. Ironically, Leveson predicted the press’ response to his own report. Buried in Volume Three, amongst a detailed examination of the Data Protection Act, Leveson lays out the modus operandi of certain newspapers when put under pressure to reform. First, there is “resistance to independent regulation of both law and standards.” Next, the press present “a confrontational, aggressive and personal approach to its critics.” It then engages in “powerful behind the scenes political lobbying in its own interests.” Finally, it uses “the deployment, through a very loud megaphone, of the rhetoric of the freedom of the press to stifle rational criticism and debate about where the public interest lies”(Volume 3, p.1,107).

The rhetoric of press freedom has been, and continues to be, used by parts of the press as a way of preventing a “free and open encounter” between truth and falsehood in the debate over press regulation. The British public, sadly, have been the losers.

Written by Martin Moore

May 27th, 2014 at 3:20 pm

How to Detect Original Journalism vs. Churnalism from Press Releases

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This post was first published on PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on April 26th 2013

When we launched Churnalism.com in the U.K. in 2011 it was not, shall we say, well received by some of those in the PR world. “PR industry hits out at Churnalism.com site” read a headline in the U.K. trade paper PR Week. One organization – SWNS – even contacted us to object strongly to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com. We demurred. (You can read about it here.)

Ruffling a few feathers was, we thought, a sign we were probably doing something right. The Sunlight Foundation appeared to think the same and got in touch to find out more about the software we developed to power the churn engine.

Sunlight rightly realized the potential behind the software we had developed (or to be more precise, that Donovan Hide had developed). Super Fast Match, or SFM (as we named it), could not only be used to track churnalism, it could track matching strings of text in any document online — something that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales noted in The Guardian shortly after the site was launched. Sites like churnalism.com, Wales noted, “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”

And so the Sunlight Foundation and the Media Standards Trust began working together to enhance the software. Our first project was geared toward enhancing and open sourcing the code for SFM. Sunlight was, among other things, keen on tracking the influence of lobby groups on U.S. government legislation. Donovan developed a souped-up version ofSFM which has been used for ad-hoc Sunlight analyses, notably the spread of legislative provisions among sets of selected bills, as well as being made available for anyone to reuse (see link).

We were always hopeful that, after we had enhanced SFM, we could work with Sunlight to produce a new, improved version of Churnalism for the U.S. The U.K. version — chugging away at churnalism.com — is still an important and useful resource. But it has always been hampered in its success because it relies on people coming to the site and pasting in press releases. It could be so much more useful — and powerful — if it were integrated into people’s browsers. That way, you wouldn’t need to go to the site; you would just be alerted about possible churnalism when you’re reading a news article.

ENTER CHURNALISM U.S.

Fortunately, thanks to a second collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, that is what we have together been able to do with Churnalism U.S.. The tool is now a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. It automatically accesses press releases from major public and private sources, and Wikipedia, such that the plugin can tell you when when you might be looking at churnalism, while you are reading the news.

We have learned a few things about churnalism over the last couple of years. The “Fourth Paragraph Rule” says that if a news article is based on a survey designed to get publicity, you’ll normally find the company’s name around paragraph four. If a headline includes the words “you need to…” then it is less likely there to inform you than to advertise to you. Watch out for superlative lists like “The sexiest jobs,” “The 10 most visited holiday spots,” “The top songs to send you to sleep.” Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also red letter days as far as churn goes. Predictable news pegs like these are a boon to press release writers.

And when you see a news story about sex, alarm bells should go off. Let’s say, for example, you read an article based on new research that has found sex with a condom is as pleasurable as sex without (like this one). Does the article tell you who conducted the research? In this case, many didn’t (see here), which is a shame since it turns out it was supported by Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan Brand condoms and vibrators.

Our aim has always been greater transparency. As one blogger, sparked by churnalism.com, wrote to journalists in 2011, “If you have to churn, at least be honest about it.” Some news organizations do now link to press releases. Many still don’t. Which is why it’s very good news that we now have both Churnalism U.S. and Churnalism UK.With luck it will lead to a change in behavior. But even if it doesn’t, people will be able to see for themselves what is original journalism and what is churnalism.

Written by Martin Moore

May 22nd, 2013 at 8:47 am

‘A rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other’ – on public activism and civic media

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This post was first published at PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on Thursday 30th June 2011

The smell of public activism wafted across this year’s Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic” campaign; NPR’s Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own — and his mother’s — activism.

If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard’s Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital tools for civic purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from “Landmen,” negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE’s Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic “spectacles of dissent” in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with “a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other,” recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves “coming out” as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR’s Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent — though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year’s Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year’s big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don’t start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and — for data – Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2011 at 10:11 pm