The News as a Novel

Born YesterdayAm reading Gordon Burns’ Born Yesterday at the moment. Burn is one of my favourite writers, whether he’s producing non-fiction such as his remarkable books about serial killers (Peter Sutcliffe in Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son; Fred and Rose West in Happy Like Murderers) or the recent Best and Edwards about the Manchester United players; or fiction like Alma Cogan and Fullalove.

His writes brilliantly about celebrity, and infamy, and describes rather than explains, leaving you to make your own mind up. In other words, he treats the reader like an intelligent person.

With Born Yesterday, though, he is drifting into more experimental territory, presenting news stories from last summer – the search for Madeleine McCann, Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair etc – as a continuous narrative, pointing out the coincidences and connections as he goes. In many ways with this book Burn is delving into the kind of stuff that B.S. Johnson would approve of, effectively writing a non-fiction novel. Johnson famously considered that telling stories was telling lies, and therefore a Bad Thing (for a good introduction to Johnson and his work, Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant is superb. He is famous for doing stuff like having a hole cut into the pages of a novel so the reader can see into the future by reading the text a few pages in advance).

Burn is fundamentally right in that the news these days is a novel. Much of the news and the way in which it is presented seems to have more in common with soap opera plots than traditional reporting: the McCann issue being a case in point, with the attitude towards the parents of the missing girl wavering between sympathy, then approbation, mistrust and back to sympathy again.

But the news now is a story in which we can all participate. Being halfway through, I’m not sure if Burn will touch on the role that we all can have now as citizen journalists, or social reporters. But the images that we take on our mobile phones and post to Flickr or Facebook, or the video we capture and stream through services like Qik, or the opinions we report on our blogs and social network profiles all add to the primordial soup of content from which the news will be formed. As traditional media organisations get more and more wise to the role that citizen journalism can play, we will see a preponderance of amateur news reporting, creating a richer tapestry from which the news ‘novel’ can be formed.

Burn has the advantage of looking back at events and seeing them within a wider context. Perhaps this is the role that traditional media will play in the future, pulling together all the threads of the content produced by us, reporting on what is going on around us.

Update: By sheer chance, there was an article on B.S. Johnson on Guardian Online yesterday.

Getting things into the open

David Wilcox has taken the bull by the horns and created an open thread on the OpenRSA blog calling for a more collaborative approach to the discussion on jounalism being carried out on the RSA networks platform. This debate is one which takes into account trust in news media, and could also pull in issues around the role of the BBC in civic life.

I’m personally most interested in breaking out of the old media professional boundaries because I think greatest innovation – and citizen empowerment – is likely to take place as old cultures are challenged, openly. It’s time the newspeople stopped seeing those that they write for as “news users”, now we are producing a lot of our own content online.

The issue at the RSA is not one of platform – the Drupal based system used by the Networks is superb – but of worldview. David and I were the most consistent contributors to the discussion, but I felt my time there was up when a message was posted by a project leader confirming that the desire was to keep the debate ‘on topic’ and ‘informed’. As neither a journalist nor a fellow of the RSA, I guess this counted me, and anything I had to add, out.

I’ll be following the debate through the comments to David’s post, and anything else tagged with civicjournalismuk. I have my platform here, which I am happy to use to contribute with – or when the time is right for a dedicated platform to be created, I can use that – as long as it is open!

Private and public collaboration

RSA Networks

There is an interesting project underway at RSA Networks, the social network for Royal Society fellows, and, for the moment at least, anyone else who fancies joining in (that’s the category I belong to, by the way). It has been proposed by Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and goes by the name of the “RSA Journalism Network”:

The public’s declining trust in the news media is a worrying trend. The RSA and the Reuters Institute of Journalism are looking at how we can support the civic function of news. We’re particularly interested in how professional journalists and Fellows relate to the public’s ideas about news and what it is for.

This is a great idea, and an important and interesting area for discussion. The web is a perfect place for the coversation to be held in, of course, because online developments are a part of both the problem and the cure for the relevance of news to people’s lives.

David Wilcox has commented on his blog about this project – again supportive of it but questioning the closed nature of the discussion on the RSA Networks platform. As anyone not a member of the network will find out, when clicking my link above, you can’t see anything without first logging in.

I can’t see how it is possible to have a useful discussion about media and citizenship in an old-style walled garden. You can link out – but people outside are then forced to come to “your place” to join in. This seems particularly inappropriate on this topic, where issues are so interesting precisely because the Internet has created a public commons.

David has started a similar thread within the project space on the RSA Network too. I’m fully supportive of his stance, having been happily involved in open online collaborative projects such as the Open Innovation Exchange, RuralNetOnline, the Membership Project and the etoolkit.

It’s far better to have these conversations out in the open, where people can read and find out more before they decide to dive in, and where people can add their thoughts whether they are a member of a specific network or not. The civic role of news is something that matters to everyone, not just RSA members, or whatever.

One of the ways that the web can help us to bring conversations together is through the use of tagging. By using tags effectively, people can write about a subject on their own blogs without needing to join another platform. All you need is  way of bringing them together, easily achieved by mixing up Technorati or Google Blog Search with RSS. Services like Pageflakes or Planetaki can then be used to publish the results.

Another way is to create the new platform, but make it open, rather as David does with his Drupal-based group blogs. Anyone can join and have an input, even if it is just to point to what they have written elsewhere. Indeed, David has taken this further by incorporating a Grazr-based widget displaying relevant content from various external blogs within the Membership Project group blog. In this way, those that have a blog can write there, and those that don’t can contribute directly to the group blog.

David is actively facilitating the Membership Project by posting regular updates and transferring the points that are made in the blog posts into a project timeline and associated work packages, thereby creating outputs from the organic content created through the group blogging process. This will be vital to keep the project moving forward, and is a great example of online community facilitation.

Taking this approach would therefore create a far more useful project, or network, than the current arrangements for the  RSA Journalism Network. I think this is too important a topic for discussion to be held behind closed doors, and for the moment I would like to suggest the use of the common tag civicjournalismuk to hold the conversation together for anyone who would like to have a say. We can figure out what to do with it all later. Let’s see how our open approach can feed into and add to what’s happening within the walled garden…