Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

Archive for May, 2009

Free content might kill journalism, but charging for content won’t work either

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The web is having one of its occasional spasms about where journalism, the web, content and newspapers are going.

The internet community does this occasionally, in the same way that I sometimes have a chill of fear about climate change but swiftly forget all about it and put the kettle on.

The issue is fairly simple. Everyone cocked up the internet model of delivering content a few years ago by radically overestimating the amount of revenue the internet would generate.

Back then everyone thought the net would replace newspapers, and online ad revenue replace print ad revenue. To a significant extent it has, but it does not deliver anywhere near the revenue needed to replace that lost by print and other traditional media.

Kicking off this latest round of hand-wringing is Rupert Murdoch, who says he will start to charge for online content and Robert Picard, who says journalists need to adapt to a new world, and quickly.

The opposing view, maintained chiefly by web libertarians and social media zealots, is that everything on the internet should be free.

I don’t think either of these positions really addresses the root of the problem. The major issue is that, increasingly, consumers expect to access data, analysis, information, entertainment and services for free.

Clearly, this model is not sustainable, but the alternative is to try to return the genie to the bottle – to persuade people to go back to shelling out for quality information, media and services.

David Hepworth put it like this on his blog:

At some stage users have to start paying or watch the thing they value just drain away.

And therein lies the rub. I think this will be next to impossible in an environment where free music, film, literature and software are the norm.

iPlayer, Youtube, Spotify – all are legal and all are free, though Youtube is apparently in some financial trouble and may be forced to introduce some form of payment model.

Flickr has a premium service, but I’ve heard the Yahoo!-owned site is also losing money. If those services become pay-as-you-go or subscription there’s always Bittorrent.

No-one knows how to make these services pay for themselves, and every day they are available for free it will be harder to convince users to pay for something they’re used to getting for nothing.

I think any efforts to charge for content will be doomed to failure. The net will simply redistribute it for free, via what is now termed ‘extreme aggregation’ and used to be called copyright infringement.

The issue of copyright on the web also seems blurred these days, with so many blogs existing on repasting material from news and picture agencies, with seemingly little consideration of the legalities of the situation.

It’s simple supply and demand. And boy is there demand.

At the other extreme I don’t see how any kind of professional journalism can exist in a world where everything is consumed for free. Where will the revenue come from to pay these professional journos?

Bloggers versus journalists, new versus old, free versus paid

There’s a strange debate I’m kind of in the middle of relating to the blogger versus journalist issue – new versus old media put crudely – as I pretty much qualify as both.

This war of words is chiefly played out between the NUJ, who come off as pompous, snotty and out-of-touch and a coterie of senior bloggers and self-styled Web 2.0 evangelists, who come off as smug and over-confident.

The NUJ is getting its knickers in a twist about citizen journalism taking food off the plates of trained journalists and, as far as the NUJ are concerned, not offering anything like the same quality.

Web journalism

The most strident aspects of the blogosphere stress that newspapers and journalists need to embrace the possibilities of Web 2.0, and seem to me to hint that so-called ‘citizen’ journalism is making pro journalists redundant.

I’m very ambivalent about all of this, because I recognise the value of social media and blogging and engage with it.

On the other hand I recognise the usually superior value in professional journalism, and fear for the future of journalism without it.

This is something I expect we will only realise when all the last newspapers have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Picard’s viewpoint doesn’t recognise the value in strong journalism, although he eventually makes some good points in a hideously waffly article – journalists need to play a part in shaping old media organisations.

Certainly, newspapers can go some way to meeting the new world by training journalists as a kind of all-in-one journalism Swiss army knife, versed in writing, subbing, online writing, coding, image editing, SEO and moving image media.

But that still doesn’t address how newspapers earn money from their content, it will simply reduce costs (and jobs) and goes some way to preparing for a multi-media consumption model.

Where the revenue comes from, especially when it becomes clear that few consumers will be willing to pay for content, is anyone’s guess.

Maybe ad revenues will pick up, maybe some miraculous new platform will figure out how to make money out of freely available content.

But I wouldn’t bet on it, and the method of delivery is rather by-the-bye. The question everyone should be asking is not how to save newspapers, but how to save journalism.

• Image by Noodlepie on Flickr via Creative Commons

Written by Robin Brown

May 27th, 2009 at 10:00 pm

What your WordPress home page probably looks like…every day

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I’m a big fan of WordPress. It’s by far the best blogging platform, in fact it’s by far the best CMS I’ve ever seen by a mile. And it’s free.

There’s a plugin for everything you could possibly need, and if you’ve got a fairly new computer it’s so childishly easy to host your own blog there’ll probably be a precocious baby on the new Microsoft advert extolling the virtues of WP.

But there’s one thing about WordPress that really irritates me. It’s the recommended blogs on the home page. They’re always childish, banal or right-wing and generally utterly rubbish.

I suppose there are several obvious reasons for this. First and foremost, WordPress displays VIP blog entries on its homepage.

These are blog posts from WordPress’s many customers who opt for a premium WordPress experience, and get their rubbish promoted on the WordPress homepage as a result.

Annoyingly, these posts always seem to be from the online loony bin that is Fox News’ blog, usually slamming Obama, Meghan McCain or other Democrats.

If not a political blog, it’s likely to be some tedious gubbins from a self-proclaimed tech expert musing fruitlessly on some aspect of the new iPhone. Boring.

The next staple is American gossip and ephemera. This may not be quite so intolerable if it were UK gossip and ephemera, but when the upskirt in question is from some previously unheard-of American Idol contestant there’s not even the morbid curiosity of peeking at the genitals of someone you’ve actually seen on the telly.

The fourth that I’ve identified is cute stuff. Lolcats, cute animals doing tricks, bearded babies, a cat with its arm round a duck. That sort of thing.

Presumably the rankings are driven by popularity, so every now and then there’s something totally random. As I type there’s a picture of a dead Tamil Tiger; an apparent scandal involving ‘Maricar Reyes and Hayden Kho’; a post called ‘Feisty Mom Comes Out Swinging — A Lovely Read’ on a blog called Free-Range Kids; an incomprehensible manga spoiler that reads like its a sequel to ‘All your base are belong to us’; and some more US ephemera.

If there’s some aspect of popularity to these community posts it seems a bit churlish to complain, but when Hot VIP posts is pushing a picture of Gwen Stefani’s baby’s mohican on a blog called Celebrity Babies I’m far from convinced that this is worth my, or indeed anyone’s, time.

I can only boggle at the possibility of Ann Coulter being papped exiting a taxi while conducting a phone conversation on some absurd new telephone with a cat in a fishbowl. The blogosphere would explode.

I really should reiterate that WordPress is almost faultless, and it’s really good. This isn’t any kind of serious attempt at a critique. It’s just that I’m really grumpy.

Anyway, here’s my take on the WordPress home page. Click through for a larger version.

Wordpress home page

• Two caveats. I may have inadvertently included the gravatars of some identifiable individuals. This is accidental and no association nor implication is intended.

Additionally, I’m only taking a pot shot at certain looney tunes Americans, namely one particular news channel. I like most Americans.

Written by Robin Brown

May 20th, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Bret Hart, Hitman and Wrestling with Shadows

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I’ve just finished reading Bret Hart’s autobiography, Hitman, a book that examines Hart’s life in wrestling from the early days in Calgary, through his WWF heydays, Montreal screwjob and beyond.

Although it’s a book that’s framed by wrestling, and its many tragedies and delights, it’s primarily about Hart’s quite incredible life and the characters that populate it. I’d recommend it to anyone.

A multi-time WWF champ and widely considered one of the best of all time, Hart lives a successful and generally happy life until the late 90s. From that point on it seems to be one bona fide tragedy after another.

Bret’s suffering is almost Promethean, with a litany of deaths or cripplings of close families and friends, the failure of his marriage, his stroke and the destruction of his sporting legacy hitting him in rapid succession.

It’s hard not to put most of them down to the life of a wrestler, forever pained, lonely and exploited.

On top of the vagaries of the wrestling business are his unhappy home life, his treacherous and jealous siblings – 11 in total – and complicated relationship with his father.

Bret does his best to look after everyone, allowing numerous members of his family to ride his coat-tails, but is repaid with knives in the back and a grimly mounting body count.

Hart strikes a genuinely tragic figure, but a likeable and admirable one, and the insight into the minds of the vicious and ill-fated Tom ‘Dynamite Kid’ Billington (whose own book is painfully and unpleasantly honest), slippery Vince McMahon, and just about every big- and little-name wrestler over the last 30 years is fascinating.

If there’s one conceivable criticism, it’s that Hart can have a tendency to see things in black and white – something that becomes evident in Wrestling With Shadows, and something that makes him incompatible with the Attitude era WWF – but it’s hard to be tough on the man.

Hart is too sensitive a soul for the knockabout world of professional wrestling that developed in the WWF in the late 90’s, and his bafflement at what he sees places him squarely as a good man out of time, adrift in vulgarity, ultraviolence, moral relativism and dishonour.

• The National Film Board of Canada has made Wrestling With Shadows available for free online and embeddable too, so you can watch it below.

A modern-day moral parable, the film is shot by a crew that follows Bret around for several months prior to his departure from the WWF to WCW.

Luckily for them, they happen to catch the blow-by-blow backstage account of the Montreal Screwjob including, happily, the aftermath of Hart knocking Vince out cold.

• Watch Wrestling With Shadows below

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows by Paul Jay, National Film Board of Canada

Written by Robin Brown

May 11th, 2009 at 5:47 pm

The inevitable Star Trek review

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I fully expected the new Star Trek film to be drawn in the all the modern tropes we’ve come to expect from science-fiction.

Rebooted version of Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica have taken the routes of soapy, high-emotion spectacle or high allegorical paranoiac thriller respectively.

I’d guessed that Star Trek would adapt for the former, since Russell T Davies’ series has taken Buffy as a template, as have most sci-fi/fantasy shows since the 90s.

That given I expected an unlikely romance, some rather melodramatic character interactions, high emotion, some iconoclastic rule-changing, a spot of kookiness and a visual-friendly plot that didn’t make a lot of sense.

I suppose I got some of that right. On face value the plot is straight-forward and geared towards a crash-bang-wallop narrative, with a couple of detours for some exposition from Nimoy.

Eagle-eyed viewers may notice these scenes, which occur about two-thirds into the film, patiently and clearly explain that any Star Trek preceding this film: classic, Next Generation, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, the entire film series – yes, even the animated series – are wiped away in a few lines. In the Star Trek universe, they no longer happened, or will happen.

This may infuriate fans, though it serves the purpose of essentially rebooting the franchise, allowing JJ Abrams to do pretty much anything he wants without insane Trekkies pointing out that it’s explicitly stated in I, Mudd that Vulcans have no genitalia, or some other ridiculous continuity.

Indeed, the film does feel like a reboot – it’s a real kick up the arse that was badly required following the cosiness of the last two Next Generation-based movies.

Having said that the film gives some nods to the campery and sense of fun of the classic series, while some of the performances near pastiche and, in the case of Zachary Quinto, near pitch-perfect imitation.

Chris Pine as Kirk and Karl Urban as McCoy get it just right, with enough nods to Shatner and Kelley to make their performances work in the shadow of their originators, while making it their own.

Anton Yelchin as Chekov and a particularly odd Simon Pegg as Scotty are there purely as comic relief. While Yelchin does a good job taking off Walter Koenig’s absurd ‘Russian’ accent, Pegg’s performance is basically Simon Pegg doing Billy Connolly. Scotty has also gained a cute pet.

Despite some token efforts at making something out of Uhura and Sulu, they bear little resemblance to their original counterparts in character or appearance.

Meanwhile, in other geeky news, Start Trek will do nothing to dampen the Spock/Kirk slash fiction fantasy of them as lovers, given the manly fights, lingering looks and homo-erotic dialogue.

There’s also some predictable emoting, in this instance an unlikely romance between Uhura and Spock that never feels less than crowbarred, and the sight of Young Kirk driving a convertible off a cliff to the sound of the Beastie Boys and some really horrible Nokia product placement is likely to make viewers retch.

Still, as a film for the generic audience, Star Trek can’t fail to be a hit. It is fun, exciting and occasionally funny and it’s fascinating to see the characters recreated, albeit to varying levels of success.

Is it a good Star Trek film? That’s for others, for whom these sort of things are much more important, to judge. But although it was nice to see Nimoy back, and the film treat the source material with respect, it struck me as a fairly generic space opera film.

The bastardised version of the original theme tune – an absurdly over-the-top piece of campery – didn’t sit right with me. It was something rather unique and of its time that couldn’t stand the translation to something new.

It’d be tempting to draw the wider comparison, but your girlfriend, wife, friends or kids simply won’t care less. It’s simply good, clean fun – Star Trek has moved on.

Written by Robin Brown

May 10th, 2009 at 11:53 pm

How do I use non-commercial licenses on Flickr?

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Creative Commons

I’ve had a recent set-to on Flickr over Creative Commons licenses, with particular regard to the non-commercial licenses that specifies that photos licensed for use, as long as you do not use it ‘for commercial purposes’.

This is a notoriously nebulous definition that seems designed to create confusion, and it’s currently slated to be replaced.

The main bone of contention concerns what constitutes a ‘commercial purpose’. Clearly selling prints of that photo does, or using the image in an advert.

As I understand it, users on Flickr have discovered their images being used in precisely these ways.

Where it becomes a little more ambiguous is where images are used on websites that also contain adverts. Clearly websites such as these are run for profit, so arguably using an image on one of these sites is using someone else’s work for a commercial purpose.

This is where I come in.

I’ve used several images CC images from Flickr on MotorTorque, always under a CC license. Some of these have been under non-commercial licenses, where I always sought the permission of the photographer.

In all of these cases I received replies from the photographers indicating that they were happy for me to use the image. They’re always used in context and in a way that complements the text.

It’s difficult, when editing a website, to receive approval for an image in a timely manner, so after a while, as no-one had ever indicated that they considered my specific use of the images a breach of the license, I stopped asking approval for such images and provided a link to the page where the image was used.

I’d make it clear that if they objected to the use I’d take it down, and the image was always properly attributed with a link to the relevant page on the photographer’s Flickr account and another link to the CC license.

Recently a third party objected to my use of someone else’s image, and before I knew it a three-way row erupted on the image page. Another guy took my side, but the accuser was so incensed by what I’d done that he basically accused me of copyright theft.

It was all rather overblown, especially considering the copyright holder didn’t get involved at any point, but it raises some difficult questions about the CC license.

No doubt that license is open to abuse, and unlike me anyone genuinely stealing images from Flickr is unlikely to provide a link to the site where they’re ripping off someone else’s work.

The license, as it stands, is an absolute minefield that probably does not meet the intent of the copyright holder or explain sufficiently to potential users whether they can use it or not.

So, how do you use a non-commercial license? Until a new license comes into effect later this year, the only way to play it down the line is to seek approval.

Even though I’ve not used CC licenses for any of my images on Flickr, because they’re such a shambles, I’ve allowed everyone who’s approached me to use them if they’ve asked.

As for copyright holders, the only sensible approach seems to be to make them unavailable for any use if you’re likely to object to someone accidentally using your work in a way that does not fit your idea of what the licence means.

• If you have the stamina there’s a discussion here on the new license.

• Image by Giuli-o via Creative Commons

Written by Robin Brown

May 6th, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Posted in Media

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