Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A manifesto for journalism?

A declaration called the Internet Manifesto for Journalism has attracted a lot of interest, partly because, I suspect, of the crisis facing the traditional news business.

It's disappointing - and I can claim a bit of authority on this, as Englemed was one of the pioneers of web-based journalism for well over a decade.

It's primarily, it seems to me, aimed at the traditional media. It doesn't really set out what journalism can and should do on the web. Nor does it offer many clues as to how it will pay for itself.

The manifesto challenges what it calls the "gatekeeper" model of news ie that newspapers and broadcasters select news and that's what the public gets. That's true but one problem with that old model was that the media followed itself round in packs. However it you want to find out about allergy, for instance, you won't get much a range of material if you use Google news. You will get a thousand variations on the same current story. So I do think the micro-sites we are developing - with a selection of news going back over a period (here's allergy) have a role. Time will tell.

The manifesto does not distinguish between news and comment. Normally that's lesson one in journalism school but never mind. Comment and discussion is predominantly going to be free and unpaid in the new world. A very small number of bloggers make a living - but their numbers are nothing compared with the paid columnists in newspapers and pundits on broadcast media. The balance will change - but no significantly.

News, in contrast, is not free to produce and can be very expensive. The best news reporting is usually the most expensive to do. State funding (including license fees), as we've commented before, can pay for good journalism but can also undermine independent journalism in this new economy. The manifesto makes no comment, so far as I can see (some of the language is a little dense) on the ethics of state-funded news reporting.

In my view we're in a phony war at the moment. We enjoy diversity of news provision because the printed media - newspapers - still exist. There will continue to be money around, advertising money, to pay for something. Advertising investment will probably grow but advertisers will increasingly use technology to target users rather than publications. It may be that Google will have to pay directly for diversity by contracting with the main news agencies as well as the BBC, ultimately cutting out the middle person, the newspapers and websites that simply recycle agency copy.

Points 15 and 16 of the manifesto discuss quality, 7 and 8 I think refer to sourcing. Point 16 is dead right:
"The Internet debunks homogenous bulk goods. Only those who are outstanding, credible and exceptional will gain a steady following in the long run." It could have said more, in particular about sourcing. A manifesto could say that news reports should acknowledge, report and link to sources, where possible. With one or two exceptions, many print-to-web sites do very little of this. There isn't the recognition that you can do more with the traditional "reverse triangle" of news reporting. This states that you put catch headlines and summaries at the top of a story and then progressively flesh it out. On the web many readers will simply flick through headlines and summaries - just as newspaper readers do. Others will want to know more - and too often that extra is not provided (a partial exception is the BBC). Bloggers are encouraged to put in links - traditional journalists are not. If you have read this far, there are several links throughout this piece you can follow!

Jon Hunt

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