Simon Waldman, the BBC and where power lies.

Simon Waldman came to speak to the BBC yesterday trying to answer the question; “where does the power lie ?”. He didn’t really get round to answering it but he did spend
a brilliant 50 minutes trying to articulate shifting journalism trends to what turned out to be a fairly senior and mostly mainstream TV/Radio News audience.
Although he covered a lot of familiar ground for me (Wikipedia, Daily Kos, the Guardians’ Doonesbury moment, Google News, theguardian’s new user led print features, the Demos pro-am report, del.icio.us, mini microsoft) it was a great talk.

I especially liked his juxtaposition of this Ansel Adams picture with this taken by Adam Stacey from 7/7 and his argument that

“the fact that this exists doesn’t make professional photographers any the less”

He deliberately stressed that this is a pro-am world. Professionals and amateurs. He also reiterated that this was a boggle world (No bear with him..a convincing analogy that argues you have to offer both the mundane and the automated; Guardian Unlimited, for example, wisely decided to offer both the distinctive high quality journalism alongside the edited/tweaked wires when they launched in order to have a coherent successful offering. In Boggle you have to go for both low letter words and difficult 5/6 words in order to win. Ok you had to be there).

His opening gambit compared 1985 to 2005 and argued that the barriers to entry, distribution, findability have all but been removed resulting in these two truisms

  • When technology and access becomes neutral, then talent becomes more important.
  • Output/talent, however, improves with the feedback loop that the internet gives them.

This was virtually impossible in a pre Eddie Shah newspaper world, in a pre Sky TV world, a pre – Blogger publishing world. Owning and distributing ideas and journalism was restricted to the elite or that charming phrase; “big media” and seven figure sums. Well maybe. I’d challenge that a tad..
Obviously we have seen the roots of the creativity explosion before in small cultural bubbles before the internet gave us the universal cheap publishing tools, astonishing findability and software that facilitate sharing, collaboration, annotation, self policing and improvement. That virtuous circle that, taken to its extreme results in the 2 edits a second for 7/7 and Katrina on Wikipedia and the collaborative creation of immense value via the emergent intelligence systems such as Technorati, eBay trust and Del.icio.us.

Simon’s point was that although the conditions being expressed today through the likes of blogger, iLife, flickr and Skype, appear transient, in five years time; people’s creative desires and impulse to communicate would remain constant and still exist but the products and services served by these needs would have been replaced by new boys on the block. This impression that the internet has created new dynamics in journalism or culture is misplaced though (mind you i’m not sure Simon said that …refers to badly written notes…um…), I’d say again its just accelerated it. Its democratised it.

I like to hark back, being of a certain age (and some go even further) to the fanzine and just do it three chords culture of punk and post punk. The cheap access to publishing and tools then supplied by the growth of independent labels, the findability offered by the (then incredibly powerful) weekly music press and the growth of fanzines (themselves a result of cheap publishing tools such as new Xerox photocopiers), the distribution network of independent record shops and growth of live music friendly pubs, clubs, gigs and hey! get this the royal mail, resulted in a virtuous circle of sharing and collaboration. This, All combined with the desire to challenge the prevailing regime of prog rock, the Old Grey Whistle Test and Rick Wakeman. resulted in dozens of dozens of great singles in post-punks golden era of 78/79/80 and a creativity boom.This connectedness also explains how in 1978/9 (See: Simon Reynolds book on Post punk; Rip It Up for a much better explanation of this) there was a sudden growth in city based compilations devoted to local bands. The growth was restricted to the art school, youth fringe but the same elements were in play.
You could also see this type of bubble/dynamic with beat groups in Liverpool in 1962/3 (helped by the local music paper Mersey Beat, Epsteins NEMS Record shop, hire purchase, ) and even (and yep its stretching the analogy a bit) the english kitchen sink movie boom of the late 50s. (fuelled by Hollywood cash, northern script writers, the access to TV offered by ITV/Granada).
And there are thousands of other examples where as Simon puts it the desire to
for users/audiences to

  • create and communicate
  • control their media
  • challenge the established order

are in play pre- internet.
But then thats his point. These impulses are the constant and its entirely this analysis that poses the really tough questions for mainstream media. With an audience who want to challenge you, with an audience who don’t need you to control their media for you, with an audience who want to create their own media and communicate with each other about it. er, whats left for big media to do ?
But now we’re in Jeff Jarvis, exploding TV, exploding newsroom territory. And thats for another day.
Obviously The Guardian and (my employers) the BBC aren’t completely stumped with these questions and SImon went on to show off some of the new Guardian new community experiments; including Been There.
There was some other good stuff about individuals not institutions being the “new” filters and a forlorn attempt to explain bloglines and get your bootleg on to an unitiatied audience but overall it was very fine, if a bit doom laden as these postcards from the future tend to be for mainstream media.
The only thing that really cheered me up was the schadenfreude provided
the quote he retrieved i think from Simon’s visit to Seoul (for the Association of World Newspapers Conference) earlier this year when the COO of the Independent; Gavin O Reilly was quoted as saying

“I think participative journalism is a dangerous precedent for our industry. People forget that newspapers have been an interactive medium. People have always been able to interact with us via the mailbag”

Thank god for that. Some of em still don’t get it. At all. Phew.

(UPDATE: I forgot, of course that Simon trumped all attempts to play the historical analogy game with this post connecting blogs to cave paintings back in February. Damn)

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