Murdochology

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney orning Herald.

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

Over at the Sydney Review of Books, I’ve got a long-form review essay on two of the latest books out on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the British phone hacking scandal.

I won’t re-post here, but rather direct you over to the site, which is publishing some very fine work at the moment.

However, the guts of my argument can be summarised as follows:

Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

New York Times paywall: round-up of the analysis

Nieman Journalism Labs’ Tom Coddington has a great round-up of the decision by the New York Times to introduce a pay-wall:

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.”Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

 

Arts journalism is in a sorry state … which is no surprise

The following post appeared in Crikey on January 21st

Crikey recently carried an article by Lucinda Strahan on the dire state of Australian arts journalism. Strahan reported that “a two-week sample of arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Ageand the Herald Sun found public relations activity at 97% in The Ageand 98% in the Herald Sun”.

The shoddy state of the profession is disappointing, but hardly surprising for those who have actually worked as arts journalists. Arts journalists — and let’s throw in their even more neglected brothers and sisters, the critics — are a motley crew, to say the least. But what they generally share are precarious, insecure and lowly paid working conditions.

Indeed, it’s getting harder and harder to be an arts journalist in this country, in the sense that you can be a political journalist or a business reporter. The troubles faced by newspapers are felt most keenly in sections such as the arts pages, which are routinely cut back in hard times (probably justifiably, as they are not stellar performers when it comes to advertising revenue). Australia’s arts and creative industries are growing, but are still minnows compared to the giants of banking and mining. In any case, who wants to read about the back office when you can read about Cate Blanchett? The cultural sector contains stars and celebrities, and this is about whom audiences want to read. The only true creative industries reporter in the country is the Financial Review’s Katrina Strickland, and the Australian media is scarcely rushing to provide her with competitors.

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful.

Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money. Nor should we be surprised that arts writers have jobs outside journalism, often in the same industry they cover. As Strahan noted,  “subjective and even crusading advocacy … is considered proper practice in coverage of the arts, something that flies in the face of the cool impartiality of the fourth estate”.

If arts journalism is tough, criticism is even tougher. As a series of talks demonstrated last year at the Wheeler Centre, knowledgeable and passionate criticism again has become an essentially amateur phenomenon. It  flourishes in the blogosphere, for free.

Part of the problem is that no one really likes a good critic in the first place. Artists who pour their heart and soul into a performance get understandably miffed when a critic pronounces their latest masterpiece a dud. This can make the work of a critic lonely and unrewarding. And Australia’s cultural institutions are largely run by arts administrators and former artists, most of whom get quite uncomfortable whenever a critic gets, well, critical.

Nor is there much funding to be an arts writer. While the federal and state governments, through their funded cultural institutions, directly employ thousands of dancers, actors, singers, musicians, administrators and crew — even publicists — there is vanishingly little support for critics or journalists to write about culture and the arts.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect the highest standards of investigative reporting and critical appraisal from our arts writers. Realistically, though, we’re not going to get it as often as we’d like.

All of which sounds like a bit of whinge. But it’s not. Despite the adversity, quality writing about arts and culture continues to thrive in Australia: in blogs, in the small press, and in online publications … such as this one.

The comments at the bottom of my original Crikey piece are well worth a read too.

 

Will Dawson maps #twitdef

Axel Bruns lab at QUT is really starting to turn out some quality research – as evidenced by the summer vacation project (!) of Will Dawson.

Dawson has mapped the posts, retweets and network connections of the #twitdef conversation. And some very pretty data he presents. Here, for instance, is a bar graph on the 15 most re-tweeted Twitter identities using the #twitdef hashtag:

The fifteen most retweeted users during the #twitdef controversy. Source: Will Dawson / Mapping Online Publics

Interstingly, the top tweeters and the most re-tweeted are quite different data sets. Dawson concludes that:

The types of users being retweeted also differ significantly from the most prolific tweeters in terms of plain numbers. Of the top 15 retweeted users, eight are journalists, four are  academics (including Posetti), two are regular citizens, and only one is the account of an official media outlet (@crikey_news, in yellow). Of the seven journalists, only one works for The Australian – Caroline Overington (@overingtonc).  The lack of prolific tweeters (in terms of numbers) in this list supports one of the more long-standing theories of twitter – that just because someone is tweeting a lot, doesn’t mean people are actually listening to them.

John Lanchester: Can newspapers survive?

Lanchester in the LRB.

Short answer: not in print, but yes online.

Longer answer:

I feel equally certain in saying that what the print media need, more than anything else, is a new payment mechanism for online reading, which lets you read anything you like, wherever it is published, and then charges you on an aggregated basis, either monthly or yearly or whatever. For many people, this would be integrated into an RSS feed, to create what amounts to an individualised newspaper. I would be entirely happy to pay to subscribe to Anthony Lane on movies in the New Yorker, and Patricia Wells on restaurants in the Herald Tribune, and Larry Elliott on economics in the Guardian, and David Pogue on technology in the New York Times, and I also want to feel free to read anything else which catches my eye, whenever I feel like it – I just don’t want to have to think about paying every time I click on the article to read it. I want a monthly or yearly charge, taken off my credit card without my having to think about it. That charge could mount up pretty high over the course of a year, but not as high as the current costs – $4.99 for a single digital issue of the New Yorker, for example. Papers can charge different amounts for their content, and we the readers will be the market who decides what is worth what. The charging process has to be both invisible and transparent: invisible at the moment of use, and transparent when I want to see what I’ve paid. The idea is for a cross between a print version of Spotify, with a dash of Amazon and a dash of iTunes. All those players have the expertise to do it, as do the credit card companies. From the technical perspective it should not be all that hard to do, and it would, I believe, work in remonetising the newspaper business. Let us pay – we’re happy to pay.

Lanchester also links to this excellent piece by Alan Rusbridger and the OECD’s important 2010 study The Evolution of News and the Internet.

Wikileaks, information and democracy

The scene outside Julian Assange's extradition hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court, London, December 7th 2010. Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been fascinated by the recent developments in the world of new media.

“New media” is a much-abused phrase, but in the case of Wikileaks and Twitter, the phrase is literally accurate. Wikileaks and Twitter really are new mediums: they are less than five years old.

A wiki and a social network like Twitter are both ultimately also platforms that rely on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that criss-cross the world. And because of that, they can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET – ironically, a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

This week, courtesy of Wikileaks, we learnt a lot more about the sinews of political and financial power that link the modern internet to the security and executive agencies of the contemporary nation-state. The content of these lessons has much to teach us about the state of our democratic societies.

Under sustained pressure from US politicians, several important aspects of Wikileaks’ infrastructure were shut down by the corporations that manage them. First, Amazon shut down Wikileaks’ servers. Then PayPal stopped processing online donations to Wikileaks from supporters.

Interestingly, Wikileaks is not really a “wiki”, in the sense that Wikipedia is: it can’t be collaboratively edited and it is very far from open access.

Nor are its philosophies necessarily original: they are in fact an amalgam of the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Mill and Paine, and the 1980s and 90s techno-millenarianism of writers such as John Perry Barlow. But in its technological sophistication, its intent and most importantly its impact, Wikileaks is a recognisably new phenomenon. There have been many attempts by internet companies and media organisations to encourage whistleblowers and apply the ideas of scrutiny to monitor governments. But none have had the political impact that Wikileaks has achieved in just a few short years. Wikileaks is new — not because it is on the internet, but because it is making powerful elites in the government and media genuinely uneasy.

Wikileaks is web publisher that relies on clever encryption and distributed servers and publishing platforms. In doing so, it necessarily relies on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that crisscross the world. And because of that, Wikileaks can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET — a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

Wikileaks is certainly more than merely a very clever whistle-blower protection and publication system. While the encryption and other information security aspects of the site are impressive, perhaps more important is that Wikileaks allows disgruntled would-be leakers to turn the power of modern information technology against the nation-states and large corporations that now rely on it.

In an ironic turn that Michel Foucault would surely have applauded, the sheer amount of information now hiding behind government and corporate firewalls makes that information increasingly vulnerable to disclosure. The current cache of Wikileaks cables being released, for instance, have all been distributed on the US government’s SIPRNET, which stands for Secret Internet Router Protocol Network. However, in this context, “secret” is something of a euphemism. As Kevin Rudd himself has pointed out, more than two million US officials have access to SIPRNET. More than 180 US agencies were signed up to SIRPNET by 2005. No wonder much of this content eventually made its way into the public domain. The wonder is that it hasn’t been leaked sooner.

Some of the sharpest thinking about what Wikileaks means has come from the intelligence community itself. US security think-tank Stratfor, for instance, points out that there is a “culture of classfication” rampant inside the US government, in which even relatively mundane documents are classified under Executive Order 13526 as “confidential” or “secret”. Consequently, according to Stratfor’s Scott Sewart, “this culture tends to create so much classified material that stays classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected.”

Information probably doesn’t “want to be free”, as the activist and technologist Stewart Brand famously announced but there are plenty of people who would like it to be. Some of them work in the US military, including Private First Class Bradley Manning.

The content of the Wikileaks releases so far has been devastating, not for what it says, but because it has cut through the lies, disinformation and media spin on which modern democracies increasingly depend. Many citizens will not be surprised by the dark truths that Wikileaks reveals, but they will scarcely be energised to a new optimism about their governments. That US forces violate rules of engagement to gun down innocent civilians, or that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, or that the US State Department actively spies on the UN, or that the Saudis want Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed: none of these revelations are particularly surprising. But they tear away the veil of deceit behind which politicians and other democratic officials routinely operate in the course of their daily affairs. In the face of truth, deniability is implausible.

Much of what has been written about Wikileaks has missed this fundamental point. It is interesting that Assange himself justifies the cable releases by pointing to the lies of governments to their own people in justifying wars, writing, “there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about [just] wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies.”

As The Guardian’s John Naughton has pointed out,  there is a delicious irony to the relatively indiscriminate way in which Wikileaks has attacked the sacred cows of the left and the right. It was Wikileaks, remember, that published the hacked emails of UK climate researchers — leaks which commentators and politicians on the right were happy to seize upon as incontrovertible evidence of a giant cover-up in climate science.

Now that Wikileaks has turned the blowtorch on the cherished organs of US national security, those same right wing commentators are calling for punitive action to shut down the organisation.

Many on the left have been equally discomforted, as the confused and savage reaction of many in the Australian Labor Party demonstrates. As Simon Longstaff argued yesterday on The Drum, “it would seem incumbent on those who criticise Wikileaks to renounce the use of leaks in general”.

As with every revolution, Wikileaks has also forced politicians, corporations and officials to make snap decisions about where they stand — and with whom they stand. In the case of USinternet firms like Amazon and PayPal, that decision was to side quickly and decisively with theUS government. Further down in his article, Naughton makes the point that:

the attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on … you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

 

The other really penetrating account of Wikileaks comes from European media theorists Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens. In “Twelve Theses on Wikileaks”, they make a number of telling observations — including that some of the most uncomfortable Wikileaks revelations involve the rapidly declining potency of the media itself. They write:

The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by the steamy ambiance of “citizen journalism”, DIY news reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter.

 

Or, as Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald back in June, “how is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”

Instead, of course, much of the media coverage has concentrated on Julian Assange’s sensational personal conduct, and the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by two Swedish women.

This is a different — although obviously connected — issue. It should be possible to distinguish the Wikileaks website and organisation from the personal conduct of Julian Assange. If allegations presented to the British court by Swedish authorities are true — allegations which have yet to be tested — Assange has committed a crime.

It is frankly disturbing to see many on the left who one would expect to see defending the rights of women, like Naomi Wolf (Naomi Wolf!) make disparaging remarks about the seriousness of these allegation. One of the allegations is for a rape under Swedish law: a non-consensual sex act in which Assange allegedly forced the claimant’s legs open and of ‘”[used] his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.” The facts of this matter can and should be established in a free and fair judicial process. But as a matter of principle, no should still mean no.

Ultimately, the importance of Wikileaks may be that it is beginning to reveal the contours of a new sort of social contract between citizens and their rulers: a type of relationship that historian and academic John Keane has called “monitory democracy.” For Keane, “monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of‘ ‘post-Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.”

Monitory democracy, in which non-government and non-media organisations start to exert meaningful and impactful scrutiny of the state and the corporation, holds the promise for a more balanced informational relationship between ordinary citizens and the power elites. But it also implies some disturbing corollaries.

There is a reason conservative commentators are likening Wikileaks to a kind of informational terrorist group: it uses its military-grade encryption tools for the political goal of destabilising governments and states. In this sense, Wikileaks and especially Anonymous, the hacking group suspected of attacking Amazon, Visa and other sites in retaliation for the Wikileaks crackdown, are “non-state actors” — the term given by security and international relations analysts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

We aren’t really at the beginning of the first global “information war”, but there is a grain of truth to the claims that the willingness of hackers and cyber-activists to attack web infrastructure represents something new and important. And in this analysis, the flip-side of monitory democracy is informational insurrection.

 

The Times paywall: what do the numbers tell us?

The preliminary numbers on The Times paywall are in … and no-one quite knows what to make of them.

Paid Content argues that while web readership has fallen off a cliff (as expected), the modest number of ongoing subscribes offers some hope for the future.

Roy Greenslade says its early days but the numbers probably don’t add up:

I am told that iPad numbers are “jumping around” all the time.

But there has been no attempt to counter my source’s view that there has been a measure of disappointment about online-only take-up.

Many people who tried out access in the early weeks have not returned. However, it is also true to say that some daily subscribers have been impressed enough to sign up on a weekly basis.

And it is also the case that the Sunday Times‘s iPad app has yet to launch. It is hoped that this will boost figures considerably, though I have my reservations about that.

I think, once we delve further into these figures, they will support the view that News Int’s paywall experiment has, as expected, not created a sufficiently lucrative business model.

Clay Shirky argues the paywall means a retreat from broad-based newspaper-style publishing to narrowcast newsletter publishing:

One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience. (In this case, the Times is becoming the online newsletter of the Tories, the UK’s conservative political party, read much less widely than its paper counterpart.)

Murdoch and News Corp, committed as they have been to extracting revenues from the paywall, still cannot execute in a way that does not change the nature of the organizations behind the wall. Rather than simply shifting relative subsidy from advertisers to users for an existing product, they are instead re-engineering the Times around the newsletter model, because the paywall creates newsletter economics.

As of July, non-subscribers can no longer read Times stories forwarded by colleagues or friends, nor can they read stories linked to from Facebook or Twitter. As a result, links to Times stories now rarely circulate in those media. If you are going to produce news that can’t be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn’t care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo.

This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.

 

Vadim Lavrusik on the future of social media in journalism

1stVideo is a video editing app for the iPhone. Analysts such as Alfred Hermida think it may become an important platform for mobile video reporting.

At Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik has a thoughtful and informative piece on future trends in social media and journalism. He runs through many of the trends many of you will already know about, but he also has some interesting insights of his own and collects a bunch of very worthwhile links. Lavrusik begins by pointing out that:

The future journalist will be more embedded with the community than ever, and news outlets will build their newsrooms to focus on utilizing the community and enabling its members to be enrolled as correspondents. Bloggers will no longer be just bloggers, but be relied upon as more credible sources.

Other trends Lavrusik notes include collaborative reporting (with links to Jay Rosen and David Clinch), journalists as community managers, reporting on social media as a recognised beat, online curation for a time-poor audience, the growth of roles such as social media editors, the rise of branded aggregations of blogs, and the importance of mobile technologies like Twitter for reporting.

Recommended.

How to be a data journalist

On the Guardian’s amazing Data Blog, a post about the exploding field of data journalism.

Data journalism is huge. I don’t mean ‘huge’ as in fashionable – although it has become that in recent months – but ‘huge’ as in ‘incomprehensibly enormous’. It represents the convergence of a number of fields which are significant in their own right – from investigative research and statistics to design and programming. The idea of combining those skills to tell important stories is powerful – but also intimidating. Who can do all that?

The reality is that almost no one is doing all of that, but there are enough different parts of the puzzle for people to easily get involved in, and go from there.

Read the rest for the excellent primer.

 

Axel Bruns maps the Australian blogosphere

A close up of the Australian blogopshere map generated by Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns has extracted some 2.6 million hyperlinks and come up with some very pretty data mapping the Australian blogosphere for the first time:

what we’re already seeing in the network is a relatively large cluster of sites on the left of the graph, made up of sites (MSM as well as blogs) that deal predominantly with news and politics. In addition to domestic and international news sites, various Australian political blogs (such as Larvatus ProdeoClub TroppoJohn QuigginPeter MartinCatallaxy Files, and the suite of Crikey blogs) appear as prominent nodes in the network (on both the indegree and eigenvector centrality counts). Many smaller – that is, less prominent – blogs cluster around them, but receive comparatively fewer inlinks. There’s even likely to be some further subdivision within this overall cluster, but I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on this point until we’ve had a chance to further clean our data.

You can see the full post here and download the full-size, gorgeous mapping images here.