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Engagement, technology, and strawberry ice cream: Paul Bradshaw’s inaugural lecture

Is ice cream strawberry?

That’s a thinker, as they say. Translated, the enigmatic title of Paul Bradshaw’s inaugural lecture as professor of online journalism at London’s City University begins to make more sense:

Asking ‘is ice cream strawberry’ is like asking ‘is blogging journalism’?

And asking ‘is blogging journalism’, he said, is just like asking: Is writing journalism? Is printing journalism? Is broadcasting journalism?

History is littered with those who have confronted new ways of doing things with apprehension and mistrust. I’m sure there was more than a little consternation when News International staff arrived at Wapping to find computer terminals everywhere. Likewise the telephone, telegraph, and so on. Bradshaw was keen to get across last night that it isn’t the tools and technologies that really matter, they are all just different flavours of the same thing.

But new tools and technologies aren’t merely incidental, they don’t just come and go without having an impact on the way we do things. They have a pretty profound impact on the way some things are done and that can’t be ignored. For example: technology has brought about the much-discussed opening up of journalism into a kind of two-way street.

Some young, “digital native” journalists swagger down this two-way street, happy to meet and greet people as they go, making conversation, listening to others, and so on. And there are undoubtedly old Fleet Street hacks who have taken to it like a duck to water. But there are undoubtedly those, young and old, who are afraid to stray into that part of town.

Two examples:

Example 1

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones published a piece recently on that cropped photo of the 7/7 bombers.

It received some pretty critical responses in the comments boxes below.

And in the spirit (perhaps formative, misguided in this case) of the new, web 2.0 world, Jones engaged with his readers:

Example 2 (from Bradshaw’s lecture)

In my first class here at City a student asked why they should waste time engaging with people online. I rather testily replied ‘Why publish your work at all? Why bother dealing with editors and subs and your colleagues? Why bother talking to sources and experts? Why not keep your precious piece of journalism locked away in your basement where it will never be sullied by the dirty gaze of other people? If you don’t want to engage with people, write fiction. (My emphasis).

Picking up on Jones’ comments, Fleet Street Blues advised: “The best advice? Don’t read the comments, ever.” But Bradshaw’s retort to his student, neatly summed up by that soundbite of a last sentence, points to the fallacy in the Fleet Street Blues’ stance. Pushing out content and walking away isn’t going to be an option for much longer, and throwing a very public tantrum isn’t a forward-thinking alternative.

There is a pragmatic and structural dimension to this whole argument, many journalists would pretty quickly tell you it is a fanciful idea that they have time to engage with readers, tweeters and commenters and large organisations may prefer to have their audience engagement dealt with by people who are trained, and aren’t going to suddenly demand a fucking apology and some respect.

Some news organisations are nearer the head of the curve, taking on dedicated community managers to engage with readers and guide reporters in doing the same, or taking steps to address how they manage communities of anonymous commenters. Some undoubtedly have a way to go.

Despite the attitude of that particular student of Bradshaw’s, perhaps there is a new generation of journalists coming through now, familiar with the technology and attitudes, for whom this stuff will be second nature.

Bradshaw advised his audience last night: “Don’t perpetuate the myth that technology causes things to happen. People do.”

I’m sure that technologies – which have a habit of turning out to be great at things they weren’t intended to do and influencing thinking and attitudes with their own unexpected capacities – have a more active role in “causing things to happen” than Bradshaw makes out. But however you see the balance, development will continue in the direction of opening platforms up and increasing communication between journalists and readers in all sorts of ways.

So if you’re not up for it, you’d better hope you have a novel in you.

Image of strawberry ice cream by joyosity. Some rights reserved

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