Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Goodbye mainstream media. It’s been fun.

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on December 14, 2010

This is going to be a very personal post, so apologies in advance; it’s something I try to avoid on this blog as much as I can.

The past two weeks has seen the first, sustained, clash between two ages: a new era of complete online freedom and transparency (and all that this entails, good and bad); versus the old world of secrecy, authority and control. And it’s been paralleled in a clash between a new way of doing journalism and the way the traditional, mainstream media does it.

As someone very much straddling both sides of the fence, so to speak, it has given me a huge amount to think about. I have now come to the conclusion that the future of journalism will not come in any shape or form from the current established media – at least in its present form.

I want to state that here and now because it is something I have not said publicly before: the future of journalism does not lie with the mainstream media. I am not suggesting it will get replaced by blogs or news startups – it will continue to exist. But anyone looking to it to breed a strong, sustainable and effective craft in the decades ahead – that genuinely performs a fourth-estate role – is looking in the wrong place.

NOTE: I know that will send many straight down to the comments box – and please do give me your thoughts! Please read the bullet points right at the bottom first – which clarify what I am, and am not saying.

It’s taken me a long time to come to this conclusion, and it’s the result of a long string of personal events.

Of mice and mephedrone

I’ve described before on this blog how I quit my job in the mainstream media back in September 2009. At the time I was working for a well-established, popular and profitable commercial radio station in Yorkshire, England. I had the privilege of being part of a news team who consistently beat our local rivals in relevancy and quality of our news, despite far smaller resources.

Earlier this year, I found myself back in the newsroom, sitting in the same chair – for a short period of time. I’d returned to do a couple of weeks of freelancing, to see old friends and keep my skills sharp.

My return coincided with one of the big media blowouts of the year (although one which has now almost entirely been forgotten). Two teenage boys had been found dead and Humberside Police suggested it may have been the result of a new, and legal drug, mephedrone. Mephedrone has lots of sexy nicknames, like M-Cat and meow-meow and was instant news-media sugar.

For us, both boys – who I won’t name, but you can find out easily yourself – were from our local patch, just south of the Humber estuary. A big local story then, and we immediately kicked into action. Over the next two weeks we diligently reported all the details of the story: reaction from local health experts, the latest from Humberside Police, growing pressure for the drug to be banned; statements from the Health Secretary Alan Johnson (who, helpfully was also a local MP); and then how Britain’s senior drugs expert Professor David Nutt resigned in protest at that decision.

Finally, on my last day, we reported the funerals of the two boys. I was at the first funeral, and in a superb use of initiative and social media journalism, reporter Jen Grieves was able to contact friends of the two boys via Facebook. We both went out and interviewed them. We asked them about mephedrone and what they thought of it. Within days, the drug had been banned – the one of the quickest changes in legislation in the UK in years.

At the end of the two weeks, I returned to London and we all felt we had done an excellent job – we had done good journalism.

Except, for one thing. The two teenagers did not die from mephedrone. In fact, they had never even taken it. This didn’t emerge until nearly two months later, and when it did, it barely registered in the mainstream media.

And I came to a cold and uncomfortable conclusion: this year I have participated fully in the mainstream media for just two weeks. My only achievement in that fortnight has been to perpetuate a national myth, to compound an echo-chamber, to package more lies and unwittingly sell them as truths.

Here’s the crux: I am not, on the whole, a bad journalist. The journalism we did was exactly the same as every other news outlet in those two weeks. We reported the events in the same way as the most senior BBC, ITV and Guardian journalists. In fact, a lot of our information came from our official news-wire, provided by Sky News.

Looking back, we should have challenged the police press release. We should have actually asked what mephedrone was, instead of going with what our news wires were saying. When the most accepted expert on drugs in the UK resigned, we should perhaps have wondered if he had a point. And we should have waited for the toxicology reports before linking the deaths to it.

Of course, none of these things are possible inside the mainstream news cycle, which is why it has become so distorting and dangerous. The actions of thousands of journalists telling half truths here and there, and passing on unchallenged information as fact from ‘reliable sources’ creates a foghorn for lies on a giant scale.

Iraq and The News You Don’t See

Tonight, ITV in the UK is screening a documentary by the campaigning journalist John Pilger, called The War You Don’t See.

Last night I was at a networked preview screening of the film, followed by a live Q&A with Pilger himself. The film makes this same point, except with far more dangerous lies than legal highs. In fact, he takes on what has become the greatest single lie of the 21st century so far – the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 – and points the blame squarely at the mainstream media.

His film tries to show how our most respected news outlets: CBS News, The New York Times, Observer, BBC News and ITV News in particular failed to effectively challenge the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. In fact, never mind failed: the mainstream media did not even try to challenge its legitimacy. The film has quite extraordinary confessions from Observer and BBC Journalists (including Rageh Omar) who look back with shame (their words) at their reportage from the time.

But again, they were not doing anything other than follow the cues of their news organisations and the popular narrative of the time. Inside the news machine, they could hardly have done anything else.

The films concludes government propaganda machines have become so fantastically sophisticated – and they are successfully hoodwinking journalists on a regular basis.

Pilger is also very critical of embedding journalists. As a reporter who was embedded in Iraq (albeit very briefly, in 2009) I can see why.

When you are in the pockets of the military (they house you, transport you, guide you and feed you) objectivity is near impossible. Even if you can emotionally detach yourself from your hosts, on most embeds you see what the military want you to see, how they want you to see it. My very affable Media Ops guide, was prone to pointing out all the positive things the army were doing in his soft friendly tones; it was hard to disbelieve him.

And we went along with it, some more than others. Quite remarkably, one print journalist offered her copy to the Media Ops officer to ‘check it before I email it home’. It must have been like Christmas come early for the MOD.

The new ‘fifth estate?’

And so to Wikileaks, the stateless organisation that has given pretty much everyone something to think about.

Earlier this week I was invited to debate Wikileaks’ impact on the future of traditional journalism on Al-Jazeera English with, among others, journalism heavyweight Robert Fisk, perhaps one of the last remaining old-school war reporters. In our debate he argued that Wikileaks shows mainstream journalists up in a very bad way – he said they’ve become lap dogs, while Assange hands out the scraps.

While I think that sentiment is unfair to the scores of journalists at The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and others who have been doing good legwork sifting through thousands of documents, I do think it shows how passive the mainstream media has become.

Wikileaks publishing the unsorted data is not journalism – however it is an act of journalism, and the most significant since the MPs expenses scandal and Watergate before that.

And it has not been done by journalists. If anything, the success of Wikileaks represents a milestone failure for the mainstream media in the uncovering of truth and the holding of authority to account.

More worrying, however, has been the response to the cables. I personally feel the actions of the US government to get Julian Assange arrested and to shut down the website is on a par with the behaviour of the Chinese, Burmese and Iranian governments in the face of its own dissidents and websites it does not like. It is an outrageous abuse of power that should set alarm bells ringing in democracies around the world.

Does the mainstream media defend a flag bearer for free speech? Does it stand firm against US government pressure?

The more I am convinced of the need to challenge the authoritarian behaviour of our governments in the years ahead, the less I feel convinced the mainstream media has the capability or willingness to do it.

A new way ahead?

So if not the mainstream media, what?

Speaking after the preview of his documentary, John Pilger put his faith in new independent journalists, free from the legacy costs and attitudes of the big news machine and authority itself. He echoed ideas you will have read on this blog before: the internet has made it faster, cheaper and easier to create and publish content – and that gives these independent reporters a new platform and a new advantage.

It’s a future predicted by Richard Sambrook writing about the future of War Reporters for the Reuters Institute. The days of the khaki-wearing Corkers, working their way from hotel lobby to hotel lobby are numbered, he says; but in their place a new, independent – and younger – generation of multimedia journalists can emerge.

I agree. Brave and creative journalists, willing to take risks and innovate online might just be some future protection from corruption, incompetence and abuse of power, which the Cable leaks have shown are all thriving in our ‘democratic’ governments.

I can’t pretend to know the specifics of this future, or even whether it could do a better job than the current mainstream approach. But I do know we need to support and encourage these independent journalists whatever path they take. Our schools and colleges push journalism students through courses towards full time employment, fodder for the hungry news machine. Instead they need to be encouraging them to make a difference in the years to come.

So…

At first I was unsure about whether Wikileaks was a good thing. Then I watched the footage from the Apache gunship circling over the streets of an Iraqi town, and mowing down more than a dozen people, including two Reuters cameramen, a father and his two children.

The film, made public by Wikileaks – and not by journalists – revealed the value the US military puts on a human life and, in stark black and white, how our governments have lied repeatedly to our faces. And worst of all, how our mainstream media have served but to amplify those lies.

So I’m sorry mainstream media. It’s been fun; but me, I’m done.

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far. More relevant, useful and valuable articles resume later this week!

P.S.

To save the breathe of commenters – here’s what I am not saying:

  • that I will stop consuming mainstream media news. (To clarify: I won’t, at least not right away. If I do, it’s with healthy scepticism)
  • that I think mainstream media journalists as individuals are incapable of doing good journalism. (To clarify: I know scores of talented, experienced and dedicated journalists working in all sectors of print and broadcast. They are good journalists, just working in a broken system)
  • that the mainstream media does no good acts of journalism. (To clarify: it does all the time, but the overall narrative it creates is dangerous)
  • that I will never set foot in a mainstream media office again. (To clarify, I work on a freelance/contractual basis for a range of outlets in the mainstream media, but I have no ambitions to work full-time for anyone)
  • that there is some kind of mainstream media conspiracy. (To clarify: there isn’t)

What does #digitalbritain mean for journalism?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on June 17, 2009

Hello, operator?

"Hello, operator?"

With the sort of hype only the media can generate when talking about itself, Lord Carter’s long awaited Digital Britain report has been published. It’s supposed to be the blueprint for Britain’s place in the digital world. But is it putting us in a good place?

It comes as journalism’s plight grows even greater; ITV news, Channel 4, countless struggling radio groups and newspaper holdings will all be sifting to see if it contains their saviour…or their downfall.

01. Broadband

The Promise: 2Mbps broadband for everyone (and “action separately to address the issue of next generation broadband”)

Result?: epic fail. While broadband for everyone is great, 2Mbps […buffering…] broadband is inadequate for […buffering…] the growing needs of digital journalism including […buffering…] the huge demand for […buffering…] video on demand. Separate action to […buffering…] investigate faster broadband looks like […buffering…] the buck being well and truly passed.

Meanwhile, in South Korea: “1Gbps Downloading by 2012

Will it help journalism? Not really. If online video and multimedia is going to start picking up the cash from traditional media it needs to be reliable and fast.

02. Radio

The Promise: All national radio stations to be on DAB only by 2015 ending use of analogue. Spare FM frequencies for “new tier” of community radio. More local news.

Result: fail. DAB is soo last decade, and while the radio sets look quite pretty, by the time this is rolled out, we’ll all be listening to radio on our iPhones. Over the internet. The folks at MixCloud rightly pointed out last night the real investment needs to be in online radio, and making sure the network can cope with it. It also says nothing about the plight of local commercial radio stations, caused by the filthy binge on new licences by Ofcom.

Creating a “new tier” of hyper local community stations is a nice idea – provided they don’t have to be commercially viable. And more local news? Who Lord Carter expects to pay for that (when newsrooms across the land are cutting staff) is a mystery.

Will it help journalism? An emphasis on localness might fool some Whitehall bureaucrats into investing more in local journalism. But don’t hold your breath.

03. Regional TV news

The Promise: 3.5% of BBC’s licence fee (~£130m) to be available to help regional TV news on ITV

Result: good news for ITV. It has been long argued on all sides, the BBC needs strong competition in regional news to keep its standards up. And while that is the case £130m is a lot to spend investing in the  “a local lady has turned 100” fluff which ITV regions currently put on air.

Will it help journalism? In the short term ITV local news does need the cash, and this might even save some jobs. But once again Lord Carter has missed the trick. What we need is a new way of doing television news, for example Michael Rosenblum‘s VJ newsroom model. Meanwhile, no word about the BBC’s real competition: Channel 4 News.

04. Hyperlocal news

The Promise: No promises here, just a recognition that grassroots online projects are good for democracy

Result: fail. Lord Carter says he likes the growing number of hyper-local community sites, but says there can’t be a gap between what these start ups offer, and what the traditional big boys offer. So he’s investing in making sure newspaper groups and the BBC can offer better online, including, bizarrely, an idea to let newspapers use BBC video content. Considering the row over BBC Local in 2007, that’s pretty hilarious.

Will it help journalism: well there’s no promises here, so it’s up to the people to forge the way.

05. Childrens’ Programmes

The Promise: Money to help Channel 4 develop services for that most difficult of audiences: 10-18 year olds

Result: good news. Channel 4 are best placed to understand this market, and embarrassing dad-dancing attempts by the BBC have shown they’re not really “down with the kids”. It won’t solve Channel 4’s funding crisis though.

Will it help journalism: any investment in actually creating content is a good thing.

All government reports, like Christmas presents from your grandparents, are always a little disappointing;  sadly yesterday’s report fails to really grasp or embrace the mouth watering potential of the future.

Lord Carter: as us bluggers and twotters and myface yoof types say: “epic fail”.

MP’s expenses: the other scandal

Posted in Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on May 15, 2009

A brief foray into the (now) seedy world of politics…but from a media point of view of course.

It’s fantastically scandalous isn’t it. Whether they meant to break the rules or not, it seems Britain’s elected representatives have spent quite a bit of time making sure they can get every penny from the tax payer possible; even if that has taken quite a lot of effort and thought.

“Is it possible to claim this portico back?” “Why not, it’s being repaired right?”

“16p for a lemon. Can I get that back too?”

And as for Elliot Morley, the mere suggestion it is possible to forget the end of your mortgage bill is ludicrous. For most human beings the final mortgage payment is serious party time. Especially if it’s costing £800 a month. Take our money, Mr. Morley, and try and take us for a ride, why don’t you.

So yes, I definitely put myself into the rather large camp of people pretty damn angry about our politicians’ behaviour.

But that’s only part of the reason I’m angry.

As a journalist, what makes my blood boil, is the sheer lack of accountability of these conmen and women. Let’s be straight: when you are elected by the public, and paid by them, you are 100% accountable to them. And even more so when you’ve been caught with your hand in their cookie jar.

So why have all these MPs been so hard to get hold of?

Friday: and John Prescott’s office never answered the phone. He also didn’t release a statement. For a man so tech savvy, his v-blog was decidedly unupdated.

Monday: and I was on the phone to David Davis’ office. “Oh he’s told me he isn’t going to hide away” his assistant Andrew assured me, “he’ll speak to you.” Several more calls and more answerphone messages later, and we still haven’t spoken to him.

Thursday: Elliot Morley’s office couldn’t even tell us where he was. “Somewhere in London,” they said, “we’re not sure where.” End of play Thursday and we hadn’t heard from the man himself. Friday morning and we decided to call his house. Amazingly he answered.

You can hear what happened by clicking here.

For 38 seconds, Elliot Morley was being held accountable to the public, through the media. But he even dodged our reporter Katie Hall‘s questions under the thin veil of legal advice.

Yes, they’ve released statements, and yes they’ve responded to the Daily Telegraph. But that isn’t being directly accountable to the people who put them there and the people who pay them.

When you’re elected by, and paid for by, the public you answer every question, from every media organisation.

If there was going to be a party for fraudulent politicians, chances are it would be held somewhere near Yorkshire, as its where a lot of them are. John Prescott, David Davis, James Clappison, Elliot Morley, Douglas HoggAustin Mitchell, Caroline Flint,  and now Shahid Malik. Now four of these are supposed to represent the Viking FM’s listeners.

One week since the first allegations were published and they haven’t had their questions answered.

And the disclaimer:

All the views expressed in this blog are my own, only, and do not represent those of my employer!

Christian Bale: the apology

Posted in News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2009

After getting some extra views for directing people to the now world famous Christian Bale tape, it’s only fair to highlight his apology.

Apparently he called LA based station KROQ-FM today, after hearing on air skits about his behaviour.

He then gives a pretty coherent apology.

Click here to go to KROQ’s website and listen.

Comments Off on Christian Bale: the apology

Christian Bale: the BBC Breakfast cock up (video)

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2009

Another tip for TV news producers everywhere: if you’re going to play the Christian Bale outburst

1) do it before everyone’s heard it already
2) edit out the swear words

We Live in Financial Times

Posted in Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 5, 2009

This is an amazing piece of flash art from the people at the Financial Times.

We Live in Financial Times

We Live in Financial Times

It’s a useful way to get world headlines – but it’s the fact it’s so beautiful to look at (and hear) that makes me want to go back again.

More please! HT: David Dunkley-Gyimah

Sometimes snooping for an exclusive doesn’t work

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 25, 2009

Lots of interest in Hull’s FA Cup fixture this weekend.

Partly because a bunch of Milwall hooligans stuck in the 1980s decided to tear up some of the ground, but also because the club unveiled their new signing.

Costing £5m Bullard is the big investment which they’re hoping will secure their place in the Premier League.

Adam Westbrook

L-R Phil Brown, Jimmy Bullard, Paul Duffen (Adam Westbrook)

We first got wind he could be signing last Thursday but often with football, speculation is just that, and getting a confirmation (especially on a big deal) is near impossible before the job is done.

It happened that on Thursday evening I was part of a party of local hacks being taken out for a curry by Hull City boss Phil Brown.

Ahead of the meal my editor texted me: “see what you can find out about Bullard.”

Time for some snooping.

Phil and the rest of the management arrived at the restaurant as we were all sitting down. A hugely engaging and entertaining guy, he announced straight away:

“Can I just say lads, Bull is off the menu.”

Sometimes snooping for that exclusive will get you nowhere…

Comments Off on Sometimes snooping for an exclusive doesn’t work

Covering a missing persons case

Posted in Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 24, 2009

So I have a confession to make. Last week, I made an editorial decision; the wrong editorial decision.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and with my editor at a management meeting I was left alone, in charge of the news desk.

A press release from the police appeared in the inbox: “Police seek help in finding missing teenager, Cleethorpes“. I opened it up, scanned through it and pondered whether to include it.

After some umming and ahhing, I decided not to. Here’s why:

  • She’d only been missing for about 18 hours
  • Teenagers go awol quite often; if she was still missing in a week, then it would be news.
  • The family were not giving interviews.
  • We’d already run several missing persons stories in the week before
  • My bulletins were already jam packed with big stories-local and national-on which we had lots of good audio; there was just no room.

It wasn’t a rushed decision or a lazy one; I gave it thought, and felt justified in my approach when I closed the message.

But that missing teenager would later turn out to be Laura Stainforth, and 7 days later her name would be in every national newspaper.

laura-stainforth

Later that evening, when the search was the lead story on the BBC regional news programme, was when I started questioning whether I’d been right to leave it out.

Now it wasn’t a disastrous decision. The next day we were able to pick it up when a new angle about her internet life emerged.

And this week I spent several days in Cleethorpes making sure we had all the right coverage, including interviews with the police and Laura’s headteacher.

Would our audience have noticed? No. Was it a massive boo-boo? No. But still I’ve learnt it’s important to always be prepared to question your decisions, but at the same time be prepared to stand up and defend them too.

What would you have done?

A new era

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 20, 2009

So it was as powerful and emotional and historic as November 4th, and more.

Billions, they reckon, watched Barack Obama’s inauguration; 4 million made the pilgrimage to Washington DC to see it for themselves.

From a journalist’s perspective days like this are always fascinating and exciting. I thought some mind find it useful to see how the local radio station I work for covered it today.

Local v national

Generally, local media have 2 choices when it comes to big national/international stories:

  1. You are a local station, you cover local stories primarily
  2. You are an outlet in tune with your local audience and the wider world.

In radio certainly – many managers consider local news a major facet of their “localness” requirements – and will often inforce ‘Lead on Local’ policies.

Even without, local journalists sometimes feel guilty at covering non-local stories.

Where I work, we take option 2. There is a wider world out there, and often things happen nationally/internationally which affect our listeners lives.

When people turn on the radio, they expect to be briefed on all the big stories – and what’s happening NOW.

We decided editorially last week it would be THE story today, despite another strong local story which has been developing for a week vying for lead.

So we put lots of effort in advance of today getting local reaction to the historic inauguration. In our main lunchtime bulletin we ran an in-house report looking back at Bush’s legacy. We also tracked down American’s living in our area, as well as academics and politicians.

Mixed with audio from our national news wire service we had comprehensive coverage.

Perhaps overambitiously we tried to take a live feed from Washington at 1700 to catch the opening words of Obama’s oath. A nice idea, thrown out of whack when the ceremony was delayed (for the first time in 200 years!).

In terms of writing, a day like to day is a journalists dream, with all sorts of options for epic and creative copy.

Compare that to our local rival (who I won’t name); at 5pm, as Obama was about to step up to take the job of President of the United States, they led with a local crime story.

The inauguration came last “and finally…”

As a listener/viewer/reader would you feel in touch with the world?

Comments Off on A new era

An extraordinary story from Gaza

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 17, 2009

While reports this afternoon a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Palestine might be imminent, personal tragedies are still unfolding on the ground.

Perhaps none more extraordinary than this story which has just been published by Al-Jazeera International:

“… the tragedy of one father made real by the power of live television.”

Comments Off on An extraordinary story from Gaza

When Twitter met the Daily Mail

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 11, 2009

A bit of a mini-row developing in the Twitter-sphere over the weekend, one which raises some interesting questions about the behaviour of social networking sites.

Last week, a Twitter username was registered: dailymail_uk.

It wasn’t an official twitter for the right-wing UK newspaper, but a spoof, with tweets like:

“Revealed! Santa’s 3-in-a-bed romp with Tooth Fairy and Jesus. Pictures on Page 42”

“DID MMR JAB KILL DIANA? Prince Philip implicated in cover-up”

As the mysterious person behind it has just written on their new blog, the number of followers shot up to more than 800 pretty quickly.

But then Twitter changed the account name and password…without telling the user.

They write:

“I checked, double checked and – for the hell of it – triple checked all my inboxes, labels, spam folders and deleted items. There was no sign of twitter sending me any notification as to when or wherefore they had disabled my account.”

Twitter’s response:

Hello,

We did send out the following notification yesterday. Did you check your spam folder?

We received a letter from the Associated Newspapers Limited, part of the Daily Mail & General Trust Plc, legal adviser, regarding Trademark violation and impersonation.”

Twitter then changed the username to “notdailymail_uk

On the outset it looks like Twitter responded pretty sharpish to the complaint from the Associated Newspapers lawyers.  But is it right you can have your name and password changed without being asked first?

Ultimately the control does lie with the websites, and we all agree to that when we register. But somehow it seems there’s something a bit sinister about it.

But then, I do hate the Daily Mail.

(nothe)dailymail

(nothe)dailymail

It’s never dull in Hull

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on December 18, 2008

Another year in radio news comes and goes. And that can only mean it’s time for another review of the year!

My three part special for Touch Radio in 2007 went down a treat; this year it’s one 10 minute long extravaganza, featuring Bob Geldof, David Davis, Alphabeat and Leon Jackson!

If you wanna know what we get up to in Hull, check it out.

Click here to listen.

It’ll be available for download on Viking FM next week.

Comments Off on It’s never dull in Hull