Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Big Ideas: The future of news

The Big Ideas talk this month was about The Future of News, presented by Tim Luckhurst - former editor of The Scotsman and now professor of journalism at University of Kent.

Although the discussion wasn't the most enlightening use I've made of an hour and a half in the last month (or even today), it threw up a few intriguing points:
  1. That subset of "citizen journalism" which relies on unpaid, part-time people is unlikely to replace paid journalists in uncovering real stories - or, increasingly, even in the comment-and-opinion world. Indeed, I notice very clearly the differing impact of articles on this blog, between those which I've researched thoroughly and spent real time on, versus those which I dash off in half an hour as summaries of other thoughts. The correlation isn't perfect (this article is my most popular ever) but the ones that people have really commented on, and which have found their way onto places I care about, are mostly the ones I've made a proper effort on.

    For those who are interested, I spend an average of perhaps 1-2 hours a day writing this blog and reading the research and other articles that go into it. I am well aware that almost any Martin Wolf article or Economist leader has much more effort spent on it, and is of a higher quality, than my typical blog posting. Then again, if you're interested in what I write about, you mostly won't get it from Martin Wolf.
  2. A big question over journalism - especially news journalism as opposed to commentary - is the business model that will pay for it. Traditionally it was cross-subsidised by the gossip and other entertainment for which people mostly buy newspapers; but that model is breaking down due to increasing Web distribution, and a permanent revenue model for news is yet to emerge.
  3. Why do we think the Guardian (or the FT, Economist, New York Times or even the Sun) are genuine and trustworthy, as compared with the Drudge Report, Guido Fawkes or some random blog from some random guy? Partly, of course, it's resources and the backing of a big organisation with a reputation to maintain. But Drudge has a fairly big organisation now, with lots of full-time staff and plenty of money. They certainly have the resources to carry out proper investigations. What's the difference?

    He acknowledges that Guido Fawkes does break stories and in many ways qualifies a a professional journalist. I think Luckhurst's point was that there is a different culture. He insisted that anyone who can't write 120wpm shorthand couldn't possibly report accurately the contents of tonight's debate, or of a court case. More generally, he suggested (without quite stating it explicitly) that there is a qualitative difference between (a) a journalist with professional integrity, willing to put themselves on the line to speak truth to power, and (b) a blogger who just pumps out opinions, and if they do publish any facts, do it without checking and shouldn't really do it at all without a libel lawyer.

    So why is there this difference? Is it simply a legacy of the old way of doing news, and a level of trust we've built up in the old institutions which survives into today? Can new news outlets (he mentioned the Caledonian Mercury, although its article today on Chemical Ali is ironically sourced from the New York Times) only be set up by people who are former mainstream news journalists (or, presumably, trained in his Centre of Journalism at Kent)?

    If so, then this seems to be a path-dependent outcome which surely cannot survive for long. If the only thing supporting the reputation of newspapers is the reputation of newspapers, it's unlikely to be a stable position.

    But just one more thing. What gives the US dollar, the international direct-dial phone numbering system, the GSM standard or Google their default status as the standard in their respective domains? Why doesn't someone print their own scrip currency or make a phone number that uses letters? Simply because the existing standard is so widely adopted that it prevents alternatives from emerging. In other words, network effects. Perhaps traditional journalism has the same stability and momentum. It's possible, but I doubt it.
The audience questions mainly provoked Luckhurst into defending Rupert Murdoch's ownership of a media empire, and claiming that British news is the best and most free in the world, and is pretty close to perfect. I wouldn't particularly disagree with either claim. But neither is very interesting.

It was intriguing to hear the debate, and in particular an important acknowledgement that news can only be viable if it finds the right economic model. But I didn't hear anything either to sharply distinguish between blogs and newspapers, or to suggest what news will look like in the future. More radical and interesting thoughts are available from a whole host of researchers in media economics. This site looks interesting as does this one, and commentators from Chris Anderson to Tyler Cowen have written lots of provocative stuff about this.

Is there a cognitive/behavioural aspect to this? Of course. The resistance to micropayments and the cognitive barriers presented by paywalls or registration screens are basically cognitive phenomena. Hardly anyone is refusing to pay for news because they genuinely don't want to cough up $4 a month. It's all about the dozens of 3-penny decisions and do-I-trust-this-site-with-my-email-address hesitations we'd be asked to make.

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