Despite previously predicting that half of the UK’s regional papers will close in the next five years, media industry analyst Claire Enders claims she’s an advocate and not a sceptic in this interview with Peter Kirwan.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV. Previous posts looked at the Caricom Summit held July 2-5 in Georgetown. Trinidad and Barbados were the final stops.
After experiencing Guyanese ‘journalism’ during the Caricom summit, any order is better. In Trinidad, there is much economic prosperity due to oil and natural gas: ‘What recession?’ they ask here. The economy is healthy but the society has some of the fissures of Guyana.
Indians were brought here in thousands as indentured labourers to replace the freed black slaves one hundred and seventy years ago. They live in the south of the island, the African Trinidadians in the North. They have much of the wealth, the prime minister and his ruling PNM party are black and have the political power.
There is much violent crime – especially kidnappings and murders – and that is the staple fare of the super tabloids who make up the Trinidad & Tobago newspaper market. The Guardian, the Express and Newsday are much the same. Screaming headlines on the cover but much content inside. They are big in pagination and include lots of classified ads.
Politics gets a big shout and through that the racial dimension. The leader of the opposition (at the moment) Basdeo Panday is Indo-Trinidadian. He was prime minister until 2001 but was driven from office for alleged corruption. Today his UNC is breaking into bits.
His former attorney general Ramesh Marhaj is leading a ginger group/internal opposition within the party together with another MP – Jack Warner, who runs football in this part of the world, is vice-chair of FIFA and has been the subject of critical investigations on British TV about his dodgy behaviour in that job.
Warner’s son sold the travel packages and tickets for Trinidadians to the to the 2006 World Cup. Panday wants Warner to account for $30m (T&T) of election expenses. Warner says it was money he gave the party so no need to account. This makes the British MPs look tame.
Columnists abound on the pages of the T&T press. Different races. All have views. Many far too prolix for the page. Sub-editing is not a craft that seems to have been found in the Southern Caribbean. But the three dailies and the local TV news programmes – sadly also divided on racial lines – make for lively reading and listening. Crime sells. They certainly put the fear of God into the bank manager cousin with whom I was staying.
Keeping awake in Barbados
Not so Barbados. The problem here for a journalist is keeping awake. The best description for the Barbados Nation and Advocate? Stodgy, boring, dull. They make the Bedworth Advertiser look interesting. Boring headlines and even duller stories. It is like reading a parish newsletter for a nation.
The ‘news’ is based on government news conferences and other press conferences by NGOs and the like. On such sexy subjects like polyclinics, insurance and diabetes. Again, writing is prolix and not of great quality.
Barbados is a very polite and ordered society (the murder rate is a fraction of Trinidad’s) and that shows in its press. The hacks need to get themselves some more balls. The TV news is not much better.
There we have it. Prosperity, tabloid culture, Little England and the news values of British suburbia. Funny how they all travel. But Blighty calls.
For those who don’t know what you do, fill us in your background and the new gig…
[MB] I was at the Hack Day that the Guardian’s technology department ran back in November 2008, and the talent and enthusiasm that day really shone. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of working as a consultant over the last three years, much of the time based either in Crete or in Austria, but the opportunity of coming to work more permanently for an organisation as forward-thinking as the Guardian is being with initiatives like the Open Platform was too much to resist.
So, an ‘information architect’ what does that mean and what are you doing?
Information Architecture has been defined as ‘the emerging art and science of organising large-scale websites’.
All websites have an inherent information structure – the navigation, the contextual links on a page, whether there are tags describing content and so forth. It is about how people navigate and way-find their way through the information presented on a site.
What I’ll be doing at the Guardian is influencing that structure and functionality as new digital products are developed. It involves working closely with design and editorial teams to produce ‘wireframes’, the blueprints of web design, and also involves being an advocate for the end user – carrying out lots of usability and prototype testing as ideas are developed.
Is it a full-time role?
I’m working four days a week at The Guardian, as I still have some other commitments – for example as contributing editor for FUMSI magazine – although already it feels a bit like cramming a full-time job into just 80 per cent of the time!
It’s not happy times for mainstream media brands: where are they going wrong?
I don’t think it is only mainstream media brands that are suffering from the disruption caused by digital transition, but we do see a lot of focus on this issue for print businesses at the moment. I think one of the things that strikes me, having worked at several big media companies now, including the BBC and Sony, is that you would never set these organisations up in this way in the digital era if you were doing it from scratch.
One of the things that appealed most about joining the Guardian was that the move to Kings Place has brought together the print, online and technical operations in a way that wasn’t physically possible before in the old offices. I’m still very optimistic that there are real opportunities out there for the big media brands that can get their business structures right for the 21st century.
What kind of things do you think could re-enthuse UK readers for their newspapers?
I think our core and loyal readers are still enthusiastic about their papers, but that as an industry we have to face the fact that there is an over-supply of news in the UK, and a lot of it – whether it is on the radio, TV, web or thrust into your hand as a freebie – is effectively free at the point of delivery. I think the future will see media companies who concentrate on playing to their strengths benefit from better serving a narrower target audience.
Do you see print becoming the by rather than primary product for the Guardian – or has that already happened?
I think there might very well be a ‘sweet spot’ in the future where the display quality on network-enabled mobile devices and the ubiquity of data through-the-air means that the newspaper can be delivered primarily in that way, but I don’t see the Guardian’s presses stopping anytime soon. Paper is still a very portable format, and it never loses connection or runs out of batteries.
Your background is in computer programming rather than journalism, will the two increasingly overlap?
I grew up in the generation that had BBC Micros and ZX Spectrums at home, so I used to program a lot as a child, but my degree was actually in History, which in itself is a very journalistic calling. I specialised in the Crusades and the Byzantine Empire, which is all about piecing together evidence from a range of sources of varying degrees of reliability, and synthesizing a coherent narrative and story from there. And, of course, I’ve spent most of this decade blogging, which utilises ‘some’ of the journalist’s skill-set ‘some’ of the time.
Whilst I’d never suggest that journalists need to learn computer programming much beyond a smattering of HTML, I think there is something to be gained from understanding the software engineering mindset. There are a lot of tools and techniques that can really help journalists plough through data to get at the heart of a story, or to use visualisation tools to help tell that story to their audience.
One of the most interesting things about working at the Guardian is the opportunity to work alongside people like Kevin Anderson, Charles Arthur and Simon Willison, who I think really represent that blending of the technical and journalistic cultures.
You’ve spoken out about press regulation before; why do you feel strongly about it?
In a converged media landscape, it seems odd that Robert Peston’s blog is regulated by the BBC Trust, Jon Snow’s blog is regulated by Ofcom, and Roy Greenslade’s blog is regulated by the PCC.
At the moment, I believe that the system works very well for editors, and very well for the ‘great and the good’ who can afford lawyers, but does absolutely nothing for newspaper consumers. If I see something that offends me on TV, I can complain to Ofcom. If I see an advert that offends me in the street, I can complain to ASA. If I see an article in a newspaper that I think is wrong, inaccurate, in bad taste or offensive, unless I am directly involved in the story myself, the PCC dismisses my complaint out of hand without investigating it.
I don’t think that position is sustainable.
The last thing I want to see is some kind of state-sponsored Ofpress quango, which is why I think it is so important that our industry gets self-regulation right – and why I believe that a review of how the PCC works in the digital era is long overdue.
Online Journalism Scandinavia this week looks at innovate use of Google mash-ups and online databases by the Norwegian press.
“Computer programming is also journalism,” Espen Andersen, the man charged with bringing the current affairs flagship of Norway’s public broadcaster (NRK) kicking and screaming into the internet age, told Journalism.co.uk.
He should know. Andersen is one of Scandinavia leading practitioners in mashing-up news and creating new and compelling methods for ‘doing journalism’.
Aside from being an able producer of interactive maps, he’s also an advocate for making programming an essential and commonplace skill in the newsroom.
Andersen started running online databases and mash-ups for a local newspaper in Norway creating – amongst others – interactive stories about snails reeking havoc across the regions gardens.
The principles may be the same but the subject matter has changed somewhat now he’s at NRK, where his most recent creation was a database mapping Norwegian politicians; how they vote, which boards they sit on and with whom.
“The idea is to make information about these networks more easily available,” Espen Andersen told Journalism.co.uk.
He has been brought in to help Brennpunkt, the Norwegian equivalent of Panorama, use online tools more effectively in both gathering and presenting information.
His Politikerdatabasen creation currently contains information on all members of parliament in Norway and will expand to include information on the country’s 11,000 local politicians in May.
“This project is just as much a journalistic project as making a TV-programme or a documentary. It’s all about presenting information that is valuable to the audience,” said Andersen.
The aim of the project, he added, is to turn the database into a broader ‘power database’ by mapping political and corporate networks across Norway.
This mapping project followed the creation for another recent Brennpunkt documentary of a network map of the country’s oil industry.
“I think it is absolutely key to bring programmers into the newsrooms so they can get involved in journalistic projects at an early stage.
“Programmers can create solutions to process large quantities of information, e.g. from public sources, and present it in an engaging and orderly manner,” Andersen said.
Before joining Brennpunkt, Andersen created several high-profile online databases and mash-ups for local newspaper Budstikka.
“I learned quite a bit about what kind of stories engage people when I worked at Budstikka: it is often issues that are very close to them. For instance, we made an online map where people could fill in their parking fines,” he said.
“Using databases we were able to summarise the fines to find which parking lots people were most annoyed with. It was a great success.”
Other projects that were big hits with the local community was an interactive map detailing which parts of the region were most troubled by snails killing off plants – a huge problem for passionate garden owners in the area (see main image), and an event map on Google maps.
The latter showed all events taking place in the area the newspaper served, and even garnered international attention.
“It’s typical of working for a local newspaper that you think you are working on a really big story on political budgets and trends, and you find people do not click on the story at all,” Andersen (above) said.
Information for the databases and maps, he added, are usually taken from publicly available listings, databases and other sources such as the tax lists, Company’s House, polling companies.
“However, it is a problem, especially for local newspapers, that public institutions often charge big fees for this information which has been gathered on behalf of the public, using the taxpayers money,” he said.
These few problems aside, he’s hopeful that in a few years programmers in the newsrooms will be as natural as having picture editors.