Hats off to Nick Davies

News of the World

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There’s so much coverage of the shutting down of the News of the World, including mine, but I’m not seeing anyone talking about the journalist at the heart of this story – but who comes out with his reputation and morals intact.

Nick Davies has for four years kept this story alive, ignoring every threat and denial from News International, and always trusting his sources and instincts.

News of the World editor told staff yesterday: “The Guardian was out to get us, and they got us,” almost inferring a personal vendetta. But this is business: Davies uncovers wrong-doing for a living. NOTW may have hacked as many as 4,000 phones, including missing schoolchildren and war heroes’ families.

This video chat with him is worth watching. Here’s an excerpt:

 It’s about power and the power elite and the way that the power elite tend to look after each other. I think it’s reasonable to observe that the Murdoch corporation has too much power and its’ evident in the way that the police, the Press Complaints Commission and some politicians automatically backed off and said ‘let’s not cause trouble, they might hurt us’, that they already had too much power when all this was going on on.

It seems to me highly unlikely that it’s in the interests of society as a whole to give that too powerful group yet more power.

I rather think the threat from Murdoch owning more stuff is slightly over-stated but it’s hard to argue with his analysis of the forces that were holding back the reporting of tabloid journalism’s excesses during the last few decades. Much like with MPs’ expenses, the rules or transparency have now been re-written.

Davies is scathing about the Met police, whose fear of “causing trouble with this newspaper empire” saw multiple investigations dropped, despite live evidence. “There are senior officers who must be seriously considering whether they should resign,” he says.

Oh and Davies also casually says that he’s spoken to NOTW hacks (pun intended) who in 2005 asked Glenn Mulcaire to hack the voicemails of David Cameron and George Osbourne. If Davies’s reporting on this so far is any guide, you’d be foolish to question him.

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Highly commendable disruption

If personal blogs aren’t for self-aggrandising posts when something good happens, then what are they for?

I was very pleased to be “highly commended” (a phrase reminiscent of school homework) in the Digital Editorial Individual category 2011 at the AOP Awards last night. See the full list here and congratulations to Emma from the Telegraph for winning the overall individual prize.

As if my swollen ego needed boosting further, the judges also provided a testimonial quote:

‘Single-handedly established a very credible and respected new brand for quite a cynical audience!’

Briefing Media – the parent company of TheMediaBriefing.com, which I edit – was also up for Independent Digital Publisher.  We lost out to Magicalia, well done to them, but it’s fantastic to get that sort of recognition so soon after launching.

Disruption in action

Self-promotion aside, there is a serious point to make here about the industry and digital media. Rory and Neil founded Briefing Media because there was a gap in the market for a digital B2B company. It’s still very early days in the evolution of what we’re doing but in nine months we’ve: published two world-class research reports; ran a leading summit on monetising media; organised a second conference (it’s about mobile, it’s on Tuesday, last few tickets remaining); sent out thousands upon thousands of email newsletters and been nominated for two industry awards alongside the biggest names in UK media.

TheMediaBriefing is just the first of several sites we plan to launch in different professional niches. The aim has always been not just to build a site but a diverse multi-platform company. On that note, by the way, we’re always interested to hear from digital journalists and sales/events professionals who might want to work with us.

So in short, I think that shows what’s possible when you launch something new.

#newsrw: Heather Brooke on the PR gatekeepers of officialdom

The modern journalist’s role is not merely to report news, but to filter and distil masses of information that matters to the public and present it so they can act on it.

And reporters have to realise that supposedly independent government officials will always try to keep data secret where it might cause a negative headline.

That stirring call to arms is from Heather Brooke – journalist and freedom of information (FOI) campaigner – who was the keynote speaker at Journalism.co.uk’s fourth news:rewired event on Friday, at Reuters’ London HQ.

Brooke’s FOI requests led to the release (via an unplanned leak to the Telegraph) of every MPs’ expense claims, which resulted in perhaps the most critical constitutional and political crisis in modern times. And her advice is timely…

Breaking down the backroom deals in news

Brooke learned her trade as a crime reporter in the US, where access to incident reports and other data is guaranteed. She came to the UK in 1997 the UK, and here it’s a different story, involving cosy private relationships between reporters and gatekeepers:

That’s why I became a campaigner for freedom of information in Britain – I didn’t like the way it was done here. It always came with strings attached, it was favouritism, it was about who you knew – so if you did something for them, they would do something for you.

So the agenda is decided by the people that have access to the information, not the media, whose job it should be to interpret data. As any regional hack knows, police “voicebank” phonelines – where coppers tell reporters what has happened in the last 24 hours, but seem to think police-run family fun days are breaking news – are very close to being worthless. Is this how the police-reporter relationship will always be?

Civil servants as PR gatekeepers

The people with access to official information – usually PR  and communications staff, but not always – had “an unhelpful attitude”, says Brooke: “People forget that they are there to serve the public. They think the information is theirs, that they own it.”

This is what’s happening across the world: they [officials] are trying to manage the reputation of their institution. We need to understand that in our data journalism. We need to make them understand that this [disclosure] is good for them above all.

This rings very true. Why are civil servants – who work for the public, not political parties – so careful about releasing information? Because it could genuinely negatively affect them in their jobs and their lives. But this is government by Daily Mail, not open disclosure for the public good.

Journalists’ data roles

“The journalist’s role is managing all this data and distilling it down into what is important to the public,” she says. And, without wanting to get into a “Is ice cream strawberry” style debate, for Brooke the interrogation of data is specifically what separates professional journalists from amateurs.

All that gathering data, checking, getting statements… this verification takes time and it takes money. But what many media organisations are forgetting is that this marks out a professional from a blogger or non-professional.

Brooke’s talk reminded me of the tenacity shown by journalist Chris Wheal in a conversation with a Treasury PR manager who was being mystifyingly unhelpful with his reasonable request for data (I wrote about it here).

It’s an uphill struggle finding the data you need to tell stories fully in the UK. But if you don’t take no for an answer, that’s a good place to start.

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Powerpoint, coffee and business cards: Media conference season gets underway

The Hollywood Hill's Mobile Media Summit

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It’s that time of year when media hacks get up early, head to a hotel, drink too much coffee and find out what the future of the industry is.

There are a few really good ones coming up – including the next from TheMediaBriefing.com – and I thought I’d mention them in the hope of meeting some interesting people by flagging up my attendence in advance.

News:rewired – Friday 27 May

With a focus on social media and data, the third news:rewired from Journalism.co.uk has a good line-up, featuring some of the best thinkers inUK digital media – including occasional TheMediaBriefing contributors Greg Hadfield and Kevin Anderson. (I’m told tickets are available).

These events are focused on the production and distribution of news content and it’s a very useful, practical forum for journalists, particularly those with management roles who are looking for solutions to all the complex problems we all have to deal with.

Mobile Media Strategies 2011 – 14 June

This is Briefing Media’s second full-length major conference, and I think we have an unbeatable lineup. I’m pleased that almost all the people I wanted on board said yes – which I hope shows that we’re providing an independent platform for industry leaders to share what they’re working on and discuss the challenges they face.

There aren’t make conferences that get the likes of Telegraph, Guardian, Sky to appear in one day, for example. Plus I’m really interesting to hear what book publisher Dorlin Kindersley and Swedish mag innovator Bonnier are doing with iPad apps.

Tickets are here (and don’t forget we do group discount) and see who’s signed up so far. Conferences are often as good as the people in the room and there are already some great people coming.

AOP Awards 2011 – June 9

I’ll be at the AOPs this year – nothing unusual there, but this is the first time I’ll be going as an individual nominee, for Digital Editorial Individual, which is very humbling. Briefing Media is also up for Independent Digital Publisher, among some fantastic brands.

SIPA UK Conference – 13 July

The Specialised Information Publishers’ Association kindly asked me to run an editorial breakout session at its annual London get-together, which I’m doing with former colleague and now FT.com data wizard Martin Stabe.

Some really good B2B folk are taking part (I’m hoping someone films the WGSN pres as I’ll be on stage in another room) and it will be interesting to see if David Gilbertson – the former Emap CEO who left the company this month – turns up and does his session as planned. He’s a good speaker and one of the trade publishing biz’s smartest guys so I hope he does.

And, finally, a mini-plug for WAN-IFRA’s Newsroom Summit in Zurich on 9/10 June. I won’t be there but my colleague Neil Thackray from Briefing Media will be and Neil is especially good value on conference panels so watch out for that and by all means have a chat with him about Briefing Media/TheMediaBriefing.com if you’re going.

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BBC Social Media Summit: Newsrooms need a mix of skills and cultures #bbcsms

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In this digital media, journalism and always-on bubble that we live in – if you’re reading this blog you’re probably in that category – we are weird.

Speaking at the BBC’s Social Media Summit on Friday at White City (or “White Stadt” as Google Maps puzzlingly and Germanically translates it) BBC Global News head honcho Peter Horrocks says that most newsrooms are not populated by people who are obsessed by the future. He says:

I think it’s really important that the people in this room and following online realise how weird and unusual they are in comparison to most newsrooms.

Most newsrooms are full of people living in the moment – they are  reactive and responsive to event. And theyre not interested in the vision and future of journalism and that’s fine. We need people like that. It’s got to be a balance of the different cultures.

Cultural divides

Horrocks was speaking on a panel titled Cultural Change and his points were useful to underline the fact that digital newsgathering is not used by a good many journalists, who still manage to do a good job.

Horrocks said last year that BBC News staff have no choice but to use socaal media in some way – a comment mistranslated as “tweet or die” by some. “It wasn’t tweet or die, it was tweet or be sacked“, he says, adding that he is serious about the need for Beeb reporters and producers to communicate and listen to people online.

Echoing a piece we ran this week on TheMediaBriefing calling for a blend of young, digitally-minded experts plus more management focused, traditional media  folk who simply know how to get stuff done, Horrocks says the BBC needs to be a “coalition” of people searching for the future and people just getting on with things.

WaPo: Numbers do matter

There is a tendency when talking about building relationships through publishing to ignore the numbers. It’s not the quantity of followers, but the quality of conversation that matters, goes the assumption.

But, speaking on the same panel, Raju Narisetti from the Washington Post has a refreshing counter-argument: numbers are everything in social media publishing. User data is the key to getting value – editorial and commercial – from relationships.

It seems there’s a move from a world of reporting and numbers to one of context. I’d like to challenge that and say numbers are everything in our business.

People think of unique users and eyeballs – but people forget that at the end of that unique user is a real person.

And here’s a thought: by listening to your audience, having a good analytics approach, Narisetti points out you can better decide what not to do.

With dwindling resources you can use data to decied what not to do… you are able to show what you can stop doing without impacting on your readership. That shift in metrics has been one of the biggest changes for us.

If it’s hard to sell the idea of journalists being on Twitter, Narisetti recommends the ego-centric approach. Facebook referrals for WaPo are up 300 percent year on year – increasingly, readers expect content to come to them and this is how to grow a brand and an audience.

“Journalists are driven by the ego of having more people reading their story,” as Narisetti puts it. But also, in age where innovation is at least in some part driven by fear, he says “It helps if your industry is in trouble and people think they might be out of  job.”

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Celebrating 100 Audioboos – my Leeds Trinity Journalism Week speech

Ahem. Without wanting to become one of those people that apologises “for not posting in while” – I realised I haven’t said much for a long time.

And for some reason I didn’t post my speech from Leeds Trinity’s Journalism Week earlier this year, organised by my alma mater, Leeds Trinity and All Saints College. I recorded it on Audioboo – my favourite audio tool – and since I’ve just passed 100 uploads, it seemed a good idea to share.

I waffle on about my career so far for quite some time (that is what they asked for…) so skip to 12.40 for some some thoughts on journalism skills and some advice for the students at TASC.

I talk about Twitter, blogging, thinking digitally, why writing still matters as much as it ever did, why you should beware of PR people (but they can help you)… and lots of other stuff.



Update: Somehow, I managed to miss that I’ve passed the 100 uploads mark on Audioboo. A swift headline change and maybe I can make it look like I planned this all along.

For interviews, bits of conference speeches, occasional whimsy and the odd guitar-based noodling, you can follow my boos here.

Frontline Club debate: “It’s so dangerous here, not even Osama bin Laden is safe”

A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

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On the day after al Qaeda’s “leader” Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid on a nondescript compound outside Jalalabad, BBC Urdu sent out reporters into four cities across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not to ask questions, but to observe. To sit at bus stops, to listen.

Aamer Ahmed Khan, the head of the BBC’s Urdu service, told a packed Frontline Club panel on Wednesday: “They reported back that hardly anyone was talking about it. They were talking about power cuts.”

One of the first jokes the journalists heard, with huge irony: “Oh my god it’s so dangerous here, not even Osama bin Laden is safe.”

This illustrates the disconnect between the western view of world events – and its 24-hour media cycle – and other parts of the world. For many in Pakistan, this was not earth-shattering news. But it’s huge news for the UK and even bigger in the US – so no doubt the Frontline was full of people seeking some analysis. Here’s what went down…

Lynne O’Donnell, an author and former bureau chief in Kabul for AFP, underlined the apathy felt by many in Urdu and Arabic speaking lands:  “The people I’ve been speaking to in Kandahar and Kabal… say the overwhelming response is one of indiffrence. They say alQaeda is not a man. When you think about it they have never looked at Osama bin Ladan as their leader.”

She went on to say that there are about 260 AQ fighters in Afghanistan – some of whom are ideologically motivated, while others are simply “supporting 10 kids and a mother-in-law, they might have three acres and the choice of whether to grow a crop or poppies.”

Middle East peace process hope

Zaki Chehab, editor-in-chief of ArabsToday.net, the “largest Arabic-language news website” saw a silver lining in all this: we might now start talking again about more important things:

I met [former Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat one month after 9/11 and it was the beginning of US putting him under siege. His words were exactly, ‘if it wasn’t for 9/11 we would be having a Palestinian state within to to three months…. Now there is no Bin Laden anymore we hope that Israel and Palestine returns to centre stage.

Political fall-out

Dr Farzana Shaikh, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, was in doubt that the Pakistani political elite has lost some bargaining power through its failure to identify and capture bin Laden. “The most immediate impact with the loss of Osama bin Laden is that in the leadership and intelligence agencies have lost their leverage… and the idea that they were entitled to a seat at the top table. They are now in a much more vulnerable position.”

She continued on the theme of Pakistan’s alleged indifference towards radicalism – a criticism levelled at the state by many in the US:

[former Pakistan leader Pervez] Musharraf capitalised on the threat of terrorism to keep his rule intact… Pakistan’s problem is really the problem of the state’s ambivalence towards Islam. Islam and religion have been repeatedly used as means of propping up regimes. Pakistan has become much more vulnerable and environmentally friendly to different waves of radical Islam.

This has been taken advantage of our military regimes which have nurtured a policy of militantism, which have used radicalism to pursue regional interests against India

Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University, London, broached the tricky subject of whether the execution of bin Laden was legal. “They have killed thousands, hundreds of thouands, after 9/11. Was it legal? Probably not exactly.,” she said.

“If you make might right, how can you preach rule of law to others? Of course it’s absurd to say ‘justice was done’. Obama’s a lawyer…but he was speaking as a politician, not as a lawyer.”

And turning to the issue at hand – is the world a safer place without bin Laden? – she offered a more sociological analysis: radicalisation inside Europe is caused by the treatment of Muslims in Europe and the amount of immigration, she argued, which is a far wider issue than, who are the bad guys and how do we get them. “So I don’t think Osama bin Laden is responsible for all these sources of radicalisation.”

Hollis also made what was for me the point of the night – don’t think this superdcedes some of the genuinely era-defining democracy movements in the Arab world…

Rosemary Hollis: US needs to be aware of triumphalism/ Al Qaeda’s popularity has been superseded by #Arabspring #frontlineclubless than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet Reply

Update: The headline is changed – apparently I misheard the joke told by Khan.

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The journalist’s guide to the internet… from 1999

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Do you remember when the internet was all new and strange? When being “online” felt like a distinct and separate experience to simply doing normal things?

Then let’s transport you right back. I stumbled across this: a guide to online journalism from 1999, written by Mike Holderness. He provided it as a free resource for students – apparently under the banner of the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – and it says so much about how the industry viewed the web back then, and to extent betrays attitudes still prevalent now. (I spotted this while looking at work by @LibbyGalvin, a student at City University, London, where I teach occasionally)

The internet is the reporter’s hangout of the future

What’s immediately striking is how much of Mike’s advice is still valid. He opens with the first thing any digital publishing trainer would tell you today:

In order to understand the internet and other on-line services, you have to use them

And then, anticipating the sharp cuts and job losses across the industry in the 2000s, Mike gives his rationale for online journalism as a career choice (emphasis is mine):

At some point in your career you are going to be freelance. Believe me.

When you are a freelance, you will need to specialise. In many specialist areas, the internet is the native form of communication of the people you are writing about. If you refuse to enter bars, it is extremely difficult to be a crime reporter; if you refuse to enter the internet, it will be extremely difficult to cover science – including the social sciences and criminology – technology, and an expanding list of other areas.

Who could argue with that? Looking at this now, this point seems more true than Mike could have envisaged: in order to fully report specialist areas, reporters have no choice but to engage online with communities that understand them. We’ve even seen general news reporters, with the advent of liveblogging, use online as the principle mode of communication.

Imagine a world without Google

The students graduating from City University this summer probably have no idea what Alta Vista, Lycos, Usenet and telnet are – but anyone interested in online stuff in the 1990s will know exactly what they were.

But almost everyone alive of sound mind knows what Google is – but Google as still in beta in 1999 and had yet to revolutionise search. It seems nostalgically quaint when Mike makes the distinction between automated and manual directories. “Machine-generated indexes have the advantage that their contents are not filtered – computers are, so far, not capable of introducing political bias,” he says.

Skills for journalists, via the Wayback machine

“Often, the best way to find someone’s email address is a phone call“, says Mike. Today we might use Twitter, LinkedIn or Google, but back then none of them existed.

It’s sobering to think that Mike’s best advice to finding a URL – in the absence of a comprehensive real-time all-web catalogue – is just to hit and hope: “Often, the best way to locate such a directory is to make an informed guess at its ‘URL’.”

Mike suggests that the only people you might want to contact using the internet are techies and academic boffins – a reasonable idea 12 years ago. As he puts it:

The Web was, after all, invented by academics tired of answering colleagues’ questions in email. Then you call them or email them for the soundbite, knowing what to ask for.

Mike’s general advice for people baffled by all this is salient too:

If you stay calm and don’t get carried away with the newness of the technology, you’ll find this is just the same as evaluating material you find in the Real World™.

Stuff you pick up in a mailing list has the same value as stuff you pick up in (a conversation in) a bar. (It makes some difference whether it’s the bar of King’s College Cambridge or the Axe, Hackney Road…)

Google fails on press freedom search

A triumph for historic irony, Mike’s take on the in-beta Google search engine is worth quoting at length:

The Google search engine (which was still in “beta test” in August 1999) is interesting. It ranks pages according to the number of pages which link to them. This makes it very good indeed at finding home pages for organisations and individuals – or at least those which have had Web presences for a while. It did well, too, on Genetically Modified Organism* but averagely for press freedom.

Ten years later Rupert Murdoch would accuse Google of being a parasite, getting rich from the hard work of his editors and journalists, before taking his sites off Google News’ search index. What will be said of Google in another 10 years, I wonder…

p.s. This article from Mike in the Indy from 1992 prefaces the rise of Wikileaks by nearly 20 years

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