Sep 242012
 
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The Guardian is looking for ingenious ways to support its journalism, in a world where “freeconomics” are driving traditional publishers absolutely spare.  And I can fully understand and appreciate the quandary – even as I do not entirely agree with the tools this newspaper has used.

The latest suggestion to come out of the Guardian‘s marketing department was something I suggested years ago on my now dormant publishing blog, Zebra Red.  You can find two of the pieces in question here and here.  In essence, we could argue that the content producers have lost out to the distributors – those who make the money these days, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sell access to generally free content which newspapers, writers, film-makers and musicians various are finding it incredibly difficult to live off.

The solution then?  Cream off some of the money which the ISPs currently keep for their lonesomes – and redistribute it through some ingeniously automated system in terms, presumably, of usage and page impressions.

This is Mr Greenslade blogging on the suggestion this morning:

Has David Leigh cracked it? We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net (see here and here and here). One obvious model is the funding of the BBC through its licence fee.

Objectors to such an idea – including current commercial proprietors – have argued, unsurprisingly, on press freedom lines. Any connection to the state is to be avoided.

But Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, has come up with a very clever quasi alternative: charge a levy of, say, £2 a month on the bills of subscribers to UK broadband providers. Then distribute the money to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership.

You can see his reasoning and consider his sums in his article today – in print, page 32, or online here.

Now I can fully appreciate that content producers which add considerable value to society – whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum – may feel rather abused by the cut latterday distributors are taking from the equation.  In many cases, I can imagine it’s not even the forty percent of traditional book publishing but, rather, closer to a destructive hundred percent of all incomes generated.

So I’m sympathetic to the suggestion, especially as I am myself struggling to make a professional living out of my writing.  But I would ask four questions of those who would jump on the bandwagon – just in case they’re able to think twice before doing so:

  1. If the principle of levies on what are essentially 21st century utilities is to spread to other areas, who’s to say Jeremy Hunt won’t one day argue we need to bill our electricity users to keep the recently privatised NHS lights burning?  This levy, after all, proposes to charge a public like myself in order to support private industries which may very well choose not to publish or disseminate my political views in the least.  Why, under any constitutional arrangement, should I be obliged to pay for opinions and news-gathering positions I do not want to see spread around, when I use something like the Internet: as ubiquitous and essential a utility for the functioning of a 21st century state as water, gas and other basic services before it?
  2. If we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband, and this does help to landgrab more of our evermore limited discretional spending for private journalism (whether we care to read papers or not), and – in the end – this succeeds in rebuilding a battered industry so that traditional newspaper journalism enters a brave new online world with its head held finally and remarkably high (on, it has to be said, the backs of the workers), who is to guarantee that they won’t recreate themselves as wasteful, expansionary and world-dominating media empires?  For if working people’s cash is going to be recycled into corporate pockets without democratic oversight, I really don’t see the difference here between the Guardian‘s suggestion for publishing – and what Lansley first, and Hunt now, have been doing over at the NHS.
  3. Penultimately, why does the Guardian suggest an extra levy on top of existing broadband prices?  Why doesn’t it fight bravely – Robin-Hoodedly even – to extricate some of the cash already swilling around ISPs as the grand evil distributors of our time?  Is it that the paper and its executives have calculated it’s safer to antagonise its readers for a bit than fight the technology corporations tooth and nail for a piece of the existing action?
  4. Finally, if we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband access so that private industries can continue to push the sometimes marvellous, occasionally twisted, content they produce, wouldn’t in some subtle and inconvenient way the content thus produced begin to belong to us?  That is to say, to be reused and appropriated at will perhaps?  Now who’d really like to provoke – and then sort out – a copyright mess like that?

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Apr 182012
 
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A tweet which this morning was directed at my innermost open-source leanings led me to wonder if Wikipedia has a symbiotic or parasitical relationship with knowledge.  The tweet went thus:

@eiohel like the wonderful open source voluntarism-driven marvel that is Wikipedia. It’s foundation is well-funded publications 4 citation

I answered with a perhaps too flippant reply that just as many journalists working for paid publications would be taking advantage of Wikipedia’s millions of pages as any of the alleged “free-loaders” out there.  I say flippant because this of course wouldn’t necessarily make the situation any better: quite the reverse in fact, as paid-for organisations could arguably free-load on the back of other paid-fors via the intermediary actions and paraphrasing skills of Wikipedia itself.

It also led me, however, to tweet back the following resulting thought (the bold is mine):

@Paul0Evans1 We could of course equally say the same of blogging since the beginning of time … symbiotic rather than parasitic?

Which leads to me to my final occurrence and the very point of this post: does blogging – has blogging ever – added real value to anything at all?  Dependent as it is on much of paid-for media’s output to spark off its over-the-garden-fence discourses, it would probably not exist if there weren’t a close interface between the blogosphere and MSM.  Yet surely even those most in favour of traditional copyright models could not argue that the blogosphere taken in its entirety had not added anything useful to the sum of human thought.

Or, in their irascible and fanatical mindsets, might they be tempted to assert that it manifestly hadn’t?

My opinion is, of course, quite different.  I believe we need deniable outriders in thought – just as much as we need them in politics.  They are the proving-ground of new and bright ideas – and such ideas need the freedoms of open and unrestricted places if the future is to be dealt with under any kind of intelligence at all.  The shutdowns of traditional copyright models probably do have their place in some form: but blogging, and the kind of open access to general knowledge which Wikipedia and social media in general tend to provide, are a necessary adjunct to the intellectually sustainable – and directly fundable – stuff traditional copyright seems to want to continue inscribing.

In any case, there have been notable calls recently for open access to publicly-funded research: if the debate is now getting as far ahead as the cutting-edge of such research, surely that cutting-edge shouldn’t any longer be causing us to bleed?


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Jan 312012
 
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Wikipedia Commons

“¡El capitalismo es la leche, joder!” as the Spanish might say.  Loosely translated this might mean: “Capitalism is fucking amazing!”  And not in a necessarily complimentary sense …

James has the publishing industry’s very own version in his crosshairs this week:

Although documenting Stalinism, the lessons in Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four could apply equally to copyright and intellectual property.

Like Animalism, copyright is a system that should protect all creators.  But, as in Animal Farm, the pigs of the publishing industry – the ones who decide the rules amongst themselves – are running the farm for their own ends.

Moving on to Nineteen Eighty Four, a system designed for common social good can only be enforced with a policeman – in the form of Big Brother – in every home, street corner and gymnasium.

In an era where very low barriers to self-publishing make us all both copyright owners and capable of serious infringement, fundamental questions about enforceability and proportionality are being raised.

Will a system of copyright which attempts to detect and punish every minor infringement ever work? At least not without the threat of disproportionate punishment alongside the ability of Big Brother to monitor every web server, internet connection and home computer.

James’s post deserves to be read in full by everyone unhappy about SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA – amongst other pieces of draconian legislation currently being forced both on countries around the globe and very much behind the scenes.  The real issue here, then, is how our democracies are being circumvented – essentially, I suppose, because the voting publics of these democracies are composed of very many infringers of copyright, infringers who have so grown up in an environment of such casual law-breaking that they would probably consider what they do to be a generational norm.

As a result, those who would like copyright to be exerted more firmly simply do not trust democracies to be able to deliver on their expectations.  For the content industries, the people are unhappily both their nadir and their potential salvation.

A psychologically complex place for a powerful sector to find itself so demonstrably in.  “We need you,” they’re admitting, “but neither as you are – nor just yet.”

Clearly, if you are starting out and have a book or film to sell, you need to recover your investment.  You need to make a living.  But whilst it’s one mighty step for an eager and enthusiastic new self-publisher to require a value-adding platform such as Amazon’s Kindle, it’s quite another for an established and dinosaur-like business structure to decide it has the right to covertly change – behind democracy’s discourse – the rules of something as strategic as the worldwide web before the processes of its very own business model.

Instead of attempting to circumvent democracy, the content industry should surely try and circumvent the worldwide web.  Not by detonating what it does but – simply – by refusing to use it.  Not use it themselves.  Not tease us with their porous paywalls.  Not play silly games as they attempt to gain our dollars.

That’s all just fiddling around with an existing way of doing business – without caring to innovate in the least.

That’s all just lazy.

That’s all so 19th century.

For Pete’s sake, if you don’t want to get your tootsies cold, don’t dip them in the ocean.

So why not just leave the worldwide web for the producer-consumers amongst us – and let us consume and produce our own content to our virtual heart’s content?

And, meanwhile, use the infrastructures of the Internet itself to set up parallel systems of distribution and monetisation which fit your goals for the future.

*

As a final – perhaps dramatic – thought: how about we decide – as a society, democracy and global community – that, once such reasonably watertight systems of distribution and monetisation are in place, everything which can currently be found on the web enters an automatic public domain?

An intellectual property amnesty, if you like.

Draw a line under all infringement; draw a line under all our complaints about the shrinking public domain; draw a line under all our potshots at lazy cash-cow industries; draw a line under content confrontation …

Decide, instead, to turn over a page in the historic battle between traditional producers and those consumers who would mimic them – and start from the boldest scratch in publishing history.

After all, in a globalising world, it’s not only time we liberated capital’s right to go wherever it should choose but also, far more importantly, especially in a democratic context, producers’ rights to decide how, where and when they might both produce and deliver their content – whether this be rather more traditionally, as in the US film industry, or as part of the more amateur and widespread generation of latterday producer-consumers.

Those who make massive investments in content and creativity do, of course, deserve a commensurate return.  But in their desire to assure that return, they do not – in the 21st century – have the right to erect barricades to entry which once inevitably existed for technological reasons … but do not have to exist any more.

And in the absence of such technological barriers, they should most certainly not be allowed to get away with using the law to prevent the wider progress of that grandeur under discussion today – that is to say, that socialised human imagination.


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Nov 042011
 
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This came to me via Paul just now on the subject of failed experiments and high quality web content:

[…] what better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism? At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.

Slate’s admission that, even with a minuscule staff of 60 and the financial “might” of the Washington Post company, it can’t make money from online content is also perfect. The perfect opportunity, that is, to acknowledge once and for all that the grand experiment in free online content has failed.

I’m sorry – but I simply do not agree.  Let’s take the example of another art.  There was a time when music belonged to the people it was made for – and the singers and songwriters, those who cobbled together and adapted old and new songs for their particular audiences, earned a living from their performances and not from the copyright of their products.

That is to say, in true open source style, they made money from the services not the code.

This would be a perfect model for writing high quality content on the web.  Earn your reputation via what you write – and build a portfolio of ancillary services on the back of it.  It is, of course, easier said than done – as I am currently finding out.  But I would suggest it’s not impossible.

Not entirely, anyhow.

Perhaps we simply have to recognise that if we want to earn a living from the web, we need to downgrade our lifestyles and expect less than we might once have hoped for.  What we don’t need is the doom and gloom merchants from inappropriately-sized industrial models arguing that high quality content is unsustainable.

It is for them – probably because, like the Premier League football teams with more money to burn than common sense to invoke, they serve to distort the visibility and status which the rest of us could achieve by buying up the Internet real estate through their sponsored links and heavy ad budgets.

A pretty big part of the reason, just like the big football clubs on a separate plain, that – long-term – it’s not proving sustainable for them.

They and we need to step firmly back from these assumptions.  There is, I am convinced of it, a sustainable place on the open web for those of us who are prepared to go down the singer-songwriter road.

And it may be true that the old model which the big industries are looking to replicate doesn’t fit.  But that doesn’t mean any other model can’t – nor that we should stop pursuing its possibility.


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Jun 212011
 
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Stan pursues issues with an admirable dedication which my own tangential approach to life unfortunately doesn’t allow.  He addressed the issue of whether he was a technophobe in this post from his Grumpy Old Man blog today, arguing that he was actually a “commercephobe”.

Some comments later, his thought experiment provoked the following clarification from myself:

I agree with you that user licences for software allow software publishers to get away with much more than they should. Maybe the issue really lies in the fact that we’re dealing with something which occupies a frontier between traditional book publishing on the one hand (where no warranties have ever been given) and manufacturing industry on the other (where warranties are a fundamental factor). As software moves away from simply making digital our paper-based content and into a much deeper process of actually shaping – literally – our offline worlds, its consequences become much more defining and serious. As, indeed, you suggest.

This is an interesting idea which I’ve only really just stumbled across.  A lack of true product liability is well understood in software publishing.  But surely this has come about – at least in part – because at the start of the process, software publishing was more akin to traditional book publishing than almost anything else.  And as I point out above, when did a book ever carry a warranty?  What You See Is What You Get – centuries before word-processing even contemplated the concept.

So it is only now, as online constitutions influence offline behaviours and circumstances with ever greater abandon, that the lack of true liability – a freedom which has driven innovation in software since its very beginnings – may actually become, for its users everywhere, a true liability.  Whilst software was limited to desktop PCs, we could live with its dysfunctionalities.  Now that it occupies our cars, household appliances and telephones galore, it is no longer simply a digitally interactive version of paper.

Instead it has become the 21st century equivalent of Victorian heavy industry – but without the very necessary checks and balances the former acquired pretty sharpish.  And therein the perils Stan rightly points out.


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Jun 062011
 
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Aiming to add value by repackaging products and services is a dangerous game.  It can even lead you to the unconscionable crimes of plagiarism – crimes which no one is ever happy to commit, even when by accident (and the Lord only knows, in our multidimensional and hyperlinked worlds, how these are accidents just waiting to happen).

Some recent examples I think would be useful now.  Firstly, Fifa’s latest wheeze: employing “politicians, celebrities and former footballers” to clean up the mess that currently reigns (at which point I am minded to remember MPs’ expenses, irrelevant buckets of tittle-tattle galore and superinjunctions not a million miles away from the British Isles).  I’ve already discussed how salespeople and environments can prejudice bodies such as world football’s highest.  This is just another example of how those predisposed to melodramatic gestures run their businesses on the basis of inflating expectations, in the hope that future promises become concrete through the sleight-of-hand of marketing spiels.  As the Guardian report in question points out:

Fifa’s sponsors may have brought about the corporate governance rerforms. Adidas, which lavishes more than $40m a year on Fifa as its sportswear partner, was the first to speak out last week. Later Coca-Cola, Emirates and Visa also expressed their dismay.

“You live by the sword, you die by the sword” is the phrase that comes to my mind.

Meanwhile, another example of how the desire to make money out of repackaging what already exists can lead to unfortunate results has just reared its ugliest of heads once again:

A new private university college founded by the philosopher AC Grayling and staffed by celebrity professors will teach exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London, which charges half the price, it has emerged.

Students of the New College of the Humanities will pay £18,000 a year to take courses in history, English literature and philosophy that are already on offer at Birkbeck, Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway for £9,000 or less.

Academics complained that syllabuses listed on the New College website appeared to have been copied from the University of London’s own web pages in a move some said amounted to plagiarism.

And I can see quite plainly what is operating here.

And it’s not a million miles away from Fifa.

I was once contracted to give ESL classes in a private university someone who claimed to be my friend set up with a group of individuals I later refused to touch with a bargepole.  This business proposition had little to do with wanting to educate people – rather, what fascinated the group of businesspeople I mention was the following very simple idea: heavy start-up costs in the first year, double the number of students for the same infrastructure in the second, captive markets in the third, exponential growth in the fourth – the sky, indeed, would then be the limit they promised to anyone who cared to listen.

It seems to me that the New College of Humility (not) is making the same foolish assumptions.  And committing the same mistakes I describe above.

Incidentally, the private university I worked at for a while eventually closed down under the weight of its own contradictions.  As this tweet pointed out yesterday:

A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students :).

Repackaging is all well and good – but when it leads to plagiarism (and, as I have already pointed out, this now so easily takes place) it is hubris clearly squared. 

A final thought – and we come back to Internet freedoms.  Charlie Booker has a piece going the rounds at the moment, also on the Guardian, which seems to berate us for not wanting to pay for anything we stumble across through our PCs.  Thus he argues:

Anyhow. I’m not claiming five quid a month is insignificant: it’s more than many can afford. But in this case it’s bloody cheap for what it gets you. The problem for Spotify is that no one wants to pay for anything they access via a computer – and when they do, there’s a permanent level of resentment bubbling just under the surface. Hence the anger about “only” getting 10 hours of free music.

Look at the App Store. Read the reviews of novelty games costing 59p. Lots of slaggings – which is fair enough when you’re actively warning other users not to bother shelling out for something substandard. But they often don’t stop there. In some cases, people insist the developers should be jailed for fraud, just because there weren’t enough levels for their liking. I once read an absolutely scathing one-star review in which the author bitterly complained that a game had only kept them entertained for four hours.

FOUR HOURS? FOR 59P? AND YOU’RE ANGRY ENOUGH TO WRITE AN ESSAY ABOUT IT? ON YOUR EXPENSIVE IPHONE? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?

And so we see, as is often the case, that a commenter provides a far more succinct explanation than the original post of why Internet monetisation is fraught with so many pitfalls:

 @muggwhump Actually the internet already sits behind a paywall, it’s called your ISP.

It’s not that we’re not prepared to pay for anything on the Internet, Charlie.  It’s that we’re not prepared to pay any more.

As I pointed out a while ago at a different place:

Distribution was always the key to making money in publishing – always will be. In a world where the content is neither printed nor physically moved from one place to another but replicates itself as if by magic through downloads that allow access from virtually anywhere to virtually anywhere, there will always be money to be made somewhere along the process. It just so happens that this place will shift from time to time, as technology evolves, as consumer habits change, as the hierarchy between consumers and producers modulates. Amazon’s Kindle shows us that the wonder of sitting in a neighbourhood coffee bar and downloading – on impulse – a book you’d really love to get your hands on actually works. Translate this opportunistic way of purchasing content to the field of newspapers and I’m sure we’d see an about-face in the world of journalism.

I’m paying not for the content itself but for the communication channel that allows me to access it. That’s the mad thing about this. We perceive an added value we are prepared to pay for in a multi-product provider like Sky or the phone operators; an added value we no longer perceive in the content itself that they piggyback off. I’m happily paying £20 a month for 600 minutes and free Internet on my mobile. I know plenty of people who pay £40 or more for their cable and satellite television.

These days we’re absolutely used to paying for the access; we’re not looking any more to pay for the films or articles themselves.

So it all depends on how you bill it. Bill your online subscription to all the major newspapers as part of your Internet deal and no one will notice the difference. The papers will then have a business to business relationship with their distributors. Direct customers will be kept at an arm’s length.

It has to be in the interest of the service providers to keep the content providers on their feet – without decent content, people will simply move on to other, greener, pastures.

If people get greedy, if the distributors insist on taking a greater percentage of the (now available) cake than is their due, which is what is happening at the moment (all that money flooding into the coffers of the ISPs, all that money flooding out of the war chests of the big newspaper and magazine publishers), the authors and editors will simply disappear.

This relationship, often hard-nosed and bordering on the pig-headed, has been true of publishing throughout its history.

It’s not going to change now, not even in a digital world.

Digital worlds, for all their differences, are still analogous worlds – even where they are not analogical.

In conclusion, then: those of you who wish to add a potentially spurious value through a simple repackaging of existing tools, services and products should be very careful of savvy producer-consumers who know the true cost of all things these days.


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Dec 262010
 
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Paul very kindly includes me in his Northern list of bibliophiles.  In order to comply with the requirements of the game he outlines, I think I should – however – widen the remit of the task assigned.

I would define a book as a coherent body of knowledge which narrates a story of some kind.  This story may be non-fictional or fictional – it may be virtual or made of celluloid.  These days, it’s more than likely composed of one kind of digital format or another.  How we read it therefore – the device we need to observe its sense and sensibility – is probably the least of the matter.

That, then, is my definition of a “book”.

Paul also suggests three lists we should recommend from: the top-ten non-fictional books, the top-ten fictional books and the top-five please-don’t-touch-me-at-all-whatever-you-do-next-year books.

So here’s my list of top-ten non-fictional “books”, which I have either read for the first time this year or had occasion to renew my acquaintance with:

  1. “Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China” by Jung Chang – overview and precision of detail as the tale of modern China is told relentlessly
  2. “Mythologies” by Roland Barthes – I never tire of re-reading these beautiful tales of clever thought
  3. “A Beautiful Mind” – this film redeems its leading character through its ingeniously accurate description of his painfully brilliant state of mind
  4. “The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors” by the Oxford English Dictionary Department – this book dates from 1981 and is one of my most dearly thumbed companions
  5. “Stumbling and Mumbling” blog – deep thought but never computerised
  6. “Though Cowards Flinch” blog – has me consistently out of my depth, but this is the kind of stuff I wish I could always understand
  7. “Slugger O’Toole” electronic magazine – a tale of a village I could never belong to nor deserve to intervene in, but one I will always have a great fondness for
  8. “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani – I re-read this book this year after a hiatus of a couple of years.  If you want to know why bad stuff happens to good people, read this
  9. “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger – I re-read this little book regularly.  It serves to keep my feet on the ground
  10. “WikiLeaks.org” (or wherever you may currently find it) – great publishing, awful choice of extra-curricular activities

Here’s my list of top-ten fictional “books” – mainly, I’m afraid (for the purists amongst you), films or film versions of what we more traditionally understand to be a book; nevertheless, I promise you I do read them just as carefully:

  1. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – I saw the film on the occasion of my wedding anniversary.  Every man who might ever consider forming part of a heterosexual relationship needs to see this film.  It is a tract – in every possibly positive sense of the word – on the subject of rape and its utterly unacceptable nature
  2. “Toy Story 3″ – pretty well perfect film-making: total control of environment and emotions.  At the pinnacle of industrial art (made me blubber at the end, anyhow)
  3. “Star Trek – the Original Series” – too many episodes to enumerate but never fails to disappoint me
  4. “High Society” – because of Louis Armstrong
  5. “Meet Me in St Louis” – because of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli
  6. “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker (well, it’s about what drives fictional constructs …)
  7. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F Scott Fitzgerald (other short stories by Fitzgerald too – but this one in particular always gets a re-read)
  8. “U.S.A.” by John Dos Passos (finally finished after having started it such a long time ago at university …)
  9. “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by Edgar Allan Poe (Nintendo DS version)
  10. “Cracks” by Sheila Kohler

Finally, my list of the five publishing untouchables:

  1. Paywalls
  2. Paywalls
  3. Paywalls
  4. Paywalls
  5. Paywalls

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Dec 142010
 
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We learn as children to bide our time.  If our parents are ragged at the edges, weary or worried, we learn to shy away from serious debate, request or proposal.  Newspapers and online media are no different – except inasmuch as they tend to do the opposite.  I remember Alastair Campbell talking recently at the Chester Literature Festival about how the ratio of good to bad news had changed over the past forty years.  And from his 2008 Cudlipp Lecture, I have found the following reference:

Before his death, Robin Cook used to cite a study showing a shift in the positive to negative ratio in our national press of 3 positive stories for every one negative in the mid 70s, to 1 positive for every 18 negative in the early 21st century. Even if that overstates, and in some media it certainly doesn’t, it certainly reflects the trend.

So when we grow up and become media editors and authors and bloggers, and professional communicators of any and every kind, we do just as we did with our parents when we were young – only exactly the opposite.  We assess very carefully the right moment to release a bombshell on the rest of our peers, just as we used to do in our youth – only that right moment becomes one of maximum impact rather than the minimum pain we generally learn to generate in family.

A classic example below from AlJazeera’s English website the other day (click on the image for the larger version), and which I captured this evening.

What do you think then? Examine the evidence.  Remember, this is AlJazeera – a communications channel which, for many of my American, and perhaps also British, readers, is a website and media hub they would never choose to access voluntarily.  It is associated with first publication of many unhappy videos and propaganda statements – and whether fairly or unfairly, this is an undeniable fact.

So what do we have?  A story on the subject of how the American Federal Aviation Authority is unaware of the true ownership of over 100,000 planes currently flying in the US.  In the body of the text, AlJazeera reports that the FAA are worried that drug-traffickers and terrorists may make use of these planes – but the iconic American Airlines jumbo used to illustrate the piece tells a much clearer and more directly terrifying story.

It clearly, and most deliberately, alludes to the 9/11 attacks – without taking any kind of ownership for such an allusion.

For how we juxtapose information is absolutely everything in this modern, and slightly sly, style of communication.

(Note, also, and by the by, the clickable piece of real estate in the top right-hand corner asking us: “Are classified leaks in the public interest?”  Yet another way of saying something without having to admit that’s what you meant.)

Now I can imagine how easy it is for paperwork to get misplaced.  A third of all US planes does seem rather a lot, mind – but, even so, I can understand how this could happen.  I assume, however (unless any of you know any better), that the vast majority of these planes will be rather small – and certainly not passenger planes of the type the photo leads us to conclude might be the case.

I’m not a brain surgeon, of course.  I’m not even a trained journalist.  But if I can reach such conclusions on the basis of the facts laid out in front of us, then why cannot the journalists working for AlJazeera locate the same caveats in the story they have chosen to tell?  After all, their story is strong enough without it needing any pumping up or additional priming.  This is sensational enough not to require sensationalism to sell page impressions, powerful enough not to require the journalistic equivalent of the literary adjectival phrase to define and situate.

Really, my question is therefore the following: is this an example of tendentious journalism or lazy journalism?  If the latter, please do better next time round.  If the former, then perhaps I should skirt around the output of the channel in question with rather more care, just as some of my more reluctant readers might advise me to – and just as I have now become accustomed to so doing with our own mainstream British media.

Especially in the light of their sloppy reporting on an untold number of political and socio-economic issues over the past unhappy nine months.

China Daily anyone?

*

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking more on the subject of Twitter, Facebook and the decay of blogging.  And I’ve come to a reasonably cheerful conclusion: blogging lives on.

Blogging was always a two-handed affair – on the one hand, the traditional logging of the web, that manual filtering of and linking to interesting material; on the other, the impulse to open oneself up to the web and declare oneself in diary format.  So, in reality, all that’s happened to our dearly beloved blogosphere is that Facebook has spent the last few years building a community around the latter and Twitter has spent a slightly shorter time building a community around the former.

Which is why any serious attempt to recover and restate the importance of old-style blogging for the future of the Internet may need to negotiate with both companies if it wishes to ride any future waves of communication effectively and convincingly.

Whether we like it or not.

Blogging isn’t dead, you see.  It’s just been carved up in two pieces – and monetised before our eyes.


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Dec 072010
 
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Julian Assange is first and foremost a publisher – and a great one at that.

And this piece, which came my way tonight via Brian on Facebook, is about as good as publishing gets:

IN 1958 a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide’s The News, wrote: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

His observation perhaps reflected his father Keith Murdoch’s expose that Australian troops were being needlessly sacrificed by incompetent British commanders on the shores of Gallipoli. The British tried to shut him up but Keith Murdoch would not be silenced and his efforts led to the termination of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

Nearly a century later, WikiLeaks is also fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public.

Please read the whole of this article and allow me to underline this before you do.  Julian Assange is not first and foremost a whistleblower.  He is, more than anything else, a publisher of great note.  And as such, he is following in the footsteps of the great publishers of yore.  He is an exponent of recent technologies but, far more importantly than that, he operates in the grandest tradition there exists of Western civilisation’s most profound instincts to communicate.  What he is doing today is only what Rupert Murdoch’s father knew he had to do in that different time and age: bring to the public the kind of information the public needs to know – even as its governments would prefer quite otherwise.

The government of a nation cannot hide behind the law all the time.  Sometimes the morality, the rights and wrongs of a matter, count for more than simple legality.

This is that time.  Governments have been hiding behind laws for far too long – they have made a virtue of obfuscation and built an industry on telling lies.

As Assange quite fascinatingly points out:

Every time WikiLeaks publishes the truth about abuses committed by US agencies, Australian politicians chant a provably false chorus with the State Department: “You’ll risk lives! National security! You’ll endanger troops!” Then they say there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes. It can’t be both. Which is it?

It is neither. WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the US, with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone.

Let us not allow the news management of modern politics to change the nature of the beast.  Assange may be punished for what he has proposed – but let us be clear: what he has chosen to do has a long and honourable tradition and deserves to be respected. 

Whilst the following is truer than all the revelations WikiLeaks has ever published put together:

Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations. That is because The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.

Remember that as this story develops – for that is the key to everything.

That is to say, the key to everything is size.

It’s the key to what makes an upstart of a publisher want to do what Assange is doing – and, what’s more, go as far as he is going.

And it’s the key to what makes an editor of the class and legacy of Rupert Murdoch turn his back so fulsomely on telling those uncomfortable truths he might once – at the beginning of his career – have chosen to disseminate most differently.

For it’s the small publishers that will always make the biggest waves.  And the large ones that will choose to look to their shareholders.

Whilst between the two there will lie the grandeur of a truth we always find it in ourselves to seek.
____________________

Further reading: Emily writes a comprehensive overview of what WikiLeaks means for the practice of journalism.  More here.


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Dec 062010
 
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A lovely piece here which came my way via Charlie on Facebook:

In this sense, Wikileaks represents an almost “end of Internet history.” Surely we’ve all read the 1989 Francis Fukuyama essay that trumpeted the West’s victory over all others. The Soviet Union represented the last barrier to Western dominance, and with its collapse so ended the idea of history. A sort of, that’s it, the West has won, from here on the world will be a Western one, and no more history will be made.

Wikileaks has shown the world that it’s entirely possible to hold governments accountable to their citizens. (A novel concept!) That numerous public servants have expressed outrage as a result of their actions being made available to the public they claim to represent perhaps speaks to their worth as public servants. The all-hands-on-deck reaction to the leaks can mean only one thing: they worked.

Which is to say that Wikileaks has worked.

And if Wikileaks is shut down—who honestly expects the Wikileaks organization to emerge from all of this completely unharmed?—then you can be certain that other organizations or entities will take its place. Maybe Wikileaks 2.0, or TwitterLeaks, or whatever form it takes, won’t have such a public face. (Surely there’s more to Wikileaks than Julan Assange, to say nothing of Bradley Manning.) Maybe it won’t host its servers in countries that so readily rolled over to governmental pressure? Maybe it won’t rely on services that are headquartered in the U.S., and are thus easy targets for ratings-driven talking heads and know-nothing blowhards?

More than anything else, it’s certain that Wikileaks represents a seminal moment in the history of the Internet. Closing your eyes, stomping your feed and wishing it would all just go away, is completely ludicrous.

Yet it might be possible to argue that this is not the end of the Internet but, rather, the end of the beginning.  The Internet arose out of an astonishing idea by the American military way back in the 1960s – the objective was to create as resilient a communications network as possible.  And, as always, in such matters, brilliant ideas will almost always end up biting their creators where they least suppose or expect them to.  So now it is that the very same Internet is being used against its inventors to spread a quite different truth from the one they wanted to defend.  Theirs was a world of silences, hidden realities, of Cold War suspicion, of uncertain freedoms.

The modern Internet, as its users experience it, seems quite a long way away from all that.

*

So as Wikipedia helpfully summarises, this is where we are at the moment:

Following commercialization and introduction of privately run Internet service providers in the 1980s, and the Internet’s expansion for popular use in the 1990s, the Internet has had a drastic impact on culture and commerce. This includes the rise of near instant communication by electronic mail (e-mail), text based discussion forums, and the World Wide Web. Investor speculation in new markets provided by these innovations would also lead to the inflation and subsequent collapse of the Dot-com bubble. But despite this, the Internet continues to grow, driven by commerce, greater amounts of online information and knowledge and social networking known as Web 2.0.

And the feeling I get, you see, is that everything and anything we’ve been doing on the Internet to date is no more than pussyfooting around its real possibilities.  Let’s just examine again that paragraph from the CrunchGear piece:

Wikileaks has shown the world that it’s entirely possible to hold governments accountable to their citizens. (A novel concept!) That numerous public servants have expressed outrage as a result of their actions being made available to the public they claim to represent perhaps speaks to their worth as public servants. The all-hands-on-deck reaction to the leaks can mean only one thing: they worked.

This is clearly an example of turning the hierarchy of knowledge upside down.  Again, as CrunchGear points out:

[…] I mean, as of today, all Wikileaks has done is to make available a number of documents that were already available to some 3 million Americans. So if this information is already available to 3 million of our fellow citizens, why not us? Is it wrong for the citizens of a republic to know what’s being done in their name around the world, or does the demand for transparency stop at your ability to stream Netflix movies unimpeded?

Which is partly why I suspect this is the end of the beginning – not the beginning of the end.   

Up to now, we have assumed the only way of doing political business is to occasionally take it upon ourselves to vote in elections that lead privileged members of our communities – for the US, those three million public servants referred to above; for the UK, what will surely be a proportionately far smaller number of politicians, spooks and police officers – to acquire a temporary insight into and right to form a part of the mechanics of delegated power.  The kind of power that demands not only respect but also a blind faith from those who sanction, through popular vote, its existence.

And thus the argument runs: the wider voting public must come to a decision on who to trust by acting in that blind faith I mention.  The issues are too complex, the decisions too difficult, the loneliness of the long-distance runner too painful for ordinary folk to sustain … so that the only way to run latterday politics in a modern 21st century world, where privacy no longer really exists for the ordinary folk I mention, is to hide most of the political truth from most of the generally apolitical people.

Apolitical, perhaps, because that is how we have made them.  Because that is how we need them.

Curious, isn’t it?  How we teach our children from a very young age that lying is about as wrong as you can get.  And yet, when we reach adulthood, we pay those public servants who have best acquired the ability to act duplicitously the highest salaries of all.  For them, it is not lying but diplomacy and simple political discourse.

So that is when WikiLeaks turns all this upside down.  All of a sudden, as voters, we are party to the truths which, in any case, we suspected all along.  In fact, what’s changed is not the truth, nor even what we suspected, but simply who is in possession of it and the degree to which they can pretend.

From the point of view of intellectual property and copyright, the diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks is releasing – in some indisputable and quite moral way – surely belong to the people, surely should find their home in the public domain.  For the people who communicate their truths and observations and opinions and conclusions in these missives only do so because we are paying them their salaries through our taxes.

That is why the diplomatic cables are – in some perverse and satisfactory way – really ours for the taking.  And that is why #cablegate is substantially different from other releases of information by the organisation.  This is not private information removed from private companies whose internal workings are morally wrong even where legal.  This is information belonging to a state which acts in our name – and only does so because we the people wish it to do so.

What, however, finally, WikiLeaks is really going to test – as well as possibly detonate – is not so much governments’ duplicity and hypocrisy but, rather, our trust in freeconomics and everything else relating to our supposedly “free” access to social media.  How Twitter and Facebook and blogging hosts galore behave from now on in will define whether we are prepared to continue using them in a framework of indirect payment or whether we decide we prefer to pay upfront for services with rather more convincing terms and conditions – or even set up networks of our own servers.

And that is really why I believe this is now the true beginning of Internet history.  Where traditional industries with traditional business models failed to capture the money out there to be made, what we might call moral industries with government-resistant business models may very well be the result of all this wild transparency from Assange.

You choose to give these big corporations algorithmic access to your emails so the service only costs you content-relevant ads?  Fine as far as it goes, as long as you don’t start sending stuff they don’t like.  You want to blog on servers that do the job for you, without so much as a dollar for the right?  Fine as far it goes, as long as you don’t start posting stuff they don’t want.  You like the idea of exchanging photos and throwaway thoughts on your favourite community and social media forum?  Fine as far as it goes, as long as you don’t start organising flash mobs to protest government cuts.

But if, on the other hand, you really want to communicate things worth communicating, to people who are in fact hurting across the world – well, then there is suddenly a space for that moral industry with a government-resistant business model that I talk of.

For what I talk of is nothing more or less than that proud and feisty publishing house of yore.

This is what publishing is all about – getting into the public domain stuff the public doesn’t know exists but demonstrably needs to know.  Whether fiction or fact, whether tract or poetry, the very reason for a publisher’s existence lies in his or her ability to bring the truth of life’s underbelly to the surface of public perception.

And so we rediscover a way of making money out of bravery and courage.


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Dec 032010
 
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Sunny made an interesting comment on Twitter the day before yesterday:

@eiohel but how is the press accountable? wikileaks isn’t anything other than the press. It’s just a different kind of a Daily Mail

The implication – if I do not misrepresent or simplify too much what he meant to say – is that WikiLeaks is just one more publishing venture (meanwhile, you can find an utterly different focus here).  It trades on its ability to say things that others have not yet said (or not said widely) – and aims to carve out a presence for itself on the basis of saying such (relatively) unsaid things in an accurate, attractive, reliable and convincing manner.  In such publishing ventures, reputations are thus everything: fashioned with difficulty and easily lost too.

So.  Not like all other publishing ventures in its extreme reach and apparent thirst for an absolutist understanding of what the truth should mean – but similar in the sense that all publishing ventures, all ventures which invoke truth-telling, claim to add something new to the mix that is our media and our – allegedly – free press.

I say “allegedly” because although WikiLeaks makes much of the voluntary nature of its financial support and its often volunteer structure, as if this should be an automatic guarantee of objectivity and good faith, far more overtly subjective and biased organisations such as that which sustains the Daily Mail provide a deal more clarity about the people at the top and where the money comes from.  Their legal entity – the fact that, for example, they are often publicly quoted on stock exchanges across the world – mean that such transparency cannot be avoided.

Even if they would prefer that it be quite a different circumstance.

I have reservations about WikiLeaks, even as I am fascinated by its existence.  Even as it aims to cast a shining light on the darker and more powerful areas of the globe, its own financial structure and editorial board is unclear.

To me, at least.

If this were, for example, a journalistic cooperative – where those who worked in the organisation did not require the leadership of what appears to be the wiki equivalent of a corporately charismatic CEO – I would feel far more comfortable about the agenda the organisation was pursuing.  As it is, I am simply unsure.  And that, in a reputational sense, is not a good place to be.  For we have a prime example here of how very vulnerable such pyramidal structures can make any institution.  His enemies are now after Assange’s head – because his head is so exclusively above the parapet.  And his head is so exclusively above the parapet because that is how he wants it.

Be very careful of who you choose to compete against because you may very well end up becoming everything you most dearly wished to resist.

In this post you may have noticed that I have linked to a Dutch version of WikiLeaks, which at the time of writing this piece is still operational.  And I choose the Dutch version for one simple reason.  The thesis behind these thoughts – that is to say, what has really encouraged me to post today – is simply that the open chatter and self-revelation that is blogging, Facebook, Twitter and now WikiLeaks (the whole caboodle we call the modern Internet, in fact) can all be traced back to the tradition that is Dutch Calvinism and those practices, attitudes and behaviours that still take place in the Netherlands of modern times (the bold is mine):

Today, the Netherlands is a democratic unitary state whose unity is symbolised by the Queen, a descendant of William of Orange. However, the mentality of the Dutch has remained largely the same. Even though Dutch society has become quite secular, it is still greatly influenced by Calvinist values: a strong protestant work ethic; moderation in all aspects of life; decision-making by consensus; and a curb on individualism. Ostentation and boastfulness are frowned upon, orderliness and cleanliness are highly valued, and showing off one’s wealth is still considered inappropriate. Decisions are not taken without giving all those involved a chance to voice their opinion. In many houses, the curtains are left open after dark, signifying there is nothing to hide. The Dutch regard secretiveness with suspicion.

WikiLeaks, then, in this sense, is simply just another publishing venture.  The legacy exists for us to trace its instincts to perfectly cogent, valid and honourable belief systems that other organisations share and propound.  What’s more, like many publishing ventures before it, its mission to cast light on the outside world is not always matched by an internal cogency of equal clarity.

There is, in fact, something quasi-religious about WikiLeaks that both frightens and inspires awe.

Perhaps we could even argue that WikiLeaks is a 21st century god for those who do not believe.  Omniscient, inflexible – both absolutist and absolutely fearless.  This is faith for an electronic age indeed – a comprehensive belief system for the growing number of Richard Dawkins amongst us.

Meet your maker, Internet generation.  We are Calvinists, all of us, in our sense of duty and incessant communication.


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Jun 082010
 
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I’ve just received two emails from quite different sources asking me to publicise new online publishing efforts.  So, in the interests of plurality, and with nothing but an altruistic desire on my part to multiply the number of virtual conversations, here are the links in question.

Firstly, The Glottal Stop, which amongst other things aims to focus our attention in a fortnightly fashion on a particular subject of debate.  At the moment, the question in hand is proportional representation.

Meanwhile, a gentleman called Keith Gilmour has brought my attention to what I presume is a new site of his called “The Fix Broken Britain Campaign”.  There are some things I could happily agree with on this site – quite a few others I would find rather more firmly resistible.

More here, anyhow.

Always happy to oblige.


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