Emily Bell: Hugh Cudlipp Lecture 2015

21 Mins read

This is the text of the 12th annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture, as delivered by Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow centre for digital journalism, and former editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited.

[dropcap background=”yes”]”[/dropcap]Good evening everyone, I want to thank Natalie Brett, Karin Askham, Paul Charman, the Cudlipp Trust, London College of Communication, UAL, the Daily Mirror, and Hugh Cudlipp in absentia for giving me the great honour of talking to you all tonight.

I was a tabloid journalist for one day.

This is not the beginning of a Daily Mail confessional but a statement of fact. I did one shift one the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard when I was a student.

The highlight of the day, and probably my career, was lunch in the pub with Keith Waterhouse – for the students here looking bemused, in those days lunch in the pub with Keith Waterhouse for a student journalist would be the equivalent today of Taylor Swift liking your tumblr post and sending you a box of biscuits.

Despite bonding with Keith and writing a lead item after three gin and tonics, I was sacked. Or rather not asked back. Not it seems for being drunk at my desk, that seemed entirely expected, but for not being posh enough.

I had a posh name, I went to a posh University so they assumed I would be posh – a conduit for the goings on in Eton Square.

So before you say what does a Guardian journalist who teaches at an Ivy League university know about tabloid journalism, I just want you to know, I was once a tabloid journalist but not posh enough to make a career out of it.

Tonight I want to talk to you about the ‘Digital Tabloid’. What is happening to popular journalism on the web.

Tabloids always had the biggest reach, the largest impact, the most flexible standards. On the web, however, we are seeing the tabloidisation of everything. I don’t mean this as a negative. Far from it.

All news outlets need numbers in the web economy that are vastly greater than they had in an analogue world firstly to make the economics work and secondly to have an impact.

The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

But attaining size in the world we are going into means surrendering control to the systems that deliver it. Going viral is a goal in nearly all newsrooms.

The protocols and networks that deliver it were never conceived with the idea of journalism in mind. I think this has brought us to a very interesting and challenging moment in the press and in broader society.

The ‘too long didn’t read’ version of this speech is journalism needs a lot more journalists who are technically proficient, and the new gods, the platform companies, social networks and search engines, need to hire a lot more technologists who are proficient in news.

Because at the moment we have a situation which is not working for either of us. Those of us engaged with what journalism is and will be, who have a direct and vested interest in the protection of free speech and standards for information have a lot to do, and we need to work together, because we are now part of one continuous global information loop.

Hugh Cudlipp – Lord Cudlipp, as he became – understood that to have authority, impact and a business model you had to achieve scale. And he did. At its peak of five million the Daily Mirror was the bestselling newspaper in the world.

It achieved that by a combination of three things: a strong sense of what role journalism could play in the lives of its audience, great reporting and courageous independent editing, and a thorough knowledge of how to put contemporary technology to the service of journalism.

Cudlipp was highly creative within the boundaries of his time. I wonder now, confronted with unbounded possibilities, what would Hugh Cudlipp do? How would he interpret the job of the editor and journalist in the digital age?

When he was appointed editorial director of the Mirror in 1952, newspaper groups were the big beasts in the information landscape. They were the way that people found out about the world, their only competition coming from BBC radio news and from newsreels.

At that time, there was not really a proper television news service. Even during the rise of TV news, which changed journalism profoundly, newspaper businesses retained a dominant position in the media industry and in popular culture.

The internet and the worldwide web have transformed that landscape. We are seeing unimaginably large new entities, which get their size from publishing not just a selected number of stories but everything in the world.

Social networks and search engines are the masters of this universe. As we see the disappearance of print as a significant medium, and the likely decline of broadcast television, the paths our stories and journalism must travel down to reach readers and viewers are being shaped by technologies beyond our control.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center suggested that 39 per cent of Americans had seen news on politics and government on Facebook in the past week.

Another Pew study confirmed that thirty per cent of US adults consider Facebook to be a key source of all news. In Britain, the number of people getting their news from social media is rising.

A poll for Havas, quoted in the Press Gazette in October, found 27 per cent of people used Facebook as a source for local news, and 11 per cent used Twitter.

The platforms might change, next year WhatsApp, the year after who knows, but the behaviour will not – these numbers will only increase. And we as journalists have been in turn both enthusiastically and reluctantly complicit in this growth.

The most powerful trend in journalism today is full integration with reporting, presentation and distribution of journalism through the social web. The sharing and liking economy is literally changing the shape of what we do at a pace we are running to keep up with.

Twenty years ago we had the first creaky efforts to get newspapers onto the internet at all, squeezed through copper wires and dial up modems. Fifteen years ago no one had a camera in their mobile phone, ten years ago no-one had a smartphone.

Five years ago Instagram didn’t exist. Today, the ‘new newsroom’ has optimisation desks, to make stories work better on social media, data scientists who analyse the information about story performance to tell journalists how to write headlines, produce photographs and report stories which will be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ more than others.

It has aggregation desks, which scour the web to find news that ordinary people have posted for a wider audience. It has audience insight desks that work on how to get more people to spend longer reading more journalism.

And it has data desks, which take the newly available sources of information in vast quantities and use the latest mining tools and techniques to clean, interpret and visualise information in new ways.

The “social media team” is no longer the group of people bullying you to tweet your story, but now key to the operation of how and what you report. The practice of good social media use, finding verifying and disseminating stories, are core to reporting, not simply a wrapper for ‘proper journalism’.

No matter where a journalist’s work is published, on television, in a glossy magazine or on page three, it is now shared and discussed in a digital environment. Increasingly as a journalist you do your work in public and away from the content management system of your own publication.

Integrating with the web means responding, quickly, to what people want. The way the new social media platforms have been designed encourages certain types of use and elevates certain types of journalism.

The formats that work well on social media have certain characteristics Hugh Cudlipp would have been familiar with. Lists work well, pictures are even better, games are even better than that, headlines need to be intriguing and chatty, there needs to be bathos and pathos: a cat involved, or a wombat falling off a sofa.

A viral story is the holy grail. And viral does not mean a couple of hundred thousand any more, it means millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Almost every news operation, with a very small number of exceptions, is pursuing this model in some form or another.

Tabloid or popular journalism is being done by the same outlets that produce the most serious chin-stroking think-pieces. In 2005 the Huffington Post pioneered this ‘mullet strategy’ for journalism, which looked neat and respectable at the front, wild and hairy at the back.

The overall effect might be jarring, but generally people are choosing to only look at one side at once. That approach is now refined by a new generation of digitally native news organisations like Buzzfeed, Vice, Upworthy and Mashable.

Even legacy news companies are getting in on the act. It is great to be giving this talk at the Mirror because of the ‘red top’ papers, it is making the most progress on the web.

Through the snappy news games and visualisations of its own internal start-ups, UsVsTh3m and Ampped, it is experimenting with the different ways serious news can reach a wider audience.

A few months ago I had coffee with a senior journalist in New York whose editor-in-chief had been expressing dismay at how little traffic was being referred back to their stories from social media platforms.

‘What is the right percentage?’ they asked, ‘does anybody know?’. No. But it seems we are all working on it and the general view is: the higher the better. There is a whole other talk I could give at how bad we are currently at measuring journalism.

Social media companies know that having the news industry fully engaged and using their tools is important to them. Every major social platform has a team dedicated to working with newsrooms to help them get the most out of their technologies.

Until now, though, this relationship has been mostly a one-way street. Journalism has been engaging on the terms of technological values created in Silicon Valley. And Silicon Valley has in return been putting a tiny fraction of its billions into working with journalists.

The balance has now tipped though to a point where this is likely to change. The numbers suggest that these super platforms ARE the free press, taking over many of the functions of the mainstream media.

Social networks are now attracting the same pressures and challenges at a much larger scale that journalism and civic media has wrestled with for years.

YouTube has one billion visitors a month, four hundred hours of video is uploaded every minute, we watch on average an hour of video on YouTube every month for every person on earth.

In social networks the numbers are similarly impressive. Facebook has over 800 million active users, WhatsApp has 700 million, Instagram has over 300m… and for the astute in the audience, you will know that Facebook owns all three of those properties.

Twitter has 300 million active users, but 40 per cent of people just use Twitter to read not tweet. Google, which owns YouTube, has a market capitalisation of $340 billion.

By contrast, the once unstoppable Murdoch companies, across publishing and TV, have a combined market capitalisation of around $80 billion. That’s only just about twice the size of Twitter.

And on the web, Britain’s largest daily newspaper, The Sun has 225,000 subscribers. I say that not to make a cheap joke, but to illustrate an important point. The Sun on the web has a paywall, a subscription model which works for News International, but it is no longer part of the popular journalism ecosystem, because its young male readership are all laughing at the Lad Bible on Facebook.

Journalism is a thin thread in a vast new global tapestry of conversation and information. But that thread, I would argue, keeps the whole cloth together, because when it works as it should, gives people a daily feed of important, entertaining, interesting and vital information.

As social media become increasingly powerful in our economy and in our culture, we are beginning both to see the consequences of a global free information society.

We might also – dare I say it – start to miss the sense of mission historically associated with the press. The problems the press creates when it works badly – errors of fact and interpretation, opacity, carelessness – are amplified by new technology and new capabilities.

We need the values of journalism in software as much as we need the software systems supporting journalism.

What are those values? Making sure news is accurate, which seems pretty basic, being accountable for it if it is not accurate, being transparent about the source of stories and information, standing up to governments, pressure groups, commercial interests, the police, if they intimidate, threaten or censor you.

Protecting your sources against arrest and disclosure. Knowing when you have a strong enough public interest defence to break the law and being prepared to go to jail to defend your story and sources. Knowing when it is unethical to publish something.

Balancing individual rights to privacy with the broader right of the public interest. I am not saying the traditional press has always covered itself in glory in carrying out these functions. In fact, all too often the opposite has been the case.

But I think we can all agree that these principles are not high-minded unattainable objectives but basic requirements for anyone aiming to do good journalism. These responsibilities are not however “shared” or even “liked” very much by social platforms.

Google and Facebook are magnitudes larger and richer than any other entities, and more influential in terms of reach than any press company in history. Until now though, the default position of participants in the sharing economy, with the exception perhaps of Twitter, has been to avoid the expensive responsibilities and darker more complex aspects of hosting the free press.

This is understandable. Engineers are not trained to think about moral consequences, they are educated to produce efficient systems, which they earnestly and often rightly believe will improve society.

Similarly most journalists do not know nearly enough about technology to understand that how you design software, what you include in algorithms, are essentially editorial decisions.

Both sides of this equation has to change. We are taking it seriously as a mission at Columbia Journalism School where we teach data, computational journalism and as of this year digital security, at a higher level to more students than any other journalism school in the world.

That is not so much a boast, but rather a sign that, like the profession journalism education is scrambling to get across these issues. Our research program at the Tow Center is looking at the intersection of technology and journalism and how it is and will change our field.

Our subjects include how new technologies, from drones and sensors, to virtual reality, to bots that read and write stories are going to affect journalism. Ethics and legality are central to these studies.

How social platforms and journalism work together will be a major research project starting this year and so will algorithmic accountability, which is rapidly becoming one of the most important stories of our time.

The veracity and transparency of our news and information is too important to be left to just commercial non-journalistic entities. But Journalism Schools are the beginning of the pipeline, not the end. I am glad we are up with – even ahead of the industry – in identifying these areas and training journalists to be fluent in technology.

But to have real impact the change must also happen in every part of the system. I’ve argued before and I am going to argue again tonight, that the mission that motivated Cudlipp and other great editors, the reason why he worked so assiduously at building the largest possible audiences, is a mission, which must find its new digital expression.

It has to be shared by all who profit from the world telling stories to itself. Cudlipp was a master of form and format. He knew he had to connect to audiences in language they understood, with all the methods technology gave him.

In creating journalism of impact today though, we have to go through exactly the same process as Hugh Cudlipp did then. We have to decide how to make an impact, without the benefit of owning or controlling the distribution chain.

In a report I co authored in 2012 with Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson, called Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the present, we talked about exactly this system of mass publishing empowerment, and that journalism, as it became distributed in new systems faced a dilemma.

On the one hand it enables individuals so news is made and shared outside the newsroom. On the other it weakens the institutions that have traditionally made journalism strong.

Although all of us see vastly more benefit in the systems we have now, the problem of how to strengthen journalism in its broadest sense, under its new definitions is a hard one.

Let’s look at practical examples and what I am talking about Here are two people you might never have heard of: Jordi Maier and Ramsey Orta. You might not have heard of them but you have I guarantee seen their work on every news channel, in every paper, on every news website you visit in the last three months.

Jordi Mir lives in Paris. On Wednesday 7 January ago he happened to look out of his apartment window when he heard a disturbance in the street. What he saw were two masked gunmen, and as a reflex he took out his phone to film them.

With a remarkably steady hand he captured the horrifying footage of the two assailants murdering policeman Ahmed Merabet as he lay on the ground, part of the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

What he did next, Mir told Agence France Presse, was he put it on Facebook. He reflex to publish came from his frequent use of social media. ‘I take a picture of a cat, I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex’. Stupid or heroic?

After ten minutes or so Mir, still in shock, reconsidered his decision to publish the film to his 2,500 Facebook friends and took it down. But by then it was too late. Someone had uploaded the video to YouTube.

Within an hour, Mir was alarmed to see his own film on the television news. The clip is an iconic, chilling, unforgettable and informative set of images from the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The film is undoubtedly in the public interest. If you had shot it as a journalist you WOULD have filed it. But it is also an invasion of Mr. Merabet’s privacy, a shock to his grieving family who cannot unsee the footage, and potentially a risk to Mr. Mir himself.

Jordi Mir didn’t have the luxury of an editor or even the possibility of changing his mind. He doesn’t now have the protection of an editor or the legal advice of leading counsel from any of the organisations who used his film.

Now let’s take the case of Ramsey Orta. Orta is a 22 year-old Staten Island resident with let’s say a slightly sketchy record with the police, who on 17 July last year was standing on Bay Street with his friend Eric Garner, who had just broken up a fight on the pavement.

The police arrived once the scuffle was over, but instead of driving off the officers turned their attention to Garner, a father of six who was known to police for the petty tax crime of selling loose cigarettes.

In questioning Garner about his own activities, the police moved in on him, he was put in an illegal choke hold and wrestled to the ground. His friend Orta did what Mir did in Paris; he got out his phone and filmed the incident. ‘I can’t breathe’ said Garner as the policeman throttled him; the film shows an asthmatic Garner lying cuffed on the ground.

He repeated the words ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times. We know this because we have Orta’s film. The chokehold and restraint made Garner lose consciousness, and as we now know he died of a heart attack on the way to hospital in an ambulance.

Orta’s video found its way to the New York Daily News and its publication was a spur to the outrage and disbelief New York citizens felt when in August a Grand Jury decided not to indict any officers involved.

Hundreds of thousands of people stopped traffic in New York and around the country; the New York Police Department has been in open revolt against its mayor. Along with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri it has blown open the most important social issue of racial inequality.

Someone involved in the case was arrested, though. Orta, the man who shot the video, on separate gun possession charges, a day after the Grand Jury decision. Police point to a long record of minor offences, Orta says he was targeted and set up for shooting the film.

As with Mir, Orta reflexively performed a spontaneous act of a witness, of journalism, which has had personal consequences for him that he might not have anticipated. He said he always pulls his phone out if he thinks the police might arrest him, as protection.

I use these sensational stories which had such tangible effects as an illustration of what impact a single person can have, but also to highlight how we now have publishing systems which can amplify every act, alert the world to important events, but which also don’t yet afford these new forms of journalism the same protections as the old.

They don’t give Jordi Mir the protection of an editing process or Ramsey Orta the authority of an institution. Journalism is moving faster than the speed of thought. It is spreading beyond the newsroom, beyond geographic and cultural boundaries that once limited audiences, carried there by platforms engineered for instantaneous global communication.

Mir and Orta are not “journalists” but they were sources. They were not on the staff of any newspaper or agency; they were not paid a salary; they had had no training; they were not members of any union, they have no added protections that might be afforded to the press.

It is important for social platforms and news organisations to include the people with the mobile phones who fill our pages, because we need them, and we have a responsibility towards them in both a broad and specific sense.

They might not be journalists but they are part of our ecosystem of news. Last year we produced a report from the Tow Center, which evaluated how much amateur footage, was now used across a number of broadcast TV bulletins.

Our researchers found that footage is used daily, but that newsrooms are very bad at crediting the individuals or even at training staff to use verification techniques. Companies like Storyful, which was recently bought by Rupert Murdoch, were ahead of the curve in understanding that aggregation and authentication of material is a central function now for a newsroom.

This morning I woke up to an even more powerful example of why we have a problem. Yesterday the Guardian broke the story that Google had handed over private emails between WikiLeaks staff to the FBI in the wake of the cable leaks.

Google is legally obliged to do such a thing when presented with a warrant. However Google chose not to tell the staffers at WikiLeaks that they had handed over the material for nearly three years.

Google has been encouraging us to think of it as a platform that supports free speech, its several hundred thousand dollar contribution to Charlie Hebdo a case in point, this is a chilling reminder of either how little Google understands what supporting free speech means or it’s naked dishonesty.

It is inconceivable that a serious news organisation would do such a thing to a source and not be put out of business. It calls into question Google’s trustworthiness as a platform. It also highlights how poorly the press has behaved in respect of Wikileaks.

As Trevor Timm, head of the Freedom of the Press Foundation wrote for the Guardian today: ‘The outrageous legal attack on WikiLeaks and its staffers…is an attack on Freedom of the Press itself and it’s shocking more people aren’t raising their voices (and pens and keyboards) in protest’.

Healthy journalism relies of a system, which supports all parts of a free press, and at the moment we don’t have that. As speed and scale dominate the world of information, how these platforms sort and present stories back to the world, and what they do with the data associated with them, is a matter of commercial sensitivity deep secrecy.

If they have our instant messages, emails and private contacts, but don’t protect sources, then as a society we are in deep trouble. Never before in the history of journalism has the power and reach of a small number of players had such a decisive effect on a market, and never before have we known so little about its operation.

Delving into the past of the Northcliffe dynasty, I was reminded that wealth that supported this great newspaper empire which created the Mirror, the Mail, the Sun and saved The Times and the Observer, came from a foundation on what its founder Alfred Harmsworth, described as ‘useless information’.

His first extremely popular publication was called Answers to Correspondents, and was the viral content of its day. I am sure that given the opportunity, Northcliffe would, had he been able to, made full use of digital formats – 17 horses that look like Sarah Bernhardt, 25 below stairs servants having a worse day than you, The Duchess of Kent got a new hairstyle and you’ll never guess what happened next.

The success of Northcliffe in his initial enterprise meant that much of the British press was built on this entrepreneurial understanding of how to exploit new literacy levels among working and middle class people.

It combined industrial publishing technologies and emergent mass transportation systems. What Hugh Cudlipp brought to this strategy was vision, empathy and – most importantly – mission.

In the internet age we are still in our ‘Answers’ phase of development. And we sorely need the mission. I don’t think this at all a hopeless observation, as we are seeing signs of serious success now for mainstream and even mass market digital journalism.

Right now we are seeing the rise of the first generation of large-scale digitally native news organisations, and the vigorous adoption of digital only strategies by existing legacy businesses.

The most successful new ‘digitally native’ journalism companies are those who have fully integrated themselves into the fabric of these new dominant platforms.

And the most successful legacy news organisations in terms of reaching large audiences on the web are those like the Daily Mail and the Guardian that have experimented with or shifted the format or substance of their journalism to do the same.

For the Guardian, it has meant relentlessly pursuing what we originally set out as long ago as 2001 to be ‘of the web and not just on the web’. For us at the time this meant web production and editorial working on an equal footing with our technologists and developers.

It also meant paying very close attention to what was happening on the web outside the field of journalism. For the Mirror, as mentioned before, it has meant new projects so far from traditional print stories they bend the definition of journalism in exactly the right way.

For ten years at the Guardian I had the great joy of working with a team that energetically went about experimenting with how we could translate the character and values of our journalism into our software development, our data policies, our digital reporting and formats.

We negotiated a route towards what Alan Rusbridger defined as open journalism. It came from a desire to build our technology and new forms of journalism with the same values that CP Scott had laid out over 150 years previously.

It set the Guardian on a path where it could publish the brilliant and important stories like WikiLeaks and the NSA disclosures, internationally and securely to far wider audiences than would have been possible in just print.

When I started working online at the Guardian in 2000 we had 1 million monthly users. When I left 10 years later we had sixty times that. Now it’s over 100 million.

The most startling publishing success story in America in the past five years has been Jonah Peretti’s transformation of Buzzfeed, which he started as a social traffic side project to the innovative Huffington Post, but which has grown into America’s most copied news company.

I visit many newsrooms around the world and the B word is everywhere. As Peretti himself says, there are great journalism institutions out there and there are excellent technology companies, but few places that pay as much attention to working on both as Buzzfeed.

And this is the key. Peretti himself is a creative technologist with editorial flair. Buzzfeed works on the principle of understanding the social web and building on top of it. It also works because it understands the math of the social web.

For Buzzfeed to grow its 400 strong staff the advertising rates of the Internet dictate it must have massive audiences. It is widely studied for being the sophistication of thought it gives to how technology and journalism work together.

Even the New York Times paid it significant attention in its own internal ‘Innovation’ report: ‘BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage.

They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content’, says the report. Peretti is like Lord Northcliffe on steroids.

The ‘Answers’ phase of his strategy lasted two years not twenty, and now he is adding foreign correspondents, feature writers and an investigations unit. I am hopeful even optimistic that this understanding of how to create and harness scale in mass-market journalism, can support serious mission and a new set of standards for journalism too.

There are also some signs that the social media companies are giving way on the point that they are not ‘just platforms’. We have seen just over the past year how Twitter decided it would intervene directly in the circulation of beheading videos.

Google now will have to formulate a better answer for its WikiLeaks decision than ‘we were just following the rules’. When we are building the new newsrooms of the future and working out how to make our journalism powerful on the social web, we need to build in some of the mission driven values and processes alongside the rocket fuel for our cat gifs.

We have cracked the problem of how to deliver popular journalism on the internet, with our mixture of cute animals and data science. We can crack the problem of how to make popular journalism important and robust in the digital world too.

But that isn’t a solo competitive enterprise, and it isn’t quick or easy. We will need more than investment in social sharing strategies to do so. We will need an open and collaborative dialogue both with each other, and with the new masters of the information universe who have the resources and the audiences to help.

We need to edit for new types of journalism and journalists, we need to recognise that the free press is more than professional journalists and more than platform technologies.

The digital tabloid sounds like an oxymoron and maybe it is. Popular journalism which reaches a mass market with reliable timely information that they want to read is as real and important as ever.

And publishing is powerful. Enormously, dangerously so. Hugh Cudlipp’s book bore the battle cry title for journalists: Publish And Be Damned! But that came from a time when we knew who the publishers were and what damnation meant.

This too is altered by the Internet. When terror organisations, psychopaths, corrupt corporations are the publishers damnation looks rather different to an angry phone call from Number 10.

Publish and be damned sounds daring, appealing almost. Publish and be murdered at your desk, publish and be overwhelmed with foul mouthed threatening messages, publish and be imprisoned without due process, publish and be beheaded for a publicity stunt, publish and be blown up in a basement in Homs, publish and have your office smashed up and your family intimidated, publish and put a stranger’s life in danger.

These sound less swashbuckling, much more threatening, and yet that is what is happening, not just in Paris, but in Egypt, in Mexico, in Iran, in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, in Britain, in America, everywhere in fact.

I think for a while journalism thought it couldn’t afford the difficult bits, the investigations, the new technology skills, the legal teams, the time for the more complicated problems.

We could only secure our survival with automatically generated dancing hamsters and robot-written press releases. Now when we look at the mighty new networks of our age, I hope we all realise, Us and Them, that these are the very things we can’t afford not to do.

What would Hugh Cudlipp do today? I like to think he would learn to code.

Thank you.”


Featured image by Lewis Bush

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