Better journalism: “We have to learn directly from news consumers through experiments”

There’s an interesting confluence of work on journalism in the digital age today. This morning I’m at conference in Dublin on the importance of Diversity in the Media (organised by the Labour MEP Nessa Childers), and at the same time Blair Jenkins’s Better Journalism in the Digital Age, is published by the Carnegie Foundation across the water.

Jenkins – with whom I shared a platform at the Cleraun Media Conference last November – is highly conscious of the current controversies surrounding both tabloid and broadsheet journalism in Britain, which currently are being highlighted sometimes in intense detail by the Leveson Inquiry.

He notes in particular that the digital age is finally bringing a degree of transparency in the way journalism (as well as government) is done:

News brands will need to have a reputation for reliability in order for people to trust their reporting. The tendency in society towards greater disclosure and transparency will impact on the news media also. They will be held much more firmly to account. There is likely to be less tolerance of deception and other devices where there is not demonstrably a clear public interest.

Quite so. In a piece published in the Belfast Telegraph over the weekend, Malachi O’Doherty both acknowledges this problem but also highlights the uneven fight many good journalists in speaking truth to power:

We are going through a period of national breast-beating about what a sorry pass we have come to as a society and one of the targets of our moral panic is that homogeneous horror, ‘The Media’. What is to be done about it?

Note how that simple plural verb is so often spoken of as if it describes a single, appalling reality. There is no single thing called ‘The Media’; there are just many newspapers and magazines and broadcast outlets and blogs and thousands upon thousands of people working through them.

And there are the thousands more Press officers and communications directorates, which exist to serve the newspapers and broadcasters and magazines and blogs.

Yet, over and over again, it is spoken of as if it is a definable conspiracy of a morally dysfunctional few, who want nothing more than to get their hands into somebody’s underwear drawer.

Jenkins is mindful of this ‘race to the bottom’ meme that has accompanied the outing of dodgy practices in the #Hackgate scandals. In fact he pinpoints the beginning of this decline in standards in the transition from print to television news. A lead that remains convincing to this day, with Print’s decline accelerating in comparison to almost every other medium:

And the state of the local press (where real decentralised knowledge was once held) is declining even more alarmingly:

In a period of rapid decline it is hardly surprising that standards are falling rapidly. Jenkins argues that the voluntary agreements in place in Britain have been weak on setting out aspirational ambitions. He looks to both the US and Ireland for correctives, not least the Society of Professional Journalists laconic code of ethics:

• Seek truth and report it
• Minimize harm
• Act independently
• Be accountable

But of these he further notes:

Under the First Amendment to the US constitution, it is not possible to have legally binding rules for news media beyond the general provisions of criminal and civil law that apply to society as a whole. There is a definite sense in the SPJ code of journalists themselves actively trying to encourage and advocate high standards of personal professional conduct. It may be precisely because any form of mandatory regulation is constitutionally impossible that journalists have striven to adopt and uphold higher levels of editorial and ethical behaviour. [emphasis added]

He then goes on:

In the UK, the current press guidelines on conduct – set out in the Editors’ Code of Practice, approved by the Press Complaints Commission deal mainly with the things you should not do, rather than the things that you should. The PCC code focuses on the actions that are impermissible or inadvisable, rather than conveying any sense of mission which is inspirational.

By comparison, the Irish Code of Practice is a superior document. For one thing, it is a statement of principles rather than just a series of clauses. It is more positive than negative in its guidance highlighting what you should do, rather than what you should avoid doing. While the UK code reads like a grudging and minimalist contract, the Irish document reads more like a genuine series of commitments, representing a professional manifesto.

Jenkins doesn’t say too much about the Internet although he is rather dismissive about the poor take up of new techniques by the mainstream (who in the UK and Ireland by and large still continue to win the war for scale), in particular data journalism and new visualation techniques:

We have to learn directly from news consumers through experiments. There is not enough adding of value, using the extra capacity and the extra creativity of the internet.

There are now tremendous tools at our disposal for communicating information, including how we visualise and present complicated data. More of these data visualisation tools should be being used more of the time for the more complicated issues and for policy explanation.

Our emphasis should be on encouraging experimentation and collaboration in pursuit of successful innovation.

All of this is true. Back in 2005, I guested with a five other Irish bloggers from the time (I think only two of us still blog on a regular basis) on David McWilliams’s day time programme. John Ihle I think it was said that within five to ten years there would be difference between bloggers and journalists. What he meant was we would all be sitting on the same platform, not necessarily doing the same thing.

Malachi O’Doherty expresses well the fear of many journalists, who are increasingly being outflanked, outnumbered and outfought on a daily basis by an ever expanding army of spin doctors (highly respected former colleagues amongst them):

…imagine if we were not here, doing the noble and principled stuff we are proud of, doing the fun stuff, too. Could you imagine a world without us? Many have tried – the Stalins and Mugabes among them – and the sneering, superficial, self-important people who blame all the woes of society on ‘The Media’.

If there is to be a way out for journalism, it probably has something to do with aspiration (not least by raising their often jaundiced view of the differentiated views of the masses) and finding low cost ways to experiment with ‘new mediums’ (to free it from that bland misleading plural) fast becoming available to all of us, to as EM Forster once put to ‘only connect’.

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  • It is striking that despite print’s constant complaints about being undercut by the internet, it is TV’s share that has increased most. Note the step change in TV (up) and print (down) in 2008, whereas the internet has only seen gradual increase (which almost matches the decline of radio).

    Also, the step change in local media seems to have been ten years ago, before the internet took off.

    Is there any significance to these dates?

  • Professor Yattle

    This is a pretty pompous lecture from a man who still, after years at the keyboard, can barely write a coherent and error-free sentence.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Are newspapers at risk of extinction? from 15% to 6% influence in 5 yrs surely viability is fast disappearing.

  • Damian O’Loan

    The table showing the sources of news is interesting, and will become more so. What’s missing from the debate is that developments in hardware are as significant as those in software and online behaviour.

    As TV and internet become one and the same thing, a huge market becomes open to news and comment providers who have been marginal in their influence. When you can sync your news providers across your TV and any mobile devices you have, the potential for the control of communications staff to be weakened is also increased. Advertising revenue, in this context, is sure to be sufficient to ease any worries about the death of journalism.

    If, as seems probable, this results in a situation where those who follow stringent and transparent editorial lines, provide stimulating and trustworthy news and react to events most quickly become or remain institutions, things won’t have changed that much after all.

    Incidentally, I don’t recall Slugger O’Toole ever engaging in data journalism. The attempt at crowd-reporting the 12th was led by a blogger who then left after a disagreement, and only one blogger regularly provides original video content – which is often more interesting than the BBC or UTV coverage of the same events.

  • Mick Fealty

    We’ve done some quick and dirty stuff, but you are right, we’ve not. Possibly because I am less numerate than I am literate! Natch!

  • Surprised at Radio decline. The again with the rise of TV in every room including the kitchen then we might expect that. TV rise interesting, and confirms why the last UK election was so much influenced by the TV debates. Suggest internet is noise around MSM which is increasingly TV oriented – and aided by the underscoring of the visual through video on YT and social media access to video.

    As this is UK data I would add the rapid disintegration of community based on transient/mobile work patterns amke TV the most consistently accessible. Local is less important in many ways, generally in England. NI and what is left of rural in the regions may hang in there for a while longer.

  • aquifer

    ‘There is not enough adding of value, using the extra capacity and the extra creativity of the internet.’

    I agree with that one. The traditional print media were in the main an information transfer service, carrying quality controlled data to the brain, which remained the indexing and archival system. This business of assigning meaning and significance to events and information was also supported by columnists with the time training and attitude for this.

    Then the paper wrapped chips or lit the fire.

    What service would I pay for? Maybe one where I would have a better indexed archive where I and trusted others get to assign significance.

    I am paying already with the time I use Google and Wikipedia, but neither system is paying for Journalism.

    Maybe the industry is just being stupid, trying to set up permanent income streams based on one data source for natural search processes that use many sources including free TV.

    The problem is that I do not want to pay hardly anything to see data until I see it first, especially when I am awash in free data.

    The opportunity is that hardly anything is a non zero cash amount, that I will come back repeatedly to information I have contributed to indexing, and that computers are big adding and indexing machines.

    Think of a crowd sourced indexing machine.

  • Mick Fealty


    “Maybe the industry is just being stupid, trying to set up permanent income streams based on one data source for natural search processes that use many sources including free TV.”

    That’s an uncharitable way of putting it. I don’t think it’s in the stupid stage any longer. They know there’s a problem, and there’s a lot of clever experimentation with revenue.

    The NYT have gone paywall again, but this time they’ve made it porous enough to both make it pay and stay visible enough to stay in the game for new customers.

  • Mick Fealty


    I should have added that I’m open ideas and offers on that score!

  • Damian O’Loan


    I had no ideas in mind – I thought that was your role?

    In terms of data, though, I don’t see great difficulty in compiling the various statistics published by various Stormont depts, local government, commissions, NGOs and charities into spreadsheets that could be worked on by anyone who requested an invite. A fairly laborious task, but I think you could encourage an exchange on your usual topics based on data manipulation and mining as opposed to opinion, by presenting it in the right format. Were this to encourage better-presented, more thorough reporting in the first place, it could only be a good thing.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Stalin didn’t remove free media, neither did Lenin, they both followed Tsar Nicholas’s only enforced it more severely.

  • andnowwhat

    I was listening to Richard Bacon discuss the Mail Online last week, in particular, they were talking about the comments section.

    Anyway, what became clear was that The Mail was ahead of the game. It’s online editorial line was less conservative (hardly a challenge) than the print version and also included a lot of trashier, celeb driven stories.

    In an age of 24 hour news and online media the best place for the print media to concentrate on is analysis. It’s hardly new that by the time one gets the morning or evening paper, the stories are not only not new but very often, they have moved on.

    If thee’s a big story, I turn on to twitter and follow not just the journos who are tweeting about the story but also the actors involved.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I will never forgive The Mail for the MRI vaccination scandal and their backing of Dr Wakefeild, as much as I despise The Mail and their readers, I wouldn’t wish a dead child on them even through their stupidity.