Sunday, 9 November 2008

Where does journalism go now?

I worked as a radio and TV journalist for a number of years back in the late 1980s to mid 1990s.

I loved being a radio reporter, found being a videojournalist not really my cup of tea (face made for radio, as they say) but loved storytelling with moving pictures and words.

Back in 1994, many people mocked what the station that I worked for, Channel One, was doing, using journalists who filmed their own material. I was lucky to be part of the launch-team and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

I was reminded of this recently because the man who taught us VJs how to be multi-skilled, got in contact with me from his New York base. Michael Rosenblum was an award-winning journalist in the States who couldn't see why journalists needed a large and unwieldy team to help make a news report. As he used to say, imagine a newspaper journalist needing to take along a PA to news conferences to write everything down. So, Michael bought himself a cheap hi-8 video camera, went off to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (as they were called then) and made a film. From this he won more awards and started to preach his style of working, which he called videojournalism.

When I joined Channel One on September 5th 1994, for the first day of training, I had left behind a blossoming career working at BBC Breakast News. Most people there thought I was nuts leaving a national newsroom to help start up a small local cable TV station.

However, I could see the potential and it seemed irresistible. Of course, a few years later Sony introduced DV, which made videojournalism a practical way to news gather. We had begun humping around huge Betacams, the type you tend to see camera operators wielding. A few years ago the next evolution took place and high definition entered the equation. Indeed, we have invested in three high def camcorders at school, and these are yielding a great benefit to the sixth formers who are using them.

Over the last six years or so the power of laptops to cope with digital video, together with the software to edit and manipulate content, has grown at an incredible rate, while falling in price at the same time.

The end result of this is that anyone now can be a VJ, and the rise of audience contributed content to news bulletins on TV and the web continues. Indeed, the popularity of You Tube shows us what a cultural shift affordable camcorders, editing software, and broadband access have made possible.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Where does all of this leave mainstream journalism? It's an important question, because no matter how easy it might be to slate the tabloids, or deplore seemingly falling standards and an incessant obsession with celebrity lifestyle, the truth is that a healthy democracy needs a healthy press. 

With advertising rates plummeting, the move to online amongst consumers happening at an ever-increasing speed, and the whole communications landscape appearing to change its appearance every six months or so (last year Facebook, this year Twitter for example), newspapers in particular are scrambling to find their place in the world.

Roy Greenslade, a pre-eminent journalist, academic and media commentator, has written this week about this subject. His article is worth a browse, as it highlights a number of the issues that confront newspaper owners and editors at a time of unprecedented audience shift and financial turmoil. 

Where, then, might we look for signs of the 'new' journalism about which Roy writes in his article? I would suggest my colleague and one-time videojournalist, David Dunkley-Gyimah.

When we left Channel One in 1997 David took a path that was unique amongst those of us who had acquired new skills and then tried to find a place for them in the old-guard landscape of mainstream broadcasting. David learnt web-design, Flash animation, at a time when these technologies had just emerged.  He took his many years of experience in film making, reportage and documentary, combining them with the fledgling skills of the new media.

Since then, he has found an eminence as a producer, trainer,  and academic, investigating, promoting and designing new ways to communicate. He's studying for a PhD at present, looking at ways to embed links within video content itself, amongst other things. He's a fascinating man and I'm hoping to get him into school early next year. 

Check out his excellent online multimedia journalism site, View Magazine. You can also find a profile of David on the Apple website.

Finally, if you're interested in seeing what life was like for us as trainee VJs back in 1994 then check out this film clip, which David has posted on his site. If you look carefully, you'll even see me in a couple of shots! 

Can Gordon do it? Yes he can! Maybe.....

Ok, so I'll provide an addendum to my last post.

It's been a while since I checked out the Number 10 website, and since I was linking to it in my last post it seemed prudent (to use one of our Prime Minister's favourite fiscal words - currently devalued) to have a look-see, before I pointed to it in my tags.

Well, what a surprise and treat was waiting for me. The PM has been You Tubed and since April of last year has had his own You Tube channel. How many hits has this bastion of open democracy in the media age received in the intervening 19 months? Just over 600,000. This isn't impressive, given the rapidly rising numbers of people connected to the Web via broadband.

However, I am encouraged by the fact the PM is now inviting video responses to this week's topic - the economy. He'll then respond to any entries. 

I feel a sixth form homework bubbling away. 'Class, go away and make a short video clip for the Prime Minister. Ask him about your concerns as young people getting ready to enter higher education, where you will have to pay through the nose, so that you can hopefully gain employment in a shrinking global economy.' 

Maybe this time the PM will get back to us. That would be nice....

The Web: can it change American policy? Yes it can! Maybe...

Sticking with matters American, it's hilarious how the powerful in politics like to use the web as a tool for open democracy and reform. 

So, we should not be surprised to see that Barack Obama, the President-elect, has launched a website called Change, to enable ordinary Americans keep up to date with what's happening in the new administration. Readers can apply for jobs (as yet unspecified) with the new government, submit ideas, and share their visions for a revived American future. It's a lovely idea, but does anyone really think it will change anything?

Being a normally positive person you might be wondering from where my cynicism on this matter stems? My answer to that is the efforts of Tony Blair's New Labour government to do something very similar, which left me feeling thoroughly underwhelmed. 

When in office Blair had a new Number 10 website created, where visitors could email the PM directly. Except of course, your emails disappeared deep within Whitehall, to be buried and ignored by some civil service apparatchik. I know this because I spent several years getting my students to email the PM and see if anything came out of it. Nothing ever did.

Having an open government that's transparent is a wonderful ideal and should be applauded, but I think we all know that the real decisions get made behind closed doors. After all, if we wanted a real democracy we'd go back to the Athenian model ( see the following video link for more) where everybody had an active say. However, most of us have better things to do and appreciate being able to vote for someone who we'll spend the next four years slating, when things go wrong. Passing the buck and handing out fault. Ah, the joys of living in a free and wired world.  

Why Wikipedia can be an unreliable source

Sometimes students seem to take my advice that Wikipedia entries shouldn't be taken as the main primary source of information with, well, let's say, a pinch of salt.

It is as if my protestations that the nature of a Wiki - a collaborative document which can be altered and adapted by anyone who feels like it - count for little.

So, for those of you who are doubters, refusers, and general ignorers, have a look at this article. It describes how the entries for American senators were repeatedly vandalised and altered, in order to demean them, in the run up to the recent American election.

I will confess to using Wikipedia on many an occasion. A great deal of what it contains is erudite, useful, and very well written. Nonetheless, the rule of caution should always apply to Wikipedia entries. The bottom line is that the veracity of what it contains can't always be verified.

In conclusion then, think of Wikipedia as the starting point for research, not the finale.

Who is behind Facebook?

I meant to place this link on the blog some time ago and clean forgot until now.

Back in January 2008 the journalist Tom Hodgkinson wrote a highly critical article about Facebook, detailing the allegedly dodgy dealings of the supposed right wing neo-conservative American venture capitalists who have bought up large stakes in the world's best-known social networking site.

The article raises many questions about the dangers posed by using personal data as a currency for online popularity. However, it also raises questions about why we see so little hard-hitting investigative journalism in the UK these days.

Are journalists so in thrall to the corporations and PR companies that they fear the consequences of publishing unflattering copy? Have the skills of investigation and analysis been lost? There are many fine training institutions offering such skills, such as the schools of journalism at Cardiff and City Universities. So, what is stifling debate in the British press? Indeed, I find it sad that Panorama, once the major BBC flagship hard news documentary programme, has been reduced from a 60 minute to a 30 minute popular documentary strand, taking a populist approach to difficult stories. Not all of the world is itching to succumb to the lowest common denominator, and in keeping true to the aims of Public Service Broadcasting, surely there's space for programmes that dig deep, ask the awkward questions to the unwilling, and are prepared to make a stand?

Certainly, I remember being struck by how unusual Tom's article was, and thinking that despite not knowing what Tom's hidden agenda, if any, might be, nonetheless I was impressed to see someone in a national newspaper writing a polemical piece. 

Personally, I think there is a greater need now than ever for investigative journalism, to cut through the gargantuan amount of information with which we are bombarded every day.

As the Guardian's own motto says, 'Comment is Free but Facts are Sacred.'

Cutting it fine

I'm liking the new OCR Media Studies A level syllabus. 

We're finding that the new two-unit structure is making it much easier to make explicit links between theory and practice.

I'm now running the coursework module on my own, while my colleague Laura gets stuck into teaching textual analysis and representation via British TV drama.

On the coursework side, one of the main changes has been the introduction of a preliminary task. This allows students to try out new technologies and techniques, while also ensuring that everyone has to have a go at shooting and editing a basic video sequence.

The classes have almost finished theirs, and I'll post them to You Tube shortly. Some of them are showing real flair and I'm looking forward to seeing how they get on with the main task of making the opening title sequence and scene to a film of their own creation. 

It's great that everyone has had first-hand experience of the film-making process, although it's been more time consuming than I had anticipated.

Hopefully, I'll get some samples up later this week.

How private is your data online?

I have reminded my students on numerous occasions that placing personal information about yourself online can result in that data being seen by those whose prying eyes you might like to keep focused elsewhere.

There is a simple rule: if you don't feel comfortable with the idea of people seeing information about you, then don't publish it online. 

With that in mind I would like to share the following article. Although it's about a person posting images of themselves on Facebook holding guns from their collection, this is in America, so the guns are owned legally and no crime is being committed. Nonetheless, it's transpired that the individual's employers used something called Administrators Access to gain access to the user's profile 

This allows a range of interested parties to apply for access to your profile. You can read the full online article here. Think about it. What have you posted that you wouldn't want a university admissions tutor to see or read? 

Be choosy. Be careful. As the saying goes, 'Knowledge is Power.' And the power of personal data that's been misconstrued or taken out of context might cost you dear at some point in the future.

Better late than never

I must apologise for the lack of entries over the last month. 

A combination of an autumnal cold, followed by a mountain bike fall, which left me with a broken rib, have stopped me posting.

However, that hasn't stopped me tagging numerous events, about which I'll write now, nor of course has it stopped the world of the media doing what it does best - educating, informing, and re-presenting the world around us.

I'll start with the whole Russell Brand / Jonathon Ross debacle. Today Brand has been interviewed by the Observer newspaper and in it he reveals how he meant no malice in insulting the actor Andrew Sachs and his grand-daughter; the 25 year old producer had thought Sachs had given his permission for transmission; and since it was a pre-recorded show Brand and Ross felt they could be more free with their tongues, safe in the knowledge that someone else would edit the content.

For my money's worth, based on my own experiences in the media, based on what I see and hear working now with young people, this is what I think ought to have happened:

  1. Resignation of both presenters, or sacking if they refused to jump. Brand has at least been honourable. Ross has yet to reveal his position, as he is suspended for threee months. He might return but personally I think he should quit, go into a media exile, reflect on what influence the media has on its audience, ponder whether his actions are appropriate for a man in his late 40s, and then re-build his reputation. Let's be honest, at £16,000 a day he can afford the time to review his life.
  2. A swift response from the BBC. Why it took them days for senior brass to offer a half-hearted response is beyond me.

The broadcast apology that was made on Radio 2 yesterday seemed too little too late. The damage is done, and the insults have been hurled. Several weeks after the event and the BBC continues to be silent on who authorised what, and how far up the chain of command the approval to broadcast went. The BBC should stop hiding its failures, come clean, and make sweeping changes. 

The hard earnt reputation of the BBC, which is maintained by the many decent employees it possesses, is being eroded by the self-interest of the over-paid few. That, at least, is how it seems from the outside.