Best of the web: China’s richest woman, the Sunday Times on Buzzfeed and Paxman vs. Brand

‘Best of the web’ is my weekly attempt to squeeze something useful out of my (nerdy) procrastination. See last week’s here!

Zhang Xin: the billionaire queen of China’s new skyline (£)

Leo Lewis, The Times

I don’t have any particular interest in China beyond a general interest in its rise. This piece is about one of its new billionaires, a woman who worked her way from a Hong Kong sweatshop to Goldman Sachs on Wall Street and then back again to build a huge construction and property empire. Like all great journalism it is compelling and fascinating, telling the story of China’s growing wealth through an individual whose own story mirrors her country’s.

Masters of the viral web (£)

Josh Glancy, The Sunday Times

This piece in last week’s Sunday Times is about Buzzfeed: where it came from, why it’s taken off and where it’s going next (into more serious journalism – which should worry the ST and others). It’s not entirely laudatory. I was interested by the suggestion that BuzzFeed’s business model relies to a large extent on the blurring of advertisement and editorial content, generally seen as a bad thing.

Jeremy Paxman confronts Russel Brand

Newsnight

The video is frustrating to watch because every time you think Brand is onto something interesting – the idea of active non-participation as a political statement, say – he loses it and starts talking gibberish. To adapt Peter Hitchens’ unkind description of another popular celebrity, Russel Brand is trying to act out a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person sounds like – it involves using words like ‘paradigm’ a lot.

Review: Out of Print

I reviewed George Brock’s new book about the future of journalism for Cherwell.

Last week I watched Blade Runner, the cult 80s sci-fi film that imagines a somewhat dystopian Los Angeles in 2019.

In keeping with films of its genre and generation it has an endearingly oh-so 20th century conception of what the 21stcentury might look like: cities in the sky, flying cars, humanoid robots – you name it.

But amidst all that futuristic splendour there are newspapers, actual ink-on-paper newspapers. Hollywood futurology circa-1981 managed to dream up every outlandish creation going, but it simply didn’t occur that news might one day arrive on something other than dead trees.

What’s unfortunate, according to George Brock, who heads City University’s journalism department, is that it didn’t occur to journalists either.

“The Internet will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks a lesser media”. So Brock teasingly quotes Simon Jenkins in 1997.

Jenkins, who used to edit The Times, now writes for the Guardian, a paper which has responded to plummeting print circulation by the unprecedented move of pursuing a ‘digital first’ strategy. Its problems are shared throughout the industry, forcing them to make editorial cut backs while searching for a business model that diversifies away from print revenue.

Brock neatly captures the malaise in a way that is comprehensible to the lay reader, though the narrative can be dry.

The book is at its best when it challenges the basic orthodoxy that the internet is killing journalism. The business model underpinning print media was coming apart well before new online entrants and social media emerged, Brock shows.

And in fact by opening up a treasure trove of data, information and source material, there has never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. On the consumer side new technology may actually rescue newspapers, rather than killing them off.

That said, the age of industrial-sized media outlets is an aberration in journalism’s history, reaching a climax in the inter-war period. What need is there today for a newspaper covering everything from opera to Big Brother when a customised twitter newsfeed allows consumers to pick only the content they are interested in, from multiple sources.

Brock predicts a return to an anarchic, more pluralistic market characteristic of the 19th century world of pamphleteers and activists. Politico, Gawker and Guido Fawkes are successful examples of outlets that have, at times, bettered old media, but Brock warns that even insurgent online start-ups like BuzzFeed, which as I write lists ’22 Hilarious and Disturbing Missing Cat Posters’ on its homepage, “will gradually become tougher competition for established players”.

Out of Print is a good primer in what journalism is (he refreshingly doesn’t subscribe to the obtuse notion that tweeting is journalism) where it has come from and where it might go. Brock’s story isn’t dazzling – I wanted more anecdotes – but it’s overwhelmingly shrewd.

Best of the web: why elites fail, the dubious authenticity of viral news and how nationalism is going mainstream

Welcome to my incredibly exciting new blog series: best of the web. Here I hyperlink to the three best things I’ve read online this week, and tell you a little about what I think about them.

In short, I’m trying to squeeze something useful out of my (nerdy) procrastination.

The soul of a new machine: Gawker struggles with the slippery slope between viral and true

Matthew Ingram, paidContent.org

You’re an editor on an online news outfit and a compellingly emotive video, or letter, falls onto your lap. But you don’t know if it’s true and lack the full details. Do you click ‘publish’? “To drive traffic or tell the truth?” as Ingram puts it. Web traffic is gold dust but viral content doesn’t allow for nuance or truth. Do Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like have a journalistic responsibility to wait and double-check or should we respect the fact that their business model doesn’t allow for the sort of verification process that ‘old media’ adheres to.

The Year of Living Carlos Dangerously: Trailing Anthony Weiner’s New York Mayoral Campaign

Marshall Sella, GQ

Nate Silver, the famed US pollster, has called political punditry “completely useless”. But I love this sort of political journalism, the sort that gets under the skin of a candidate and even cultivates a little empathy for him or her. It’s all the more interesting when that candidate is as colourful and confused a character as Anthony Weiner, the serial sexter who tried and failed to resurrect his political career this year by pursuing the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York City.

Dédiabolisation: Marine Le Pen tries to drag the National Front into the political mainstream

The Economist

Nationalist movements are interesting. The word ‘nationalist’ typically invokes vivid images of stomping storm troopers or a smirking Nick Griffin. But nationalism doesn’t have to be racist: UKIP, which is properly described as a party of the English, has its oddballs but it is closer to the mainstream than critics like to admit. Nationalism doesn’t even have to be right-wing: it can be liberal and progressive – take the politically successful SNP for instance. I liked this piece therefore about how Le Pen is attempting to rebrand and redefine French nationalism.

Most people think the Daily Mail should apologise. But which people?

The Sunday Times commissioned a YouGov poll for this long-form feature about the fallout from the Mail/Miliband spat, prompted by a fairly unsubstantiated headline in this Mail piece 9 days ago. The Guardian picked it up today for non-Times subscribers). The YouGov polling is given in full on their website.

The polling shows, to quote the ST editorial:

[that] 72% of the public think the newspaper’s description of Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain” was unacceptable and 69% believe the Mail should apologise. A majority of Mail readers, 57%, think it should apologise for its headline.

I have only one observation on this, which is that it is the 57% figure – not the 69% one – that matters.

The Mail has miscalculated here in regard to its reputation with readers (I was about to write ‘to its commercial interests’, but I can’t believe Mail readers will stop buying as a result). The Mail has found itself not only on the wrong side of public opinion, a position it can and has weathered, but on the wrong side of its readers, a mistake that an editor can surely only make once.

However the Mail/Mili dispute (I really don’t want to christen it with the suffix ‘gate’) is probably a rare example of a newspaper judging its readership incorrectly. British newspapers are general-interest but they do not cater to a general audience. Most are fiercely partisan and have a fairly homogeneous readership that they know well. They largely don’t care what non-readers think provided that readers are happy.

This point is key, I think, to understanding the unyielding attitude that newspapers have against public opinion. Take the well-organised and marketed ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, which I blogged about over the summer. It commands public sympathy but has totally failed to get through to the only constituency that matters – Sun readers.

David Dinsmore, the Sun editor, understands that. He told the BBC:

”We did a survey last year and found that two thirds of our readers wanted to keep Page 3. What you find is people who are against Page 3 have never read the Sun and would never read the Sun.”

Few, if any, ‘No More Page 3’ campaigners and supporters buy the Sun. Nor is it likely that they will start if the feature is scrapped. The Sun’s market isn’t The Guardian’s (young, feminist, left-wing and university-educated).

Criticism of a newspaper in short, is futile unless it originates or appeals to those who read and buy it.

Oborne vs. Aaronovitch: how close should a journalist be to power?

A small spat in The Spectator has caught my attention.

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, had a typically rumbustious piece in last week’s Spectator.

Oborne approvingly quotes Arthur Krock: ‘The price of friendship with a politician is too great for any newspaperman to pay’.

Daniel Finkelstein, the Times’ executive editor and chief leader writer, recently ennobled by a government to which he is an unofficial adviser and ambassador, has paid that price, argues Oborne. He represents “a powerful manifestation of the post-modern collapse of boundaries between politics and journalism.”

David Aaronovitch defends his Times colleague in a letter in this week’s magazine. Journalism, to recycle the old cliche, does not simply consists in ‘speaking truth to power’, but also being close to it. A casual glance at former Spectator editors – Nigel Lawson, Iain MacLeod and Boris Johnson – is surely testament to that. Another former editor, Matthew d’Ancona, has a book just out, ‘In it Together’*, the value of which lies almost solely in making his voluminous Westminster connections talk.

Knowing and understanding the actors in politics can, one supposes, blur the impartiality of a political journalist. It is surely difficult to criticise or expose someone who only last week fed you a story, and is likely to again. A contacts list is sure to evaporate fairly quickly if you develop a reputation as something of a bulldog.

The (unfavourable) Spectator review of d’Ancona’s book by one Peter Oborne puts the dilemma thus:

There are two ways of being a political journalist. One is to stay on the outside and try to avoid being compromised by too much contact with politicians. This approach comes at what many regard as an impossible cost. After all, the job of a journalist is to get stories and gain insight. Story-getting can only come through access, but this too creates a problem. The politicians who supply information, atmosphere, gossip and revelation tend to demand loyalty — and protection — in return.

Perhaps this is why it’s rare to read a James Forsyth column in the Spectator, or a Rafael Behr one in the New Stateman, that is openly, unambiguously critical of an individual. Forsyth, I’ve noticed (I only read the NS infrequently), prefers to write about opposing factions rather than the individual characters involved.

Is that a bad thing? Are the fairly select group of political editors too close to power?

I know little of that world so it seems right to leave it as something of an open question. My thought, however, is that it doesn’t compromise a journalist’s integrity to recognise that journalism is a transactional activity.

Finkelstein, directly through his leader and personal columns, indirectly though his close relationship with the editorial team, probably softens the Times’ coverage of the Coalition, specifically of Osborne with whom he is supposedly particularly close.

But in return, we can conjecture, the Times gets a heads up on government policy; its understanding of the inner working of government is enhanced; it can predict, in short, what might happen next and why. If that is the case, then provided Finkelstein’s interests are not disguised, which clearly they are not, then it doesn’t look like the public interest is losing out from the transaction as Oborne alleges.