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During a recent interview in front of a room full of journalists, Harry Evans was asked, among other things, to explain some of the causes of the problems in journalism. Much of what he said was incisive, funny and extremely quotable, but one of the things that interested me most was Evans’ suggestion that a part of the reason for the declining quality of journalism was a result of the people entering and representing the profession. Too many people with the same university and post-graduate journalism background and not enough “salaried eccentrics” or people from alternative professional backgrounds. The result, according to Evans, is that the majority of journalists nowadays are educated in a way that makes them insufficiently critically-minded. This group, so the argument goes, is too likely to swallow the official line and not question what is being suppressed. He used the Iraq war as an example of the press’s failure to challenge the Government effectively on its motivations to go to war, suggesting it reflected a sparsity of truly questioning journalists.

It’s a point probably few are as qualified as Evans to make and one which reflects as much the rigid qualifications expected of journalists and rampant competition for jobs as it does the actual qualities of those entering journalism.  With often several hundred applicants per job, post-graduate qualifications and reams of work experience are a necessary means for candidates to (attempt) to distinguish themselves from one another. But taken to extremes, this leads to a self-selecting group of people rising to the top: namely those from the most privileged backgrounds. Many who can afford it take work experience placements during their gap years and university holidays, and after finishing university, move directly to post-graduate education, while their less fortunate contemporaries are forced to work to payoff overdrafts and save money. Those who are particularly fortunate train at City University London or Cardiff – year-long courses with large tuition fees. With such an impressive record of education and commitment to journalism, it is inevitable that this largely privileged group has the upper hand applying for jobs, because simply put, they’re the best qualified candidates. There are of course exceptions, and many find ways to save money to fund their entry into journalism, but it requires a lot of determination to pledge so much time, money and education to get a foot on the ladder of an industry many talk so bleakly of.

So what can be done to change things? It would be easy to suggest that media organisations should be encouraged to choose candidates from more diverse backgrounds, and some probably do, but is it the responsibility of ailing papers fighting to be profitable to show some corporate responsibility? Probably not, which is why it comes back to what Evans said about the virtues of heterogeneity itself. In a time where politicians across the three main parties seem like copies of each other, people don’t want the journalists they read  to be an equally homogeneous elite. They want a range of voices from different backgrounds, each with genuinely different things to say. Media organisations shouldn’t attempt to hire a range of people because of corporate responsibility, but rather, because it makes for a more interesting product for their readers.

During a lecture held a few days ago, Alan Rusbridger outlined GNM’s reluctance to embrace a paywall structure, stating that the returns it would provide would not be worth the cost of stifling online growth. The basis of his argument, which underpins the paywall debate, is whether the fees accrued from a paywall structure would make up for the loss of online readers. Rusbridger contends, using examples from those who have embraced paywall structures, that the returns would not be sufficient, while News International are all but ready to embrace the system in the near future.

But the question this raises is how can there be such a division of opinion between two companies who should know better than most the direction online journalism is likely to take?

It seems that one of the reasons the debate remains unclear is because it is one rooted, not only in the present of online journalism, but also in its future. Currently free content is not translating into profit in the way newspaper organisations would like it to, but equally, where paywalls have been used, the results have often been disappointing. For proponents of the paywall, however, the key to its success lies in introducing it in the right way.

Those championing paid-for content believe online readerships represent an untapped revenue resource, but acknowledge that most readers are unlikely to make the leap to fee-payers without being given something in return. So in order to assist that leap, proponents of the paywall envisage ways in which they can improve the online content they currently offer, provide a distinguishing service that differs from their competitors, and ultimately change the way their website is used. But the problem is how do you offer a genuinely improved service without adding significant cost to production?

In contrast, those who believe online content should remain free feel the focus should foremost be about increasing, not just the number of readers, but the number of loyal readers who will return to the website consistently. But, assuming numbers can be increased, then what? As papers know all too well, large numbers of online readers don’t convert as easily into money as it seems they ought to. At the very least though, more numbers equals more money through advertising.

It’s easy to see how the debate is, whilst hugely important, still in its theoretical stages. With an unsatisfactory status quo and an unproven alternative, inertia is the obvious choice.

Discussion about British libel law has been brought back to the fore in the last couple of days with Jack Straw proposing that success fees should be reduced in libel cases from 100 to 10%. The news, which comes with the BBC/Trafigura case still fresh in mind, will be welcomed as a step in the right direction, but arguably still falls short of effecting real change and redressing a balance in the law many journalists feel has become increasingly tilted in favour of the claimant.

Financially, a reduction to success fees will have a negligible impact for those who are sued and lose at trial. There are still the damages losing defendants have to pay, as well as the cost of theirs and their opponent’s legal representation, both of which are often far greater than the damages. And with the law placing the burden of proof on the defendant, it doesn’t change the fact that libel law is a game stacked in the claimant’s favour, and one most news organisations are insufficiently bankrolled to play.

What a cut to success fees is likely to entail, though, is an end to no-win no-fee legal representation for libel cases.

As a Law Society spokeswoman told The Telegraph: “Reducing maximum success fees to 10 per cent would be tantamount to abolishing conditional fees and would thus leave people who have been libelled with no effective access to justice.”

Whether or not the end of no-win no-fee representation would lead to a lack of “justice” is debatable, but what is clear is that the Carter Rucks of this world and their large, rich clients, are unlikely to be slowed down by a reduction to success fees. The cost of their legal fees alone are more than an adequate deterrent against waging defamation war without all but the most water-tight defence.

Rumours barely began circulating about Rod Liddle’s potential appointment as editor of the Independent when a vocal Facebook group was started, denouncing Liddle as not only a polarising and controversial figure, but one to which various sexist, homophobic and racial remarks could be attributed.

With some strong research, the group dug up some of Liddle’s most distasteful remarks and made an effective argument for why he would be an inappropriate editor not only for a left-leaning paper like the indie, but arguably for any paper at all. A week later, Liddle’s chances of becoming editor appear to lie in tatters, with MPs Paul Flynn and Diane Abbott apparently planning to table “a sulphuric early day motion on the Commons order paper denouncing Rod”.

But how much influence can the Facebook group, which precipitated this wave of anti-Liddle media attention, be credited with? A lot it seems.

While most of the damage to Liddle’s reputation came at the hands of the Mail, who scooped the story that Liddle had been posting inflammatory remarks under a pseudonym on Millwall Football Club’s forum, the Facebook group was instrumental in showing that strong public opposition to Liddle being made editor existed. With some 3,000  people joining the group within 3 days, there was no need for journalists to ask whether the opposition was large enough to be newsworthy: the numbers made that clear. If that wasn’t enough, the group’s creator, Alex Higgins collated some of Liddle’s most offensive remarks and urged others within the group to do the same, thereby aiding the work of journalists who otherwise may not have had time to do so themselves. All of this led to a news story that was effectively prepackaged for journalists. Reader interest: check. Sense of context and proof of potentially libelous allegations: check. Quotes that reinforce the story: check.

From there, the Mail dug deeper, and since revealing the extent of Liddle’s incendiary diatribes, the story became big enough to championed by those in positions of power.

While the influence of social media sites in shaping the news agenda may not be new, the Rod Liddle Facebook group offers further proof that mobilised voices can be used to effect change, often by doing some of the leg work for journalists.

In his blog, David Higgerson recently commended the Mail on Sunday for its use of the freedom of information act  to scoop a story about the employment of illegal immigrants in various public sector roles.

In his post, he referred to Roy Greenslade who had been critical of the mail for making an initial FOI request that was so broad and speculative it could reasonably be referred to as ‘FOI fishing’.

Their disagreement about the use of the Freedom of Information Act raised questions about how speculative FOI requests ought to be and whether the sensitive information journalists can gain from them can be misused to manipulate readers.

No one would dispute the FOI is an essential tool for the journalist to obtain the kind of information that otherwise might be spun or suppressed, but facts need to be placed in context for readers to be able to judge them fairly. When the Mail made their recent request, they did so with the aim of gaining further proof of the ‘problem’ of immigration in Britain, and clearly from their perspective they succeeded. But whether this information reflects the scale of disaster the Mail have suggested is debatable.

Placed in context, the information obtained through the Mail’s FOI request reflects a relatively small sample of public sector organisations that failed to identify their prospective employees adequately. In the hands of the Mail however, the information becomes evidence of political incompetence, and of Government’s failure to protect national security and curtail immigration.

In essence, Higgerson is right to defend FOI fishing. For better or for worse, as the Mail proved, it sometimes leads to the most newsworthy results. But it would be false to assume that a speculative fishing trip that comes back with a newsworthy catch is automatically the work of good journalism. There is a danger that the information found on these trips may end up just as spun by the papers as it would in the hands of Government PR. And, at the risk of sounding hopelessly idealistic, that’s not really the point of the act is it?

The problem of how to make money from newspaper websites continued to be a discussion point in 2009 with no clear consensus reached.

Rupert Murdoch indicated his group of papers would introduce a pay wall in the future, but the tricky details remain of how payments should be charged and what additional value online readers ought to gain for parting with their money, if any.

Most agree that readers are unlikely to suddenly pay for a service they’d been used to having for free. Given that the nationals offer a broadly similar online experience, the paper that switches to fee-paying first is bound to struggle to gain paying readers to begin with. But what we may see is a gentleman’s agreement, where the nationals eventually wade into fee-paying waters together, forcing the hand of online readers.  

Johnston Press led the way by trialling a £5 fee for 6 of their weeklies, but the relatively minute scale of the trial indicated the hesitancy with which they made their move. A Johnston Press editor admitted in a presentation to a group of student journalists at City College Brighton and Hove that he could see no reason why people would pay for online content when it was so easy to find the same news elsewhere for free.

The Express and Echo, an Exeter-based daily which is part of the Mail group, decided to offer the first few paragaphs of articles for free, directing readers to its paper for the full story. While in essence the format reflects the direction paid content is likely to go in  (basic information for free, detailed content for paying readers) their choice would be unlikely to work nationally or internationally, where readers expect their news online to be immediate, regardless of where they may live.

2010 will be an interesting year to see the direction online journalism takes. Who knows, by next December the same debate may still rage on, with everyone still unsure about how to make newspaper websites profitable.

So, Peter Mandelson has announced that universities will face cuts in funding of £135 million next year.

It would be easy to parrot some of the outcries already made in the media, but it should be said that the news isn’t especially surprising. Everyone knew the Government would make cuts, and put simply, university funding is an obvious place to make those cuts.

Despite the falling value of degrees and rising the costs of paying for them, more and more students are entering further education, only to graduate saddled in debt, with qualifications of questionable worth.
With the number of university entrants rising consistently – regardless, it seems, of the cost to worth ratio of university education – the Government are probably justified in assuming that larger class sizes and fewer teachers are unlikely to deter students from university. Frequently, students have little or no idea of what education they can expect to receive for the ever-increasing fees they pay, what skills they can reasonably hope to learn or improve on, and what their employment prospects are likely to be at the end of their degrees.

Instead, these students graduate with the expectation of entering glamorous and interesting careers, only to find themselves indistinguishable from the countless others applying for the most coveted jobs.
It comes as a genuine shock to many that rather than enter into the dream careers they’d envisaged, it can prove difficult to enter into any kind of employment at all.

So what can be done? Most students appreciate their degrees are not going to ensure employment once they’ve graduated, but it would be useful if universities ran compulsory modules aimed at improving skills that would bolster employment opportunities. At the very least, graduates should be able to write to a reasonable level and should be proficient in Microsoft Office. But more than that, graduates should be taught to know what employers are looking for and what they expect. It proves a dispiriting realisation for many students that university holidays spent working at the local pub might have been better spent on unpaid internships.

In any event, students should graduate having some idea of what awaits them in the job market – for better or for worse. If the Government is to encourage such a large proportion of students to go to university at a greater cost than ever before, it should at least make sure that graduates are gaining something tangible for their time and money.

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