I joined up with Brian Loader in 1998 as a co-founder to help launch a new journal, Information Communication and Society(iCS) with Taylor and Francis Routledge. In our first year, we began with four issues per year, and most of our then small number of readers were located in the UK. Since stepping down as an editor, while staying on the Board, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the editorial team this week, and had an update that was heartening – even exciting – in every way.
Over the past 20 years of its existence, iCS has become a truly global journal, publishing 14 (yes, 14) issues per year. It is on- as well as off-line, with all articles published online as soon as they have gone through final proofing – months ahead of their publication in print form through a policy of online first. In 2018, there were 362K downloads of iCS articles, up 23 percent from the previous year. Its impact factor has risen to 3.084 and readership puts it top of all sociology journals in the UK, and 7th worldwide. It is 5th in communication worldwide. All upwardly slopping curves.
The journal was put together early in the rise of Internet and new media studies. Its mission was to draw ‘together the most current work upon the social, economic and cultural impact of the emerging properties of the new information and communications technologies’ in order to be ‘at the centre of contemporary debates about the information age’. So its success is due in large part to its central position in a burgeoning substantive area. It also has enjoyed a strong team, led by Brian Loader, and a supportive publisher in Routledge a member of Taylor and Francis.
In a recent online discussion about another more niche academic journal, several colleagues pronounced the end of print journals. My experience with iCS underscores the degree that print journals, like iCS, are routinely online as well as in print, and they are very much alive and well. They take time and hard work to build a dedicated community of scholars, but they remain one of the main channels of communication in academia, including the social and economic sciences, such as in cultural and Internet studies.
As a student of, and advocate for, digital citizens of the Fifth Estate, I have been seriously interested in journalism studies. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a symposium organized by the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University by virtue of being a Visiting Professor at the School this year. It was entitled ‘Distinctive Roles for Public Service Journalism in Challenging Times’. The event brought practitioners, mainly from the BBC, together with academics, for a set of well-chosen topics, outlined below. The symposium adhered to the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t attribute quotes to individuals, but I will try to capture some of the ways in which the discussions stimulated my own thinking about ‘public service journalism’ in the Internet Age.
Held on 27 November, the one-day event was organized by Professor Stephen Coleman at Leeds, and Ric Bailey, from the BBC, who is a Visiting Professor at Leeds. I presume that Ric Bailey took a strong role with Stephen in bringing speakers from the BBC and Ric moderated the entire day of discussion. This academic-practitioner collaboration was key to the day’s success.
The symposium began with a presentation by Joanna Carr, Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, who covered key challenges facing public service broadcasters. This was followed immediately by a panel led by Joanna and John Corner, a Visiting Professor in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, formerly based at Liverpool University,on the challenges of reporting and explaining complex issues covered by the media, such as ‘austerity’, climate change, or Brexit. The presentation and panel drove home some key themes for me of the entire day – mainly around the thought and craft that professional journalists put into their strategies for putting audiences at the heart of their work.
I approached this panel with some level of skepticism about complexity as an issue. First, my own academic colleagues too often lament that their work is too complex to convey in a more accessible way. But they nevertheless come up with engaging titles for their books, and abstracts for their articles, so it is not impossible to simplify. Complexity is not an acceptable excuse for being unclear. Secondly, I can never forget an editor of a prestigious news magazine once telling me that she instructions to her writers was to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. I’m simplifying, but nevertheless her phrase worried me. Simplification might be a central problem facing journalism.
However, this panel won me over to the challenges facing good journalists. It drove home the degree that leading journalists are truly focused on reaching their audiences with coverage that is both engaging and understandable. As one speaker reminded us: “You can’t force people to eat their greens”, or to listen to their news coverage.
So the ‘craft skills’ that journalists bring to the table in selecting, defining, and communicating stories is a huge contribution to the public, what one panelist referred to as ‘BBC simplification’ is not to simplify and exaggerate to gain readers or viewers, but simplify to deliver a public service. They seek to avoid ‘elite speech’, even though some well-regarded journalists believed in talking to elites rather than the mass public, and not simply report what the subjects of the news say freely, but to structure and sequence the flow of complex stories and determine what needs to be ‘dug out’ through good interviewing skills, often conducted in a highly politicized space. Their efforts are clearly around adding value to the news, not simply reporting it.
There was an interesting discussion of the differences in complexity across issues, such as Brexit versus climate change. Some complex issues are abstract and don’t have the ‘lighting flashes’ that that make some events, such as a crash, relatively easier to report. It also seemed to me that some issues are complicated but some well-known fundamentals, such as climate change, while others, like Brexit, are impossible to know precisely as they are unfolding and unpredictable futures – what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously called ‘known unknowns’.
The second panel focused on data journalism, kicked off by Professor Chris Anderson of Leeds, who spoke about some of the continuities and discontinuities that data journalism brings to traditional journalistic practices. John Walton, who leads the BBC data journalism team at the BBC, followed with an overview of their work. Chris focused more on the discontinuities, but I kept thinking of data journalism as a continuation and growing sophistication of a long tradition of journalists valuing data. Social scientists are often advised to provide some percentages in their press releases to increase the likelihood of a story being picked up. But today, the best news organizations are developing more sophisticated teams within their own organization, like the BBC journalism team, to locate and analyze data that can create news items, often in collaboration with others. Of course, the same trend towards more collaborative and team research is evident across the social sciences as data sciences in academia as well..
After lunch, Professor Jay Blumler gave a brief talk that identified some of the new challenges facing investigative journalism. He surveyed the changing context of journalism as well as the enduring value of journalistic roles, such as in exposing wrongs, before providing a litany of challenges facing investigative journalism, such as when the targets of investigative journalism are overwhelmed and find it difficult to reply in a timely and comprehensive manner. He also argued for journalists more explicitly considering the social implications of journalism, such as the degree to which investigative reporting might lead politicians and other public figures to consider themselves ‘sitting ducks’ for the media. What impact will this have on the willingness of individuals to step into the public arena? His talk was followed by responses and additional input from Gail Champion, Editor of the BBC programme, File on 4, and Phil Abrams, who gave impressive examples of stories that got things right, and a few where they ‘got things wrong’, but learn from them.
This panel was followed by one focused on the enduring challenge of moving journalism beyond its centre of gravity in the London/Westminster bubble, such as with the decision to locate the new Channel 4 headquarters in Leeds. Professor Katy Parry led off this panel, followed by Tim Smith, Regional Head of BBC for Yorkshire, and Andrew Sheldon, Creative Director of True North TV. I found it amazing that the politics of broadcasting in the UK remains so focused on the nations and regions, such as in respect to the distribution of production and original content. The BBC and other major broadcasters in the UK have such national prestige that the locations of new headquarters, such as Channel 4’s recent decision to build in Leeds, can be very significant to attracting talent outside the London bubble. But even more interesting to me was the degree that the Internet and social media as well as on-demand streaming video was not viewed as a threat to broadcasting in the UK, as it would be in the US. In fact, examples arose of Netflix investing in UK content and production skills.
The final summary panel featured the symposium’s academic organizer, Professor Stephen Coleman, who nicely captured and built on the key themes of the day. His remarks were followed by a panel-led discussion. Stephen emphasized the motives of what he called ‘public service journalism’ by comparing public service media organizations to public universities, such as Leeds, where there are legitimate demands for a commitment to justice, accountability, and a civic – citizen – orientation.
This was of course a friendly and receptive audience for journalists. Nevertheless, I was left more convinced than ever that public service broadcasting is alive and well in the UK through the BBC and other public service broadcast journalism, and that collaboration between practitioners and academics, as orchestrated on the day, adds real value to both.
I spent a full day at the OII for my first time since being back in Oxford. It was in part enjoying my new affiliation as an OII Senior Fellow and also participation in a meeting of the Advisory Board. But it also included attending the Awards Day ceremonies that featured a conversation with Professor Judy Wajcman, interviewed by OII’s Dr Victoria Nash (photos). Judy received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. The day concluded with a dinner at Balliol, where all awards were formally presented to the recipients.
Having been away from Oxford for four years, only returning for short visits to the UK, I was struck by the phenomenal progress of the OII. Since I stepped down as Director in 2011, and retired in 2014, Professor Helen Margetts, and now, Professor Phil Howard have taken over direction of the Institute – a department in Oxford’s Social Science Division. The number of faculty (now around 50) and students have expanded significantly – dramatically, with new degrees and new directions and affiliations, such as with the Alan Turing Institute in London. The visibility and impact of the OII has also been growing dramatically, such as around Phil Howard’s work on computational propaganda and the role of bots in elections, which has been showcased repeatedly by The New York Times.
So the size and shape, but more importantly, the impact and reputation of an increasingly strong faculty has been progressed beyond what I could have expected – or even envisioned. One of the members of the Advisory Board put it best when he said that it is clear that the OII has reached escape velocity. No one is questioning the very idea of an Internet Institute at the University of Oxford – it has put the Internet on the agenda of the University and has continued to innovate and adapt with the rapid evolution and global impact of the Internet, Web, social media, and related information and communication technologies, such as AI and the Internet of Things.
I had the pleasure of speaking with a prospective MSc student before OII’s Open House on 23 November, and felt so pleased and confident in supporting her decision to study at the OII. She took little convincing – it was the only program she was considering.
I had the pleasure of attending Professor Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture at Leeds University on 24 October 2018. I won’t attempt to summarise what was a wide-ranging, historically rich, and engaging lecture on journalism in our contemporary political context. However, I would like to provide a few points that most resonated with me. The title of his talk was “Who Cares About Journalism? Facts and the Anaesthetised Public in an Irrational Era.” I’ll look for any text from his talk and share on this blog.
If you do not know Chris, he describes himself as an ethnographer who studies the news. Professor Anderson was awarded his PhD from Columbia University in 2009, studying with two of the major figures in the communication field, Professor James W. Carey and Prof. Todd Gitlin. He worked as an Associate Professor from 2009-2018 in Media Culture at the City University of New York, when he left to join Leeds’ School of Media and Communication – a School for which I am presently a Visiting Professor.
From the introduction to his lecture, it seems Chris may have started a tradition for the School in presenting an inaugural lecture. Before joining Leeds, I was involved with Chris in a conference he organised with Pablo Boczkowski at Northwestern University that led to an excellent book, edited by Boczkowski and Anderson, entitled Remaking the News (MIT Press 2017). I am delighted to be associated with him again through my visiting position at Leeds.
But to the lecture: The most obvious point is that Chris cares deeply about journalism. He spoke of his first attraction to journalism through his exposure to community newspapers during his childhood, and then to the alternative activist media. He later became an observer of journalism and the media broadly, with a recent focus on data journalism in some of his work.
His talk touched on his own intellectual history of research on journalism, before moving to his current question about the role of journalists in our polarised world – presumably anaesthetised by the 24/7 rancorous coverage of contentious issues around the American presidency, Brexit, and more. Should journalists be focused on shinning a light on events – illuminating problems in all sectors of society, or in supporting democracy, or trying to reduce political cruelty. This latter theme he developed on the basis of work by Judith Shklar on the ‘Liberalism of Fear’ – that government needs to address cruelty of the powerful to the powerless, and this also be the role of journalists.
This would clearly be a role journalists might seek to play, but my sense is they don’t have the power to address these problems directly. That said, their traditional normative role in exposing wrongs wherever they might lie is an indirect route to addressing such problems. Holding a mirror up to our political system. However, the role of journalists is in some senses far more varied. I can’t help of thinking of the community newspapers and alternative media, and the degree that journalists at these local and alternative media are not so often addressing wrongs as they are simply trying to convey life and events in their communities.
That said, Chris has me thinking harder about not only about what the role of journalists should be in this age of tribalism, but also the role of academics. Looking forward to any text or related materials coming out of this talk.
As it happens, the occasion also allowed me to meet many faculty at Leeds and also to reconnect with two former OII colleagues: Professor Stephen Coleman, a former Visiting Professor of E-Democracy at the OII, and the recently hired as a Lecturer in Politics and Media at Leeds, Gillian Bolsover, who was a student and co-author of mine at the OII.
So this inaugural lecture was valuable to me on several fronts.
I’ve complained before about the growing demands online for us to complete forms to do just about anything – I called it trapped in a Web of forms. Well, my writing about it has not solved the problem. Just today I agreed to do a book review, only to then get a formal thank you, and note which basically said I must submit my review through the publisher’s central manuscript site. OK, I cannot just write the review and email it to the book review editor, as that would be too much trouble for the editor.
Predictably, I will now be required to log into this central manuscript site. I have almost certainly used it before, for some paper or journal submission, but who knows when and I can assure you I will not remember the passwords etc. So I will need to fill out the joining instructions once again, and probably have difficulty, with notes like, this email has been used before, etc. I will spend useless time getting set up, formatting my review in a manner that the site likes (not me), and submitting it. So all the fun of reading the book and writing a review is lost already – well before I’ve received the book.
Why do I say “yes” to such offers – let’s say requests? I need to set up a form for any request to me with something like the following questions: Name, other information I do not need, then “Will I need to fill out a form in order to satisfy your request?” If yes, then I might add the question: “Can you complete the form for me?” If no (inevitably it will be no, as these folks do not take their own medicine), then the tick box should not permit the person to tick “No”. The requester will become so frustrated that s/he will decide to stop wasting his/her time on this bloke, and go on to ask some other sucker.
Just today, I am sure I had to complete at least four forms, and most required me to fill out other forms to complete the present form. I understand why people want others to do their work for them as they have simply too many things going on to do the work themselves. This should scream to them that they are trying to do more than they can do, and stop or slow down. This template society we are creating is clearly the road to madness. … Must blog about this!
I am worried that the City of Oxford is poised to approve a long-term plan for the development of the city that will not accomplish its objectives. Reviews of the Oxford Local Plan have complimented the drafters for how well it is written. Reviewers have been impressed by the vision it portrays which promises to balance the various tradeoffs inevitably faced in land use planning. However, the critics do not call out the serious risks that the plan poses for what is valued in Oxford by current and future residents and visitors.
Think of the fundamental physical realities of its proposals: The city is limited by the ring road and the green belt to a constrained physical space. Already, the city is seriously congested. In that context, the Council proposes to add thousands of additional households. Inevitably, the results will be:
Even greater congestion;
Reduced restrictions on the height of buildings and households with inevitable diminishment of the Oxford skyline behind taller buildings;
The loss of parking spaces, and diminished garden spaces, when parking and gardens are already quite limited, and the loss of sunlight blocked by developments higher and closer to existing structures;
A potential loss of families, who will choose to move to areas where they can drive their children to schools and sporting events;
Building on a large proportion of the ‘buildable’ green belt (land that is not in flood plains that could not be built upon in any case).
There is likely a tipping point in growing Oxford at which the congestion and over-build will truly undermine its special character, and make it what the Council envisions – a ‘grown up’ city that is no more special than other cities. That might bring a reduction in housing prices but also a growth of the problems facing other grown up cities, such as further deterioration of businesses, tourism and housing in the central city.
Almost everything that we value in the City of Oxford today is at risk for the promise of a vision that appears to me to be overly optimistic, such as moving hotels in neighbourhoods like Summertown in order to shift activity outside the city central core. That has been the dream in so many cities, and has never worked to my knowledge. It will simply add to the capacity of hotels across the city and enable more people to visit Oxford’s core city. Good but not at the cost of undermining the quality of these neighbourhoods.
So why is the Council proposing what seems will inevitably undermine the quality of Oxford?
However, compare this sum to the sums of other developments. Over £400M was invested in the development of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre. So, one new shopping centre in the city has attracted far more money than the City’s long-term plan will attract from the central government. Surely there will be additional revenues from the development of more housing, new hotels, but at what cost? Moreover, the shopping centre added value to the city, and renovated a deteriorated area, while the plans threaten to diminish the value of our entire city.
So I am worried that the Council is putting the character of Oxford at risk for less than the price of a modern shopping centre. The outcomes of implementing this plan are unknowable. There are likely to be unanticipated and unintended and indirect outcomes as well as any of the intended outcomes that are envisioned. The Council cannot possibly know the consequences of their plans, even if written with the best of intentions, beyond the promise of money from central government.
What should be done? In my opinion, the city should slow down. Don’t strap the City with this Oxford Local Plan that is so problematic. Instead, focus on affordable housing, and move more incrementally. Make decisions based on considering the details of particular cases. Insure that key constituencies are involved, such as the Oxford Preservation Trust, and residents – genuinely listening to the public, including the many schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and residents in the city. Have a rolling, evolving plan that is revisited continually and does not set Oxford on a potentially harmful long-range course at a moment in time filled with uncertainties. There is too much to lose, and too little to gain, for the city to commit to the current, overly optimistic and ambitious plan, however well-written.
That said, I would welcome comments, criticisms, or corrections of any aspects of this plan that I failed to understand.
Resident of Oxford
Oxford Local Plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/743/the_local_plan
Staying Connected to Media and Information Policy in the States
I may have left the USA and Michigan State University (MSU) to return to my home in the UK, but my days at MSU’s Quello Center have left me with a continuing interest in following developments in media and information policy worldwide, and in the US, in particular. With that in mind, I have been so pleased to have been invited to participate in two networks that are key to my interests:
I helped build the Advisory Board of the Quello Center while Director from 2014-2018, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity to joining as a member of the Board. The Center has put together a very strong network of individuals from academia, business and industry, and government to keep the James H. Quello Center alerted to the key issues on the horizon. My education on the Board will hopefully be one unintended consequence.
The TPRC Board of Directors
TPRC stands for the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, which puts together an annual conference, more recently entitled ‘Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy’. The conference has been held for over 45 years, and needless to say, it has successfully evolved with the times and the issues around media, information, and communication technology and associated issues of public policy and regulation. The Board is a virtual wish-list of people to stay in touch with about new developments, and I look forward to participating in its meetings both remotely and at their annual conference.
I would not have been invited to join either group had I not directed the Quello Center for four years. So I’m grateful to my colleagues at the Center and MSU for that opportunity, and I’ll do my best to actively stay in touch with initiatives at the Center, where Johannes Bauer is Director, and Laleah Fernandez is Assistant Director, and also follow initiatives across the US communication and technology and policy arena more generally.
My thanks to the members of both organizations for these invitations.