New Model Journalism

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Archive for the ‘Professionalism’ Category

Narratively: long, slow journalism from The City that Never Sleeps

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The new longform website Narratively has attracted interest ‘beyond our wildest dreams’, according to founder Noah Rosenberg. Even before its launch earlier this month, coverage of the New York-based magazine has been wide, while expressions of support have come via social media from around the world.

Such enthusiasm, thinks Rosenberg, is a measure of the appetite for in-depth storytelling not dictated by the 24/7 news agenda, and of a desire to get under the skin of a city such as New York which could easily be replicated in other parts of the world.

‘I’ve realised we have a readership which is beyond our base in New York,’ he says. ‘There are people who want the “slow journalism” approach'”.

The finance for the first six months came via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Rosenberg looked at other quality journalism projects and saw that longform science journalism project Matter, for example, hit its $50 000 target within a few days.

Rosenberg decided to adopt a similar approach for the start-up, and $53 000 was raised for Narratively. Meanwhile, the fundraising process created considerable publicity: ‘It’s not just a way to generate the money,’ he says. ‘It’s also a way to generate a tremendous amount of exposure.’

Narratively backers can choose from a series of packages which give you more involvement the more you pay. $10, for example, buys the opportunity to vote on the themes to be covered during the launch period, while for $10 000 the Narratively team will fly out and spend a week covering ‘under-the-radar human-interest stories from the location of your choice’. (No one, so far, has gone for this.) In between, are a range of packages which include dining events, customised products and the services of a photojournalist.

The Kickstarter appeal secured around 800 backers, a number of whom, Rosenberg admits, are close friends and family. The rest are made up of journalists passionate about the project and consumers looking forward to a good, in-depth read. The pledges he’s proudest to have secured, he says, are the lowest amounts, indicating a vote of confidence from those who don’t have much cash.

The project has been in-the-gestation for the past couple of years, as Rosenberg has gradually been getting other media professionals on board. Weekly editorial meetings in a New York cafe have attracted a dozen to forty journalists all keen to contribute. To date, no one has been paid for their work, including Rosenberg, who has been supporting himself on a modest freelance income supplemented by savings.

But from now on, he says, contributors will be paid ‘a few hundred dollars a piece’, a rate which he hopes will rise to the level of the fees paid in the freelance marketplace.

How far is this is feasible will depend on the success of the three-pronged business model designed to sustain Narratively after the first six months. Discussions with advertisers begin this week. Then comes the possibility of syndication to a global media prepared to pay for high-quality content about The Big Apple. But the key plank is to be a premium membership/subscription package which will buy readers access to exclusive content such as a monthly ebook, interactive city guides, and live storytelling events.

The scheme is designed to create the ‘sense of community’ – aka brand relationship – between publication and readership that has long been at the heart of established media, while quietly selling non-editorial products as part of the package.

Further down the road, Rosenberg envisages an occasional print edition and expansion into other cities.

What’s not to like? As is so often the case in this brave new world of media pioneers, the editorial aspirations are laudable and there is doubtless an appetite among readers for what the Narratively team can produce. It remains to be seen whether the money will follow.

Written by Alex

September 17th, 2012 at 7:51 am

OUT NOW: Free ebooklet for writers from New Model Journalism

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By Alex Klaushofer.

Against the background of change and struggle that has afflicted the media and publishing in recent years, one strand of good news has consistently emerged. This good news story of the crisis in journalism tells of innovation and experimentation, of pioneering practices and the opening up of new frontiers, as writers of all kinds develop cutting-edge models to sustain quality work.

So we’re pleased to have the opportunity to gather together some of the best, and most distinctive, examples of this pioneering trend. Some of the case studies, such as Disability News Service and iPad magazine Sail Racing, are updates on initiatives we’ve been tracking for a while. It’s been great to see them going from strength to strength, refining their models as they do so.

Other experiments, such as community newspaper The Ambler or author Simon Winchester’s enhanced app Skulls, are new to us or have received little coverage in the British media press. Most are working as individuals or in small groups, and all are entrepreneurial – but not relentlessly so. Some are combining their new projects with other ambitions or commitments, fitting them into their own temperaments and particular circumstances. In every case, the innovators share the lessons learnt (so far), details of the nuts and bolts of their models, and offer ideas on how their models might be replicated by others.

The forthcoming e-pamphlet has been generously sponsored by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society and supported by the NUJ. Freely available to members of both organisations, it is effectively a gift to the writing community. The hope is that readers will draw both inspiration and practical advice from its contents.

‘Help yourself: New ways to make copyright pay’, is available here.

Written by Alex

July 2nd, 2012 at 6:13 am

Readers will pay for quality journalism, insists editor of new longform site

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Launched barely a month ago, the new longform website beststory.ca is nothing if not journalistically ambitious.

According to its founder, Warren Perley, the Montreal-based site is unique as a platform for quality, exclusive stories offered to readers on a pay-as-you-go basis. The site carries no advertising, neither does it follow a news agenda; instead freelance journalists contribute the stories they want to write. After extensive editing, the published stories earn them a royalty of 25 per cent.

The project has been in the making three and a half years, and the founders have invested a significant amount of time in developing the proprietary software that makes possible a magazine-style layout with quality pictures appearing perfectly in tablet form.

Perley says that he and his partners have also made a ‘substantial’ financial investment in the business, although he doesn’t want to reveal how much. But the company did, he volunteers, turn down offers of outside investment in order to maintain editorial independence.

The decision was a reflection of the thinking that has underpinned the project since its conception. Now that the advertising model that has sustained journalism for the past hundred years is broken, argues Perley, the task is to re-educate readers about the need to pay for quality writing.

But at 40 cents – US or Canadian, depending on where the reader is – the fee per story is remarkably low. Readers are offered three packages, the lowest a bundle of three stories, and the highest ten dollars’ worth of articles, including some yet-to-be published.

The corollary of such pricing is that the writers’ earnings will be similarly low.

‘We have to keep the price exceptionally modest, because first we have to get readers used to the idea of paying for intellectual content,’ says Perley.

He adds that, once the readership has built up and the site developed a reputation, prices – and therefore royalties – may go up. In the meantime, the priority is to establish a new paradigm for digital publishing in which people are prepared to pay for quality reading matter.

The beststory model, he agrees, combines old-fashioned publishing values with a determination to make digital content pay. In the meantime, it is clearly not going to generate anyone a living wage any time soon.

‘Will it be a financial success?’ asks Perley. ‘We’ll see. I think it could be. But I only know one way to do business, and that means producing quality.’

Written by Alex

May 14th, 2012 at 10:46 am

Narrative Science and the rise of the robot-writer

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The prospect of machines taking over the world, either as our servants or our masters, has long fascinated, appearing in sci-fi novels and books for at least half a century. But while intelligent robots capable of household management may yet be some way off, a new breed of automated authors, revolutionising the world of journalism, has already arrived.

Its strongest representative comes in the form of Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that develops software able to convert large quantities of numerical data into readable prose. The company, whose strapline boasts that it ‘transforms data into stories and insight’, tends to cater for niche markets in finance and sport. It numbers among its thirty clients the business information giant Forbes, for whom it has created a platform able to predict company earnings. Naturally, the customisation of the software requires considerable human input: the staff at Narrative Science input the range of stories and angles along with the preferred house style, but thereafter comes a reliable flow of mass-produced stories tailored to each client’s needs.

As astute commentators have pointed out, the implications of such a development for writers trying to earn a crust by hand and brain are double-edged. The obvious threat to traditional journalists that accompanies the attraction of cheap, plentiful copy for publishers, are cogently expressed by Evgeny Morozov:

‘First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect,’ he writes in Slate. ‘As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline.’

On the other hand, in an article published in the Atlantic earlier this month, Joe Fassler argues that in taking the drudgery out of writing, robot-writers could improve the journalist’s lot, freeing them up to concentrate on more creative, interesting projects. ‘In theory,’ he writes, ‘Narrative Science could change that, working like a team of cheap interns to scour the dross, find the gems, and deliver insight. With bales and bales of mind-numbing government and corporate documents to sort through, Narrative Science could eventually help writers find the needle in the haystack.’

Context, of course, is all: for this to happen, journalists would need to keep their jobs and, it’s important to note, lone freelance operators would not be able to afford the services of the likes of Narrative Science.

But it’s in the less obvious implications of automated authorship that the real threat to the human lies, both commentators suggest. As the trend towards personalisation continues, with information-providers more and more driven to tailor their products to the needs of the individual, the robot-writer will dig ever-deeper into the privacy of the reader, harnessing her tastes for its own, commercially-motivated ends:

‘The real threat comes from our refusal to investigate the social and political consequences of living in a world where reading anonymously becomes a near impossibility,’ writes Morozov. ‘It’s a world that advertisers—along with Google, Facebook, and Amazon—can’t wait to inhabit, but it’s also a world where critical, erudite and unconventional thinking may become harder to nurture and preserve.’

Meanwhile, Fassler, having interviewed the folk at Narrative Science, is a partial convert to automated writing, concludes that fears about the threat to the other end of the creative process – the writer’s – are unfounded:

‘Even our simplest moments are awash in data that machines will never quantify—the way it feels to take a breath, a step, the way the sun cuts through the trees. How, then, could any machine begin to understand the ways we love and hunger and hurt? The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.’

Written by Alex

April 30th, 2012 at 6:42 am

From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

Written by Alex

January 18th, 2012 at 9:51 am

Social media platforms get canny with copyright

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Guest post by Mike Holderness.

What happens when a journalist decides to share some of their work with the world though one of those “social media” websites? A headache, first: if you want to be sure of retaining the rights that attend copyright, you’re enjoined to read some dense legalese.

The owners of the platforms have got canny. All the sites I checked – blogger.com, facebook.com, flickr.com, photobucket.com, picasaweb.com, twitpic.com and youtube.com – now say you retain all rights in works that you upload. This is not what I remember from a couple of years ago. I suspect the changes followed user outrage, and the suit and counter-suit between Daniel Morel and Agence France Presse over photos posted to Twitpic: see this report.

You may be familiar with the “you keep copyright BUT …” manoeuvre; these are similar. All require “a non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any content that you post on or in connection with their service. Fair enough, up to a point: the point of uploading something is to let others see it. Now for the devilish detail. Facebook, Twitpic and Photobucket (owned by News International) drop in a mention that this licence is “sub-licensable”. Picasaweb (owned by Google) clearly “includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals … for the provision of syndicated services”. Blogger, also owned by Google, does not.

Yahoo! as owner of Flickr, appears not to make sub-licensing a general condition. You can choose to allow licensing of photos through www.gettyimages.com/flickr – which is good … apart from wannabes undercutting professional photographers, which is a different discussion.

Twitpic now has you grant a licence to all users of their services to display your work “within the functionality of the service”. Photobucket has you grant users a licence to “make derivative works”, so I won’t be going there again.

All require that you give permission for them to modify your work: the lawyers probably justify that to allow thumbnailing photos, but that’s not what it says.

All say they won’t be responsible for anything. Flickr, Blogger and Twitpic have explicit clauses making you “indemnify” them – that is, agree to bear the full cost of any lawsuit resulting from what you upload.

Several services once earned opprobrium by stripping out “metadata” – the fields within an image file in which you can indicate ownership. I ran a few simple tests, and all now seem to preserve the basic “IPTC” information, except Facebook, which stripped out everything but copied the “copyright” line into the Facebook text database. Blogger stripped everything from a resized photo, but not the full-size version.

Picasaweb and Flickr now display an “all rights reserved” message alongside photos.

The conclusion? Building your own website to publish your work seems the only safe way to go. And, sorry, but you’ll still have to check the terms for yourself; they may well have changed since I looked on 30 September, and I deny all liability for missing anything.

Mike Holderness is the editor of the Freelance, the newsletter published by the London Freelance Branch of the NUJ. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the October issue.

Written by Alex

November 14th, 2011 at 5:29 am

Under the spotlight: Citizen journalism site Blottr

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Since launching a little over a year ago, Blottr, or ‘the people powered news service’, has been growing exponentially.

With regional sites covering eight UK cities including London and Leeds, Blottr has recently expanded overseas, launching sites in France and Germany. Its traffic is impressive – 1.6 million unique users a month, or nearly four million page impressions – and the site’s own research suggests that the demographic of the readers is reassuringly mainstream: a quarter are students, and the rest an equal male-female split of adults aged 18-52.

Founder Adam Baker, a former digital projects director at Northcliffe Media,
is evangelical about the ability of a news service largely created by ordinary people to ‘disrupt’, as he puts it, the practices of traditional media organisations increasingly struggling to put reporters on the ground. ‘That’s the power of citizen journalism’, he says. ‘People at the scene are best placed to report it.’

‘The riots did us a massive favour,’ he adds. ‘We got nearly three million unique users over three days that propelled us into mainstream awareness, and broke the riots exclusively in Ealing and Woolwich.’

He also claims that Blottr published the first footage of the shooting of Gaddafi in Europe, just eight minutes after the event, considerably before mainstream media such as Sky.

The 24-hour news operation is overseen by a single editor supported by a handful of community and country managers, who monitor the content contributed by the public and alter it, post-publication, only if it is libellous, malicious, offensive or grammatically faulty. But editorial influence of a more traditional kind is exerted over the home page, which highlights selected stories deemed most likely to appeal to the Blottr readership.

The site’s revenue-sharing scheme pays selected contributors £1 per thousand views, an arrangement which says a lot about the way the model privileges popularity over labour; contributors are invited to join the scheme only after they have proved that they will be of continuing value to the site by regularly pulling in the punters via social media.

‘It rewards them for the popularity of their content; they’re not getting paid to write; they’re getting paid to promote their story,’ Baker explains. ‘It’s based on how valuable they are to us – they can write one brilliant post, but if they don’t write regularly, they’re not going to go on it.’ (The contributor of the Gaddafi photo-scoop, for example, did not get paid.)

Early indications suggest that, for the chosen few – about a hundred out of nearly 1600 contributors – the revenue-sharing scheme can be lucrative: ‘Last week we paid someone £230 for a three paragraph article because it was really very popular,’ he says.

The scheme is in keeping with another unusual feature of the site, an ‘authentication algorithm’ which attributes influence to each contributor, breaking down the number of people who have contributed to a story, whether in the form of photos, videos or revisions and additions.

While Baker is unfazed by questions his model raises about the quality of such future journalism, his answers do reveal a certain respect for traditional reporting. Does he think the citizen-based news model will replace news-gathering by professional journalists?

‘It definitely won’t replace it,’ he says. ‘It’s not analytical enough – that’s the reason I pick up The Guardian every day.’

And he denies that there’s a risk, if things go as profitably as he hopes, of a Huffington Post-style rebellion from unpaid contributors in future. ‘We’re really different from the Huffington Post,’ says Baker. ‘The Huffington Post are looking for professional bloggers to contribute content without being paid; that’s not what we’re trying to do.’

‘If you’re a journalist and you can’t get published elsewhere, a student trying to build a portfolio, or a member of the public just wanting to capture something, we provide a platform,’ he adds.

So far, the prospects for a profitable future are promising. Having been bankrolled for the first year by Baker, Blottr earlier this year secured a £1m investment from Mark Pearson, founder of web-marketing outfit Markco. ‘We’re not breaking even yet, but we’re close to it,’ says Baker. ‘We’re ahead of our projections, especially for traffic and revenue.’

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the revenue comes from non-traditional sources. Some 80% comes by selling licenses for the software developed to enable the Blottr’s user-generated content to other publishers, now branded as Newspoint; the remaining 20% comes from self-serve advertising in the Gumtree mould, persuading customers able to advertise events and services free to pay to have their adverts promoted.

It’s hard to tell, at this stage in Blottr’s development, whether the news site is really a basis for a new form of quality journalism, or whether it’s the product of a canny business mind that has seen an opportunity to ride a profitable new wave of technology and culture. But its early success certainly testifies not just to the healthy demand for web-based news, but also to the growing appetite of citizen journalists to report it.

If you have any feedback on Blottr or other initiatives reported on this site, please tweet us @newmodeljourno or email us directly.

Written by Alex

October 31st, 2011 at 7:14 am

Leveson v. the moguls – can the lawyer who let Ken Dodd slip, outwit Murdoch?

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Review by Tim Dawson.

The British press has rarely been in such a fix.  During two weeks in July, apparently unshakeable pillars crumbled to dust.  News International was humbled, the company’s BSkyB deal collapsed, the News Of The World closed and several senior officers of the Metropolitan Police resigned.

Buffeted by its own proximity to the Murdoch empire, the government has initiated an inquiry which will consider what ails British journalism, and what can be done to improve matters. It will be chaired by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson whose prosecution of Ken Dodd for tax evasion famously failed, despite an otherwise impeccable legal career.

Sadly, in all the fulminating about the evil octogenarian emperor, relatively little has been heard from journalists themselves about what the think ought to be done.

So the publication of the submission from the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom A Chance For Change is welcome.  Not so good, however, is that its invective is informed by a critique of the media that dates back to the Wapping dispute, and today is more museum piece than rallying cry.

At its heart is a staggering failure to understand the nature of newspapers.  “Is the press, and not just News International, above the law, beyond regulation and accountable to no one but itself?” it asks rhetorically and then, to no great surprise, answers in the affirmative. “If democracy is to survive, this situation needs urgent remedy,” CPBF fulminates.

British newspapers are unusual in a numbers of ways, as consumer products and by way of international comparison.  The vast majority are purchased daily from newsagents.  If the buying public don’t like what their paper is saying, they have the most immediate remedy imaginable – they can keep their money in their pockets.  Or they can buy an alternative.  There is more choice of national newspapers in the UK than in nearly any other county.  This is the basic means by which newspapers are held to account, by millions of people, every single day of the week.

CPBF, of course, would have you believe that newspaper buyers are dupes, fed wicked subliminal messages by malign owners and their henchmen in the editor’s chairs. It is a tired insult, born of a dislike of the politics of much of the press and a rather lofty disdain for ‘ordinary people’. As anyone who has worked in newspapers knows, the buying public are highly sophisticated consumers who are wooed daily with products that require enormous imagination, talent and investment.  Far more effort goes into figuring out how to make newspapers chime with readers’ interests and proclivities than in promoting the proprietor’s agenda.

What particularly irks the report’s authors is that the most successful newspaper stables in the UK are News International (for whom I undertake on-going freelance work) and Associated (publishers of The Daily Mail).  Not only are they generally right wing, but neither recognises independent trades unions.  Like it or not, however, both also produce the most successful newspapers available today and, to judge from September’s ABCs, their consumers have demonstrated an extraordinary degree of loyalty, despite the scandals.

Happily, CPBF’s three-fold prescriptions are slightly more grounded than their analysis.  Media ownership should be regulated in such a way that newspaper owners with a national market share of 20% or more should be limited to a 20% stake in any broadcast media in which the are involved.  There should be a statutory right to the correction of factual inaccuracies with financial penalties for newspapers that fail to satisfy the aggrieved and there should be tighter regulation of contacts between government ministers and media executives.

All worthy enough, but it is worth considering what would be the consequence of enacting any of these might be.  Rules on density of media interests sound laudable – but were CPBF’s model to be applied, it would almost certainly reduce overall investment in the media.  Perhaps that is a price worth paying for a more pluralistic society, but I suspect that it would also mean a significant reduction in the number of journalists in reasonably well-paying jobs.

A statutory version of the Press Complaints Commission might improve standards.  Funnily enough, though, in the cases about which CPBF professes to care the most – ordinary people about whom untrue stories have been written – my personal experience is that the PCC provides an effective remedy.

On those few occasions when complaints have been made about my work to the PCC (none of which have been upheld, I might add) I have been required to present my case, and my notebooks to the managing editor and the lawyers. My work was then scrutinised in an atmosphere of chilly seriousness that left me thinking that I would be out of the door if I could not provide watertight justifications for everything that I had written.  Statutory penalties, over and above the libel-law lottery, can only make newspapers more cautious and journalists’ lives more difficult.

The case for routine recording of contacts between ministers and the media is obvious – although, no amount of paperwork and oversight will remove the unofficial means by which politicians and the media cross-pollinate.

The most glaring admission in CPBF’s manifesto is any clear sense of what the media of the future might be like.  Indeed, given the speed at which the public’s attention is switching away from printed media, in years to come it may seem that the entire Leveson enquiry had more to do with the past than the future.

I share CPBF’s enthusiasm for more plural media ownership and control, but what is needed is some idea of how that might happen, be it levies on broadband providers to fund local news, for example, or tax concessions for owner-operated news services.  Fond as the left is of refighting the wars of yesteryear, figuring out how a new media model might work is a far more fruitful undertaking than trying to settle old scores.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 10th, 2011 at 5:53 am

New media manners – the case against digital rudeness

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

In keeping with the back-to-school feel of the week, today’s post is about a little-discussed aspect of journalism in the digital age – the rise of a new form of rudeness, and the concomitant importance of good manners.

I’m not talking about the negative effects of new technology on everyday behaviour, like texting while you’re on a date (no, women still don’t like this) or emailing while in the middle of a phone conversation (yes, I can hear the tap-tap), the implications of which are increasingly discussed. What I’m referring to is a little-noticed phenomenon specifically of interest to those of us who write in the online age: the fact that some readers freely use the comment sections of websites to launch personal attacks on authors.

This line of thinking was prompted by a piece by comedian Robert Webb in the New Statesman in August about how he gave up his weekly Telegraph column because he could no longer face the aggressive responses that came from a vocal minority. He calls them the Ghouls – ‘the online green biro brigade who turned up every week to tell me what a useless bastard I was’, and his portrait of their comments will be familiar to anyone who’s published online with a well-used forum. ‘[They] were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip,’ he writes. ‘There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.’

A week later, on Radio 4’s Today programme, journalist Sam Delaney reported similar experiences of ‘flippant obnoxiousness’, with his commentators going so far as to cut and paste their unfavourable remarks on his Facebook page to make quite sure he saw them.

Here, too, at the virtual space that is New Model Journalism we have been Shocked and Disappointed by the unexpected levels of online rudeness for which decades of writing for publication have left us unprepared. Alex woke up one morning to find that an unpaid blog she had written for a well-known publication had generated an entire post on a personal website devoted to impugning her professionalism, while Tim’s innocent bicycling copy has won him a near-death-threat. (No, we aren’t linking to them.)

Doubtless, the reasons for this kind of aggression have to do with the ease of reply provided by the internet – if you had to get out your manual typewriter and walk to the post box every time you read something you thought was written by a twat, well, you probably wouldn’t. The impersonality of the medium also gives license to a freedom to voice your thoughts that doesn’t generally prevail at a dinner party, meeting, or in the pub – in the absence of face-to-face contact, it’s easy to forget that the other party is a person, just like you.

I suspect it also has to do with the emergence of an internet culture that is peculiarly British – on the one hand, we tend to believe that the expression of opinion is a Good, the taking-part in a debate even a duty, while on the other, there’s a perceived need to take down a peg or two those who have had the gall to publish something, especially if it’s in the mainstream media.

Does it matter? Shouldn’t we just grow thicker skins? I suggest it does, because it affects the experience and practice of journalism at a time when the profession is under threat; I did feel worse about my work when it subjected to a gratuitous personal attack.

Perhaps more importantly, how we treat each other online sets the tone for the future culture in which publication, as it becomes more accessible and widespread, is forever changed. In the rush of excitement about what’s made possible by new technology, it’s important not to forget what it is to be human, and that we are creating the terms of engagement in this evolving world.

‘Can’ does not imply ‘ought’. So please, as the new term gets underway, let’s mind our new media manners.

Thank you.

Written by Alex

September 5th, 2011 at 4:20 am

Back to the future with Huffington Post UK

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

The much-heralded Huffington Post UK last week appeared amid a fanfare as quiet as, well, the one that greets a New Model Journalism launch. Even before the announcement of the death of the News of the World stole its thunder, the response on Twitter (#Huffpouk) consisted of a few cheerfully self-promoting tweets from its newly-recruited bloggers and the odd comment from seasoned media-watchers.

So far, the consensus among the latter seems to be that the new site is underwhelming. It’s generally acknowledged that the line-up of bloggers – which includes culture minister Jeremy Hunt and comedian Ricky Gervase – is impressive, and there are rumours that Tony Blair is to join the crew. But the resulting content doesn’t seem to add up to that distinctive, must-read British version that made HuffPo such a phenomenal success on the other side of the pond.

It may well be to do with the way the UK edition has yet to produce an unmistakeably British feel. The site has a decidedly American look, and signs that readers in Blighty may find this off-putting have been manifesting in irritated comments about capitalised headlines, and the over-large sensationalised banner over the lead story.

Matters of font and case may strike as trivial, but they are key to conveying a brand, and so to creating that relationship widely seen as the path to survival for media organisations in the digital age. And the wisdom of coming across as irremediably American is questionable, raising the possibility that HuffPoUK is raising anti-colonial hackles in the cultural battle that endures subliminally between the US and the UK.

The issue that has dogged the Huffington Post in recent months – the fact that it doesn’t pay its bloggers – may be another contributory factor. The practice was relatively trouble-free until the sale to AOL earlier this year netted Arianna Huffington and founders a cool $315 million, precipitating a strike among its US contributors which is still ongoing.

Arianna’s line, when she appeared on Woman’s Hour the day of the launch, is that the operation employs a healthy editorial staff of 1300, while providing a ‘platform’ for unpaid bloggers to ‘write when they want’. Others come to her defence with the argument that publications have long made use of contributions from organisations and individuals writing on a quid-pro-quo basis, while paying professional journalists to produce material that needs objectivity.

But the problem – just as anyone knows who’s worked on a magazine where slashed budgets herald a sudden injection of puff pieces – is that writers who write for nothing do so to further their interests in other ways. A glance through the blogs of Huffington Post UK suggests that the site may already be afflicted by the same problem – many of the blogs are by think-tankers and NGO directors, along with the odd Lord and actor. The Ricky Gervais offering is a case in point: the short piece marking the 10th anniversary of The Office ends with the injunction to – excuse our language – ‘Now buy the fucking anniversary DVD Box set’.

All of which rather makes me inclined to answer the trenchant question raised by Arianna in her launch editorial – what will the next stage of capitalism be like?’ with a sniffy ‘Rather like the old one’. It seems that HuffPo’s famed brand of leftish netizenry rather loses its sparkle when absorbed into Britain’s political elite and celebrity culture; instead of tapping into the new political zeitgeist where people are looking for alternatives beyond banker’s bonuses, the editorial vision trades on an outdated neo-New Labour attachment to status and power.

In the months to come, it looks as if one of the useful functions that a specifically British HuffPo might fulfill is to act as a testing ground for how far its brand of ‘open journalism’ can succeed here, and how willing British writers are to build its success for free.

In the meantime, my favourite response to the Huff Po so far has to be one ordinary reader’s review on YouTube. (Who says you can’t play ‘Boo?’ on the internet?)

A laugh courtesy of HuffPo UK might have come from ‘Dove Ruins Cat Nap’ – had the video not been almost immediately taken down ‘due to a copyright claim by Charles Mantha’. Wry laughter to that one.

Written by Alex

July 11th, 2011 at 3:49 am

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