Archive for the ‘MySociety’ tag

Re: #futureofnews – this much I know

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I’m tempted to say ‘not very much’ since no-one really knows too much about the future of news just now. You know this is true because senior news folk have given up on the doom and gloom stuff and are starting to get all optimistic, talking about ‘the golden age of journalism’, and how it’s a ‘bright dawn’ and that sort of thing. This would make sense if there had been any structural change in the economics of news but there hasn’t, so their optimism has the hollow twang of hope over reason.

Still, the optimists have got it half right. As Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of Caledonian Mercury, said at a #futureofnews conference a week or so back (I paraphrase):

“This is great time to do journalism. It’s just not a great time to earn your living as a journalist”

But, in these turbulent times, as I earnestly make my way from one #futureofnews conference to another, a few things are starting to become clear. So this much I know:

  • Even if paywalls provide a secure financial future for news organizations – which right now seems unlikely – they will reduce the pool of shared information, and cut those news organizations’ content off from the openness, sharing and linking that characterizes the web. ‘You cannot control distribution or create scarcity’, Alan Rusbridger said in his January Hugh Cudlipp lecture, ‘without becoming isolated from this new networked world’.
  • The paywall is not the only way to sustain the digital newsroom. Advertising – much maligned by many – could yet make online non-paywall newspaper content viable within 5 years. Peter Kirwan does the sums in Wired – calculating that if Guardian News Media manages a 20% annualized growth of digital revenues (it estimates growth will be 30% this year) it will be able to maintain a £100m digital newsroom seven days a week by 2015.
  • There are other revenue models for online news. Ones that allow you to keep your news open, linked and shared, and make money. For example, what I call the ‘carrier pidgeon’ model. In this model you let people share, link to, recommend, search, aggregate, and even re-use you content – you just make sure it’s properly marked up and credited first, so you can keep track of it, and develop revenue models off the back of it. You do this with – excuse the geek terminology – ‘metadata’. Embedded metadata has all sorts of potential benefits we’re only just starting to take advantage of (hence why we’ve spent so much time on hNews and linked data). I call it the ‘carrier pidgeon’ model because the news doesn’t just go out, it comes back.
  • The cost base is still going to have to go down. The cost of producing news will necessarily have to be a lot lower than it has been historically. This doesn’t have to mean cutting journalist’s jobs or getting out of print. There are lots of ways to rethink costs in a digital world. One of the most inventive is Roman Gallo’s Czech model. Gallo opened cafés in the centre of towns across the Czech Republic. He then put his news teams in the cafés. Not only does this mean they have very low office overheads (the café covers basic costs), but it means the journalists are working in amongst the local community and getting readers directly involved in production.
  • There will need to be accessible, re-usable public data provided regularly and in a consistent format. Without this it will be much harder to keeps costs low because of the amount of time it will take to coax information out of public authorities and then to analyse it. This is why the launch of data.gov.uk was such an important development, and why we need to join Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s quest for ‘raw data now’ (as he shouts in his wonderfully quirky TED appearance).
  • Whether or not paywalls work or online news makes money, there will be a public interest gap. Some newsgathering and reporting will almost certainly never again be commercially profitable in an open market. Online news is highly unlikely ever to pay for a journalist to sit in a local court for days on end, for example. This was one of the most important things to come out of Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie’s report ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’. Schudson and Downie could not find a market solution to some of the news problems they were exploring, and so settled instead on a mixture of tax breaks, subsidies, foundation grants, and donations.
  • We will rely, for aspects of watchdog journalism, on a combination of journalists, NGOs, and motivated members of the public. Note the use of the word ‘motivated’. News organisations will need to find ways – other than money – to motivate and sustain people to help them scour data, dig through school and healthcare records, and alert them to corruption and injustice.
  • As well as motivating people, news organizations will need to build the tools that help the non-professional journos be watchdogs – tools like whatdotheyknow.com, a site built by MySociety that makes it relatively easy for people to make freedom of information requests, and then share the results of those requests to a wider community. Or the way the Guardian got the public to search through the millions of MPs expenses claims.
  • News organizations and journalists will need to form and re-form partnerships with other organizations, journalism co-operatives, NGOs and members of the public. We’re seeing thi
    s start to happen with sites like The Bay Citizen in San Francisco (see good post by Mallary Jean Tenore on Poynter) and OpenFile – the beta site just launched by Craig Silverman et al in Canada

Even taking all this into account there’s a good chance that, without some tweaking of the market; a few tax breaks here, maybe a start-up fund there, there will be a lot of public interest news blackspots.

So there it is. Not so bleak, but not so rosy either. And take it with a big pinch of salt since the only ones who seem to know about profitable business model for news just now are those running #futureofnews conferences.

Written by Martin Moore

June 4th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

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A new founding principle for the BBC

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Fantastic. A proper thoughtful speech about politics, the media and the role of the BBC from Mark Thompson – the BBC’s Director General (‘The Trouble with Trust’).

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m impressed is that I’ve been banging on about many of the same issues for a while now. Indeed, for the last couple of months I’ve been on a road trip telling anyone who will listen (BBC included) that news organisations are changing fundamentally, that the Fourth Estate is under threat, and that the only news organisation with the scale and remit to take the lead in doing something about it is the BBC.

One aspect of his speech particularly struck me. Thompson did not just outline what he saw as the problems with democratic engagement (including a healthy dose of scepticism about the value of scepticism) he also had a go at suggesting a way forward. This included transforming “the way we [the BBC] connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public”.

This is important. It means, in effect, adding a fourth pillar – ‘to connect’ – to the BBC’s famous founding principles – to inform, educate and entertain’. I’m not sure I like the verb Thompson’s used – I’d probably go with ‘to engage’ or ‘to include’ rather than ‘to connect’, but the concept is right. Only by including the public in a reconstituted Fourth Estate can we hope to sustain and renew it.

Thompson then talked about what this might mean in practice, for example, giving the public “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them”. Much, in other words, of what mySociety has started to do through www.theyworkforyou.com, and some of it’s other excellent websites.

Indeed it sounded like organisations like mySociety – and, I hope, Media Standards Trust – inspired this part of Thompson’s speech. Which appeared to be confirmed by Thompson’s comment at the end that “We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves”.

This is significant – and exciting – new territory for the BBC. The Corporation will need partners, and will need to sustain its ambition (not so easy given the financial and other pressures it is under), but this is most certainly the right direction. Thank goodness.

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

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Harnessing the power of the new Fourth Estate

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I spent this afternoon in Oxford talking to BBC journalists, producers and editors about the threats to public interest journalism and the Fourth Estate (imagine how few news organisations would not only make time to talk about this, but where journalists would turn up and discuss it – good old BBC), and realised – after having left, that I’d forgotten to talk about the exciting bit. There’s so much to worry about in news it’s easy to forget that the revolution in media is as exciting as it is scary.

Central to this – and where the BBC plays a critical role – is the reconstitution of what’s traditionally been known as the ‘Fourth Estate’. What I mean by this is the massive explosion in the number of people doing what they consider journalism, but who don’t call themselves journalists. Maybe they take the occasional photo and send it to the BBC, or write a blog about an event they go to, or do some digging about some local scandal.

The exciting bit, and the bit I hope the BBC will play a big part in, is harnessing this amazing explosion by giving people the tools and advice to help them become informal constituents of this new Fourth Estate. This occurred to me when on the way back I was reading excerpts from Demos’ study about the ‘Pro-Am Revolution’:

“…in the last two decades” Demos writes, “a new breed of amateur has emerged: the Pro-Am, amateurs who work to professional standards. These are not the gentlemanly amateurs of old – George Orwell’s blimpocracy, the men in blazers who sustained amateur cricket and athletics clubs. The Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked by new technology. The twentieth century was shaped by large hierarchical organisations with professionals at the top. Pro-Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive, and low cost”

Imagine if the BBC built the tools to enable these ‘Pro-Ams’ to do some of the jobs journalists would like to do but just don’t have time: to search through health statistics, to look at local councillors records, to look at public sector budgets. Many might use them just for their own benefit, but in doing so they could turn up things no single journalist would have time to look for. MySociety have built tools like this to enable people to scrutinize MPs (TheyWorkForYou), and more recently on to report local problems – FixMyStreet (broken drains, cracked pavements).

Isn’t this something the BBC could do too? And, if it did, wouldn’t it harness the power of an army of local and specialist journalists?

Written by Martin Moore

September 26th, 2007 at 4:48 pm

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