Category Archives: Trivia and impressionism

Thanks to all my good colleagues and students at Roskilde University

Today, I’m emptying my office at Roskilde University as I prepare to move to Oxford for my new position as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

I’m really looking forward to new challenges and opportunities but it is also a strange feeling to leave a place I’ve worked (part-time, full-time, variations thereoff) for four years.

I’d like to thank all my good colleagues and students at Roskilde, I’ve learned a ton from you.

335 books from Jørgen Goul Andersen to Slavoj Žižek ready to go.

335 books from Jørgen Goul Andersen to Slavoj Žižek ready to go.

Who should we invite to the Oxford Editor and CEO Forum next year?

Good company...

Good company…

Re-reading summary notes from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Oxford Editor and CEO Forum last week. Chatham House Rules etc, so I will just quote the official RISJ post about the event—

Editors in Chief and CEOs from 10 countries for 24 hours of in-depth and off the record discussions on some of the key opportunities and challenges involved in running a news organisation in the 21st century.

The forum included participants from India (the Hindu), Japan (the Asahi Shimbun) and Latin America (La Nacion from Argentina) but with the majority from Europe (the Irish Times, Le Monde, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Berlingske, the Huffington Post Italy, the Guardian and the Financial Times.)

Issues covered included the implications for journalism of the Edward Snowden affair, different approaches to paying for news online, the challenges of innovation in legacy news organisations, to the debate around sponsored content and the rules that should surround that.

I thought it was a very good discussion, but we are always looking for ways of improving.

We plan to arrange another Forum next year, so the question really is, who should we invite?

The focus will remain on private sector news organizations and retain at least a partial emphasis on the business of journalism, but as long as it doesn’t bring together people so far apart it reduce the conversation to conflict, it would be good with more disruptors to add to what legacy media bring to the table.

I’m thinking maybe someone from the advertising world, certainly someone from tech, and more pure players.

Email, DM, etc me with ideas—all welcome.

Albion W. Small of the (early) Chicago School on problems facing social science and society

Re-reading secondary literature on the Chicago School of Sociology (not really a school, and not confined to Chicago, but there we are). Stumbled upon a great quote in Ken Plummer’s very good introduction to his four-volume The Chicago School: Critical Assessments.

It is from Albion W. Small, who founded the first department of sociology at Chicago in 1892 and chaired it for more than thirty years. He wrote, in his General Sociology (1905), that the “great problem” facing both social science and the public is:

The production of wealth in prodigious quantities, the machine like integration of the industries, the syndicated control of capital and the syndicated organization of labor, the conjunction of interests in production and the collision of interests in distribution, the widening chasms between luxury and poverty, the security of the economically strong and the insecurity of the economically weak, the domination of politics by pecuniary interests, the growth of capitalistic world politics, the absence of commanding moral authority, the well nigh universal instinct that there is something wrong in our social machinery and that society is gravitating toward a crisis, the thousand and one demands for reform,the futility and fractionality of most ameliorative programs – all these are making men wonder how long we can go in a fashion that no one quite understands and that everyone feels at liberty to condemn (Small, 1905: 119-120).

Ignore “the syndicated organization of labor” (which in the US at least increasingly seems a thing of the past), and add in (a) the move towards a post-traditional society which without having done away with past prejudices seems to have greater emphasis on fluid processes of identity formation and re-negotiation and (b) the proliferation of media and communication infrastructures, as well as the battle to control the right to profit from them and control them, and his manifesto seems to me to captures the analytical and substantial problems of our time as well as any.

Best paper award for “Mundane internet tools”

My article “Mundane internet tools, mobilizing practices, and the coproduction of citizenship in political campaigns”, published last year in New Media & Society, has been awarded the best paper award from the Oxford Internet Institute’s 2010 “Internet, Politics, Policy” conference. (The award has just been announced at the 2012 version of the IPP conference.)

At its heart, it is a very simple argument–based on ethnographic field research in two US congressional campaigns during the 2008 election, I show that relatively “mundane” internet tools like email and search are far more integral to how political campaigns try to mobilize and organize volunteers than more “specialized” tools (or “emerging” tools used only by some, like, at the time, social networking sites) and unfold some of the implications for how we understand the role of digital technologies in political participation and political organizing.

I’m happy to announce that the same article was also amongst the six finalists for the International Communication Association’s Political Communication Division’s Kaid-Sanders Best Article Award. (The award as given to Lauren Feldman for her excellent article “The Opinion Factor: The Effects of Opinionated News on Information Processing and Attitude Change”.)

I find this praise very encouraging, especially since the article is based on qualitative methods rarely used in political communication research, and hence unfamiliar to many in our academic community, and I’m eagerly awaiting further results from the many other young scholars I know are pursuing similar lines of work as we try to understand how political organizations operate today, how political institutions interact in a changing media environment, and how ordinary citizens actually use the digital technologies that are increasingly integral to our everyday lives–political and otherwise.

The Guardian–millions of users, millions in losses

Tim de Lisle has written an excellent piece for Intelligent Life asking “Can the Guardian Survive?”–a question that, given the “soft power” this newspaper, with its millions and millions of online readers, seems to exercise across parts of the industry, has ramifications well beyond the British broadsheet market. (Alan Rusbridger, the editor, and Emily Bell, the former director of online content, are both frequent speakers at “future of journalism”-type conferences.)

de Lisle doesn’t answer the question–only time will tell–but there are plenty of warning signs in his article. Leave aside some occasionally excellent journalism, and look at the numbers.

In the financial year 2009-10, the national newspapers division of Guardian Media Group—which also includes the Observer, Britain’s oldest Sunday paper—lost £37m. The following year, it managed to cut costs by £26m, and still ended up losing £38m. In May, Rusbridger told me he was expecting a similar loss for 2011-12. So, for three years running, the Guardian has been losing £100,000 a day.

In fairness, of the three other broadsheets competing in the same national market, the Times and the Independent are also losing millions and reliant on their owners propping up the business. Only the market-leader, the Daily Telegraph, is actually producing a profit (£55 million last year).

In the article, de Lisle mentions some of the new sources of revenues being explored at the Guardian to push beyond sales and advertising–of course iPhone and iPad apps, also Master Classes, and the Guardian Open Weekend. There are also various forms of networks, that de Lisle doesn’t touch on, including Guardian Soulmates, professional networks etc, plus of course various forms of e-commerce, selling books, shoes, wines, etc. Fancy an air cooler? (See screenshot below.) The Guardian can help you, and as you enjoy the pleasant temperature, you are helping pay for Nick Davies’ next expose.

The Guardian is thus, like everyone else, trying to diversify their business. But de Lisle has talked to those who doubt the current strategy, with its emphasis on growing the freely available website, is going to work. Juan Señor, a media consultant I know from my work at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says to de Lisle

“We are very concerned … that everybody looks at the Guardian’s success in terms of volume of traffic. That is not a measure of success, because you might as well get into pornography. … While I love the Guardian’s journalism at times, I just don’t think it’s sustainable. They’re announcing even more lay-offs, it’s a tragedy.”

And that is worth keeping in mind for those working to change news organizations elsewhere, who don’t have the kind of money in the bank that the Guardian can rely on (about £200 million at the last count–enough for five more years with losses like this).

For all its journalistic successes and its millions of users, the Guardian continues to double down on a all-or-nothing strategy that so far has resulted in millions and millions in loses. Wish them well. They need it. Think twice before imitating them. They are heading down a dangerous path.

Ongoing limited popular interest in phone hacking

The third round of oral evidence before the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press came to a conclusion last week with the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the witness stand.

Now Lord Leveson will have to consider the wealth of evidence and the many contracting recommendations made on the future of press regulation in the UK. The Guardian, which, in addition to breaking the Milly Dowler story last summer that started the avalanche, has covered the inquiry itself in great detail, has a nice write-up on the current situation by Dan Sabbagh. (As the joke went after Leveson said the inquiry was about “one single question: who guards the guardians.”–the answer is also simple: “the Guardian guards the guardians.”)

Much of the inquiry has been televised on various narrow news channels and the process has been talk of the town amongst media-interested parts of the chattering classes. And rightly so, in a way, since the matter of media regulation is one of considerable importance and where there is, in my view, room for improvement in the UK. (As I’ve made clear elsewhere.)

But does anyone neither directly involved nor professionally interested in the media actively care? Over the last year, I’ve used Google trends to track searches in the UK for “phone hacking” versus my random choice of celebrity baseline, “David Beckham”, to get a loose sense of this (in July 2011 and November 2011).

This metric, looking back on the spring of 2012 (see below), suggest that, despite the succession of high-profile witnesses who have taken the stand in June, including the three last Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown in addition to the current one, there is (still) little popular interest in phone hacking.

This is worth keeping in mind whether one is for or against media policy reform. As it is, there is no popular outrage against what some would regard as politicians’ and judges’ allegedly attempts to meddle with the free press, nor for that matter much active support for reforming media regulation. Most people just don’t care that much.

In a best case-scenario, this relative absence of popular interest will allow lower the political stakes enough for a broad-based meaningful reform of media regulation in the UK to be possible. In a worst case scenario it will allow the issue to fade away and Lord Justice Leveson’s work to have been in vain.

Is the Obama campaign’s new tool “Dashboard” the “Holy Grail” of Digital Campaigning? Nobody knows

According to Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel, writing in the Guardian, the Obama campaign is about to “unleash [the] ‘Holy Grail’ of digital campaigning.”

The grail in question is a new tools called “Dashboard”, meant to integrate voter contact, volunteer management, and activist social networking in one shared and accessible platform.

The campaign writes on their website, “for the first time ever, you’ll be able to join, connect with, and build your neighborhood team online.” (In other words, at this level of generality, it is kinda like MeetUp, DeanSpace, DFA-Link, MyBarackObama, National Field, etc, only different.)

It sounds great. Will it work? I have no clue. Neither do Pilkington and Michel, which they openly admit. As they write–

“[The campaign staffers] are keeping specific details about Dashboard heavily under wraps for fear that they might lose the substantial advantage they now enjoy over their rivals in the Romney campaign.”

So all we know about Dashboard at this point is that the Obama campaign has this new tool, that they have decided to promote its existence, that they say it will work (“substantial advantage”), but that they won’t tell us how, precisely.

In addition to the caveat quoted above, Pilkington and Michel’s article also includes all the usual buzzwords–Dashboard is “secret”, it is “sophisticated”, it is “powerful”, and it is being developed by brand-name “gurus” like Michael Slaby, Joe Rospars, and Jeremy Bird. (I’m trying to imagine a campaign that would let dimwits develop a feeble tool.) It’s already subject to speculation elsewhere, including on TechPresident.

Like other “Holy Grails” presented by “gurus” it is at this stage a question of faith whether you believe it will work (as a matter of fact, “Holy Grail” and “McCainSpace” was once mentioned in the same article).

I’m glad journalists like Pilkington and Michel are covering campaign technologies, because often-obscure back-end technologies like Dashboard increasingly matter for how digital politics works in practice, gives some campaigns a competitive edge, and structure how ordinary people can get involved and in what. But unless you are part of the team developing Dashboard or involved in testing it, at this point you won’t really have any evidence of its potential beyond whatever PR the campaign puts out.

I have every reason to believe that the people involved in developing Dashboard are smart, that they are very good at what they are doing, and that the tools they have developed will help them further rationalize, control, and perhaps even energize the Obama campaign’s voter contact program.

But I do get a little skeptical every time I encounter a heavily marketed new digital tool, whether it is being spun by a campaign wanting to assert it is ahead, or by a consultant peddling her wares. Is this another Demzilla, marketed aggressively by then-DNC chair Terry McAuliffe ( here in the Washington Post) but in practice a debacle–

“You could ask me about any city block in America, and I could tell you how many on that block are likely to be health care voters, or who’s most concerned about education or job creation […] And I could press a button and six seconds later you’d have a name, an address and a phone number for each of them. We can then begin a conversation with these people that is much more sophisticated and personal than we ever could before.”

Sounds good, Terry. Shame it didn’t work.

Is Dashboard another heavily hyped tool that won’t work in practice? Or is it the real thing? As said, I don’t know. Very few do, and they are not going to tell us very much at this stage. They have good reasons to hold their cards close to their chests.

Every cycle we are presented with new revolutionary tools. And some tools that actually really do change how politics is practiced. Sometimes, the tools we are presented with before, and the ones that in hindsight turned out to have made a real difference are not the same ones at all.

2008 was supposed to be the Facebook Election  or the YouTube election. But a good case can be made that more specialized back-end tools like the Voter Activation Network that I write about in my book or the MyBarackObama site that Daniel Kreiss writes about in his forthcoming book were actually in many ways more important. My point is simply that at this stage, we don’t know, and since the proof is in the pudding, in a way we can’t know–to find out, we’ll have to do more than simply listen to the PR hype, but go have a look at how these tools are used in practice, on the ground, battle-tested on the campaign trail.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.