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Some thoughts on print newspapers

When people who otherwise know me and Wendy very well come round to our house, they not infrequently express surprise at newspapers lying around the place. But, whatever others might think, both Wendy and I like a print newspaper. For both of us, the serendipity of newsprint is inspiring: we often find our views challenged by a newspaper presenting something that we hadn’t previously considered, or highlighting an alternative angle on something we thought we knew. This is the newspaper playing the role of an anti-Facebook: not presenting us with stuff we are likely to like, but instead presenting us with stuff which is well outside our field of knowledge and experience.

On top of this, there happens to be a large overlap in the Venn diagram of good journalists and journalists employed by print news organisations. So as well as reading print newspapers, I also subscribe to a number of digital versions of newspapers from the UK and the USA, often to follow specific journalists. There are some journalists whose byline on an article means it’s worth reading, even if it’s about something I would never normally be interested in: Will Storr is an example. There are some journalists who are so expert and well-connected in their field that their byline means an article will provide new insight into a topic: Tim Shipman is an example. There are some journalists who understand the value of explaining the significance of a story, don’t cry wolf, and aren’t afraid to explain that the frontpage splash is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things: Matt Chorley is an example. And, at the other end of the spectrum, one quickly gets to know the bylines to avoid, the journalists who will almost certainly have failed to understand the material they are covered, whose work will almost inevitably contain at least one major error of fact: it seems rude to give an example.

Another advantage of traditional print is that it is slow. Breaking news frequently demands our attention but is rarely worthy of it. The implications of news are rarely understood at the moment it breaks, not least as so little is generally known. Speculation is often worse than unhelpful, separating fact from fiction is rarely possible in the moment, and vacuous commentary often precedes facts. Farhad Manjoo’s article for the New York Times this week discussed relying solely on print newspapers for news and was particularly clear on this. Delayed Gratification is even better than newspapers for this: it presents news on a three-month delay, allowing much fuller analysis and discussion than anyone could hope to achieve in the first three minutes.

Of course, both me and Wendy also regularly read news online and on our phones. We don’t exclusively read newspapers. But I think, for both of us, they form an important part of our news ‘diet’.

I was set thinking about all of this after seeing a data story by Kirby Swales in April’s Prospect. Swales’s suggestion is that the BBC News website has essentially cannibalised the tabloid newspaper market (perhaps the reason the BBC feels it necessary to write full articles on a reality star’s Instagram post and ‘listicles’ about Twitter storms). To me, the biggest surprise in that data is that less than half the adult population of the UK regularly reads news online.

I don’t really have a point to make in this post. I suppose I’m just musing without conclusion that I like newspapers, their circulation is falling, and with ever-more news available online, the proportion of people engaging with it is really quite small. Maybe society is disengaging from journalism. Or maybe habits are changing in less dramatic ways. I don’t know.


The picture at the top is from Jeff Eaton on Flickr and is used here under Creative Commons licence.

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In praise of ‘Mozart in the Jungle’

I’ve mentioned Mozart in the Jungle on here before. It’s a wonderful Amazon Prime comedy-drama about passion, professionalism and music. Inspired by Blair Tindall’s autobiography of the same name, the show follows both the appointment of a new conductor to the New York Symphony Orchestra and the travails of a young oboist trying to break into the orchestral big league.

It stars Gael García Bernal and Lola Kirke who both give performances of a lifetime alongside an all-star ensemble. It is creative and imaginative to the point of being a bit nuts sometimes. What other show would have Lang Lang on as a guest star and feature his piano performance with the sound replaced by Daft Punk? And yet, this made for one of the most memorable scenes in four seasons. And the third season featured the most beautiful cinematography of Venice I have ever seen. And, of course, the whole series features fantastic orchestration spanning all kinds of music.

Mozart in the Jungle is a completely brilliant show. And yet, Amazon has decided to cancel it. I really hope someone else picks it up.

This 2,427th post was filed under: Media, Posts delayed by 12 months, Video, , , , , , , , .

Thoughts on the restoration of ex-BBC Television Centre

I’m writing this in the courtyard of Television Centre in West London, which I happened to be passing today. I’m gazing up at the newly restored statue of Helios and watching the repaired fountains dance as they never have on any previous visit.

I think for most British people of my age, Television Centre is the home of Going Live, Live & Kicking, Blue Peter, Ed the Duck, Otis the Aardvark, and Philip Schofield and Andi Peters’s broom cupboard. After the BBC moved off the site in 2013, it has been closed for restoration and redevelopment, with luxury apartments the order of the day—albeit with three television studios remaining. It seems ironic that two-thirds of the studios in a location so closely associated with the BBC are to become the new standing home of iconic ITV programmes like This Morning any day now.

I last visited Television Centre with Wendy, a few months before it closed.

We were lucky enough to secure a place on one of the final tours of the building and were fascinated to get an understanding of the mechanics of production of TV shows (and especially news programmes). This aspect was far more interesting to both of us than the celebrity anecdotes, tour of the Match of the Day set, or inevitable visit to the gift shop.

We both felt a little uncomfortable at the tour of the ‘celebrity’ dressing rooms, knowing that they were the settings for sexual abuse: our visit coincided with a 12-month period in which horrific historical examples of abuse at the BBC were being recalled almost daily on the front pages of newspapers. The fabric of the building was also falling apart at the seams, the sense of magic ebbing away with the physical as much as the moral dilapidation.

Towards the end of the tour, we were press-ganged into making up the numbers for the studio audience of a recording of a truly terrible daytime game show which we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of since. In a high-pressured time-limited trivia finale, the host fluffed the reading of almost every question. He then got to record ‘pick-ups’, having a second (and occasionally third) go at reading them correctly. The contestant didn’t get a second go at answering them, and so presumably ended up appearing inexplicably flummoxed by perfectly simple questions, through no fault of her own. “TV magic”, it seems, still favours the “talent”.

This afternoon, Television Centre is quiet. In fact, as I tap away, I’m the only person in the courtyard. At least from the outside, the restoration appears sympathetic. The front of the site looks all the better for the landscaping that has replaced the exterior car park, which also has the effect of making the Centre seem smaller and more intimate.

I expected to feel a certain sense of melancholy from coming to a place to which I once felt such a close connection, knowing that a part of our collective cultural heritage had been auctioned off to the highest bidder and converted into apartments I could never hope to afford. And yet, that is not how I feel.

Perhaps incongruously, I feel a strange sense of satisfaction at seeing the building sympathetically restored. The impression is of quality and accessible historical grandeur, and it feels strangely as though the hope for the future inherent in redevelopment has frightened away the collected ghosts of the past.

It doesn’t feel like a wonderous “TV factory” any more, as it did from a distance in my childhood; but nor does it feel like a tainted crime scene, as it did on my last visit. It feels like a housing development sympathetically built around a listed building—which is, I suppose, exactly what it is.

This 2,423rd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Why the Cambridge Analytica story is a warning to Sky

Over the past week or so, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have barely been out of the news. The central thrust of the story is that people consented to share information with Facebook and apps hosted on Facebook, which has then been used to target advertisements. It is claimed that these targeted advertisements influenced the US Presidential Election and the UK’s EU membership referendum. Despite frequent uses of phrases like “hack” and “data breach” in the news coverage, none of this actually involved anything other than use of information for which people had given consent—but the consent may not have been truly informed consent, because people simply clicked “Agree” without reading. (This old story, in which users of free wifi universally agreed to hand over their eldest child in exchange for internet access, feels relevant here.)

To anyone interested in technology, nothing in this story is particularly surprising, and I think its fair to characterise most of the tech press as struggling to cover it. Even Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist credited with highlighting this story, reportedly sees herself as a feature writer who translated something well-known among the well-informed into a story with mass appeal, rather than uncovering anything new.

To me, that the adverts on Facebook feeds are not randomly chosen seems self-evident. And yet, there is plenty of evidence that many people don’t even recognise adverts in their Facebook feeds, let alone wonder how they were chosen. The coverage of Cambridge Analytica seems to suggest that many users are agape at the revelation that Facebook adverts exist and are targeted at users. In some quarters, the anger at Facebook is offset by the fact that the service is free to use and “has to make money somehow”.

If I were an investor in Sky, I would be worried right now. Unbeknown, I suspect, to the vast majority of its users, Sky targets TV ads via a platform called AdSmart. Sky boxes download adverts overnight and then play back commercials targeted at households in ad breaks. Or, as they put it,

With Sky AdSmart different ads can be shown to different households watching the same programme.

Sky uses an enormous amount of probabilistic data on subscriber households to enable this targeting, including everything from household income, the age of cars owned by household members, the month of renewal of insurance policies, the pets owned by householders, whether subscribers are pregnant, and even the compass direction in which the householder’s garden faces. Sky promotes this to advertisers as an

in-depth knowledge of Sky households … There are thousands of combinations to choose from when selecting the audience that sees your ad. Households can be selected based on factors such as age, location, life style or even if they have a cat … allowing advertisers to cherry-pick their audiences.

If people don’t expect targeted advertising on a platform where they proactively share much of their life, then I suspect that they are even less expectant of being profiled and targeted with advertising while they are catching up on the latest soaps. While folk post about their cats on Facebook with alarming frequency, I think many people would be upset to learn that Sky knows whether they own a pet, let alone that this knowledge is used to show them relevant TV ads. And, of course, users pay Sky hefty subscription fees each month, negating the “has to make money somehow” mitigation.

Nobody can claim that Sky is anything other than open about AdSmart, and I am quite certain that they will have legally compliant consent from subscribers as part of the terms and conditions of their service. But all of that is also true of targeted advertising on Facebook. To me, AdSmart feels intuitively like a programme ripe for “exposure” through a talented journalist like Carole Cadwalladr. While the press has less of an incentive to attack Sky than it does to attack Facebook, I would be worried if I were Sky.


The picture at the top is based on an original posted on Flickr by Sarah Joy. I’ve modified it and used it here under its Creative Commons licence. The Sky AdSmart picture in the middle is a promotional image owned by Sky Group, used here under the ‘fair dealing’ exception to copyright law.

This 2,422nd post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , .

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