Category Archives: Trivia and impressionism

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.

Door-to-door for Hollande

So François Hollande looks set to become the next French president the first Socialist on the post since Mitterand waved goodbye in 1988.

I haven’t followed the campaign closely, but I’m intrigued to learn that the French center-left have been building a ground war of unusual proportions, invoking, as the Social Democrats did in Denmark, the ’08 Obama campaign as their inspiration.

Kim Willsher provides an outline of the effort in the Guardian

On the ground, the Socialists are attempting to rebuff the [Front National] vote by redoubling efforts to mobilise their own supporters. Inspired by President Barack Obama’s election campaign in the US, they launched an ambitious programme in January to get five million French voters to open their doors.

An army of 120 professional “trainers” are overseeing 6,000 canvassers and 80,000 volunteers. Before last Sunday’s vote they had succeeded in opening 3.8m doors in districts around 10,000 voting stations seen as a priority because of their high rate of abstention or support for the Socialists in 2007.

“In all the voting stations where we carried out door-to-door canvassing before the first round there has been an increase of between 3% and 5% participation. As we are doing this in what are essentially our own areas, we are getting people out to vote for us,” said Hamon. “It’s been very successful in boosting our results.”

In November, I’m heading to Paris to talk about my book Ground Wars at Sciences Po after Florence Faucher King‘s kind invitation. I’m looking forward to discussing American, French, and other experiences in a comparative perspective.

Does Nevada mean that conservatives have begun to “rally” around Romney? Not really

The overall result of the Nevada caucus—a clear Mitt Romney victory—was so predictable that I haven’t really been following the campaign there and hadn’t planned to write about it. But then some of the media coverage of the result is interesting and amnesic enough to merit a few words.

First the result, from AP via Google: Romney 50%, Gingrich 21%, Paul 19%, and Santorum 10%. Turnout little short of 33,000 voters.

What does that mean? According to Michael O’Brian writing on MSNBC/NBC, “Saturday’s caucus reflect an instance in which Romney was able to rally conservatives to his candidacy.” Chris McGreal writes for the Guardian that “Republican voters of various shades [now] latch on to Romney as the best prospect of beating Barack Obama.”

Wait a minute. Romney is the clear favourite to secure the Republican nomination, but it is not at all clear that the Nevada result suggests that conservatives are now rallying around him.

Why? Well, we could compare the 2012 results with 2008, for example—Romney 51%, Ron Paul 14%, John McCain 13% and the rest sharing the remaining 22%. Turnout? More than 44,000 voters. (The difference is clear from my highly sophisticated combo of the Wikipedia pages on 2008 and 2012 below, an example of the power of what Larry Lessig calls “remix culture“…)

In other words, Romney, the candidate that Republicans are now supposedly “rallying” around, and who came into Nevada with considerable momentum, who has a clear organizational and financial advantage, and who faced very little serious resistance on the ground as his rivals had given up the state in advance, got more votes in 2008 than in 2012. And not just a little– he got about a third more votes back then if you look at the absolute numbers. (16,486 in 2012, versus 22,649 in 2008.)

There are no doubt many reasons for this result that I won’t comment on here. But one thing I would venture to say is that it suggests that the Republican base is yet to accept Romney as their man. His campaign continues to have to fight on two fronts at the same time–making a broad-based appeal to the American people with an eye to the November general election while convincing the (diverse) conservative core of the Republican Party that they should support him too.

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.

Do the British (still) care about phone hacking?

The Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practice, and ethics of the press” and motivated by the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the UK media world in general and News International in particular is now well under way.

A large number of important people in and around the UK media industry clearly, and rightly, care deeply about the phone hacking scandal, what it tells us about (parts of) the news media, and what the fall-out will be/what the ramifications and consequences should be.

But does the British public care about the whole thing? Yes and no.

First the “no”—back in July, I used Google Trends to map searches for “phone hacking” versus “David Beckham” (my random choice of baseline celebrity). The data suggested a relatively high level of interest peaking in July around the Guardian’s revelation that News of the World had hacked the missing and murdered girl Milly Dowler’s voice mail. Now, in November, despite the riveting and ongoing unraveling of ever more instances of questionable, often immoral, and sometimes illegal, behavior, the same crude metric suggests interest in phone hacking has faded–as shown below.

Does this mean the whole thing will go away? That we will be back to business as usual in no time? Hopefully not—many people are working hard to make sure that this opportunity to improve the standards of the British media is seized.

Doing so should not be about politicians getting back at the press, hemming it in with needless regulation, or about prudish disdain for the tabloid press. It should be about strengthening the press itself. It should be about establishing a framework that will help British journalism regain the confidence of the British people.

Addressing this crisis of confidence is in the interest of those in the media themselves—and it leads me to the “yes” to the question of whether the British public cares about the phone hacking scandal. Most people do not seem to follow the twists and turns of the case, online or on other media. But many seem to have reacted in a more basic way to the revelations—which more and more evidence suggests has had direct consequences for people’s trust in the media. For a long time, people in the UK have had comparatively low levels of trust in the press, relative to other European countries (see for example Eurobarometer survey evidence–see page 83 of this rather large PDF file). This has only grown worse this year, according to YouGov.

Overtly cumbersome, intrusive, or cumbersome regulation of the media is one threat to the freedom of the press and its ability to serve democracy. But a precondition for this same press to make much of a contribution to the rambunctious running of popular government is that the population has at least some confidence in journalists and their work.

That confidence is low in the UK, the phone hacking scandal has further undermined it, and journalists and media people need win it back—or they will risk commercial ruin and democratic irrelevance. Some form of credible regulation (self or otherwise) and enforceable codes of professional conduct may be a necessary part of that. Oh, and then it also helps to abstain from flaunting the laws of the land in the pursuit of private profit…

Impressions of Indian Newspaper Journalism

I’m no expert on Indian newspaper journalism, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been an avid reader of the country’s English language press and have thoroughly enjoyed my fleeting encounters with the Times of India, the Hindu, the Deccan Chronicle, the New Indian Express and several other titles.

There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to the status of newspaper journalism in India, even as the industry in contrast to its peers in many Western countries is enjoying rapid growth in circulation and revenues—problems include the proliferation of paid coverage not only of commercial ventures and in reviews, but also in politics (“no money, no news”), various fights between the editorial and the commercial side, plus the frequent harassment of journalists by local authorities, political activists, criminals, and sometimes the military or the police.

But boy can they write, and can they write about politics in particular—riveting accounts means that even now, after my return from travels in South India, I find myself frequenting their websites—trawling for news about Prime Minister Singh’s possible involvement in the 2G scam, following the twists and turns of the fall of Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka after a judicial inquiry connected him directly with widespread illegal mining in the state, reading about how Ms. Jayalalithaa’s newly elected AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu is cracking down on their defeated DKM predecessors on numerous charges of land grabs, corruption, and the like.

All this is so interesting partially because the substance matter is so serious, so clearly worth ones’ time. (On my return I found by contrast that the London Times had seen fit to write an editorial about Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to, while on holiday, wear black shoes without socks. The Times editorial writer thought one should always wear socks when wearing shoes, though conceded that one could be forgiven for wearing flips flops or even loafers without socks. Riveting stuff, really.) The 2G scam, for example, is estimated is estimated by some to have cost the Indian state almost $40 billion in lost revenue.

This kind of stuff matters, and even without independent investigative work, simply reporting the work of judicial investigators, non-profits and others looking into this, and how elected officials talk about it is important and commands attention. Even as a complete outsider, on many days, I’d find as much of interest in the daily edition of a 24-page newspaper sold for 3 or 4 Rupees (about 5 pence) as I usually do in the UK in daily newspapers often approaching a hundred pages all included and sold for a pound.

The journalists and editors who write all this surely face many challenges as their industry and profession develops alongside so many other changes in India—let me just say I enjoyed my brief brush with their work and wish them and all their colleagues working in broadcasting, online, as well as in Hindi and numerous other vernacular languages well.