Tagged: postaweek2011

Understanding journalism without ego

Journalism is an inherently arrogant profession. From the nucleus of the idea – we write something, the reader reads it – it’s something that thrives off a sense of superiority. That may or may not be unavoidable, but I’m very uninterested in the idea of a traditionalist, egocentric model of journalism.

A month or so ago I tweeted this:


Honestly – Bylines, what purpose do they serve apart from ego. Is there a legal issue?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

It led to several responses (which I’d link to but can’t seem to find them in searches) but they were fairly varied. Some thought it was an interesting subject. Others spoke about accountability. Almost all were negative. The interesting thing about a journalism industry losing its ego is that it only works if everyone co-operates.

Here’s a hypothetical situation; I have a brilliant idea about a new blogging platform. I have it visualised in my head, and proceed to write it all down. I then meet up with a developer and coder to help flesh out the idea and make it real. I accept that I need their help. I don’t need to learn code, I just know that these people can help me out, and vice versa.

We create the blogging platform, and it’s moderately successful. The developer takes credit for it, saying that it was his idea. All along I’ve pursued an agenda of openness – willing to share ideas freely and accept that this is our project rather than mine or yours. We all have a part to play. But the system falls down because someone isn’t playing by the same set of rules. You can be as evangelical as you like about losing ego in journalism, but unless everyone plays ball it doesn’t work.

How is it that when open-source culture exists we can still be bound by a legacy concept of how journalists operate? This isn’t anything to do with content or economics but a mindset. We need to bring the journalist down the hierarchy of perceived authority, and earn that authority by the work we produce and the community we serve. Up until now, the mindset of the industry has been “I am a journalist, therefore I am authoritative”. In a world in which the public can access media through a myriad of different sources, this attitude should no longer be prevalent.

I’m pessimistic about an ego-free industry ever appearing, at least not in my lifetime. Ego is woven into the fabric of the industry so tightly that it’s very hard to escape. Journalism schools, for their part, haven’t done anything to assuage this. Becoming part of a big media organisation (where this attitude is most common) is still touted as the golden ticket, and it’s only with a young generational shift that something like this is ever likely to change.

It’s ego that makes journalists stand alongside politicians and government ministers as the least trusted professions. It’s ego that makes people roll their eyes when you tell them you’re a journalist. And it’s ego that makes you write what you think should be the news rather than what your community thinks.

In reality everything is a shared effort, and failing to acknowledge that smacks of ego. It was a shared effort before crowdsourcing was a word, and it was a shared effort before social media. Only now it’s a lot more obvious. Journalists need to can the ego, and start thinking like members of a community, not as overseers.

Social media training: Why it’s bullshit

Or more eloquently; why it’s done all wrong.

I like learning, and I like teaching. I like open conversation with others and I like problem solving. And I like the fact that social media is conducive to holding discussion on a wider medium. But I can’t stand the so-called “experts” who dole out social media training like it’s a secret sauce only available to the privileged few.

The knowledge gap between those not knowing anything about social media and those purporting to be in the know definitely exists, but it’s not as wide as it’s perceived. There’s a tendency amongst humans to put on a pedestal whatever new medium exists during their lifespan. We saw it with radio and with television. Both are now accepted norms, and so it should be with social media. Why are we letting people get away with paying hundreds of pounds for poorly structured, patronising and corny sounding seminars?

Let me be clear; I am not against teaching. Everyone has to start somewhere. But the way we teach social media (if such a formal tag is to be applied to the methodology) has to shift from the perspective of a top-down system.

An expert standing at the front of a room packed with baffled faces, doling out “gems” of information as if they and only they  hold the key to unlocking the so-called secrets of social media. This is fundamentally overcomplicating and building up the concept of social media in order to exploit it financially.

Being social is instinctive; all social media has done is allow us to share that instinct with a wider audience. There’s no magic code, no correct way to go about doing these things. Most of us got here by experimenting, messing up, and seeing what worked for us. And that’s the key point; to each his own. The way that I use social media in journalism is different to how a behavioural analyst or a small business uses it.

I’ve written previously about how I think universities should shift their purpose in the context of enabling and supporting entrepreneurialism. Encouraging the use of social media should also seek to accept that we are all constant learners, and that we can all benefit from each others viewpoints. Blog Preston recently won the Talk about Local prize for “Best overall hyperlocal website” and one of the reasons cited was our use of social media. The way in which we interact has to be playful but informative, accurate but talkative, authoritative but friendly.

Ideally I’d like 2011 to be the year when the “social” tag is dropped altogether, and it just becomes the accepted way that we participate in media. This will help debunk some of the mystery behind social media as well as hopefully outing some of these so-called gurus wanting to make a fast buck.

As someone who’s often called a social media geek I hope I’ve never fallen into the trap of preaching from a parapet. Over the summer I’ll be making some forays into training young people in storytelling techniques and media. But at the heart of it I’ll always remember that they can potentially all know more than me. And that we can learn learn together.

Entrepreneurial Journalism – The role of universities

Last week I wrote a post titled “Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups”, and it generated a healthy stream of debate across several other blogs. If you want to catch up and see everything that’s been tweeted, discussed and written about the topic, I’ve created a Storify page here.

But how do universities fit into the equation? Is there a place for them to foster startups and entrepreneurial spirit in their students, and do they have an important role to play in creating a culture shift?

Startups are created from minimal resources and minimal staffing. For a web startup you’d want people fulfilling the roles of development, marketing, product management and CEO. Getting people all thinking in the same way is one thing, making it work is another.

So why not harness the extraordinary resources that many universities possess? When are you more likely to come across a larger collection of potential developers, lawyers, marketers, promotional staff, copywriters, artists and graphic designers? The advantages of university go further; being in full time education provides a financial safety net for all involved. It decreases the potential fallout if an idea fails (something that was discussed in depth over the last week) and it also means that new opportunities can be comfortably incubated in higher education.

Food for thought is an excellent talk by Jeff Jarvis at last year’s TEDx NYED event, where he mentions that the current mentality towards education “assumes that all knowledge flows from the lectern”.

Why? Is it so unreasonable to think that some students know more than their lecturers? Did Mark Zuckerberg really benefit from the paternalistic approach towards teaching while he studied computer science? In order to foster startups, we need to first understand students’ strengths and weaknesses, and then shift to a system where a university acts as a starting point for  their own academic and practical experiments.

Jarvis mainly refers to school education in his talk, but I think that in some universities the attitude is equally prevelent. The institution’s mentality can be summarised thusly; they have the answers, and you don’t. So queue up for three years and maybe you’ll have the answers too.

To foster entrepreneurial spirit we may have to fundamentally break down and build back up again the idea of what exactly a university is and what role it fulfils. The connected world means that I can seek out the best educators in each field from my computer; I can listen to philosophy podcasts from Oxford despite never possessing the academic rigour to attend the institution.

Universities should seek to provide the space and facilities where students can work co-operatively on real projects that can be set up as viable businesses. Outside of specific business and entrepreneurial courses, how widely is this promoted? My guess is not at all.

I’m not claiming that if you shift a university’s purpose from academic top-down institution to bottom-up facilitator of ideas then overnight you create a hundred new viable businesses. But in the same way that throwing enough mud at a wall means that some of it will stick, creating the mindset and opportunities to develop hundreds of ideas will mean that some of them will be successful.

To create the “ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism” that I spoke about last time, what I’ve outlined above really needs to happen. There are only two occasions in life where one is able to set out on a business venture and not be adversely affected by failure; the privileged position of having come from a lucrative industry like finance and having money to spare, or being a student. In both cases, the individual doesn’t stand to lose much, and has both time and resources in plentiful supply.

Not everyone can, should or wants to be an entrepreneur. I understand that. Maybe someone’s been slipping prozac into my coffee this week but suddenly I’m ludicrously optimistic about the future of journalism.

Content-wise, we’ve reached a state where things have plateaued. There will always be new apps and services, but most have now fully acknowledged the shift that’s taken place in content production. Now it’s time to flesh out the business aspect of it. I think it’s refreshing that many media companies don’t know what they’re doing and there’s been a complete system failure. So what do you do when the system fails? Reboot it.

Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups

An interesting article in yesterday’s Observer focuses on several young entrepreneurs that have created promising business start-ups in spite of the tough economic climate. None of those startups really resemble a journalistic endeavour (video platform SBTV comes closest), but what provoked a few thoughts in me is the relationship between young journalists and their future employers.

Last month I worked on the Media Briefing’s Paywalls 11 conference. One of the most interesting findings in a day that was full of stats was by media analyst Nick Thomas. He said that his company’s recent survey of 14,000 adult internet users found that 31% would pay for music in future, but the proportion that would pay for news was only 13%. So there’s a big wall already; people simply aren’t prepared to pay for news, at least in a tangible, straightforward sense.

How does this mesh with the idea of a journalism startup? As is oft-documented, the US has always had a buzzing scene based around startups, particularly in Silicon Valley. The idea really appeals to me. Getting together with a team of three or four initial staff and controlling the product in its entirety is both liberating and terrifying, and I imagine that it’s this mix of adrenalin and fear that compels many to go the way of a startup.

But why don’t we see more of it here in a journalistic sense? Many UK journalism schools are innovative, and the projects produced by some students are intelligent and unique ideas. Why then is the idea of working for a national newspaper or magazine still perceived as the Holy Grail? We live in an age where news is not defined by the platform, it’s defined by the content. Readers care less about where the news is coming from, and more about whether whoever is writing it has any authority. More and more, people are realising that non-traditional news organisations hold the key to a particular beat; take Guido Fawkes.

Readers can deconstruct and take apart pieces that reek of inaccuracy; so we’re in an age where it matters less who you write for, but how good you are.

Why is that important for trying to understand a startup culture? Because it reinforces the idea that the playing field is wide open. Take your chance now, while everyone from the top to the bottom of established media companies is scratching their head. Chances are you’re less likely to be doomed to failure than you think you are.

But none of that will happen. The idea that joining a big name company comes with its own kudos still outweighs the possibilities of a startup for many graduates. Your mum is more likely to ask when you’re going to get a real job if you’re involved in a startup rather than getting on the Telegraph Graduate Scheme.

And that’s painful. Painful because I think that unless we put facilities in place (mentoring schemes, cheap co-working spaces, more funding opportunities) we’re in danger of just recycling what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. Good graduates should be making their own way, not joining a creaky newspaper house that’s on its last legs. Newspapers had their chance. They sat on the sidelines as their industry fell apart, and they did nothing to understand or connect with the readers who felt disillusioned with what the news industry had become. Without the necessary implementations, graduates are right to feel that they have to tread the age old career route of journalism.

Let me suggest an alternative  future. A cluster of startups that all produce content within a really niche area of content. I don’t mean “multimedia reporting”, I mean honing in on something that’s so specialised that they do it better than anyone else in the world. This ecosystem of startups grow up in the digital age; they are digital natives, and understand everything that comes with that. They stick to what they do best and don’t try to be all things to all men (magnify that idea to something like the FT and you can see that it works).

This group of startups not only feed their customers directly but enter into open collaboration with news organisations. When they do, they are paid. It’s by outsourcing and recognising that they stopped being leaders in many areas of reportage long ago that newspapers will reap the benefits of becoming a platform for these startups. Good content: check. Keeping a trusted brand: check.

I fear that none of that will happen. Not because it’s unrealistic, but because the mindset required and facilities needed aren’t prevalent in the UK. Startups also need luck, not only in implementing and selling the product but also in happening upon a perfect meeting of minds with the people they choose to set up shop with. Co-working spaces are still generally priced at a premium membership rate, and people have little or no clue as to whether they have any routes to access funding.

Yesterday I tweeted this:

Final thought: If grads are still feeling the pull of big media, how can we ever create a proper ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

I received a myriad of replies, some of which discussed the problem and some of which despaired because they really wanted to give the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about a go. Hopefully they will. Let’s experiment a bit, shall we?