Is Ice Cream Strawberry? transcript (inaugural lecture, City University, March 2011)
Is Ice Cream Strawberry?Inaugural lecture, City University, March 3 2011Related bookmarks at http://www.delicious.com/paulb/inaugPresentation slides at http://www.slideshare.net/onlinejournalist/is-ice-cream-strawberry-inaugural-lecture-city-universityContents: Inaugural lecture The myth of journalism and the telegraph Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and Lovelace Cars, roads and picnics Disintermediated, disaggregated, modularised The production line has been replaced by a network. Human capital Journalism’s conflicted future Culture shift Corporatisation of the public sphere Everything I’ve just said in 7 easy to remember soundbites:This talk was originally called “I’m not going to talk about technology” but I changed it forreasons that will become apparent.When I am invited to talk about something it’s invariably about technology.But this lecture is not about technology .This is about people, institutions, and cultures.And Im going to start with one particular person: Samuel Morse.The myth of journalism and the telegraphSamuel Morse was a portrait painter. And he invented the telegraph. The telegraph is probablyone of the most mythologised technologies in journalism. The story goes that the telegraphchanged journalism during the US Civil War - because telegraph operators had to get the keyfacts of the story in at the top in case the telegraph line failed or were cut. This in turn led to theobjective, inverted pyramid style of journalism that relied on facts rather than opinion.
This story, however, is a myth.The story was investigated by David Mindich, in his book on objectivity in journalism. He foundthat the inverted pyramid style didn’t actually become anywhere near common in newspapersuntil after 1905. In fact, he credits a government war secretary with the innovation: EdwinStanton, a sort of 19th century Alastair Campbell who wanted to manage news of PresidentLincoln’s assassination.(By the way, he was also the first US lawyer to use the defence of temporary insanity)But in addition to Edwin Stanton, there were other key factors in the rise of modern journalisticstyle: in particular, institutions such as the Associated Press - which explored the new businessmodels made possible by the newswire - and cultural change, such as the rise of the scientificmethod.The telegraph didn’t change anything about journalism. Instead, it was the culture of journalistswho had experienced higher education, changes in the culture of education itself, and thecommercial demands of wire services, who over a period of decades changed their style so thatnews stories could be adapted by dozens of regional clients.So: people, culture, and institutions. Not technology.Fast forward a century and the world is still riddled with mythology about technologys effect onthe media. We ask if Google is making us stupid,if the iPad will save newspapers,if Twitter can save democracy.We seem to forget that it is people who invent technologies - and that they generally inventtechnologies to solve problems. Then, once we invent the technology, we use it to try to solvethose problems. And that creates new problems, and so we have to invent more technology tosolve the new problems. And so it goes on, and on, with new problems replacing old problems.And boy does the media industry have problems.Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and LovelaceThe media’s current problems begin with two more people: Gottfried Leibniz, a 17th centurymathematician credited with inventing the binary system. And Ada Lovelace, who helpeddevelop the first computer program in 1843. They were solving problems of their own, andidentifying new problems, which in turn were solved again, and so on.Now at some point people in the media industry came across the legacies of Leibniz andLovelace. And they thought: “Hm, this looks interesting. Perhaps we can use these technologies
to solve our own problem?” And their own problem was the same as that of every company:how can we make more money? How can we produce our product more cheaply? How can wesell the same thing twice?The solution, they decided, was to digitise as many of the processes in news production aspossible. They wanted convergence.And at first, it worked. Production costs went down, productivity went up.(I’m reminded here of a small fact about Gutenberg - that the earliest known examples ofprinting using Gutenberg’s technology are indulgences, suggesting that the church - or at leastindividuals within it - saw printing as a way to solve their own problem of raising funds. Ofcourse by flooding the market with these indulgences, the Roman church found itself with a newproblem: Protestantism)But over time new problems came up - and the news industry is still trying to solve them.Here’s the thing:Cars, roads and picnicsThroughout the 20th century there were two ways of getting big things done - and a third wayof getting small things done. Clay Shirky sums these up very succinctly in terms of how peopleorganise car production, road building, and picnics.If you want to organise the production of cars, you use market systems. If you want to organisethe construction of roads, you use central, state systems of funding - because there is a benefitto all. And if you want to organise a picnic, well, you use social systems.In the media industry these three line up neatly with print, broadcast and online production.The newspaper industry grew up in spite of government regulationThe broadcast industry grew up thanks to government regulationAnd online media grew up while the government wasnt looking.Now some media organisations have generally organised along the lines of car production, andothers along the lines of road construction. And there were some examples of alternative mediathat were organised like picnics. Different media organisations got along fine without treadingon each others’ toes: The Times wasn’t too threatened by the BBC, and the NME wasn’t toothreatened by the fanzine photocopying audiophile.But digitisation and convergence has mixed these businesses together in the same space,leading to some very confused feelings from publishers and journalists.
This is how news production used to be: a linear process, limited by physical constraints. Youwent out to get the story, you came back to write it up, or edit it, and then you handed it over toother people to edit, design, print and distribute.Production was the first part to become digitised, turning a physical good into an intangibleone - this saved on transportation time and costs but it also meant that there were limitless,identical copies. And it lowered the barrier to entry which had for so long protected publishers’businesses from competition.Newsgathering was the next element to become digitised, as an increasing amount ofinformation was transmitted digitally. In fact, in some cases journalists began to write computerprograms to do the grunt work while they got on with more important business of investigatingand verifying leads.Then finally, media companies simply lost control of distribution. This has gone through anumber of phases: initially distribution was dominated by curated directories and portals likeYahoo! and MSN, which then gave way to search engines like Google, and these are now beingovertaken by social networks such as Facebook.And this is not over: the net neutrality issue could see distribution dominated by telecommscompanies - an issue Ill come on to later.This move from a linear physical production process to a non-linear one online is one of thebases for the Model for a 21st Century Newsroom that I published three years ago.Disintermediated, disaggregated, modularisedAs the media went online, three things happened:It was disintermediated by the web,Disaggregated by linksAnd modularised by digitisation.Put in plainer language, once newsgathering, production and distribution became digital theycould be done by different people, in different places, and at different times - including non-journalists.It’s important to point out that there is no ‘natural’ way to do journalism. There are hundredsof ways to tell a story, to investigate a question, or to distribute information. Institutions andcultures have grown up out of compromises over the years as they explored those possibilitiesand their limitations.
When you remove physical limitations you remove many of the reasons for the ways for makingthose compromises.The production line has been replaced by a network.The problem is that most media organisations still think they are manufacturing cars, and theystill see journalists as part of an internal production line.Even the most progressive simply expect existing staff to become multiskilled multiplatformjournalists, doing more work - but still on the same production line.But we can redraw that diagram of the overlapping of newsgathering, production and distributionas a network diagram. And the problem with the production line approach becomes moreapparent.The news industry is caught trying to straddle the gap between the physical, and the digital.It also highlights an opportunity for new, collaborative ways of organising production.Who’s doing this already? Well Simon Rogers at The Guardian is doing it with their data blog.The Huffington Post did it with their operation. Slashdot do it with technology news. ReedBusiness Information do it with Farmers Weekly.Most other traditional news organisations that try to do this immediately hit a cultural problem.Many journalists would like to see themselves like this:But most people see journalists like this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U4Ha9HQvMo&t=0m06shttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eBT6OSr1TI&t=0m35sAnd sources who have had bad experiences with journalists and publishers are talking aboutthem to larger and larger audiences. Like this. And this. And this. And this.Now, wanting to be a great journalist and wanting to create great journalism used to amount tothe same thing.But in a networked world, those two desires can come into conflict. And as journalists it is ouregos that are our biggest weakness.It is ego that leads us to report on a story without linking to our sources.It is ego that prevents us from reading the comments on our articles and updating the originalaccordingly.
And it is ego that leads us to ask questions like Is blogging journalism? or its latest variant: ‘IsTwitter journalism?’Asking Is blogging journalism? is like asking Is ice cream strawberry?It is to allocate qualities to technology that it simply doesnt have. Is writing journalism? Isprinting journalism? Is broadcasting journalism?In the 19th century Soren Kierkegaard made the same mistake when he said of newspapersthat: “It is frightful that someone who is no one… can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility & with the aid of this dreadful disproportioned means of communication”And 50 years ago journalists were making statements like this: "TV newspeople ... have the intellectual depth of hamsters. TV news can only present the “bare bones” of a story"In my first class here at City a student asked why they should waste time engaging with peopleonline. I rather testily replied Why publish your work at all? Why bother dealing with editorsand subs and your colleagues? Why bother talking to sources and experts? Why not keep yourprecious piece of journalism locked away in your basement where it will never be sullied by thedirty gaze of other people? If you don’t want to engage with people, write fiction.But if you want to tell great stories - and have them be heard;if you want to hold power to account - and have power listen;if you want to empower readers and viewers and listeners, then you have to engage withthem.It is the height of arrogance to believe your journalism cannot be improved, and it is the heightof ignorance to fail to care if anyone engages with the issue you are reporting on.Human capitalSo here’s person number 4: Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist.Fifty years ago he used the phrase human capital to refer to the economic value thatcompanies should ascribe to their employees.
These days, of course, it is common sense to invest time in recruiting, training and retaininggood employees. But at the time employees were seen as a cost.We need a similar change in the way we see our readers - not as a cost on our time but as avaluable part of our operations that we should invest in recruiting, developing and retaining.Any online operation that does not incorporate its users in production is not only democraticallydeficient, it is commercially inefficient.Of courses some are inclined to see user generated content as a mass of ignorance, abuse andwaffle. Those people should ask how much work has been put into attracting good contributors?Into developing a healthy commenting culture? And how much has been invested into giving thegood users a reason to keep coming back?Journalism’s conflicted futureJournalism, however, is going through an identity crisis, which will become increasinglyproblematic as it tries to reinvent itself for an uncertain future.And as always, this is nothing new. In the 1920s journalism faced a similar conflict: between thejournalism of information and the journalism of stories. Should we, as journalists, perform a roleof providing citizens with the information that they need to make informed decisions? Or are wejust in the business of great stories?The source of that conflict then was the rise of the scientific method, as I explained at the startof this lecture. The source of today’s conflict could be traced to institutional change in newsorganisations becoming part of larger entertainment empires - and the melting pot of onlinepublication.Where you stand on the role of journalists will likely depend on whether you think you’re in thebusiness of building cars, constructing roads or organising picnics, and what role you thinkjournalism should perform in a democracy.Is journalism part of a deliberative democracy, in which the media provides a public forum fordebate and consensus?Is journalisms role is to provide citizens with information - as part of a liberal democracy?Or should the media encourage participation and engagement as part of a participatorydemocracy?The institutional history of journalism kept those views somewhat separated - as Lokman Tsuiexplores in his ethnography of Global Voices.
But as these cultures of journalism clash in the online space it is more important than ever thatwe reflect on our own views of where we stand.And as educators we should be teaching our students to be aware of their positions and howthat affects what they report on, how they report it, and who gets a voice in its coverage.If objectivity is to remain a journalistic value, then it should be true objectivity, not thisconstruction that passes for objectivity in most newswriting: the construction of an arbitraryfence, and the selection of a source from each side of it as an indication of ‘balance’.Culture shiftYou might argue that culture is the way that people and institutions communicate with eachother. But just as institutional culture shapes the journalism that we create, for the last couple ofdecades there has been a growing movement outside of news institutions that sees democracyas both participatory and information driven.The campaign for Freedom of Information, the work of MySociety in opening up votingrecords and debate transcripts so the public could see what their representatives were doingand saying in their name. The Free Our Data campaign - which sought to give the public theright to use information that was paid for with public money. And the Linked Data and OpenData movements which have campaigned to make public bodies publish data in a form thatmakes it easier to interrogate.What these people - and I want to name some of them here:Tom Steinberg & Tom LoosemoreHeather BrookeCharles ArthurTim Berners LeeandChris TaggartWhat these people have done - and are still doing - is making power accountable, promoting acultural expectation that we should have access to information about how our money is spent,and that most publicly funded information should be available to the people who paid for it.This of course is one of the first steps to holding power to account, the great argument thatpublishers make for their existence. That is what the Telegraph did with the MPs expenses;what The Guardian have done with Wikileaks data.But too much of this groundwork is lying ignored and unsupported by the mainstream press.
When Walsall Council released their spending data last year the webpage received more visitsthan the rest of the council website. They received several enquiries from people like ChrisTaggart asking for information about why particular items had been redacted - but they receivedonly one enquiry from the local newspaper.And that was to ask: Why have you released the data early?For comparison I want to show you a video of Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation in the UStalking about their government’s transparency initiative.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNQteT9Bu2w#t=2m08sWhere is the news organisation in the UK that is lobbying like this?A similar cultural shift is happening around public meetings and hearings, with hyperlocal blogswho want to make processes of law and democracy transparent.Simon Perry of the Ventnor Blog was ejected from a coroners court last year on the groundsthat he was neither a member of the press nor a member of the public. Richard Taylor wasinvestigated by Cambridge City Council for recording public meetings - he was not told what thegrounds of the investigation were. In Brighton a councillor was disciplined for posting clips ofcouncil meetings to YouTube. And Heather Brooke was told that she could not make an audiorecording of a hearing because the tribunal could not “maintain the necessary degree of controlover the transcript.” When Brooke asked for a copy of the ruling she was told that there was tobe no written record of it.This is one area where journalists and news organisations can be investing in their users. Itshould not just be bloggers pushing for these changes.Corporatisation of the public sphereThe public sphere used to be our territory, but we are failing to protect it online.The difficulties experienced by Wikileaks last year were the most visible demonstration yet ofjust how far the corporatisation of the public sphere has become. Some people described it asthe beginning of the first Internet war. They’re just being over-dramatic of course, but it was onefight in a whole series of turf wars over who controls online spaces.We are thankful that our printing presses are not shut down without due process. But fromMastercard and Visa to Apple, Paypal, Amazon and even data visualisation tool Tableau -company after company pulled out of the production chain without a court order in sight.In that case national security was given as the reason. In other - less publicised - examples
relating to other content producers and distributors it has been copyright, where the mereaccusation of infringement can lead to legitimate content being taken down.But the issue that should most concern journalists is the net neutrality debate.Net neutrality refers to the fact that the internet does not privilege one type of content overanother.Many internet providers would like to charge to give priority to particular sources of content - orcharge users to access certain services.The possibility of regaining a former oligopoly may have some appeal to journalists, but weshould again ask ourselves the question: do we want to be Journalists with a capital J and bathein the glory of our guild, or do we want to help journalism happen?What role do we have in a democracy?If Apple can remove the Wikileaks app from their store without appeal, or pull a newspaper fromthe app store because of minor nudity, do we want to give that power to telecomms providers?The public sphere was our territory, we should be defending it.Now, this lecture said that I would sketch out the two paths that I see journalism taking in thenext decade - so here they are:The first path is a self-interested profession that sees value in users beyond their eyeballs.The second path is a self-interested profession that allows others to control the public sphere.I would obviously not expect the industry to be anything but self-interested.In either case, technology will not change journalism. People will. You will.I want to end by summing up what I’ve been saying for the last 40 minutes in a simple list.Lists are of course notorious for working well on the internet, and as humans can onlyremember 7 things at any one time, here is...Everything I’ve just said in 7 easy to remembersoundbites:
1. Stop trying to recreate the old, closed market of print and broadcast, and address thegaps and opportunities in the new one.Our ways of doing journalism are the product of a culture that has grown up over centuries,created by people within the limits of institutions. As that culture changes, and new institutionstake shape, we need to reassess what our core purpose is.As part of that, there are obvious areas where journalists can make a difference.Firstly, to verify and contextualise what’s online - rather than merely repeating it.Secondly, to digitise what’s offline - what Ulises Mejias describes as the ‘paranodal’ - and makeit findable.Thirdly, to empower communities and make connections between them.2. See users as an asset, not a cost.If you are searching for a new business model to support journalism, it starts with this: that yourbalance sheet begins and ends with the users. You need to invest in attracting the best ones,supporting them in what they want to do, and giving them the resources to defend themselvesagainst attack.3. Get over yourself.I thought I had heard the last of the ‘citizen brain surgeon’ argument until it resurfaced a fewmonths ago at a Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism conference I attended.No, you would not let a ‘citizen brain surgeon’ operate on you. But journalism is not brainsurgery. Journalists have always been jacks of all trades, and masters of none. Now that themasters of each trade can publish themselves, it is our connections across differing worlds thatis our strength. But to maintain those connections we need to put people before stories.4. Make power accountable.Continue to push for regulatory, legal and institutional change that makes it easier for people toaccess information relevant to their lives. By doing so you are investing in users, and you canthen focus your efforts on investigating what they find.5. Hold power to account.Data doesn’t do anything alone. Journalists must be scrutinising both the data and its sources,and asking questions of both.6. Protect the public sphere
I have talked about censorship but internet propaganda and electronic surveillance are equallyimportant issues for journalists. We also need to be aware of the implications of issues such asnet neutrality for journalists and for journalism.7. Stop confusing ice cream with the flavour.Dont perpetuate the myth that technology causes things to happen. People do.Google Maps does not create terrorism any more than roads, or pencils - both of which aretechnologies. If a politician or corporation seeks to ban or control a particular technology,whether its for national security, the poor musicians, or the children, be sceptical.Technology - whether the internet, newspapers or the English language itself - is a tool. It doesnot want to do anything. It does not want to be free. It does not want to make you stupid.You choose the flavour of the ice cream. You have the power, and the responsibility that comeswith it. Take that responsibility, and make journalism better.Thank you.