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Letter sent on Apr 7, 2016

Friday Reading S03E17

Friday Reading is a weekly series of recommended reads from journalist and designer Martin Belam covering journalism, media and technology. And frequently Doctor Who. And 80’s music. And anything else that grabbed his eye. Martin is Social & New Formats Editor for the Guardian in London.

I’m in Perugia for the International Journalism Festival and it’s just gorgeous…

My Guardian colleague Chris Moran wrote this at the weekend, and if you work in journalism and 0nly read one thing from Friday Reading this week, I strongly urge that you make it “The shocking truth about audience data: it will surprise you” which I would basically quote in full but apparently nowadays that’s called plagiarism or something. FFS. Anyways, here’s two key quotes:

“Just stop writing about the things you don’t want to cover. Be clear about what your aims are. Don’t ignore the data in a nihilistic funk. Don’t mindlessly let the data lead you to places you don’t want to go. We’re editors, not algorithms.”


“There’s one thing I’m certain of. Making the effort to look at the data we have at our disposal is a better way of improving our journalism than making blithe and negative assumptions about what people want to read.”

Amen to all that. And really, do go and read it.

Actually I lied. If you work in journalism in the UK, you definitely need to read this one as well. The story of how the courts tried to stop all media outlets reporting on a trial, because of comments on Facebook.

Angela Wrightson murder: How the media fought to report the case” — Colin George

So first off, d’uh, know your media law and don’t do stuff that might cause a trial to collapse.

However, it is very worrying to see how our freedom to report can be restricted on the basis of judges not necessarily having the same views as we do on where the boundary of our responsibility for our content rests when it appears on third-party publishing platforms.

At the moment there’s a relatively clear distinction. It is your fault as a publisher if you post links to your own stuff on your own Facebook page and effectively invite users to comment on the story. You can make a reasonable case that you aren’t responsible if a Facebook user organically shares your article.

But who knows whether a judge will think you are liable for publishing an Instant Article version of your story hosted on Facebook and organically shared by a user…

The Panama Papers have been the main journalism show in town this week. Who knew that if you had a load of documents about potential financial irregularity that people from FIFA would crop up? Twice?

And maybe it all seems a bit abstract until you realise that:

“According to Guardian analysis, more than 90,000 properties in England and Wales are listed in the Land Registry to overseas owners, at least 75,000 of which are owned by companies or individuals registered in tax havens. In a country where most young people cannot afford to buy a home, the fact that thousands of properties are bought through tax haven-based companies, by people who are already wealthy enough to restructure their finances to take advantage of tax havens, driving up house prices, and pushing out owner-occupiers, matters.”

It’s not all been the Guardian though. Let’s be 100% clear about that.

“I’ve never seen a collaboration of this nature in terms of the number of journalists and news organizations involved and in terms of the countries involved, and in terms of the independence and autonomy that was given to each of these entities to mine this very rich material to find stories that are important and relevant to their own audiences’ — Sheila Coronel, Columbia Journalism School

How did it come about? Here’s a write-up on the process from Mashable.

And here’s a slightly geekier look at the data processing side of it all in Wired.

We did very well with a simple explainer that was originally posted by a brilliantly named user on Reddit, spotted by Mary Hamilton, tweeted out by Elena Cresci to great effect, and then bludgeoned into an article by me: “How to explain offshore banking (and when it is naughty) to a five year old

Ben Longden did the illustrations for us.

I liked the analogy and re-using it not just for the simplicity, but because:

  1. Even if you didn’t feel you needed help understanding offshore banking yourself, it gave you a tool as a user to explain it to someone else.
  2. It allowed us to explore a little the nuances of “all offshore banking is bad and must be banned.”
  3. It allowed people to go “Urgh! I can’t believe the Guardian has been reduced to lifting content from Reddit” without noting that we got permission, credited the author, and that the 425,000+ people who read it on the Guardian website are not necessarily the people who are likely to look at Reddit.

Mind you, it says something about modern journalistic practice though that the Reddit thread discussing our re-posting had a lot of people astonished that we’d first asked permission, and given credit.

Not all uses of offshore banking are bad or ethically unsound. But this is a pertinent read: “Some thoughts on the Panama Papers” — Jolyon Maugham

“What Panama has offered — its USPs in the competitive world of tax havenry — is an especially strict form of secrecy, a type of opacity of ownership, and (if the reports of backdating are correct) a class of wealth management professionals some of whom have especially compromised ethics. You go to Panama, in short, because, despite its profound disadvantages, you value these things. And the question you should be asking is, what is it about this Mr X or that Mrs Y and his or her financial affairs that causes them to prioritise secrecy or opacity or (if the reports are correct) ethically compromised professionals above all else?”

Still funny, via Tom Chivers on Twitter

This is your new journalism hero: “Yes, I’m a nine-year-old girl. But I’m still a serious reporter

This is fascinating about the sub-culture of amateur teenagers producing newspapers in the US in the late 19th century and it sounds soooooooooo much like blogging and Tumblr culture that at one point I began to think it was a spoof. Especially the bit with the 1880s teens telling the boring old newspapers that their circulation was going down and their time was up.

The Emancipation of Boyhood-Postbellum Teenage Subculture and the Amateur Press” — Lara Langer Cohen

Facebook are pushing big on live video — I’ve been doing some for Media Guardian here in Perugia — and here’s a feature looking at how that has come about. Have you ever worked somewhere that decides to back projects in this way and at this scale and, most importantly, at this phenomenal speed:

“The original Live team was composed of only a dozen or so people. But the vision laid out for the product at that February meeting would require more than 100 engineers to build. ‘The meeting was on a Thursday, and on Monday, Saba and I were standing in front of 150 engineers,’ said Simo. Cox, Saba, and Simo began holding a series of meetings to rally people around the project. They recruited engineers straight out of Facebook boot camp, pitching them by showing off what they were building, often using Live video itself to make their case. ‘At Facebook, we use Facebook to build Facebook,’ Saba explained.”

Ooooh hello what’s this? Yet another “Don’t bother with your own site” platform move? I do worry about a world where publishers don’t control the tech of their own distribution channels and then suddenly I remember we didn’t used to manufacture the ink and the paper and the parts for the printing press either, did we?

“Medium founder Ev Williams hopes that, as publishers struggle with the rise of ad-blocking software and the falling price of display ads, Medium for Publishers will allow them to focus their energy on creative work, rather than trying to master ever-evolving tricks, viral strategies, and social services involved in reaching their audiences.”

Medium Takes Aim at WordPress With a New Way to Power Websites” — Jessi Hempel

Tony Ageh with some words that should worry the BBC as he leaves to join the New York Public Library:

“I believe in universal and equal access for all of British culture. It should not be the case that anyone gets better service because of their wealth, sex or religion. We should bring the best of our culture to as many people as possible. I feel I could have more impact on those kids in Walthamstow from NY than I could from W12. They are already ahead of the BBC in their thinking — the same Reithian, public service values.”

This is so good and so gripping but also because of the genre could just be a bizarre double-bluff publicity move. Who is ever going to fact-check it or find the mysterious Joanne Clancy? *looks to camera*

“I knew I had to read to the end. Gritting my teeth, I paid to download Tear Drop on to my Kindle. I didn’t have much doubt what I would find, but it was still a shock to find all my worst suspicions confirmed.”

Read “The girl who stole my book: How Eilis O’Hanlon found out her crime novels were swiped by a stranger” and make up your own mind…

This is lovely from former BBC colleague Jem Stone who found himself suckered in to helping out his local kids football team: “5 Things I’ve Learned Managing A Youth Football Team

Enjoyed this from another former colleague, Ed Jeff, about a shrine in Cardiff to a fictional character that basically nobody has ever heard of. And of those who have heard of him, most of us couldn’t even really describe him. Unless…well…you’ll see…

The Ianto Shrine: The Cardiff landmark that commemorates a man who never was” — Ed Jeff

Ed is also still trying to win the lottery through the medium of watching Nic Cage movies. No, me either.

Paragraph of the week:

“Phats & Small did not respond to a request for comment, meaning their views on whether the UK would be able to survive on its own as a secure and independent trading nation outside the EU following a period of treaty renegotiation remain unknown.”

Bands Pull Out Of Anti-EU Music Festival After They Learn It’s Anti-EU” — Jim Waterson

Billed a bit as a mystery on the web with the question “Why some Great Depression photos were punched full of holes — each picture is haunted by a strange black void” it turns out the slightly less mysterious answer was “because the man who was the editor at the time was a bit of an asshole.”

Great photos though — what remains of them, anyway.

The Ultimate List of Weapons Astronauts Have Carried Into Orbit

Does what it says on the tin. Includes guns. We took guns into space. For a pretty good reason it turns out…

There’s a new portrait of Tom Baker available. Oh bless him. It’s gonna utterly break my heart when he goes…

Friday Reading is a weekly series of recommended reads from journalist and designer Martin Belam, covering journalism, media and technology. And frequently Doctor Who. And 80’s music. And anything else that grabbed his eye. Martin is Social & New Formats Editor for the Guardian in London.