Monday, 14 December 2009

Flawed research methodology?

Back to the blog after more than a month's absence which is not good. For the last month, marking, one of the least exciting elements of a lecturer's job, has badly skewed my work-life balance. But I have managed to fit in writing my first academic assignment for more than six years - a critique of a the research methodology of a published paper on the links between media systems in four different countries and levels of public knowledge in those countries. The assignment was for the research methods module I have been doing as part of my PhD research training programme at Sheffield and I found it worryingly easy to critique the methodology of the paper. Worrying for two reasons: a) I may be wrong and my tutor will think I'm at best naive and at worst, stupid or b) I may be right and research papers get published regularly with flawed methodology. We'll see. I won't name the paper until I see what grade I get....

In the meantime, I'm catching up on what else is going on. The BBC hasn't been idle and has launched a new journalism training academy. The BBC Academy is not just for journalists but for all licence payers. All the BBC training materials I've seen are slick and expensive, as befits an organisation with plenty of licence fee money at its disposal. Will university journalism schools buckle under the competition?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Jobs crisis in journalism education

What does a jobs crisis mean for journalism education? Are universities cynically tempting students onto journalism courses with the promise of guaranteed jobs at the end? Are there just too many journalism courses? Journalism lecturers, including myself, told that there needed to be a serious debate about the future of journalism education, especially given that there has been a 15.7 per cent rise this year in applications to undergraduate journalism courses. Reputable MA Journalism courses have also seen a big increase in postgraduate applications.

Set this against a dramatic drop-off in numbers of journalism jobs and the potential mismatch is clear. Not all these students are going to get jobs (although my university, Kingston, has an excellent record of graduate journalism employment, as points out).

This assumes, of course, that the whole object of a journalism degree is to get a job in journalism. As journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw argues, this is not the case. If you want functional training, do an NCTJ fast track course.

Yes, there are almost certainly too many journalism courses. But higher education is market-driven and universities want income from students. As long as the students keep coming, universities will keep running journalism courses. The best thing journalism departments can do is keep updating and refreshing their courses to keep them challenging and relevant (see my previous post) and develop firm links with the industry. Then their graduates will be in with a fighting chance.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Training the journalists of the future

Nothing will be on paper in 20 years' time. Or so my colleague Adam Westbrook predicts. In five years' time we'll be downloading news, books and any other media we subscribe to onto foldable sheets of micro-thin plastic (like Kindle but slicker). There will be downloading (or uploading?) machines in stations and other public buildings so that people can load up their plastic pages with text, video and audio, a bit like an Oyster card.

At least this would go some way to cutting down on paper recycling. And getting multimedia on the move without having to read a tiny iPod touch screen and find a wi-fi connection sounds like a good idea to me. Some of my other colleagues weren't convinced. One of them bet Adam £100 he was wrong.

But Adam's main message, as he says in his blog today, is that journalism departments everywhere, including ours at Kingston, have to shift their emphasis. We need to train our students to be entrepreneurs rather than expect a job for life. Being able to market yourself, find funding, get an audience and grow a brand will be vital skills. Students must blog, have a Twitter presence and join in with the conversation. They need video and photojournalism skills. And the future is niche, hyperlocal.

This last earned a shudder from colleagues who had spent tedious years on local papers "writing about dog mess", as one put it. But the old career model of starting on local papers, moving to regionals and then onto nationals is much rarer than it used to be.

Personally, I think these new ways of thinking potentially open up exciting routes into journalism for students. No longer do you have to wait for an editor to grant you space in a paper. You just start a blog and go for it. Of course, it's not as easy as that. You have to write well and get yourself noticed. And the sad truth is that blogging doesn't bring you a regular paycheck.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Digital change in newsrooms too slow

Heartening news - journalists are not Luddites when it comes to going digital in the newsroom. According to a report, Life Beyond Print, carried out by researchers at North Western university (and discussed by Jeremy Porter on his Journalistics blog), nearly half of the 3,800 US journalists surveyed thought change was too slow in their newrooms. Only 6 per cent yearned for a return to print only. And interestingly, older journalists are just as keen as younger ones. So much for my research hypothesis that it was the older generation holding back and the young who were the "early adopters".

In fact, the generational hypothesis is looking a bit simplistic, even before I start my field work. I only have to look at my MA Journalism students in my multi-media reporting class to realise that some of the more mature students are sophisticated bloggers and tweeters and can work wonders with video, while some of the younger students are much more hesitant. Although they all use Facebook, unlike me. Maybe I'd better start.

Friday, 23 October 2009

It's 5am - it must be research methods

A sabbatical is a huge luxury as I'm now realising. After six weeks back at work, I've managed to read a grand total of three journal articles and have temporarily almost forgotten what my research is about. Almost, not quite, because I reread my draft contextual chapter last week and could hardly believe I'd written it.

Every Friday I get up at 5am to catch a train to Sheffield to atttend a Research Methods seminar. All very useful stuff but I'm so tired by the time I get there from London that I can hardly make my brain connect. My fellow PhD students are all full time and have the luxury of sitting in the library all day.

But. I have a full time job as an academic and they don't. Getting an academic job is the reason why most people do PhDs. I've just done things the other way round and I don't have to get a PhD to keep my job. I'm doing research because I want to, as I have to keep reminding myself. Will this be enough incentive to carry me through the next six years? It's going to have to be.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Twitter scores for free speech

Twitter scores again - and this time at the expense of media lawyers Carter Ruck. The bizarre attempt by this legal attack-dog to slap an injunction on the Guardian for trying to report "certain parliamentary proceedings" ended in ignominious failure within hours as the twitterati (horrible word)got on the case, did a couple of internet searches and came up with the answers: Labour MP Paul Farrelly, in the House of Commons, asking a question about the dumping of toxic waste on the Ivory Coast, by oil company Trafigura. Time taken: 42 minutes.

A victory for freedom of speech, definitely. A slap in the face for Carter Ruck and other lawyers who seem to be getting worryingly addicted to privacy injunctions and especially "super-injunctions", in which the media aren't even allowed to report the fact that they aren't allowed to print something. (What makes it even worse in this case was that it concerned a parliamentary question, asked by an elected representative in the House of Commons, under privilege).

But the most interesting part of this story was that it took Twitter at #trafigura to reveal the contents of the injunction and force Carter Ruck to retract. A further illustration of the futility of privacy and contempt of court laws in the internet age?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Helvellyn or top of the world

Proof that I don't just sit at a desk all the time has just arrived in my Twitter account - thanks @arrhenius. And I'm not just clinging to the trig point because Helvellyn is 950 m high...

@saramcconnell I've worked out how to upload photos, so here'... on Twitpic

Friday, 18 September 2009

Back to work - with an iPod Touch

My first day back at work after a four month sabbatical was considerably eased by the gift of an iPod Touch. All totally above board - the phone is part of a project my colleague @anthonymcneill is working on to promote Twitter as a learning tool and investigate its possibilities for creating new ways of classroom interaction. Given that students (certainly my students) have texted a whole message before I even manage to find the predictive text key, there could definitely be mileage in, say tweeting debate questions on Twitter to which students can text responses and see each others' tweets in real time. The challenge will be to strike a balance between innovation and technology for the sake of it, I think. Tony has started his own blog on the project and his ideas, which makes very interesting reading.

But he was keen to get journalism students involved because they are, as he rightly says, more obvious users of Twitter than, for example, engineers. My first move will be to set up a course- specific Twitter account as part of Tony's project, which I'll use to get students used to the idea that they can collaborate on their own stories, find sources and find other journalists to follow. I've just looked at the MA Journalism multi-media reporting module that I wrote for the first time last year and the first thing that struck me is how old-fashioned it looks (it doesn't help that I have to teach the NCTJ newswriting syllabus as part of the module but that's another story which I'll come back to). So the module is in for a complete overhaul. It won't be as hot on social media as the MA in social media run by @paulbradshaw at Birmingham City but it'll be a lot more up to date than the NCTJ's newwriting exam.

Re the iPod Touch. It's a beautiful piece of technology and the touch screen is a masterpiece. But how frustrating that wi-fi on the move is so minimal. Mobile internet access is a bit less useful when you can only really use it in places where you already have internet access through your desktop PC (ie at work or at home). Still, who am I to complain?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Why do people blog and tweet?

What's this blog for? Why do people blog and Tweet? I've just read journalism professor Mindy McAdams' post on her advice to journalism students when they write blogs or use Twitter. She tells them to ask themselves who they're writing for and why they're writing. In other words, the same advice journalism lecturers give their students at the beginning of every academic year.

But blogs are different from news stories, people argue. They're more of a comment, more personal. Yes, but you still need to know your audience and in this age of interactivity and instant response, even the most reader-phobic journalists have no excuse for writing in a self-imposed vacuum.

If I agree with McAdams (which I do), what is my blog for? I started it for a number of reasons: 1) that it would be a useful way of identifying some of the main themes coming out of my reading and research 2) that it could be an interesting exercise to start documenting the actual process of doing PhD research and looking at this process from the point of view of someone whose background is as a practising journalist, not as an academic and that 3), others engaged in the sometimes lonely process of PhD research may find it comforting to read that I'm stuck/bored/frustrated like they are.

There's also a 4), slightly less noble, which is that having blog is becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity for professional credibility, especially for academics whose research touches on social media, as mine does. I still know of plenty of colleagues who don't blog and it doesn't seem to have done them any harm but equally, for people whose job is communication, a blog is a good way to get yourself out there.

As a lecturer in multi-media journalism, I also believe it's important to practise what you preach to the students. If you're teaching them how journalists use social media, you need to demonstrate that you're blogging and tweeting and keeping an eye on the trend topics.

Who is the potential audience for my blog? Hopefully, it's colleagues, students, other academics, people interested in journalism and journalism research and anyone engaged with more general new media and journalistic issues like the future of journalism and whether anonymous bloggers should be unmasked.

McAdams reports that some of her journalism students say they don't "get" Twitter. I don't think anyone does until they're signed up and using it regularly. It's then that you realise how important it's becoming as a source of information and interviewees for journalists, how they use it to collaborate and file eye witness reports, and watch stories emerge from some of the inconsequential chat.

So far, I've used Twitter as many other people do, to share interesting links about journalism-related topics, to link to my own posts, to see what the big topics are, to find people I haven't seen for a while and generally to be sociable. I've discovered from experience that you should choose who you follow carefully so that you don't get too many totally irrelevant tweets. Feel free to ignore people who ask to follow you if you're not interested. Choose relevant topics and save them to your searches so that you can quickly get to the debates you want to join. In short, take control and Twitter is an exciting journalistic tool.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A good start....

A good start - my supervisor was pleased with my draft contextual chapter. This didn't mean she didn't have questions and comments about what I'd written. It would have been worrying (if flattering) if she'd told me everything was marvellous. Now I've got to get on with the next phase - formulating my main research questions. I did this at the very beginning, when I applied to Sheffield in the first place and submitted a research proposal. But as I formulated a series of questions off the top of my head in an hour between teaching first year Approaches to Journalism and second year Online Journalism, it's fair to say the questions need work. Just maybe not today. No pressure...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

An activist's guide to the law

To #climatecamp for a law lecture to celebrate finishing and sending off the first draft of my PhD contextual chapter. I've been meaning to go up to the camp before it disbands tomorrow to see what's still happening on my doorstep, and I thought I'd pick up some useful information to pass onto any students thinking of going on demonstrations or covering them as student reporters.

The title, an Activist's Guide to the Law, suggested that this probably wasn't the sort of course you'd expect at law school. The venue was a tent on Blackheath and the most comfortable seat was a hay bale. There was plenty of useful advice about what to do if you were arrested and charged while on an "action", about how important it was not to tell the police if you had mental health issues unless you wanted them to put you on suicide watch and wake you in your cell every hour, and how the most important thing was not to grass on your mates. Check out Activists' Legal Project for more.

But the average age of the audience was probably mid-20s and most of them looked as if they'd be back up at university at the end of the month. Apart from a couple of seasoned campaigners, none of them had ever been arrested. The majority of the group was female and looked about as threatening as a girl guide pack. They had their notebooks out and their hands up and wanted to know the answer to very sensible questions - such as: "What effect will getting a criminal conviction have on my job prospects/mortgage/insurance?"

There's been much indignation among campers about reports in the Daily Mail portraying them as middle class. That would be too sweeping (what else can you expect from the Mail?) Idealistic, definitely. Approachable, polite. And they'll hate me for saying this - but pretty well organised. Anyone who can organise that many people, run an impressively varied programme of activities over four days, raise important climate issues and get locals on-side like they have, deserves some praise. And they call this anarchy?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Climate change camp good, prejudice bad

Tory boy called off and shot in a corner... I've just walked up to the climate camp (yes, it's that near) and had all my prejudices confounded. The camp is small and tidy and contained, with not a scrap of litter visible and the campers are friendly, articulate and committed. I'm going to pop back again later in the week. What this has made me realise - again - is how important it is for journalists to get out and see what's going on with their own eyes. This isn't going to make them "objective" - nothing can do that - but at least they'll get some context and realise that what they've assumed isn't always right. All the more worrying that the trend in newsrooms is to have journalists chained to their desks churning out press releases and repeating distorted stories which they could report truthfully if they were allowed out of the office.

No objectivity over climate camp

A big story is unfolding on my doorstep, which is why I don't dare to tear myself away from my contextual chapter to go and see what's going on. I just know I'm not going to be able to behave with journalistic impartiality -precisely because it's on my doorstep. It's the climate camp, which seems to think it's a good idea to come and camp on Blackheath, just down the road. The very thought brings out the worst of my middle-class, Tory boy side (I'm ashamed to discover I've still got one). All I can think of is how much litter and mess and chaos they're going to cause. Never mind about saving the planet. If I was assigned to cover this story, I like to think I'd do a professional job but it very neatly illustrates the total fallacy of journalistic "objectivity". The very idea that journalists don't have any agenda and they can somehow report from a blank slate is complete rubbish.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The first draft...of many

After three months of reading, I'm now going to force myself to write a draft (doubtless the first of many) of my "contextual" chapter, in which I try and make sense of everything I've read and link it to my research. I know it's going to be good for me when I start, like five-a-day, or going for a run before work. And it's not as if I'm not used to deadlines. Maybe what's putting me off is that every time I try to summon up some of the arguments and ideas from what I've read recently, it all slides out of my head. Maybe it's because my journalistic instinct would be to start by going into newsrooms and interviewing people about how their jobs are changing in an online environment, rather than reading what other people say about it. But academics clearly work the other way round - lots of reading, then some drafting, then the fieldwork, where you might start to find out something new. Sometime next year.

I never thought I'd say this but too much reading may not be a good thing. Order will come through writing. Or at least I hope so. Otherwise the next six years are going to be hard going.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Journalists under the microscope

One surprise to me when I started my research was how big the gap was between what academics wrote about journalism and journalistic practice and what I knew from experience actually happened in a newsroom. I've blogged about this before but I'm coming back to it because I've spent the last week reading the small number of ethnographic studies carried out in newsrooms, in which academics actually spend significant amounts of time in a newsroom absorbing and questioning what goes on, as opposed to just dropping in and carrying out interviews. Valuable though the latter is (and I'll be doing interviews as part of my field work later), ethnographic studies must provide a deeper insight, especially for academics who have never worked as journalists. As ethnographers suggest, such studies provide important insights into the process of journalism, as opposed to the end product.

But with a few honourable exceptions, including my colleague at Brunel University, Sarah Niblock, ethnographies seem thin on the ground, especially in the UK. Why is this? Money, possibly. It's pretty difficult to spend months in a newsroom if you have to earn a living at the same time (a problem I'm already confronting when thinking about the shape of my research). A generous chunk of external funding, of the sort US academics seem to be able to access, is very helpful. Time, definitely. And access. Many academics haven't had the newsroom contacts necessary to persuade journalists to let them observe and interrogate them for long periods of time. But as Niblock and Machin (2006) suggest, this is changing as more journalists move into the academy bringing with them useful contact books and access to newsrooms

This must be a good thing.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Shattered glass

In a bid (how's that for journalese?) to get back into a journalistic mindset after my holiday, I've just watched a DVD of Shattered Glass, in which New Republic reporter Stephen Glass is painfully and gradually exposed as a liar who makes up contacts and stories. I've seen this film before but this time the manic Preppie playing Stephen Glass was almost too painful to watch. And the central question is never answered. Why didn't any of the deskloads of staff (this was the 1990s, so there were still staff) notice what was going on? So much for the layers of US-style fact checking and shots of journalists covering each others' copy with vindictive red pen. If the rival online news website could check out the "facts" that Glass supplied in his copy and discover they crumbled on investigation, why couldn't the editors at the New Republic?

Back to the PhD research.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Journalism, the exclusive middle-class profession

Journalists has become "one of the most exclusive middle class professions of the 21st century", according to a government report on social mobility to be published tomorrow. This will come as no surprise to anyone working in journalism or teaching it at university level. The depressing reality is that journalism is fiercely competitive but the industry is also contracting. There are few graduate jobs around this year. Often the only way recent graduates can get a job is to spend months working as an unpaid intern in a newsroom which has lots of vacant desks after a sweeping cull of reporters and is delighted to have someone keen and competent who the company doesn't have to pay. As long as this exploitation continues - and why shouldn't it if demand continues to exceed supply and companies can take advantage of new journalists who have paid for their own training? - the middle classes will dominate the industy. What working class graduate can afford to work for free?

Having got that out of my system, I'm off on holiday to the Lakes, with no internet and no mobile reception. For the next two and a half weeks, I'll be experiencing the restricted rural broadband access which so concerns Gordon Brown. I suspect the first thing I do when I get home will be to log on.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The future of national newspapers

Do national newspapers have a future and if so, what is it? If any of the commercial managers, advertising managers and marketing people making up the bulk of the audience at this morning's seminar on the Future of National Newspapers was hoping for a clear answer they'd have left disappointed.

Panellists, including News International commercial MD Paul Hayes and Guardian managing director Tim Brooks, agreed that the traditional print newspaper model was dead and that the industry needed a new approach. But what? As Brooks said: "There's incredible excitement and challenge in the industry we're in. We need to make a transition to a new model...but I'm hoping to get some suggestions from the floor to find out what this new model is."

The future may be online but the big sticking point, as the industry's been saying for years, is how to make it pay. Media analyst Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, also on the panel, produced figures showing that the value of a newspaper reader to a publisher is £155 (made up of £65 generated from advertising and £90 from newspaper purchase) while an online user is worth just £5 a year in advertising and nothing in purchases, because online content is free.

And as if that wasn't bad enough news for online enthusiasts, Enders revealed that users went on news websites for an average of just 10 minutes a month, while readers spent 12 hours a month reading print newspapers (a confusing statistic for those who thought no-one read newspapers any more).

Readers who do engage online can generate great stories and information for journalists prepared to work with them, argued Brooks of the Guardian. Guardian journalists have a total of 900,000 people following them on Twitter and they supply material for stories which journalists either couldn't get or would take too long to get. Unfortunately, the Guardian hasn't yet figured out a way to make money from this reader interactivity.

What publishers like News International would of course like to do is to start charging people to access their websites. NI's Paul Hayes declined to discuss the company's plans to set up a separate Sunday Times website and charge for it, repeating Murdoch's formula that it was reasonable to charge a "fair price" and to "value content". But the Times would have the same problem doing that as the Guardian. The company would "never" charge for access to news on its website, said Tim Brooks, partly for the pragmatic reason that if it did, readers would just go to free news, namely from the BBC, featherbedded by the licence fee.

Stalemate. Maybe the notoriously competitive newspaper industry should fling caution to the winds and follow media journalist Ray Snoddy's suggestion that they should actually collaborate. Snoddy, also on the seminar panel, urged newspapers to think "outside the box" and introduce subscription cards, along the lines of an oyster card, which would be good for accessing any news website. Watch this space. PCs may come equipped with swipe readers in 10 years' time.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Time to take stock

Exactly half way through my sabbatical - eight weeks gone and eight weeks to go, so time to take stock. What have I learned about my research area? And just as important, what have I learned about the process of research? Part of the purpose of writing this blog was to explore what it feels like to be a full-time researcher for four months, probably the longest time I'll ever have free of other work commitments during my academic career.

From the beginning, I vowed to treat research as work and study from 9-5. and this, give or take a few childcare and school emergencies and holidays, is what I've done. It's worked well because if you don't have a work structure, you have to create one. Or at least I do.

Annoyingly, I've discovered that I find it very difficult to simply sit and read and take notes all day, although that's what I tell everyone I'm doing. So I've taken to breaking down reading tasks into small chunks so that I can tell myself that I've achieved something at the end of the day. Maybe there are people whose concentration span is so impressive that they can sit in the library the whole day and continue to engage with ideas and debates but I'm not one of them.

What I hadn't built into my study plan was time to engage with social media, especially Twitter. But it soon became obvious that this had to be a core part of my research. The only way to understand how journalists were using social media in their jobs was to sign up and follow people to see what they were doing. This led me to some excellent online blogs including the Online Journalism Blog, Teaching Online Journalism and and further insight into what's going on in online journalism.

The process of writing my own blog is an important way for me to clarify research ideas as I go along but I also blog about issues like phone hacking, identifying bloggers and coverage of Michael Jackson's death on Twitter, which are significant developments in new media. And blogging and tweeting are good for breaking up reading time, although sometimes I have to turn off my PC to force myself back to print. Otherwise I'd spend all day online, curtains closed, like an internet-obsessed teenager.

And what has emerged so far from my reading? Unsurprisingly, the main message is that the journalism industry is in the grip of huge upheaval technologically and culturally and the idea that journalists control news input and output is, if not dead, strongly challenged. The question: "What is news?" can no longer be answered with "What journalists say it is". Boundaries between roles in the newsroom are blurring as reporters find themselves subbing their own copy or shooting video. The buzzword is convergence although no-one seems to be able to agree on what this means. Is it the process of making journalists file to both web and paper in the newsroom (although some people refer to this as integration)? Or should convergence be more widely defined as the whole process of the changing relationship between journalist and journalist, journalist and reader, journalist and sources, journalist and media?

At the same time, some researchers are finding that under the surface, less has changed, with journalists still in editorial control in moderating blogs and comments and making news decisions. Looking at mainstream news websites (the Times, Guardian etc) as I am, what is interesting is possibly how traditionally structured they still are in terms of output. Newsrooms still have routines and deadlines and beats, even if the idea of a single daily deadline is irrelevant in a 24 hour digital newsroom. And power and control (concepts hotly debated by media sociologists) remain centred in and around the same groups and organisations internally and externally. Or do they? The research goes on.

MA in social media - sign me up

It had to come - the first MAs in social media, or as today's Times puts it, the first Facebook MAs. Birmingham City University's course will explore social media as a "cultural, theoretical and political phenomenon", according to senior media and communications lecturer, Paul Long. It sounds great but given the speed at which social media is evolving, will the department find itself having to rewrite the course every couple of years? After all, no-one would have included Twitter in a social media course this time last year but this year, it'll be big. And will these inevitable rapid changes mean going through the dreary, soul - destroying process of getting the modules revalidated? Maybe with more courses like this coming on stream, university administrators will streamline their quality control processes. Or maybe not. Don't hold your breath.

Monday, 13 July 2009

In with chaos, out with control

We are living in an era of cultural chaos. Traditional boundaries between journalists and readers are eroding, old certainties of left and right and control of the news agenda by elite groups have disappeared and technology makes communication, comment and dissent possible for anyone with a PC and a broadband connection. Not completely new territory for a journalism academic over the past few years but what makes Brian McNair's book entertaining as well as interesting is his obvious delight in attacking the traditional obsession of sociologists with the idea that the media are part of a ruling-class conspiracy to feed propaganda and dumbed-down pap to the downtrodden masses -what McNair calls the "control model".

This might have made sense when the world was divided into capitalist and communist spheres of influence and debate took place against an ideological backdrop of competing social and economic systems, says McNair, but no longer. The new era of cultural chaos opens the way for a new flourishing of democratic accountability and vigorous debate.

Hints that his bouncy enthusiasm isn't universally popular with his fellow-academics surface most clearly at the end of the book. What is left for scholars to critique, one academic asks, if his cultural optimism is justified? Or to put it more journalistically, what are we going to write about if bad news is no longer good news?

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Times, The Guardian and the phone hackers

It's a tricky thing to be the editor of a Murdoch paper at the moment. Do you just ignore the growing crescendo of stories suggesting that News International journalists systematically used private investigators to hack illegally into the phones of the famous? Or do you accept that the story isn't going to go away and try and steer your readers away from the allegations covering three double page spreads and the front page of the Guardian?

If you're the Times, you run a double page spread of your own (brave move although no-one's suggesting that Times journalists did any hacking) but you write the story so skilfully that you mention the fresh allegations in just a couple of paragraphs. Instead you focus on the two-year old story of News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman and private detective Glen Mulcaire, with a sidebar of very useful information about how to be an investigative journalist. So you've tackled the story - without tackling it. Masterful.

The problem for the Times is that it's not directly involved and isn't implicated in any wrongdoing. But it's umbilically joined to its much more disreputable sister papers, the News of the World and the Sun (and, it has to be said, the Times has benefited from the tabloids' profitability). All the Murdoch papers are in this together, for better or worse and this has shaped the Times' editorial content on this story. A new example of corporate self-censorship?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Blogging and tweeting - bring it on

A month of blogging and two weeks of being on Twitter and I'm still realising how much information is out there and working out how to take advantage of the useful stuff while sharing links/info/ideas that I think may interest others.

After a working life as a journalist where the conversation is mostly one way - from you to your readers, with the occasional sop to dialogue in the form of a letters page - the babble of voices on Twitter hits you like a shock. Signing up feels like going to a party where you don't know anyone and you're nervous in case you make some awful social gaffe. Then you discover a couple of people you know and meet some more interesting contacts. Then you're hooked.

I signed up initially because it's impossible to research how journalists are using Twitter (part of my research into changing journalists' working practices) unless you experience it yourself, start following people and see how they're using the network. I didn't appreciate how much people were using tweets to post links to their own pages or blogs, for example. I didn't know how many journalists were on there (lots, as I now discover, using it to collaborate on stories and get contacts).

It takes time to develop an online voice and continue the conversation. Some of the content on Twitter is dross and you have to sift through it to find interesting nuggets of information. Blogging regularly is also quite time-consuming, as is reading and commenting on other people's blogs. The more time you spend online, the more you know you have to check out. I probably spend a couple of hours a day blogging, checking out other people's blogs and watching Twitter. Is it worth it? Definitely. Will I keep it up? We'll see, when the new semester begins in September and my sabbatical ends.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

100 best blogs - better late than never

These aren't new (so last week, so old media) but I'm setting the links now after having not got round to it before. For future reference, so that my students and I can find them (ie not buried in my Twitter feed) are the 100 best blogs for journalism students (with US bias) and the 100 best blogs for journalism students as suggested by

Journalists and academics - we need both

As soon as I uploaded my last blog post, I started feeling guilty. Was I being arrogant (or simply thick) in criticising the work of doubtless highly intellectual academics who have spent years analysing journalistic processes and output? Should I just stick to journalistic practice, keep writing and uploading, and let others do the reflecting? No, I don't think so. As Sarah Niblock and David Machin say, the big change in journalism studies (I hate the word "studies" but I'll use it for want of a better one) over the past few years is that more and more practising journalists have crossed the divide to academia as university journalism courses proliferate.

Journalism research is now increasingly carried out by people who have actually worked in a newsroom. They know, for example, that the pressures when you're on deadline are multiple and you're not just quoting a source because they're official and you have some kind of agenda to tow a corporate line but because he or she is the only useful person you can find to give you a quote before the deadline.

This understanding must be a good thing and allow researchers with a background in journalism rather than academia to provide new insights into what drives journalists and journalism.

But it works both ways. In common with, I suspect, most of my colleagues, I spent precious little time in newsrooms reflecting on what I was doing. I certainly developed an instinct for what made a story and what constituted a "good story" for my publication. But I don't kid myself that I thought deeply about issues like proprietorial interference or the fact that my publishers, R. Maxwell followed by R. Murdoch, owned vast swathes of newspapers and TV stations across the UK. It wasn't until I changed careers for academia that I realised people had written whole shelves of books about concentration of ownership. And that this is an area of serious concern.

The industry needs commentators who are distanced from the "do it now" culture of the newsroom. Just as much as it needs journalists who do more than churn out another press release.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Back with the sociologists

Back with the sociologists and more reading about theories of production and consumption of news. Sociologists seem to like nothing better than to create a neat theory and try to fit the facts to the theory (I thought scientists preferred to work from the facts but still...) So you argue that media coverage is totally shaped by economic forces and proprietors bent on making profits. Or you analyse the workings of the newsroom as a series of routines and meetings with sources as journalists working hand in glove with officials, bureaucrats and big corporations. News is a "social construct", dominated by the opinions of "elites".

Or, breaking away from the dead hand of Marxism and elitism, you argue that the way journalists cover stories is underpinned by "cultural givens" which journalists themselves don't realise they're drawing on when they write a story. Media stereotypes of ethnic minorities and gays are "cultural givens", as is journalists' "news sense", which journalists seem unable to define to the satisfaction of the sociologists.

Much of what academics write about news and news values has an element of truth but many of the theories are just too neat. Maybe academics need to spend more time in newsrooms and they'd realise how chaotic and random it often is when news is breaking. And more than ever when online sources of information are proliferating and you don't just have to worry about what the midday Evening Standard is saying (those were the days) but also who's saying what on Twitter, blogs, other news sites. As one journalist told sociologist Graham Murdock: "News and news programmes could almost be called random reactions to random events. " In other words, news is event-driven. Which even the sociologists are admitting is an interesting research area.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Michael Jackson's death - Twitter-style

I'm just back from Prague where the newspapers on Friday led not on the death of Michael Jackson but on the serious floods in the south of the Czech Republic. One newspaper carried a nib about Jackson's death on the front page but otherwise there was nothing. Of course I might have missed something (my Czech isn't what it should be and newspapers there may have earlier deadlines), but the contrast between this and the media hysteria generated by the UK press was quite startling. Like Roy Greenslade, I would use the word "overkill" to describe the acres of newsprint about Jackson which greeted me on my return. I'd say the Czech press had its priorities right.

But from an online journalism research perspective, the interesting thing about coverage of Jackson's death was that it provided yet more evidence of the growing role of Twitter in breaking and passing on news. Unlike Iran or Mumbai, this was not a life or death event (except for Jackson, of course) and Twitterers were sharing links and news rather than acting as eyewitnesses. But again Twitter seized the initial news agenda from the mainstream press. Citizen journalism in action?

Yes, on one level. But as comments left on Robert Niles' blog at the Online Journalism Review suggest, tweeting is still a minority activity, tweets aren't always accurate and it's often the same voices leading the conversation. It still needs the reach of the mainstream media to bring the news to the majority (including the news that the story broke on Twitter and the site crashed).

Of course, the mainstream media may be among those tweeting most loudly. Growing numbers of journalists are using it to share information and source contacts. The jury is still out on whether Twitter is a great piece of technology or a fad but it looks as if it's becoming a virtual telephone, contact book and notebook for a significant minority. And mainstream news sites including Times Online and the Guardian have been using Twitter feeds from reporters on the spot effectively at high profile news events like the G20 demonstrations. As with blogs, journalists are moving into geek territory and appropriating the tools to change the way they do their jobs. Chuck that notebook in the bin. On second thoughts, don't. That's the difference between being a professional journalist and being a member of the public.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The gatekeeper lives

One of the themes coming out of recent research is that newsroom practices are not changing as dramatically as some commentators suggest. Yes, journalists are blogging and shooting video and interacting with their readers, who are holding them to account in a way that some journalists find difficult and disconcerting. Yes, the idea that journalists should be able to stick to writing copy for a newspaper is looking increasingly untenable, especially in today's economic climate.

But underneath this flurry of multimedia innovation, old habits die hard. In a recent article in Journalism Studies, Phil Macgregor (2007) looks at the way journalists adjust their work to take account of server data showing how many readers are reading each story, when they're reading it and where the readers are from. Never before have writers had some much information about what readers are actually interested in. This is a huge change from the situation outlined by academics like Schlesinger (1987) and Gans (1980), who found that journalists only had the vaguest idea of who their readers/audiences were.

Now there is no such excuse and Macgregor's interviews with senior journalists reveal that they take server data seriously. But not so seriously that they take down or rewrite pieces that data show are generating little reader interest. There is still, rightly in my view, an in-built resistance to giving way too completely to the audience. Even in a multi-media newsroom, with readers flooding message boards and comment boxes and every story's interest quantifiable by its clicks, journalists consider it's up to them to decide what's news.

As a CNN editor tells Macgregor: "..if I just wanted to chase what people on the internet wanted to click on, I would do stories about soft porn and football and nothing else. We are a news site so we have to be treated as news and we have to cover stories which do not always have mass appeal."

Another piece of research by Alfred Hermida and Neil Thurman (2008) in Journalism Practice, aptly entitled A Clash of Cultures, finds that managers and editors in mainstream UK newsrooms like Times Online and the Telegraph encouraged the growth of user generated content (UGC) like blogs, message boards and comments, partly through fear of being left behind if they didn't. So much for far-sighted innovation.

Editors are also frightened that their "brand" could be tarnished if they allow readers to say what they like, unmoderated (and of course, they could be sued if they carry libellous content). The result? Organisations which want UGC on their sites spend a fortune on moderation, getting their journalists to filter content for its suitability and interest and vet blog comments before they're published.

The journalistic gatekeeper is still alive and well, even in the age of interactivity.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Man on wire

Remember the documentary Man on Wire, in which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit scales one of the twin towers, stretches a rope between the two towers and walks from one to another? According to broadcaster Jon Snow, this is what today's journalistic landscape is like.

He told the Association of Journalism Educators: "We've just got to the top of the first tower, we're blogging and everything like mad and having a great time but where do we go from here?"

Good question. No-one knows. Snow's argument is that we'll only get to the other tower when we discover how to make online journalism pay (or how to "monetise" in the horrible jargon). But meanwhile, we're encountering journalism which is "an infinitely more intricate and democratic process than when we started - and it's going to change the world." Snow's enthusiasm for new media- " I blog three or four times a day and twitter endlessly" - is exciting,, although it contradicts one of my PhD hypotheses that older journalists are more likely to scorn new media.

Snow's talk was another reminder that it's not going to be easy doing a PhD in an area where the sands are shifting so constantly. How do you avoid producing results which are at best confirming what everyone has known for ages because the process of research and getting published takes so long?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Trends in newsrooms

What does it feel like to be a journalist on the receiving end of huge changes to your working life because your editors have decided they're going to "integrate" your newsroom? Instead of writing just for a newspaper or just for the web, you're going to have to do both. And you're not only writing but shooting and editing video packages and learning to think "visually", as a storyteller rather than a "mere journalist" (whatever this means).

Thousands of journalists are going through this very process, described in fascinating detail in the World Editors' Forum's Trends in Newsrooms report. (I've just read the 2008 report but there's a 2009 report out as well which is on my reading list). Some journalists are finding the move to integration exciting, especially new journalists like my students, who don't know what a traditional print-only newsroom was like. Others, mid-career people like my journalism colleagues, often find the change terrifying.

But anyone looking for a perspective from the newsroom floor, as I am, won't find much of this in this report. It's written for management and the sub-text is: What are other papers doing to drum up readers and try and get noticed as print journalism implodes and circulations plummet? How are other managers and editors handling the move to integration and especially how are they getting their journalists onside?

There's lots of sound advice about communicating with your staff and the big risk of imposing change too rapidly (some fingers point at the Telegraph at this point). There's a sensible discussion about the importance of rethinking layout of newsrooms. As a journalist on Times Online when we were in a completely different building to the paper, I can definitely vouch for the difficulty of operating an integrated news operation from separate buildings. There's recognition that management needs to spend money on training rather than just expecting print reporters to go out with a video camera.

All good ideas. But how much of a gap is there between the ideal and the reality?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

No anonymity for bloggers

A short break from reading the World Editors' Forum's Trends in Newsrooms report (of which more anon) to consider a hot question. Should you be allowed to remain anonymous when you're making critical remarks about your employer and your professional life on your blog? The answer is no, says Mr Justice Eady. In a landmark case, which will have implications for bloggers everywhere, the judge refused to grant an injunction protecting the anonymity of the author of the Night Jack blog, ruling that the Times could reveal the name of author Detective Constable Richard Horton.

This is a contentious decision. The only way we know what is going on in tax-payer funded services like the police is sometimes via employees brave enough to speak out under the cloak of anonymity (because revealing their identity and criticising openly could mean the sack). It's not quite clear to me why the Times thought it was important to reveal Horton's name - is this not a bit close to revealing your sources (albeit an indirect source)? Will this ruling mean a further reduction in the already shaky trust many people have in journalists?

But even if you write under a pseudonym, as many bloggers do, blogging is a public act. As soon as you go online, you're trackable. If your blog doesn't give you away, your Facebook will. This is the power of the internet. And this ruling shows that the courts aren't going to protect you if you're outed.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

News from the Daily Show

Why did the New York Times let this man in? You almost have to feel sorry for the editors trying to justify having just one daily deadline. The writing just may be on the wall......

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Some more context..

American sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s were hot on empirical studies about what actually went on in newsrooms. In my mind the newsrooms they're writing about look a bit like this....

Out with the old

Sometimes you only realise how much things have changed in journalism when you read a book published nearly 10 years ago. This morning, I was dipping into (sorry, reading intelligently as part of my PhD research) John Pavlik's Journalism and New Media, published in 2001. A good read, widely quoted, with plentiful insights into how new technologies are changing the way journalists work. As the subject of my PhD is the way convergence are changing the way journalists work in mainstream UK national broadsheet newsrooms, I thought it a good idea to revisit this book, on many of our student reading lists. But I soon realised that things had moved on a bit. On the subject of search engines, Pavlik mentions such venerable players as Alta Vista, Lycos and Yahoo before adding: "A related search technology is called Google." In all my time at Times Online, the Evening Standard and teaching journalism (admittedly only four years of my working life), I can't recall any of my colleagues using anything except Google. And not only Google the search engine but Google Mail, Google Reader, Google Scholar...

Is it a waste of time reading books and papers which focus on out-of-date technology and working practices? I don't think it is. Because I've come to my subject as a practictioner rather than an academic, I'm having to do quite a lot of contextual reading about theories of production and consumption of news as well as catching up on more recent work about how traditional newsroom organisations and hierarchies are being challenged by the convergence of print and online media. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The development of technology is part of this context and part of the debate about how journalists have to adapt to new technology.

Of course, reading Pavlik's book was yet another reminder that in six years' time everything will have changed again. The very idea of a blog will probably be laughable. But only four years ago, I was commissioned to write a blog for Times Online. My response was: "What's a blog?" and my editor said: "I'm not quite sure...." There's some context...


Up at the University of Sheffield, where I'm doing my PhD. It's strange being a student again after several years of teaching in a university. I have to keep reminding myself not to get stroppy if people are talking in the library. But now I've discovered where the silent areas are (needless to say on the top floors, so too far for the chatterers to come), I'm getting a lot done. It's easier to work if other people are working around you. And you don't keep getting "courtesy calls" from banks or people wanting to come in and read the meter like I do working from home.

Tomorrow is my second monthly meeting with my supervisor, in which she wants me to give her a "braindump". I'm sure she wouldn't ask for this if she knew what the interior of my brain really feels like. I may be doing a PhD but the more I read, the more I realise I don't know. Apart from the occasional moment when I read something and think: "That wasn't written by anyone who's ever worked in a newsroom."

The start of it all

2015. 30 April 2015, to be precise. This is the date when I'm scheduled to finish my PhD. Six years away. People are already making faces of sympathy and so far I've only done two weeks.
Of course if you're an academic, you're happy to read all day, given the chance. Even if the sort of reading you're doing includes sentences like this: "....they [design changes] emerge from a dynamic media environment that is shaped by technological, social and cultural forces".... Or this: "Borrowing from ethnomethodological, phenomenological and symbolic interactionist perspectives, several studies within the last 10 years have taken a fresh look at news...."
I read both these today and I'm not going to argue - yet, but give me time. I need to get back into an academic mindset after 23 years in journalism and four as a journalism lecturer focusing on teaching students to pass their NCTJ newswriting exam.

Why do a PhD? Journalism is one of the few subjects which you can teach at university level without needing a doctorate. The students in my experience are much more interested in being taught by "real" journalists who have good contacts and industry knowledge than they are in lecturers with Dr in front of their name. I have a proper, permanent job in a university I like, working with colleagues who are also practitioners. My job doesn't depend on getting a PhD (unless my employer knows something I don't).

But even in journalism, and even in vocationally oriented universities like my own, there is growing pressure to carry out academic research. This is where the money comes from, as long as you're good at filling in endless forms and winkling out sometimes pathetically small sums of money from various grant-awarding bodies. The alternative is to take more students, which the government has realised it can't afford any more. Bizarre way of funding a university system....
Actually, my decision to do a PhD has nothing to do with pressure from management. I'm doing it because I want to (and my kind employer has given me a four month sabbatical in which to start). Saying you're doing a PhD in journalism gets a few raised eyebrows. Not exactly an academic subject.....? Maybe not traditionally but there is a growing body of critical literature, case studies and industry analysis and debate. To which I shall be adding with my research into the way UK journalists work in converged newsrooms. And letting my inner academic rip.