All praise FleetStreetBlues and #savethefieldproducer

Sky's decision to clampdown on how its employees used Twitter provoked a strong, if rather predictable response on Twitter yesterday.

Within seconds a hashtag had been launched to #savefieldproducer, in reference to Sky's popular Digital News Editor, Neal Mann (nearly 40,000 followers).

If anyone missed Sky's announcement it is as follows. Employees must not:

- repost information from any Twitter users not employed by Sky
- retweet rival journalists or 'people on Twitter'
- tweet about non-work subjects, or even stray from their own beat
- break news from their own beat on Twitter before passing it to the newsdesk

Thousands of tweets followed on the #savefieldproducer hashtag - @elanazak has helpfully Storified the pick of them.

I even waded in myself:
An incredibly short-sighted decision by Sky. One that seems to have been brought in without thought #savefieldproducer
Then I read a blog post by FleetStreetBlues. It argues, like myself, against Sky's new policy as nonsensical, saying:
At a stroke dozens of active, interesting Twitter accounts are going to become pretty much useless - if all you're going to get is the latest news as reported on Sky News anyway, why not just follow the Sky News Newsdesk account and have done with it
But the post went on to consider the other side, to point out the logic in Sky's decision.
It makes no sense for Sky News to pay journalists to break stories through another medium. It makes no sense for them to pay journalists to amass personal social media followings by promoting rival news outlets.
And they're good points.

Look at the Storified #savefieldproducer hashtag. One Tweet from @PunksatonyPics, in support of Neal Mann, went as follows:
Never noticed @fieldproducer worked with Sky. I know now because Sky is being particularly daft. Leave the man alone. #savefieldproducer
That kind of Tweet will be held aloft in the Sky boardroom as showing they have done the right thing. If Mann's followers don't realise who his employer is, what benefit will it bring Sky - one of the most commercial journalistic outlets in the world.

Consider also, for example the furore when Laura Keunssberg moved from BBC to ITV. In the stroke of key, she went from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK and the audience she had built up utilising the corporation brand unwittingly switched allegiance.

On a personal level I have little problem with this. It is an inevitable consequence of Twitter and to make the most of the medium journalists need to freedom to interact in a more personal than corporate manner.

What I am celebrating is FleetStreetBlues and the desire to look at the other angles. There is too much blind following and assumption on online journalism at the moment and not nearly enough interrogation of the issues.

Twitter was alight with people attacking Sky and this post stood out as a well considered and open-minded beacon. Remember, Twitter isn't always right you know.

So less celebratory slaps on the back for everyone and more consideration to other ways forward please. I might not like the Times behind the paywall or agree with the new Twitter rules but I am glad some people are prepared to break away from the flock.

UPDATE: Just as I hit publish, I saw this blog by Tom Phillips which also takes a view of the Sky rules and suggests how they might 'de-stupid it'. Well worth a read.

Grow up and start charging for online content

For the first time in my life I nearly let out a loud, and very public, "Hallelujah, and Amen brother" in full evangelical style.

Where was I? A church in the deep south of America, in front of a gospel choir watching a preacher perform miracles upon a small disabled child? No. I was in a session at the news:rewired conference in London.

What brought about my conversion to gospel-style outbursts? It was listening to Francois Nel tell assembled delegates that anyone who thought that online content should be free needed to "Grow Up".

Ok, so it's not quite the Road to Damascus that you might have expected, but it was for me. I remember suggesting the same at the first news:rewired two years ago and I feared for my life as I was chased from the building by digital journalists carrying flaming torches and pitchforks.

A bit of an exaggeration perhaps but nonetheless, there has long been the assumption that any attempt to charge for online journalism is heinous in the extreme and bad for democracy.

Take the term 'paywall'. It is a loaded term implying secrecy and subterfuge and not a term ever used, for example, to describe the cover price for a newspaper or a subscription to a magazine.

It wasn't helped when the first person to try to charge for general news content in the UK - as opposed to a more niche publication like the Financial Times) was part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. And anyone who is anyone knows that he is the Magneto to liberal journalism's Professor X.

But journalism is an expensive business and it cannot be done with journalists - and lots of them. That's not simply a plea for employment for my students but a plea for the industry as a whole.

Think about the working hours Nick Davies has had to put in to uncover the hacking scandal currently rocking the industry. Think about the massive amount of data crunching the Daily Telegraph's investigative team had to do on the MP's expenses. Think about the undercover work carried out by the News of the World to expose the corruption within the Pakistani cricket team.

It's not cheap and it's not possible if you have cut back your staffing levels to the point where each reporter finds themselves churning out story after story simply to fill the paper. Read Richard Peppiatt's account of working for a Richard Desmond publication if you want first-hand evidence.

The Guardian has been at the forefront of the 'campaign' to keep online content free. I use inverted commas because there is no formal campaign and Alan Rusbridger claims that he is not doing so for societal reasons but because he hasn't yet found a business model to suit.

But since January 2001, the Guardian's circulation has reduced from 400,000 to 230,000, pagination has been substantially reduced and the print 'paywall' has increased to £1.20 a day.

That is all against a backdrop of failing to find a way to monetise online content through advertising or other activities. Last year the group announced losses on £33m and two years ago, GMG had to sell it's regional newspapers to Trinity Mirror to offset such losses.

More power to Trinity Mirror and, in my opinion, bad for plurality in general as the group takes an even firmer grip on all the big publications in the North West.

Finding a successful model for getting readers to pay for online content is not easy - you're pretty much guaranteed to slash your audience by 80 to 90 per cent overnight - but only if the industry 'grows up' works together can it work in the long term.

The Scott Trust, the organisation funding the Guardian Media Group, is a crown jewel among British journalism. It ensures that at least one national daily newspaper is not beholden to shareholders and commercialism in general.

This is how the Scott Trust describes its core purpose:

1) To secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to its liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

2) All other activities should be consistent with the central objective. The Company which the Trust owns should: be managed to ensure profits are available to further the central objective; not invest in activities which conflict with the values and principles of the Trust.

3) The values and principles of the Trust should be upheld throughout the Group. The Trust declares a subsidiary interest in promoting the causes of freedom in the press and liberal journalism, both in Britain and elsewhere.
How possible will that purpose be if the current management fails to find a suitable model for making online pay? Especially as the Guardian is keen to explore all of the new forms of journalism available and, for example, live blog the first appearance of the new presenter of Countdown.

I must admit when I saw that blog I did wonder how it adhered to the second objective - but that's probably a thought for another day.

It may be that they will never find a way of making 'online' pay but that the media audience will naturally migrate to tablets such as the iPad, where most organisations are already erecting 'paywalls' - although they don't seem keen to use the term paywall in this context.

Anyway. It was just joyous for me to hear someone else say out loud what many in the industry have known for a long time.

Francois was not quite as vulgar as I perhaps am and highlighted that it didn't have to come back to cold hard cash. He used the term 'Reciprocity' to underline that he meant that we must ask for something back. He highlighted the Daily Mail as a successful business model as print readership was declining more gradually than other publications and online readership was rocketing.

If I thought it brave to demand paying for online content at a conference like news:rewired, then the chutzpah required to praise the Daily Mail is off the chart.

However, I dislike the Daily Mail's methods here. They separate online and print and seem prepared to shovel any old content online - hence hideous mistakes such as the recent use of a video of an alleged rape. I understand from insiders that such a policy is causing problems as specialist reporters are coming in to find furious messages from contacts who have seen a story posted online, which lacks the kind of contextual information that a more considered form of journalism might bring.

No, for me its about the cold hard cash. I don't want a profit and I don't expect to become rich but I do want my journalism to be well supported financially.

It is great to be part of the digital evolution of journalism, but if we fail to fully interrogate all the issues now, we could fail the industry in the long term.

Newsgaming: Tabloidisation gone digital?

One of the more lamentable aspects of my life as a parent is that I no longer have lots of time to play games. There's a whole PS3, X-Box culture out there that is passing me by completely.

I love getting lost in gaming and escorted Lara Croft around the world to kick a little ass, humiliated Tiger Woods (on the course that is - he's more than capable of humiliating himself off it) and killed more worms than a, octogenarian fisherman.

So it was with great interest that I attended a session on Gaming Mechanics in News at the news:rewired conference. I had already heard a presentation from Philip Trippenbach on the subject of gaming/journalism convergence 18 months ago and was looking forward to seeing how things had moved on.

Key to the session was the presentation by Bobby Schweizer from the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play.

Bobby reiterated a similar point to Philip's from 2010 - that games simulate dynamics so are therefore a highly valuable teaching tool, and one that could and should be integrated into digital journalism.

He highlighted a couple of games specifically. In September 12, gamers are invited to bomb terrorists responsible for the 9/11 atrocity. In doing so, of course, civilians are also killed.

The second game to catch my eye was Budget Hero in which gamers are required to balance and control where the US taxpayers dollars will go.

There is no doubt that both games have a worth in modern society. Being able to personally experience the delicate balancing act of organising the budget for one of the world's superpowers is great experience, just as the lesson learned from blowing up innocent people in pursuit of semi-mythological bogeymen half-way round the world is one that all potential US Presidents should take during the primaries.

But, towards the end of the presentation, a colleague in a magnificent tartan suit said: "I agree this is all very exciting and worthwhile. But why is if good journalism?"

And there's the rub. Tools like these have existed for a long time - The Sims is hardly a new concept for example, but why is it such good journalism?

In these convergent times we can present a story in a multitude of ways for a reader/user to get to grips with it. Well-presented data journalism, video journalism, podcasts, blogs etc etc sit side-by-side and invited the reader to choose how to find out about a story.

My worry is that the oversimplification of an issue through the use of gaming in the way outlined above is an inexorable lurch towards tabloidisation. We have seen an increase in tabloidisation in the past 50 years, be it on television, radio or in print and it strikes me that the promotion of newsgaming could be online's major contribution.

If we look at some of the key aspects of tabloidisation, we can see how my fears may be realised:
  1. Privileging the visual over analysis - I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
  2. Using cultural knowledge over analysis - the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC's One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
  3. Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events - as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?
Of course, newsgamers are not intending this to happen. The intention will be that the game is 'consumed' alongside the more 'traditional' aspects of journalism but will that be the case? I think not, I think that many people will begin to rely on the games but will participate with less thought to the real issue at hand and more to gaining the highest score.

I need to cut £5bn to make my budget fit? Screw my left wing principles, I am chucking the NHS straight in the private sector and hang the consequences. That's pretty much what Blair was planning anyway.

I'll give you a nice tabloidised anecdote to 'prove' my point once and for all. Look at any footpath that goes round the corner of an open space. There will always be a muddy trail through the grass because human nature will cut corners - it doesn't matter how green your ethics or how polished your shoes, the temptation to rip up the grass and splash through the mud is always there.

Other speakers in the session also highlighted the positive use of such interactive technologies such as The Times's Al Trevino demonstration of an app which will allow users to experience all the Olympic sports. As a feature-driven, experiential piece of journalism I can see that this will have value.

Alastair Dant, interactive lead at the Guardian, highlighted another quiz-type game the Guardian used last year in which they highlighted quotes and invited the reader to guess whether they were from Colonel Gadaffi or Charlie Sheen. It's good fun - try it. I love Mock the Week and the News Quiz when they try this sort of thing.

However, it is also a classic way in which we distance ourselves from genuine atrocities (I'm talking about Libya, not Hot Shots Part Deux - see, now I'm doing it.)

Gary Glitter starts a Twitter feed (or doesn't) we all become Frankie Boyle for the afternoon, North Korean leader dies and there is a huge rush to Tweet lines from Team America. Do we need media outlets to start cashing in on it too?

I would say no. Just because we can, it doesn't mean that we should.

I'll leave you with a quote from Jeremy Paxman:
Good journalism is bad business and too often bad journalism is good business … for journalists to function properly, they have to be given freedom and resources. And those will come only from organisations which believe that their first duty is disclosure, not entertainment.

Joey Barton, The Mirror and big glass houses

Today The Mirror online has run a nice helpful story about Joey Barton and the comments he made about the John Terry case.

Twitter was alight with speculation about the comments soon after they were posted on Barton's @joey7barton account. Barton-bashing is a favourite pastime these days, although to be fair, he does walk around with kick me sign pinned to his back.

The new theory goes that Barton has breached contempt laws by making statements which indicate guilt on Terry's part. In theory, that does breach the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

In theory. In practice we are unlikely to see a prosecution from the Attorney General because the charge against Terry is a summary offence and will not be tried before a jury. Therefore proving that Barton's ill-advised comments have influenced the court will be difficult in the extreme.

I'm sure the Mirror reporter knew this. Odd it wasn't mentioned in the story.

Still, it puts me in mind of a blogpost I wrote last month. You see, several national papers had 'decided' to allow comments on online reporting of the Terry case, similarly breaching the CoCA.

You could argue their breach was much worse than Barton's as all journalists are trained in media law so should at least have known there was a breach.

Now let's see, which news outlet was the worst? Oh yeah, that's right, the Mirror.

The Daily Mail is now speculating that Barton may well be the first person prosecuted for contempt for comments made on Twitter. Interesting opinion - completely wrong of course - but interesting nonetheless. In recent checks however, I do have to point out that the Daily Mail does at least have a decent record in showing it has a good understanding of the contempt law.

Perhaps the law does need changing for contempt now that social media has enabled everyman to broadcast opinions and that not everyone has a solid understanding of contempt. That is particularly true as most police procedural dramas in this country are American and therefore display a completely different law.

What is true however is that the mainstream media does know our contempt laws and with breaches we have seen in recent weeks, including the allegation that Guardian reporter Jamie Jackson named a juror, perhaps they should stop casting stones from their big glass houses.