Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The hacking of Rome: it’s time for transparency in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 14, 2011

Image: TheSun/SkyNews/Twitpic

The Sun newspaper runs a front page article today in which big-rival the Guardian apologises to the tabloid for claiming they hacked the phone of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 

The Guardian said the Sun got its exclusive about Brown’s son’s battle with Cystic Fibrosis by reading confidential medical records.

Of course, this comes amid a plague on the House of Murdoch as allegation after allegation about News International’s hacking exploits swarms through all the press – a lot of it after dogged investigation by The Guardian (and in particular, investigative journalist Nick Davies). The News of the World’s sudden Mubarak-like fall has put the other media sultans in a nervous position.

Now you could view The Guardian’s apology as embarrassing for the paper who has led the charge against hacking.

But there’s something else at play. Slowly (painfully, unwillingly) – but surely, we are seeing a long overdue process appear in journalism: transparency.

II

Say what you like about journalism today – it is not in any way transparent. As consumers (and in the case of the BBC, funders) we are never told where our news comes from: we aren’t told if it’s from a private briefing, a press release, in exchange for cash – or even copy and pasted from the wires.

We have no way of understanding who “sources close to David Beckham” might be. Stories ripped from agencies are often bylined with a fictional name (I’m told this is true in major broadsheets, not just tabloids).

And it’s not just something endemic in the press: I’ve written before about the lack of transparency in mainstream broadcast media too. The BBC, Sky and ITN use agency footage as if they shot it themselves.

This is something that really, really bugs me. I’ve tried to counter it, by publishing full source lists & data in my own journalism, and by pitching ideas for how technology can add layers of transparency to current journalism.

And you know what? It’s not about being right all the time. What a stupid pedestal to position yourself upon. The world is not a clear-cut, yes-and-no place. A fact today is not necessarily a fact tomorrow. If journalism accepted the uncertainty in the world as readily as most of its readers & viewers it wouldn’t get itself into such a mess.

III

The quite fantastic thing about all this terrible hacking business is that it’s forcing journalists – like those working for The Sun and The Guardian – to be accountable for their work, on their own front page! This was inconceivable a few months ago.

Now, imagine a future where all media is transparent by nature. Where journalists are properly accountable, but also more accepting of the random unpredictability of life, celebrating it instead of trying to control it. A future where mistakes are made – but acknowledged without embarrassment or shame. We all make mistakes don’t we?

The Guardian though has its own correction/apology f0r the Gordon Brown story buried at the bottom of the online article; is it embarrassed a mistake was made, or afraid of transparency as much as everyone else?

For transparency to really happen, a lot of shit has to be cleaned out of a lot of media stables. The media-vine is alive with claims many other organisations will be exposed for hacking, and before long will be forced into their own humble mea culpa.

Perhaps then journalism won’t take such a gloating view over other peoples’ failings, and be more willing to acknowledge its own.

The future of news belongs to those who…kiss

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2010

Image credit: Okinawa Soba

The traditional news organisations: the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News – and all the others – have got a problem.

Up until recently I thought the problem was revenue and the lack thereof; but that will solve itself organically over time.

And then I realised they’ve got another problem:  it’s one they’ll never be able to solve – and it threatens their place in the future of journalism.

They’re too big.

Sounds strange doesn’t it (after all, size is usually good for a news organisation with a big remit). The insight comes from Clay Shirky, whose blog posts are rare, but always near revolutionary. He talks about the collapse of the great empires of the past: the Mayans, the Romans. They collapsed because they got too big, too complex and couldn’t adapt to a new world.

His modern case in point: the Times paywall. He interprets Rupert Murdoch’s justification for charging online content as this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In other words, News International is so big, so complex, so addicted to the exuberant and wasteful systems which it consumed in the 20th century, it just can’t change. So it has to charge customers to help sustain its lifestyle.

Shirky goes on:

“In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one….Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.”

That last point about video is important. Think how many TV production companies are addicted to $20,000 cameras, big rigs, professional lighting, large crews and plush offices in the centre of major cities. They don’t know how to do anything different, and so they charge their clients thousands upon thousands to cover their secret addiction to luxury.

Video Journalism has been around as a cheap alternative to traditional TV news gathering since the 1980s. Why do all the big news organisations still send 2 or even 3 person crews to stories? Michael Rosenblum points out dryly, ABC News’ move to VJing should have been news in the 90s.

Bad times for them. Good times for the next generation of journalists and producers.

How to survive in the future of journalism

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.

Do not underestimate the advantage that gives us in the market.

Someone who gets it is media commentator and lecturer Jeff Jarvis. Here’s what he wrote for the Guardian, when the Times paywall was announced:

“…in Murdoch’s folly, I see opportunity….As a teacher of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York, I see openings for my students to compete with the dying relics by starting highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

And that’s precisely it. Go in lean, mean and ruthless and start tearing stuff up. But know this: if your career takes you into the fold of the giants, you too will become addicted to their opium. It’s a tough drug to get over. I’ve been lucky in some ways. I’ve only ever worked for tiny, struggling commercial outlets. I thought it sucked at the time, but it meant I always had to do things cheap, and quick – and I never got hooked on the luxurious journalism of the BBC or anyone else.

But the future is bright: here’s Clay Shirkey to wrap it up:

“It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

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