Doors of the mind: Ghosts and thresholds in Bowie, Dickens, and the Generation Game

 

I’ve never been able to pass a door in an ancient wall without wondering what’s behind it.

spooky door with ivy

I know the truth is overwhelmingly likely to be mundane, but my subconscious mind can’t help picking out the details: the old ivy growth across it; the absence of any mechanism on the outside; the permanent silence on the other side of the wall.

 

Maybe I’m just nosey, but I’ve noticed that this door brings out different responses in people. Some want to know what’s behind it. Some fantasise what’s behind it. Others want to leave it well alone and walk on.

 

Doors have always been been as much about us as them; what we’ll see and what it’ll cost us. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The ones at the end of the hall in Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’, and the ones in his band’s name. In the tales of M.R. James, where they keep the living from the dead, for a while. In Bowie’s inner-demons-themed ‘Scary Monsters’, “opening strange doors that we’d never close again”.

 

 

What’s behind the door? Every gameshow and religion in history promises us that we can find out, if we play it right… but only ever at the end. Jacob Marley’s ghost comes to Scrooge as a door knocker: the future laid bare, if you’re ready to look and close enough to the void to see in. The scores are always on the doors – in the Generation Game just like they are for Marley/Scrooge and doorcheck St Peter.

 

This particular door – the one I pass and wonder about – reminds me of the last moments of ’60s acid guru Timothy Leary. On his deathbed, he fell silent, then as he died, he simply said “Why not?”

 

Maybe that silence from the other side of the threshold made him curious too.

 

Camus, Wim Wenders and a philosophy of table football

 

About to throw this broken table football game out, I took one last look – this time, from the players’ point of view.

Table football

 

Everything can look confused, urgent, overwhelming and dramatic if you get sucked in too close to the action. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I know it from football.” Camus was also a goalkeeper. Look at this picture, taken from behind the goalkeeper; then picture the game from where you’d play it, holding the handles.

 

The tension between those two points of view drives Camus’ The Outsider (below): between the antihero Mersault’s killing of a man, and society’s judgement.

 

 

It’s no coincidence that the other great existentialist murder story (it’s the opposite of a mystery; you always know exactly whodunnit. It’s a whydunnit, maybe?) is called The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty – famous as Wim Wenders’ 1972 film (below), adapted from Peter Handke’s 1970 book.

 

 

The moment of the shot, and what comes next. Look at it from that goalkeeper’s point of view.

 

That shot. The next second. Life coming at you, thick and fast, non-stop, in the shape of sudden, sometimes seemingly random, arbitrary or inexplicable events. Which way will you dive? Do you decide, or does it just happen? Is that part of the game – the penalty – something you can direct, or is it being done to you?

 

Knowing it’s both at the same time – knowing you are at all times both inside the goalmouth awaiting what comes and dealing with the shots, and viewing the game from above, holding the handles – is consciousness. It’s the goalkeeper’s terrible burden, like it’s all of ours. But it’s salvation too – if you can take that high view when it matters, learn to switch focus, and zoom in and out at the right moment.

 

 

Lucky: What happened when I decided to throw away money

 

What follows is a true story. It seems so bizarre to me, even now, that I find it hard to reconcile with myself. Was that really me? Surely I didn’t do anything quite this crazy? But it was. And I did. Though whether it was really crazy or not, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

 

It started with Lisa Lynch. I’ve written before about her. She wrote a fantastic book called The C Word. The planned sequel was to be called Lucky, and while she was writing it, she asked a lot of us for stories from our lives on the theme of luck. As it happened, I had a story – a very strange one. So I sent it to her, and she sent me a note back to say how much she liked it, and planned to incorporate it. When Lisa died, the book remained unfinished. I’ve often thought about posting the story, but the time was never right. Then, the other day, I told it to someone else.

 

It still had a strange, irreducible magic about it. In fact, it freaks me out a bit. So here it is…

 

Danish Kronor nailed to the wall by Matt Potter

I’m a confirmed sceptic, science geek and logical positivist. So I don’t actually believe in luck at all – just average outcomes. This is a bad thing from the point of view of enjoyment, as it means that even when an incredibly good thing happens by chance – I catch a train and get a seat; I find a tenner; I happen across the very thing I’ve been looking for –  I wince.

 

Because I know I’ve just made a withdrawal, as it were, in the bank of average outcomes. The luck bank. And sooner or later, a deposit will be required.

 

So no, luck hasn’t been a great focus of my life. And yet. And yet. The facts still say this all happened.

 

And it all began with the Aphex Twin.

 

I read an interview in the early-1990s in which he put the fact that his noise/chaotic/atonal/uncommercial music had suddenly become hugely successful through absolutely no fault of his own with the fact that he’d recently moved flat. His new basement apartment, he explained, turned out to have been a bank vault before it was converted by the property developer. Aphex Twin, who hadn’t known it when he moved in, said he’d noticed that since the day he moved there, money seemed to keep wanting to come to him. He’d apparently even had a mini-crisis about it, freaked out, got paranoid in a slightly-stoned way maybe, and started trying to avoid making money, even give it away, for fear it was all a wind-up or that it was too good to trust. But the more he freaked, the more unsolicited cheques would arrive, the more cash would be dropped round to his house.

 

I just put that down to being a chaotic bloke who worked hard. He’d obviously forgotten all the productivity (like we all do) and so when records sold, he thought woah, what? Cash? What for? But then it happened.

 

OK, so fast forward to a point, a coupla years later, when I moved into my new house. Completely broke; overstretched; no money. I then split up with my partner, so I suddenly had a whole joint mortgage to pay off on my own, and had just had a job go tits up. As money got lower and lower, then minus, I began living off borrows. Hmm.

 

I was doing a bit of drunk decorating one night (it’s great fun, you get to splash it about like the Stone Roses and stakes is low with a white undercoat in a house you can’t afford to furnish or carpet) and I found an old coin between the floorboards. It was Danish, one of the Krønor with a hole in the middle. So I hung it on a nail over the door, and as I did so, I thought of the Aphex Twin, and then I thought, what the hell, hahahahaha! Then I had another drink. And then, giggling, I went a bit crazy with the old spare holiday currency pot.

 

By dawn, the entire house was a metal detector’s nervous twitch. I had secreted foreign coins inside polyfilla’d walls; wallpapered over old Polish Zloty notes; sealed invalidated French centimes behind skirting; the lot. I had a hangover, and a massive paint headache, I’d fallen asleep without washing and there was white paint on my bed, and I thought, well, that was stupid.

 

Next day was Monday. I got home from a meeting about a job to discover a message on my ansaphone (yeah, that long ago). Some articles I’d written years ago had unaccountably suddenly started selling on syndication, and would I agree to having some cash to let some Brazilian mag print them. But I didn’t think about the Aphex Twin.

 

Then I found a purse, and a diary in a hedge. I called the numbers, the person was happy, she asked me to keep any cash in the purse. There was £30. I didn’t, I just gave it back. That afternoon she came round with £50 to say thanks for everything, and for giving the money back when I could have kept it. In 48 hours, I got an unexpected expenses rebate. A building society got taken over and sent me cash. My phone company said sorry for something I wasn’t aware they’d done, and sent me some cash too.

 

A bell rang in my head. I started to do the Aphex Twin thing, and see what would happen if I actively turned down money. And sure enough, it started coming in.

 

I won’t bore you with details, just to say that the number of odd windfalls was truly freakish, and in direct and inverse proportion to the amount I tried not to earn.

 

On the third day – all this happened in that short a space of time – I  turned down the job offer – which I would normally have jumped at – quite deliberately pricing myself out of it, just because I now figured something would come up anyway, what with my hot streak. Unexpectedly, they came back with a yes. Then an old mate rang to say he’d got a job on a daily and wanted me to do a daily column.

 

It genuinely did start rolling in, the more I tried to waste it. I never do lotteries. But a friend gave me a scratchcard as a joke-shit present, and it won. I never bet. But I bet on the Derby, and made a packet. Before, I’d never say no. But I did, and more and more people came back offering more for whatever it was. I was briefly minted. I bought new furniture I’d never have bought before. I paid off shitloads of mortgage. I even bought a suit and started drinking cocktails. Because I could.

 

Of course, it didn’t last. The momentum, or maybe just the novelty, the sense of liberation, faded. And as it did, I went back to being suspicious of chance, risk-averse, and poorish. I’ve thought about it, and of course it’s the return to the mean – bad luck and good luck are illusory patterns we impose with our minds onto a series of random, or at least disorderly, happenings.

 

But I also think it’s all about an odd ‘cheat’ or jumpstart to your confidence: believing – or even playing without really believing – that you’re ‘lucky’ can give you the balls to make decisions or take paths that you’d otherwise be too craven or risk-averse to take. It’s shamanism, in a way: the berserker’s invulnerability in battle. The hoodoo. The placebo for your sense of adventure and positive risk-taking.

 

It’s not whether you’re lucky at all. (You’re not.) It’s whether you feel lucky.

 

So tell me, punk. Do ya?

 

Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015

 

Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London

 

It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.

 

This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.

 

In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.

 

So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.

 

Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.

 

The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.

 

To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.

 

In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.

 

 

Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election

 

This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.

 

A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie

 

(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)

 

No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.

 

The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.

 

Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.

 

And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?

 

And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?

 

And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?

 

 

 

Resignations as historical force: Jurassic Park, grunge, capitalism and the story of the 1990s

 Tyrannosaurus rex resigns in jurassic Park

There’s a lot of noise about Jurassic World cleaning up in cinemas right now. But what about the real back story? Back in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was – unlikely as it might seem – part of the same global breakdown as grunge and the Berlin Wall.

 

Sound weird? In this short extract from my book F***k You & Goodbye: A History of the Resignation, it gets weirder.

 

With hindsight, the 1990s’ great theme was refusal; the decade’s core act was not the salute, but the shrug. The ironic, the uncommitted, were about to take over the world.

 

Across the world, and in Britain more than anywhere, the coming decade was to be a fruitful time for creative, public quitters. On my return in late 1990, I started collecting resignations and analysing their backgrounds in earnest. It wasn’t easy, simply because over here, too, there were suddenly so many flying around. Thatcherism was imploding, with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe taking turns at playing Mark Antony and Brutus with their own parting shots. Then, as recession hit Britain and the West, and the eighties achievers’ party hit the buffers, it was business’s turn. These were not the quiet goodbyes of yesteryear, but great, furious, splattering media events.

 

This was the dawning of a great age of corporate dissent.

 

In the West, the slackers wandered off the career path with a shrug – their anti-aspiration the mirror image of all those refuseniks in the East now discovering the joys of consumer society – while Adbusters’ subversive ‘truth in advertising’ defacement campaigns echoed the theatrical marginalia of the Berlin Wall’s Eastside Gallery. Self-empowerment was in, and suddenly no soap opera, cabinet meeting, movie, international summit or AGM was complete without a grandstanding declaration of independence.

 

Climactic, public resignations became a powerful international currency, everywhere from Wall Street to Hollywood. The era’s defining movies – Slacker (1991), The Firm (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), A Few Good Men (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Clerks (1994), even Jurassic Park (1993), all feature stars plotting and rehearsing their eventual break from the hypocrisy, villainy or empty repetition of their professional roles.

 

(Surely a candidate for least likely resignation speech in history is the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park: Richard Attenborough’s park boss, micro-managing every aspect of the lives of the revenue-generating animals inside his hermetically sealed biodome, is as clear an early-1990s everyboss or Iron Curtain dictator as ever lived, with his insistence that everyone could be bought, and his creation of minutely surveilled spaces for workers, human and reptile alike.

 

It’s great fun to watch it now as Berlin Wall or corporate allegory: the literal iron curtain keeping humans and dinos apart! Jeff Goldblum’s ominous soliloquy on chaos! The heroes’ suspicion of being co-opted into branded ideology! It’s no coincidence that when they rebel, the animals not only wreck the commercial plan, but vandalise his company’s iconic logo. As T. Rex tears apart the logos on the branded Jurassic Park hoardings in the final scene, he becomes the movie’s anti-corporate hero; its Adbuster; he gives his notice with a roar of independence that brings the whole venture crumbling down. The inhabitants have wrestled their own land back.)

 

By 1993, ‘getting on’ in your job had come to look, at least in pop-cultural terms, very much like being suckered. Irvine Welsh’s sarcastic jab at aspirational eighties consumerism in his bestseller of that year, Trainspotting – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham! T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – became a pop-culture mantra, appearing on albums, club singles, and finally on T-shirts of its own: ‘Choose life. Choose a job . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future.’

 

Pop culture’s superstars were Homer Simpson and Kurt Cobain, its key image the swimming baby chasing a dollar. Beck defined the mood with ‘Loser’ (1994), and vowed he wasn’t ‘going to work for no soul-sucking jerk’ on an album that seemed to dramatise quitting jobs (blowing leaves/washing dishes/putting chicken in a bucket with a soda/whatever) over and over again, while Rage Against The Machine created the ultimate ’90s chorus with ‘Killing In The Name’’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” (1992).

 

Berlin Wall Nirvana: The grunge take on 1990s history

 

The 1990s revolution was not about the fall of communism: it was about the realization by people all over the world that being a committed swallower of the post-war company line didn’t deliver what it promised. The ’80s contract, here as in the stagnating East, was a dud. The hour of the workplace dissident, the self-immolating truth-bomber, had come at last.

 

Loser by Beck Ceausescu remix

The real reason I write: In praise of ‘threshold apprehension’

 

The cover for my next book arrived today. Any writer will tell you: the arrival of their new book’s cover is an exciting moment. Me, I’ve always found it a little bit poignant too.

 

Up to this point, it’s all about the making. There are routes to take; ways to turn things. The whole project exists in that glorious state of suspension where all things are possible. It’s crazy, but I always thought I knew pretty well how the pilot in that Roy Lichtenstein painting feels the instant before he pushes the button that makes the Blaaaaaaam! happen. (It always struck me as quite a peaceful, meditative picture for that reason. I understand I may well be alone in this.)

 

It’s elsewhere too. There’s a great Black Francis album called Bluefinger, all about the life of Dutch artist, rock star and heroin aficionado Herman Brood. It contains a song called ‘Threshold Apprehension’ that nails the feeling, the taste in your mouth, of being just about to nail something; the split second before the “Yessss!”. Threshold apprehension. (In the context of the album, I suspect it’s also about the feeling of a hit of smack, and the 9th-floor window Brood eventually jumped to his death from, but let’s stick with the eureka thing for a moment.)

 

It’s an obscure feeling, and you don’t hear it talked about much, but that’s only because (by definition) there’s nothing tangible you can show people. The Blaaaaaam! is what they see; only the pilot knows the heavenly chill that had him upside the temples the second before.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some Eeyore, saying that having done good work (insofar as I have done any) isn’t satisfying and wonderful and all. But being about to nail something great is The Drug.

 

It’s also the secret feeling. You’re alone with it. It’s the one result of the creative process you don’t get to talk about at awards ceremonies or on CVs, or see in the press, or exchange views on with your kids, or your mates. You’d sound like a freak. But you know it’s the fix that really keeps you in the game.

 

So that’s the feeling, from spark through pitch to publishers, tracking your story, bringing it to life, right the way through edits, then cover discussion and brief and feedback to the publishing house. And then…

 

Well, then there’s this… thing. A good thing. You love it. You brought it up, dammit. And it looks confident and it’s hanging out in shops and with the rough boys and girls on Amazon and in the press, and all you can do is wish it good luck out in the world, prepare yourself to explain it a few hundred times, and hope you gave it the toughness to handle itself out there. But it’s not yours any more, not really. Which is just fine, actually. And I mean, by this time you’re over the cover. You’ve seen it too much. You want to think about something else.

 

So you turn your attention to other things. Call people you haven’t seen for a while (you’ve been writing your book too many evenings lately). Get back to those things you love to read. Surf the net.

 

And that’s when the idea hits you. The idea… maybe even The Idea. Now this, this is exciting. You can almost taste it…

 

DOWNLOAD: Cool fabricator: The strange and beautiful case of Tom Kummer

Bad Boy Kummer: The poster for the inevitable biopic

In the course of researching my new book on resignations, I’ve been wading through a lot of parting shots from journalists.

 

Well, they have the public forum. Most of us pass through our careers without leaving a trace. We speak as representatives. We curtail our language. We stick to the script. This makes workplaces strangely preliterate, at least in terms of studying them. In the absence of personal testimony, we need to turn anthropologist.

 

It’s not like that with journalists. Everything they write is a personal testimony. Their/our careers are (often, at least) all footprint. And sometimes, the testifying is all there is.

 

So I’ve been wading through the last flare-outs of Jonah Lehrer, Johann Hari, Jayson Blair and others. And those cases reminded me of another that I’d known more than a decade before. This case never got quite the fame in the English-speaking world; but then, if it hadn’t been for our anglophone insularity, perhaps it could never have happened in the first place.

 

It’s the strange, strange story of a Swiss-German Hollywood reporter called Tom Kummer. He was Germany’s man on the inside throughout the 1990s. Nobody – not the LA Times, not Vanity Fair – could get the access he got; or get the stars to open up like him. He interviewed Brad Pitt about his bogies; Courtney Love about dinosaurs; Sharon Stone about post-structuralism. The world asked: how did he do it? What was his secret?

 

Well, you can guess. But there was a twist to Tom Kummer’s story that nobody saw coming. I wrote a feature about him in Jack magazine back in 2003. So I dug it out. Here it is.

 

It’s not perfect. But it sure is weird.

 

Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_1Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_2

News: A bit of Fry and Ronson… ‘Outlaws Inc.’ back up the WH Smith Bestseller chart

Short post this time, just to say thank you to everyone who helped to send Outlaws Inc. haring back up the bestseller chart. This was sent to me by motoring journo Will Dron, and I had to make sure he wasn’t messing with my head.

 

Nestled between Stephen Fry and Jon Ronson is somewhere I never even thought I’d end up (not to mention underneath Caitlin Moran). It feels great, if a bit like that dream you have where you’re at a party full of witty, hyper-intelligent people and you try and be as witty as them, but it all comes out garbled, then suddenly your trousers keep coming off, and the whole school is totally staring. No? Maybe that was just me then.

 

In any case, I stay true to my promise: Thank you for buying Outlaws Inc., and I hope you enjoy it. If I meet you, just identify yourself, and the drinks are on me.

 

News: New book, ‘Parting Shots’ out June 2013

 

I can finally share some details on the next book. ‘Parting Shots’ is going to be the secret history of our times and society, as revealed through resignations.

 

And I’d like your recommendations! Mostly, we’re talking Rebekah Brookses and Thatcher cabinet ministers, but I’d love to quote some unknown examples, too – and spectacular/fun/vicious/poor/epic/drunk/great/unwise resignation letters or speeches. So if you’ve ever sent, received, said or heard any particularly good ones, would love to hear about it. I’ll credit you in the book, and pay in booze/Amazon vouchers for any I quote… I thank you!

 

Watch this space for an update in the next couple of weeks…

A modest proposal: or, how to save journalism, make money and safeguard self-regulation… by killing content

 

In this post, I suggest a way forward for journalism, both for journalists and media companies struggling to make content pay.

 

But the future sketched here is about more than keeping (making) content financially viable. In the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry, I believe it could also be a way out of the regulation/self-regulation impasse. I suppose it involves changing the definition of content, and probably journalism too.

 

It’s a longish post, but perhaps of all of my posts, I hope you read this one. I’d really welcome your input.

 

A few of my tweets like this one last week stirred a bit of interest among fellow journalists, academics and researchers. What the tweets proposed was something that, at the time, seemed like a sensible move: to post my research for my next book of non-fiction reportage – my interview transcripts, my documentation, my letters and emails sent and received, my offcuts and outtakes – on this site, either as PDFs or ebooks, free or with a donate button for anyone who enjoyed the book and thought them worth the effort.

 

Originally, this post was to be a response to these requests to me, to flesh out those tweeted thoughts. But the more I thought about it, the more possibilities I believe they open up, not just for me, but for journalism and the business of news as a whole.

 

The tweets came as a result of a conversation with my US publisher. He was telling me about an American comedian called Louis CK. A household name Stateside, Louis has begun distributing his work direct to consumers through his website – audio, video, live show tickets – together with notes that talk about how it’s funded, and where the money goes. I thought it was a nice touch. Then went home to bed, woke up the next day, went to work, and forgot all about Louis CK.

 

By ‘work’, I mean I’m a writer, journalist and editor. My day job is more the latter. But I also write investigative current affairs/history/non-fiction.

 

Now, there are some things inherent in what I do as a journalist that, to me, seem more and more nonsensical; destructive even. I’ll deal with two of them here.

 

1. We as an industry champion output, and treat material as if it doesn’t exist.

 

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Probably the main one is the fact that most journalists come from arts/humanities/language backgrounds. They/we polish, lionize, quote, stand or fall by the bit where they/we communicate, and the words they/we choose to do so. They/we consider our/themselves artists – ‘creatives’ – not manufacturers or processors.

 

But content goes through many different stages even before it is consumed, and only the first (the pitch, the angle) and the last (the execution of copy) are really acknowledged. They are the glamour parts. The parts witnessed by the public at large; the auteur’s inspiration and star’s tour de force.

 

In fact, what looks direct, perceptive, original or revelatory (when you get it right) is only the refined, elevator-pitch presentation of a larger body of material. None of the participants in this long, crucial stage – sources, fact-checkers, other media and material consumed, databases, editors, sub-editors – are ever acknowledged, less still picture-bylined. But without them, the piece would be (actually, often is) a woolly, unformed piece of bluff and bluster. Or, ahem, a columnist.

 

As I was writing this, Mark Earls of Herd fame put it well in a short post on CERN and Higgs-boson that talked about science as collaborative, cumulative process rather than big reveal. That’s science. But in fact, when you’re a journalist writing a long project, or a piece reliant on copious research (a book in the history/current affairs/politics/economics bracket like my last, for example) most of what you do, in terms of working hours, sweat and sheer headspace, is collaborative. You’re working with partners, present and absent, human and material, in obtaining, verifying, sifting, ordering research material. Like a detective, or a scientist.

 

Some of it makes it into the final draft for publication in one abridged form or another. But 99.9% – more – stays on my hard drive, in folders, Word documents, emails, downloads, voice recordings, transcripts, web archives, and whole swathes of copy that just doesn’t fit my final purpose, or my editor’s.

 

That’s how it is for most of us outside of the columnist or reviewing sphere. The material, evidence, documents, transcripts and outtakes informed my conclusions; but the nature of the cut means that (barring a court case or a polite speculative approach) nobody else gets access to it. Which means that people must choose to like, love, hate, disagree with, litigate, applaud, ignore, our final, polished work. (Also that, given a certain amount of proficiency and care in the writing itself, it can be hard to tell responsibly produced, well-researched output from lazy or inaccurate journalism.) And while editing is necessary, consigning the nine tenths of your work that doesn’t make that final edit to oblivion seems profligate, too.

 

Catherine Baker, a lecturer in 20thC history at Hull University, agrees: “In co-authoring the book I’ve been working on, really agonised about what to do with the transcripts. So rich, yet so much cut,” she tweeted in reply to my original post.

 

So I began to wonder, in the age of crowdsourcing, search and open data, what other authors and researchers, historians, students and whoever else, could do with their research.

 

To put it to good use, for them and for the wider world.

 

2. When it comes to research of our own, we’re all working blind, alone, and against the clock.

 

A far more pressing frustration for the jobbing journalist/non-fic author/reporter is finding good, robust, verifiable material. Journalists and media organizations don’t share material. You expect that, to some extent – even when collaboration would help everyone. Less comprehensible is that media organisations, newspapers, hell individual journalists, don’t even pool their own material.

 

So everything starts new. Every 1,000-word deadline starts with a blank page and a blank mind. Then a phone call to someone who’s a well-known rent-a-quote in the field, or whichever organisation’s press office re having the best day. Cuttings services like LexisNexis are great, but even they only show us stories other people have already run.

 

This is why there are so many bad stories, non-stories, and stories you’ve read a million times before out there. It’s why under-fire, understaffed, unbriefed newsdesk and weekly magazine staff find themselves pressing Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V and uncritically flowing in press releases and corporate/police/government statements; it’s why press releases themselves are so often poorly written, unsourced cobblers, and the ‘content’ for which the public is asked to pay plainly, demonstrably, untrue. In fact, this churning of non-information into non-content may offer clues as to why – even when it’s freepeople in the UK are turning away from news.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining because it’s tough to access good material, or because in the current economic climate publishers see content as an unfortunate overhead, and are cutting editorial staff to the point where research time is a luxury, then time-sheeting their editorial and journalistic staff so tightly to words per day that only output is rewarded, and research effectively penalised. I’m also not saying this is the only thing that happens. There’s still a lot of great research being done by journalists. But they’re mostly working alone, or in pockets.

 

So what if media organisations, journalists, publishers, journalists, content creators, people like me, were to make their material – the raw data, the documents, the offcuts and outtakes, the transcripts, the workings – open, available and searchable too?

 

Not all of it – I can understand there’s plenty they’d want to keep back for future use, or to withhold for reasons political, strategic, commercial, financial or legal, or just because they want to use it in a future piece. But being realistic, the great majority of anyone’s material isn’t any of these things.

 

The odd thing is, it sometimes happens – or at least, bits of it do. Science and law bloggers routinely link to any sources they refer to. And while I understand why some media brands don’t want to link to their competition everywhere, newspapers like the New York Times are already doing just that on their blogs.

 

Bad Science author Ben Goldacre has written well and at length about his frustration that even sites of record such as the BBC website don’t link to (or even host) original research sources in its reporting on science. In the same way, he argues that researchers publishing findings – for example, success in a trial – should also be required to publish, probably upfront, the aim, method and sample size of the trial; as well as records of any previous (failed) attempts to achieve the positive result they sought at the outset.

 

His main argument is that failure to do so deprives the reader – member of the public, journalist or fellow scientific researcher – the means to engage with the research, or even the subject. It’s like presenting a final number as fact, without revealing first principles, assumptions, processes. In this view, making your material available allows others to progress, debate, refute, use your work for the common good.

 

He also argues in his book that failure to adhere to these practices of transparency actually deprives their eventual pronouncement – the ‘story’ they tell – any context, and therefore real meaning. The public simply hears that red wine/chocolate/cats/marriage [delete as appropriate] are good for you/bad for you/cause cancer/cure cancer [delete as appropriate], without understanding why you might say such a thing. The oddball scientist in the castle has spoken. Oh well, they’ll speak again tomorrow, probably telling us the opposite. Carry on regardless.

 

Now, for what it’s worth, I think Goldacre is dead right. But I also think he’s wrong to stop with the reporting of science. I can see the same benefits and dangers in everyday journalism.

 

Now I’m not, NOT, pretending every piece, every book, every thesis, holds as much interest, or can serve the public good in the way that knowing the full story of a set of cancer drug trials would. But imagine how powerful it would be for a journalist (or publisher, or author, or editor, or blogger) to release the research relating to their story, in full, for each story (within reason and limits).

 

But is it desirable? Surely, yes. That way, journalism’s great store of research and data would become part of the open data movement, allowing for more accurate insight, more responsible reporting, greater research literacy among the journalistic class, connections to be made with access to a huge body of research, more robust defences against vexatious legal challenges and better researched articles.

 

Practical? Eventually. The backlog of research material would be raw, it would be held in disparate places in different formats, at the beginning. It wouldn’t always be made public, just more often. But it would be there, for other journalists, researchers, historians, detectives, inventors, entrepreneurs, everyone, to sift, if they wanted to.

 

3. What do we think would happen, then?

 

Maybe… nothing. Maybe none of the workings or materials on which we journalists base the few words we finally write and publish (few in comparison to the masses we acquire, produce, read, process) would be of any immediate use. Maybe those interview transcripts or briefings or notes or press releases or letters or emails would become something of an unvisited library. I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

 

Here’s what I think. At the very least, I suspect that adopting a norm in which the expectation is that a selection of workings towards the story – however redacted and piecemeal – are made available by journalists writing important stories would have an impact on journalism. And were journalists’ notes and transcripts already open, a journalistic year characterised by Johann Hari’s Orwell Prize being revoked, the circus around the Leveson Inquiry, the irresponsible and inflamatory journalism at Richard Desmond’s media empire exposed by reporter Richard Peppiatt, the scrapping of the PCC, the wider debate around self-regulation vs regulation for the British press, and more besides, would have unfolded very differently.

 

And as for how much it would cramp journalists’ style? Well, the code of practice already exists in the blogosphere, where the stock of trust (and the need to prove what you say with citation and link) has been historically lower.

 

Wikipedia editors, Redditors, PhD students writing theses, even undergraduates on dissertations, by and large, manage to achieve higher standards of transparency than most mainstream journalists or non-fiction authors. Hell, Johann Hari in his new role as GQ feature writer is forced to reference original sources for every claim he includes.

 

For Hari, it probably feels like the journalistic equivalent of being electronically tagged. But for an industry suffering a crisis in confidence, adopting this as a standard might just be a way to regain public trust on one hand, and do something genuinely useful, even philanthropic, with all that data on the other. Nobody hoovers information, statements, photographs, evidence, like other journalists. Right now, the majority of it – and we’re talking inconceivable volumes – just is taking up space in the darkest recesses of archiving operations in medialand’s backyard (in the case of staffers) or forgotten on home PCs (freelancers).

 

British journalism’s lax attitude to our used and unused material is not the norm, after all. I’ve written in Germany and the US. And in both of those places, I’ve been fact-checked by my editors. That never happened once in the UK. They ring you up, request your interview MP3s, ask for documents, original notes, witnesses to incidents. It felt great actually, like getting a quality kitemark (I passed). But even there, once the laborious process is complete, those documents are discarded. The in-house editors can review some of your evidence, but the readers, researchers, authorities, students, thinkers, even businesses who could benefit from trawling your research, and even begin to crowdsource aggregates and databases, who could stay blind.

 

4. Why should a successful news or content company care? They’re doing OK as it is.

 

It’s all very well for me to suggest journalists go around surrendering their raw material, but come on, no media organisation is going to sanction that, less still give you the time each day/week it might take for an already overworked staffer to do their personal data dump onto a CMS.

 

I mean, who’s going to foot the bill? Where’s the return? There’s just no money in it.

 

Well, maybe there is.

 

Because once you start to see journalism in these terms, you start to see a possible way off the horns of the terrible dilemma on which news outlets are caught.

 

It’s clear by now that people don’t tend to pay for news online – hell, they don’t tend to pay for much content of any kind online. The only news/content brands that people seem prepared to pay, either in significant numbers or with significant sums, to consume online are those dealing in information. For businesses, that means The Economist (which has long promoted its Economics Intelligence Unit as a credibility builder and a subscriber benefit) and the FT. Elsewhere, it means academic journals, research body digests, even specialist collation services.

 

So I want to suggest that the failure of other media organizations to monetize content has much to do with the reductive way in which they’ve treated what they themselves do.

 

What I mean is, of course people won’t pay for content online. The content you’re expecting them to pay for is so very paper-thin (no pun intended). If news is a headline and brief report surrounded by what comedy duo Mitchell & Webb nail beautifully here as “uninformed ad-hoc reckons”, then it’s the air we breathe.

 

The cavalier way the UK’s daily papers treat issues of accuracy, attribution and intellectual property themselves (copying and pasting from news services and other sources then adding house bylines – it’s happened to me several times – is pretty much standard practice; while even the Editor of Murdoch’s much-hyped Daily was reduced to imploring his staff not to “just scrape the newswires”, kind of give the game away. Content, as defined by big media, is now the air we breathe, and people won’t pay for it.

 

And of course, now there’s so little to it, a quarter of us don’t even want it for nothing.

 

So people do not pay upfront for journalistic content any more. So news has to be written into broadcasters’ charters. Newspapers make losses offline and on, and those that persist and thrive do so because they are subbed by people or organizations with deep pockets – Alexander Lebedev, News Corporation, the Guardian Trust. So time and money spent on producing the stuff is all loss-making. It’s all an overhead. No ROI. So it’s produced on a shorter, slimmer and more threadbare shoestring. And of course the product gets worse. Until nobody at all will pay for it.

 

5. But what if we see content differently?

 

What if we stop thinking of it as content? (I hate the bloody word anyway. Like: we have this thing, and we’ll now fill it up with content. When it’s all we’ve got, and it keeps escaping our brand and our paywalls and whatever else we try to pour it into, and getting free, then personally I reckon we’d better start calling it something a little more respectful.)

 

So we stop pushing the content (I’ll still call it that for the purposes of this piece, don’t worry) at all. Maybe we still produce it, in the same volumes we do now. More, whatever. It’s great for brand, for shares, for reach. But we never ever ask people to pay for it. It’s our radio-play single.

 

Instead, we… what?

 

We ask people to pay for what we do, 99% of the time. We do what The Economist and Bloomberg and the FT do. We ask people to pay for our intelligence. Our data. The stuff that nobody ever sees. The stuff that is so rich, so huge, in such volumes, so impossibly labour-intensive and dense and often raw, and copious, that the discourse around “stealing”, “pirating”, “taking”, distributing” it is laughable.

 

So we give what we currently call our content away, and make what we can through advertising.

 

This – the raw content, data, evidence, transcripts, documentation and research – is what we paywall.

 

Access to the entire payload is a subscriber or purchaser benefit, with unlimited searches and downloads. Micropayments allow one-off searches by non-subscribers. Reports pulled on data can be ordered for more.

 

The news carrier – the website, and in some cases the paper – then has a clear role. In breaking news, in coming up with new investigations and angles and so on – that is, in creating great content – it will become the most searched, most shared, most read, most talked about, and they point, link and refer users consistently to their own data and investigations, behind the wall.

 

This system rewards news media with original content, and thorough research. That is, it rewards good journalism.

 

The losers will be those papers that scrape the wires, and who practice ‘churnalism’.

 

Of course, I’m not claiming that anything like a significant number of readers would want access to this material on anything like a regular basis.

 

But with the boom of data journalism, the atomisation of research and the blogosphere, students and academies, marketing and ad agencies, PRs, publishers, private companies, public bodies, lawyers, scientists and the due diligence sector all hungry for information and background data for the key public narratives of the moment, a potentially large B2B market opens up with a tolerance for far higher subscription fees.

 

Essentially, it’s a recognition that the world is changing, and the methodologies of the business world that were meat and drink to Bloomberg, The Economist and the FT are increasingly appropriate to other walks of life, from reporting on education, politics, society, government, local community, sports, world news, and so on.

 

What it also also does is provide the newspaper and its journalism with near-absolute credibility. Here’s our story, and if you care to come inside, you can see how we arrived at it, and view the full transcripts. Check our facts. (In my experience with vexatious litigants, spin doctors and panicky PRs, this will also lead to a step-change in the way they do business. Any editor will tell you, that will make life a lot easier.)

 

Right now, that’s looking like a smart way out of the regulation straitjacket the fourth estate is wriggling about in, post-Leveson. If our plea for self-regulation is going to work, it’s got to mean something. So how about this?

 

But to be absolutely clear, in my view the release of research and workings and offcuts and evidence is an exercise worth undertaking regardless of the financials, simply because at this point in the game it is looking more and more like the only responsible course. To open up our research and our data and our workings, in the way that good science and public initiatives do, in the knowledge that others can find uses for it that simply aren’t ours, is the right thing to do, and not just because it’s a sop to those who would look to regulate the media, or because it might stave off financial ruin and ensure our independence.

 

I filled my latest book, an investigative piece on arms-running and government collusion in smuggling networks, with citations and sources. I had to, and it had nothing to do with my publisher’s lawyers, although they were happier for it. I did so for two reasons.

 

One, I knew that there was a very good chance it would become a record of the very niche business (smuggling by air) I was chronicling, so I wanted to make it easier for people to track down the primary sources I used. (Most of the approaches I’ve had about Outlaws Inc come from either movie and TV people, historians, or arms monitoring and law enforcement, and most of them have asked me for further detail for which I’ve had to go back through lost and unnamed computer files, discarded cuts and packed-away boxes of notes. I sort of wish I’d made my work easier for me to search…)

 

Two, because I knew that without them, so much of what I had found out would seem incredible.

 

So, it helped readers, and it helped me.

 

If I’d thought about it at the time, I’d have done more than that. It took me 15 years to research, and if I’d known I was going to produce a book at the beginning, I’d have been more careful with the early records I took.

 

So, for my next book, and for any pieces I write here, I’m going to try something that goes further, and I’d like to know what you think. I’m going to publish, here on my website, my workings. That means not just documents I gather, but transcripts of interviews, sketches I make, notes I take. Even outtakes from the finished, cut and published text.

 

I’m going to do it because I think it’s a good idea, and it rewards readers who enjoy the book too, just like a good bootleg of outtakes rewards the music geeks who enjoy a particular album. But mainly, I’m going to do it because I think it’s the right thing to do.

 

In my own daft way, I sort of think it’s an idea that could catch on. And that if it did, it might just do some good, and even restore some of the faith we’ve lost in journalism.

 

It could become a best practice; an expectation; a norm. Self-regulation people believe in? Well, stranger things have happened.

 

I’m game anyway. A one-man norm. Open reportage. Starting here, with the materials I’m gathering for my fifth, or second, book, depending on what you’re counting. It’s going to be a bit like being a good scientist. Or an open-data project. Or a Wikileaks of the self.

 

Or just a journalist who thinks there’s still a way to save self-regulation, if we’re honest, optimistic and foolhardy enough.

 

OK then. I’ll leave that there.

 

5. Questions for you.

 

What do you think? I’m genuinely interested. Who’s in favour/against in principle? Who thinks it would be cumbersome? (Please don’t say “unenforcable”, because I’m really not suggesting anyone enforce anything, just that we begin to adopt it as a practice one by one, if we want to.)

 

Anyone already doing this? Anyone got any experience from other industries? What are the problems with this approach?

 

Feel free to push back, to ask me about financial models (I have some ideas, but this probably isn’t the place to go full dweeb), tear my thinking down.

 

I genuinely will publish and engage with all sincere comments on this.

 

UPDATE: 11/7/12
Dr Catherine Baker (quoted above) has made some points that I wish I’d considered. The conversation was on Twitter, and I’ve string all of her tweets into one passage here. They are unedited, but for the expansion of sentences/words from ‘twitterese’ to regular grammar/spelling (ie: ‘ppl” becomes “people”) and the words in parentheses, to indicate what in my tweeted question she was referring to.

 

“Good luck. In UK higher education, funding bodies are moving that way, I think – they want the datasets they fund to be open. At the same time, if a norm develops that “everything you tell interviewers is published,” would that dissuade some people coming forward? And not just for privacy reasons as such – interviewees often worried about seeming silly or irrelevant. (Which they are not!) At least one academic did publish all transcripts online, though: Jonathan Pieslak, to accompany Sound Targets, [his book about] US soldiers/music. So an opportunity is definitely there. I might design it into future project, but accepting interviews themselves might be different. [if they know everything is potentially going to be open]. Interviewees are always in some kind of performance mode (lots of oral history literature on this actually!), the question is which!”

 

MP: Catherine’s point about interviews is a good one, and I’m not sure how to address it to everybody’s satisfaction. I guess my response would be that, for journalists, there would still of course need to be conventions such as on-record and off-record interviews; and I’m not suggesting an enforced norm. It may be that a lot of the interviews we gather have to be redacted, and a lot can’t be released. But in the words of the supermarket, every little helps. As for performance, I think Catherine has hit the button. Everyone’s performing anyway – you wouldn’t believe the number of times each week I become aware that I’m being played, or someone thinks they’re using me as a message-boy. The key is probably to interrogate the material, and contextualise that ‘playing’. PRs hate that. And if that isn’t a great excuse to relive the joys of this interview between ITV reporter Damon Green and Labour leader Ed Miliband, I don’t know what is.

 

Update, 12/7/12
Ed Smith, a journalist from London, has a more practical concern. He puts the following question:

 

“I’m not sure how practical it is to transcribe, let alone upload everything. When I go through my interview soundfiles, I take down the money quotes in full, or the ones I think I’m likely to use or refer to. The others I just mark down as aide memoire gobbledygook. It’s just too time-consuming otherwise. How worthwhile is that? The other thing: servers and bandwidth. There’s a cost there, at the very least.”

 

MP: I’d agree with pretty much all of that. I guess I think it could easily be a raw soundfile that goes up, suitably tagged. Or as much or little of the transcript as the journo wants to release. Equally, it might be that the interviews themselves sometimes don’t go up at all. To be clear: I’m not suggesting some Taliban of openness, a rigid approach, or even a contractual obligation to do this at all, on anyone’s part. I suppose I think that if even 25% of the material any journalist sloughed off as they filed copy was made available, we’d have a vast amount more searchable, and potentially fertile, scrape-able data that we could collate and use, on-record interview material, and documents than we currently do. I also think that even the consciousness that all material would at least be a candidate for this release – the journalist/paper/company can decide whether they want to or not – would be a fundamentally healthy thing for the next generation of journalists to internalize. Right now, I know from my own personal experience in a number of media organizations and on countless projects, there is a generation of journalists and editors out there who have no expectation that they will ever have to account for the veracity of their claims or their responsibility towards their material. This is why we get churnalism and plagues of columnists with their “ad-hoc reckons”, and why our expectations of newspaper (or ‘viewspaper’, to use former Independent Editor Simon Kelner’s disastrously misguided idea/phrase) content is now so low that we don’t even want it for free. As for the server space issue: well, it’s one the financial papers have been living with for years pretty successfully. And while the mainstream papers have many times the amount of material, most of that falls outside the kind of journalism we’re talking about here. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the legions of record reviewers, film critics, fashion photographers, cartoonists, satirists, gardening experts, need be involved. This is about the ‘A section’, and potentially health/society/business supplements. Anyone whose work could be classified as in the public interest, basically. I’m not asking for anyone’s jotted notes and doodles as they formed a view on One Direction’s latest. Please.

 

Update, 16/7/12
Sam Hardy, an archaeologist based in the UK and author of the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog, has questions about its application for independent journalists.

 

“I just saw your journalism post & thought of Neni Panourgia’s post-writing equivalent Dangerous Citizens (dangerouscitizens.columbia.edu). (Sadly) I’m not sure individual journos could get salary-level subscriptions; but maybe corporate-rate-subbed subject/area groups/newspapers could.”

 

MP: Dangerous Citizens is interesting! Yes, agree: individual journos couldn’t make salary from it. Thinking for that (& me) potentially it’d be a nice way to release lots of material on one subject, via LeanPub (?). (Or just set it free & have a hopeful donate button!)

 

SH [reply]: “Ah, yeah, that would be good. At the very least it could sub you… getting lost… on other assignments.”

 

See the exchange, and follow Sam on Twitter here.

 

Update, 17/7/12
Ben Adams, an Editor at Bloomsbury USA in New York (full disclosure: he published Outlaws Inc. in the US/Canada), offered his thoughts on how news sites might incorporate the research released into the way their pages are tagged and navigated.

 

“I enjoyed [your] vision of ‘open journalism’. I see how it would impact credibility, but is there money in it? Perhaps Google/Pulse/RSS etc. can be made to index notes and sources so that the best-reported articles rise to the top.”

 

Personally, I think this is a great idea, and could work – one can imagine it being a way to filter/rank content on index pages, or offer in the form of a homepage widget broadly similar to those for ‘Most shared’/’Most viewed’ by the BBC et al. In fact, I’d like to suggest that might be quite a good way to flag up the any motherlode of research documentation (as I propose in the main body) behind a paywall.

 

As for that paywall/answering the money question. What if the news itself were all free/in front of the paywall, but every hyperlink from the text of a news story through to research/documents took a micropayment to click? Thus each piece becomes something like Docstoc or an academic publishers’ model. Only instead of the abstract, it’s the article itself that draws eyeballs/search/shares through, and counts of a certain percentage of those visitors to micropurchase proofs for some of the assertions.

 

Again, the system would begin to reward not just great, well-written, important and timely articles, but would begin to reward financially well-researched and linked pieces too. And because all the links would be to assets held by the paper, there would be no conflict for the advertisers.

 

Update, 18/7/12
Annie Machon, former MI5 whistleblower turned journalist and speaker – and now UK co-ordinator for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) added her thoughts last night, by email. 

 

“I very much enjoyed your post. Can I suggest, for extra layers, you have a watch of these two videos? The first, I would move beyond the usual spy bollocks (about 20 minutes) and watch the end; the second, look at the questions at the end. My views on manipulation of the media.

 

Annie’s views on this specific subject are interesting to me, for three reasons. One, as a former MI5 officer, her reports offer quite a close analogue to journalism. (They sold narratives along the line, based on thorough research and a watertight case.) Two, her career as an MI5 officer ended when she became a whistleblower – a similarly neat analogue for the way journalism liberates information. Three, as a vocal supporter of Wikileaks and employee of LEAP, she works on behalf of two organizations who are working to open up access to information/documentation/research, and hoping that the truth, as it were, will set man free. I’m looking at it from a different point of view. But I’m sure the idea of news organizations running their own ‘in-house Wikileaks’ – more-or-less open-information channels they can charge for – won’t be lost on anyone.