This is the third of my 'not necessarily news' posts, where I try to wrap up the stuff that caught my eye in the past week (give or take a day or so – I haven't quite figured out my posting routine yet.)
The general idea here is that I don't want to be trying to cover 'news' – the idea of throwing something away because I didn't manage to write a few paragraphs about it within 24 hours isn't really what I want to be doing.
This week, I've gone with something of a theme around the whole 'news' thing, and trying to explain (through the words of people much smarter than me) why I'm trying to do this 'newsletter without the news' format.
On News and knowledge…
There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things.He then goes on to explain a disagreement with a journalist on a panel discussing "Is Science the New Religion?", who *"suggested this was the kind of fascistic thinking that held up women’s suffrage and the education of the poor."*
We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to. If you are really interested in an issue, then you must take time to read and investigate it, to learn how to ask the best questions, to interrogate with interest, open-mindedness and rigour. A good society, a healthy democracy, is not based on complacency and whining.
I think I would add that it is also not based on emotional (rather than rational) reactions; that one of the consequences of everyone with access to the internet having a voice is that we carry the same responsibilities as 'the media' to use that voice carefully and responsibly.
This is at its most apparent at those times when News is breaking, facts are thin on the ground – but rumours, theories and even fuzzy cameraphone photos and videos (some real, some not) are flying around. But its equally true when events are slower moving — like when there are an estimated 40,000 children in Wales who have not been vaccinated against measles, apparently because of the reaction to a single paper published in 1998 claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism (a link which further large scale studies have failed to verify.)
It can be ugly when someone speaking as a 'scientist' makes the news with headline-friendly but science-free soundbites on the current hot topics. And as an illustration of exactly what that looks like, here is The only Susan Greenfield article you'll ever need; a simple guide to writing your own Susan Greenfield article and souding appropriately "sciency" while avoiding any actual science.
(Speaking of avoiding science while claiming you love it, here is an entertaining piece from Maddox on why "You're not a nerd, geeks aren't sexy, and you don't 'fucking love' science". For reasons that should be fairly obvious, the whole "what makes you a nerd" issue is fairly close to my heart…)
But back to the topic of news; apparently, News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.
News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.
He goes on to explain why news is irrelevant, misleads, fails to explain events, is toxic, wastes time, makes us passive, and more.
Thought provoking stuff; when I was young, I often wondered why reading newspapers was seen as such a 'worthy' thing to do – why knowing about the world events that the editors had chosen to report that day was so much more popular than, say, reading a book about science that would be equally valuable a week, a month, maybe even years later. (Other than a reasonably simple attempt to avoid the feeling of ignorance you get when people assume a level of knowledge that you don't have — whether that is because you don't know about the day's events or because you are generally ignorant about a particular topic — I still haven't figured it out.)
But of course, that isn't the way the world is heading. Tomorrow morning's papers are already out of date; all they can tell us what we knew when they went to print last night with yesterday's news, and the internet is playing a big part in that social shift. In an interview (to promote his new book), Douglas Rushkoff talks about "Everything Happening Now", and how "We respond to things when [the internet] wants us to, which is all the time."
An interview with Bruce Schneider on ‘If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose.’ has some interesting points on a more sensible way to look at the news – especially relevant when the pace of discussion is moving faster than the pace of facts;
"I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button."
Well worth a read.
The business of News…
Creating quality content around current events is hard work – meaning that it costs money, while its traditional core business of advertising is looking less and less likely to be able to sustain it on its own. Paying for access is an increasingly common route that publishers are turning to but – as this article from the Nieman Journalism Lab asks – Why Now?
It seems pretty clear that the old online idealistic thinking that we would all have free access to all of the quality news in the world didn't account for the harsh realities of new business models. Newspapers are struggling; some are reinventing their business. Some wont survive the long-term transition. Others will survive, but in a different form (ie. local titles becoming global, global titles focussing locally, newspapers becoming gossip magazines, paid-for newspapers going free, free websites putting up paywalls etc.) But what probably won't happen is that newspapers and magazines will all go away.
My guess is that what we are seeing now with paywalls will turn out to be the first step of the backlash – when 'newspapers' will be able to start to turn their attention back to the 'paper' element of their businesses and understand the long term balance that they will be able to strike; the ones who have focussed their brands around their clear, core values, and understood their core audience, will be the titles that still get picked up, sat down with and read – as well as clicked on and shared.
But others will no doubt do fine with a different product to 'quality news' (and I should stress here that I'm not passing judgement about the kind of 'quality' that is measured by the size of the pages, text to photo balance etc.; The Sun and the Daily Mail might be easy papers to sneer at, but if they were just as easy to put together then they wouldn't be seeing circulation figures so far ahead of their competition.)
Something that I don't personally see fitting into that 'quality' future though is the idea of 'native advertising'. Basically, this is about website advertorials; articles paid for by brands to be included in a website's content. The perfect marriage of a brand's desire to reach an audience with a website's desire to make some money.
Except, it doesn't really work that way. They aren't (generally) as well written as the 'real' stories — presumably because the 'real' writers are busy chasing the real stories, which gives the space for 'native ads' their value in the first place, rather than checking whether seven layers of management have signed off the latest draft of the marketing article that the subcomittee has written. For their part, Google have made a statement about their views on publishers not separating news content with marketing, saying to Keep It Out Of Google News.
Similarly, on the social media side of things, I think its something that people need to be thinking about if they want to be trusted by those who they are tweeting to. A Bloomberg article on looks at the business model of exchanging value for advocacy; Would You Tweet This Article if It Earned You Points? - Businessweek?
Going back an earlier point, one of the consequences of everyone with access to the internet having a voice is that we carry the same responsibilities as 'the media' to use that voice carefully and responsibly. Which brings me to…
Twitter as a news source
One argument is that social media provides the news that you need; people share the stories worth reading – sometimes, social media even provides the content for the journalists to write about.
Simon Ricketts has a good post looking at Twitter and news – specifically focussed around the Boston bombing, but highlighting the issues with confusing the 'information' that circulates on Twitter with facts;
[…] 12 pieces of information. Twelve. All of them, read individually, sound authentic. Can be identified with. They are highly plausible, or at least comprehensible. But not one of them – at the time of writing, at least eight hours after the first explosion - have been proved to be true. They are facts that aren’t facts. They are morsels of information that could be made from cardboard or concrete. We know nothing of their roots, nothing of their provenance. Just that they have been spread far and wide.
Just today, I watched as a senior newspaper executive spoke at a conference all about News, comparing photos of the Pope's election in 2013 with the Pope's election in 2005 – a photo you might remember seeing when it went viral, illustrating how in 2013 St. Peter's Square was filled with smartphones, while in 2005 there was barely a phone screen to be seen. Except… it wasn't exactly a fair comparison, given that the 2005 whoto was taken at the Pope's funeral.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I suppose… But it seemed more than a little ironic to me, given the context.
Also at the conference were more than a few mentions of Twitter; its value to journalists as a news source, as well as an opportunity to build engagement with an audience, to understand them better (and a few important caveats about how it can't always be trusted.) But one topic that wasn't really covered as much as I would have liked was how this is all still new. Its still changing. Not just the technical side – with a larger audience with more and better phones, Twitter isn't about 140 characters any more. Now, its about links, photos, videos; media.
More importantly, we don't really know what to do with it. You could argue that we are better off having it, as Matthew Ingram does over at PaidContent.org, but it still raises some important questions that we just don't have the answers to yet;
This in itself illustrates one of the problems with Twitter as a news-delivery vehicle, which is that no one can agree on the proper behavior during such events — or at least not enough people to make it worthwhile. When (if ever) is it too soon to speculate about the source of the attack or details like the number of wounded? Which sources are reliable and which aren’t when it comes to retweeting? Does everything have to be verified? Is it okay to retweet graphic videos and photos?
On a similar issue over at Slate is a journalist's guide to tweeting during a crisis – but just as applicable to anyone involved in managing a Twitter account on even a vaguely professional basis.
Elsewhere in 'social news'…
Speaking of professional use of social media, LinkedIn is one of those things that I feel like I should probably be paying more attention to than I am. The problem I have is that what LinkedIn seems to be a good platform for (building a professional profile by demonstrating a knowledge of my field), Twitter seems to be a better platform for (because it's built around asymmetrical relationships; I don't have to have the permission of, say, Jeff Jarvis to see what he's saying). As a result, Twitter is where people are going to do the sort of things that LinkedIn would (presumably) want them to be doing on their platform.
So, with the aquisition of Pulse, LinkedIn Is Becoming The Newspaper Of The Future, according to ReadWrite. This acquisition – especially at a time when Google appears to have either fumbled the ball or abandoned the game of 'social news' with the slow death of Google Reader – seems like it could be a very interesting one for LinkedIn. Pulse has an interesting history, being built around the idea of the design challenge of RSS reading (rather than the challenge of monetising reading.)
Announcing the deal on the LinkedIn blog, they say that "We believe LinkedIn can be the definitive professional publishing platform – where all professionals come to consume content and where publishers come to share their content." While the distinction between 'professionals' and 'publishers' seems a little jarring, it should be interesting to see what LinkedIn plan to do with their new toy. The idea of connecting professional networking with news curation seems like it should be an obvious way to develop the LinkedIn platform beyond the "online CV" tag that it (perhaps unfairly) still carries.
Where is this all heading? The rise of mobile means more people, more connected – not just as 'consumers' of content, but as creators. The likes of Google Glass and augmented reality is still on the horizon, but the thing about 'the future' is that it starts slowly, and then gets fast fast. So its worth having a read of Nick Carr's piece on Augmentor and Augmentee, and thinking about what happens when we move on from talking about the technology of the future and onto the owners of the technology of the present.
Carr takes a small quote from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media – here is a slightly longer version;
"Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earths atmosphere to a company as a monopoly."
Written in 1964, but worth thinking about now, at a time when the future of hundreds of local and national newspapers around the globe are looking a lot shakier than that of the handful of companies who are dominating the online spaces – which are our new eyes and ears on the world around us.