Biz news focusses on Wall St, not Main St

October 6, 2009

Most economic and business news in the recent recession focussed on policy and markets – New York and Washington, in American terms. So says a study released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.,” it says.

Newspapers probably do a better job of reporting the local aspects and the people stories. “Newspaper front pages stood out for devoting the most attention to the economy, offering more localized coverage, giving voice to a more diverse range of sources and producing a higher level of enterprise reporting than other media sectors,” the study says.

Business and economic news will probably benefit – overall – from the shift to digital. People pay for it, and want both quick, fast-moving stories and deep analysis. But the content they will want – or want to pay for – will be market-focussed. Local economic news – which can matter a lot for local business development people, and for local communities – will likely suffer. Worth remembering: it is not just investigations and local politics that will be hit as newspapers fold. It is easy to just take agency and slam in the Reuters or Dow Jones copy.


Do Limbaugh and Sun affect voters?

October 3, 2009

Do the media shape politics, or are they themselves shaped by it?

The Sun newspaper has just announced that it has stopped backing Labour, and instead backs the Conservatives. This is, in its way, a very significant event: the paper’s decision to back Labour in 1997 removed the last prop from the Conservative government of John Major, which lost the subsequent election.

But the media don’t make elections, despite the Sun’s claim in an earlier election that “It was the Sun Wot Won It.” Academic John Curtice has made a small cottage industry of analysing this claim, and is pretty clear that it wasn’t, and it won’t be this time either. “Certainly Labour’s leadership took the supposed power of the newspaper sufficiently seriously to devote considerable effort during the course of the 1992-7 parliament to persuading the paper’s staff and above all its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that ‘New Labour’ was a party they could back,” he says. But: “When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.”

The Fabian society’s blog reports this and analyses it here. The Independent demolishes the thesis. “The idea that people read their favourite newspaper’s instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.”

“The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians.”

Meanwhile, David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, makes the same points about talk radio hosts, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. “Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”

And he agrees, too, that the politicians and various others conspire to make it look as if these guys matter. “They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”

“The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.”

The media are part of the complex political ecology of decision-making, opinion forming and attitude shaping, but only part; and they are as much acted upon as actors. Simple conspiracy arguments about the “power of the media” mistake cause and effect, misunderstand the way people consume media, and over simplify the decisions that ordinary people take about politics.


GlobalPost strikes CBS deal

October 3, 2009

GlobalPost, a foreign affairs website, has a big new deal, but also apparently some problems with its business model. According to the New York Times, “CBS News plans to announce Monday that it has formed a partnership with GlobalPost,, a foreign news Web site, that will provide CBS with reporting from its approximately 70 affiliated correspondents in 50 countries.”

“In the early going, at least, GlobalPost reporters will provide information, not work on the air, with CBS using its reporters and anchors to flesh out coverage for broadcast.”

The deal is reported and analysed also at Journalism.co.uk.

This is good news, but also indirectly shows the weakness of ideas about getting readers to pay for content. GlobalPost aimed at making money three ways: from paid-up members, syndication revenues (selling content to other distributors, like CBS), and advertising. Sounds like only one of these is working. “The site has had no problems attracting readers: [President and CEO Philip S. Balboni] said the site averaged more 400,000 unique users a month. But membership has been a tough sell, with subscribers to its so-called Passport Service, which costs about $100 a year, numbering only in the hundreds, he said.”

The site may also try to make money by hiring out its reporters as analysts, Online Journalism Review says. “GlobalPost,… has started a custom-research operation under its premium Passport service. For $104 a year ($50 for students and senior citizens), Passport members get access to special content, join weekly conference calls with reporters abroad, and make story suggestions to be voted on by other Passport members. But they also can request, for an additional fee, custom reporting by a freelancer or a GlobalPost reporter on a story of special interest.”

As OJR points out, the Economist Intelligence Unit has long offered research and consulting skills alongside the Economist. But in this case, the brand is supporting an additional revenue stream; for GP, the revenue comes from other media distributors. I think GlobalPost is a great idea but I wonder how sustainable the business economics of this are. If it aims to convert a percentage of readers and readers are thin on the ground, then this won’t work. If, on the other hand, it aims to succeed by selling content to existing media, then it is either a freelance network or a news agency (or both). This probably doesn’t enlarge the space for international news; it just shifts it.


UK investigations group appoints head

September 21, 2009

“The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has appointed Iain Overton, an ITN executive producer, as its first managing editor,” Roy Greenslade reports at the Guardian. Overton, 36, has extensive experience in investigative reporting, working in over 50 countries on stories for both the BBC and Channel 4.


BizWeek on the Journalism Job Market

September 20, 2009
Michael Mandel at Business Week has done some great work analysing changes in US journalism jobs. The bad news: a decline of a third in newspaper jobs in a decade. The good news: more internet jobs and twice as many information services jobs. But the net result is that this sector is shrinking. “What we have is a wipeout in newspapers, plus what looks like a combination of secular and cyclical declines in other “journalistic” industries.”

Bureau for Investigative Journalism seeks boss

July 20, 2009

A very desirable job is on offer at London’s new Bureau of Investigative Journalism as Managing Editor. The Bureau, likely to be based at City University, is funded by the Potter foundation. This is the press release announcing its launch.

“Its aim is to foster independent public interest journalistic inquiry while encouraging a new generation of reporters,” says Roy Greenslade in the Guardian.

“It will hire a managing editor, two or three reporters and will also fund freelance investigators and researchers,” says Press Gazette. “Its aim is to dig out – and then sell – the stories that many news organisations say they can no longer afford to cover in-house.”

“One of the journalists behind the campaign, Stephen Grey, will be acting editor of the new bureau as it prepares for launch, until a permanent managing editor is appointed.” Many journalists will know Grey from his work on extraordinary rendition.

The project is supported by the Investigations Fund, launched by the newly created Foundation for Investigative Reporting. The FIR includes a a number of UK luminaries, including Grey, Misha Glenny, Antony Barnett, Martin Bright, Heather Brooke, Peter Barron, Nick Davies, Nick Fielding,  Mark Hollingsworth, Andrew Jennings, Philip Knightley, Paul Lashmar, David Leigh and Jason Lewis.

The organisation is essentially a copy of ProPublica, the US body. “ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” it describes itself. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

Gavin Macfadyen, the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and one of the founders of the Bureau sayes in the press release: “We will experiment with all the techniques available to us from ‘crowdfunding’ to ‘crowdsourcing’ and provide content across the media spectrum. But there is no substitute for first rate reporters being given time and resources to deliver great stories, which hold the powerful to account. The Bureau will offer investigative journalists both proper funding and the support of senior and experienced editors and researchers to carry out important investigations that are in the public interest.”

Will it work? That probably depends on what you mean by work. It will produce journalism as a “production house” rather than a publisher – a news agency. Such models are hard to make work. The lack of a commercial factor will help in the sense that revenue will not be a daily fixation, but it still needs money to survive. And the lack of publishing platform means that it will need others to help drive audiences.

As paidContent sniffily says: “Journalism Now A Charity Case.” It notes “the irony – buoyed by The Telegraph’s MP expenses investigation and The Guardian’s mobile hacking story, investigative and data-driven journalism is more popular than it has been in years.”


On being a British hack in Brussels

March 29, 2009

I spent the weekend at an event to mark thirty years in Brussels for Geoff Meade, the man from the Press Association, the UK’s news agency. About two hundred correspondents – mainly British, with a smattering of other nationalities – met to celebrate his career and meet old friends.

It was a very good party: tons of good beer and wine, smoking still allowed in the hall (this is Belgium), familiar faces from around the institutions, music and dancing. But also a very British event (and not just because of the curry that was served). There is an old tradition in the Brussels press corps, started by Geoff, of a revue containing songs and sketches, written or adapted by the journos themselves, as if we were all in some end-of-the-pier show (which perhaps we were).

The press pack in Brussels means it is not like other foreign postings. There are about a hundred Brits there, I would guess, all told, at any one time. Some foreign correspondents would not even really regard it as a foreign posting, since it is only a couple of hours from London, the content is mainly important because of domestic politics, and indeed increasingly people try to cover it from elsewhere, more cheaply.

It is a peculiarly intense experience. Covering the European Union means living in each others’ pockets day in, day out, often all day. The meetings go on from early to late and often on into the next day, while officials debate the finer points of the beef support regime, or policy towards the Balkans, or fish. You, the hack, stand outside, dependent on the occassional briefing, your contacts, your understanding of the event, your colleagues, and your imagination (not neccesarily in that order). There is little point in trying to plough your own furrow: you rely on your confreres for advice, input, quotes and interpretation, because no-one can be an expert on everything. That doesn’t mean there is no competition: it is fierce. However, you must compete within the pack. Strong friendships form and endure.

This is not Gaza or New York. The subject matter is technical, political and frequently extremely dreary to everyone but the correspondents, yet also very important, a curious dilemma for the hacks. They share the agony of covering a story that is dull, but critical; and which has been extremely polarised, yet where most wish to show themselves balanced and objective. The desk back home frequently thinks it knows better. For the British press, the politics correspondents in Westminster often take the opportunity to put their interpretation on matters. It is a foreign story because abroad, but really a home story: in US terms, both international and national.

The city is Belgian but the colleagues are international. I had French, Italian, Spanish, German, Irish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Japanese, American, Canadian, friends there, and more I have forgotten. According to Gareth Harding of ThisEurope, “Brussels is home to the largest concentration of foreign correspondents in the world. Of the 1200 journalists accredited to the EU institutions, 1000 are non-Belgian – including over 120 from Germany alone.” They work together, and yet alone: a story about fish, say, may be huge news in Scotland, but hardly trouble the Austrians.

Relations between the groups are usually warm, though, and not just personally. Stories get traded, in odd swaps of quotes, facts, rumours, between national contingents. Paddy Smythe of the Irish Times describes it well: “What is prized in these bizarre rituals is the ability to network and trade stories with colleagues. And so, many were the times when exasperated Irish ministers would wonder aloud what possible interest The Irish Times could have in the latest tiff between Germany and Italy over car subsidies, and the IT would just press on demanding more and more arcane detail for the flourishing market in quotes outside. There I could trade an Austrian bon mot for an “Irish Minister in policy about-turn” scoop. Unbeknown to him, the Minister would have provided it.”

I travelled often when I was in Brussels – down to Strasbourg for the itinerant parliamentary hearings, to Luxembourg for meetings of the council (why it has to meet in Luxembourg for several months a year is beyond me), but also to the member state capitals for summits, and provincial towns where smaller meetings are held. The travel certainly broadened your horizons and showed you the reality of European co-operation (for good and ill), but that wasn’t why we did it. The tense, personal politics meant that you had to be there: for the walkouts, the screaming matches, briefings and counter-briefings.

As Smythe puts it: “The foreign correspondent’s role in the news gathering process at such events is somewhat analogous to the way in which Ronald Reagan earned his living before Hollywood beckoned. In the days when radio broadcasting required a massive panoply of equipment, many college football games would be broadcast using a relay system – the game’s every play, reduced to a series of numbers (qback to wde rcvr – 40 yds, run 20 yds, 2 blocks, tdwn …), was conveyed to the studio by telegraphic ticker tape where Reagan would turn it into the purple prose of a running commentary. “And Fleischman steps back, glancing to left and right, sidestepping the offensive rush. As the bulldozer Murphy closes on him the ball leaves his hand in a long 40-yard graceful ark, hanging in the air, as if defying gravity, for the gazelle-like Jamey Smith’s outstretched fingers …..TOUCHDOWN”

According to one academic, “Brussels journalists play a pivotal role in the European integration process. They act as agents of Europeanization, wedged between complex European issues and national public spheres, privileged in terms of information supply, geographical proximity and social networking.” But the same study notes that though the correspondent in Brussels remains in close contact with their peers in the city, the relationship with home – with the desk, with colleagues – is critical. “While many journalists state that they are in close contact with their home organisation, a number of respondents found that their colleagues at home often neither knew nor bothered enough to engage in real dialogue.”

Geoff’s role in this has always been pivotal. The PA is the UK news agency and all the papers depend on it. Firstly, like all agency reporters, he needs to turn up. Given the schedule and the competing demands, this is not easy, yet Geoff is always there, often into the early hours. Secondly, he has to supply (and satisfy) both the Euro-sceptic Daily Telegraph and Europhile Guardian; and he has. Most correspondents, when on holiday, will happily tell their newsdesks: as long as Geoff is on the byline, take PA. Thirdly, he is a prime source of tradeable news and gossip to other nationalies, and he needs to be trusted implicitly by them too, and he is. Geoff has not an ounce of British chauvinism about him. Yet were he to go native – perhaps the primary sin in the correspondent’s book – his copy would be worse than useless, because tainted. Geoff has curiously remained almost untouched by Europe, in this sense; he is (despite the former comment) culturally British to the core, still obsessed by 1970s prog rock. Lastly, he needs (like Reagan) to imbue the copy with that touch of colour – the olive in the martini – that gives it some flavour, and he succeeds, with brio and wit, but also self-deprecation.

Presence, impartiality, detachment, insight and good, clear writing: these are remarkable attributes, and necessary ones in the good foreign correspondent. Geoff is a prince amongst them.