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.