Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Feb 21, 2018
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    Meeting of minds on the future of the press

    AT A RECENT conference called Meeting Minds at Oxford, speakers from the newspaper industry met to consider two issues: first, the eruption of fake news; and second, how platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are affecting the future of newspapers.The response to the latter has led to a new phenomenon: slow journalism.

    Fake news, a term that has been promoted by America's President Donald Trump, has quite a long history. Its most notorious example was in 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast the news that Martians had landed in America. The broadcast was heard by a huge audience, most of whom believed what he said. A number even committed suicide.

    Today, fake news is being used to undermine public trust in the news media and must never be confused with mis-reporting or lazy journalism. Fake news is the deliberate reporting of untruths and false facts. Its use has been transformed by search engines that can distribute fake news to millions of people at the touch of a keyboard whereas, previously, the distribution of fake news by newspapers and magazines was limited to their much smaller audiences.

    In the recent Presidential election in America, the on-going debate about Hillary Clinton's emails was initiated by a search engine, not by a newspaper, while similar reports about Russian influence on the election were believed by 17 per cent of Clinton's followers and 43 per cent of those who supported Donald Trump.

    The truth of the matter may be revealed by the current federal investigation, though there are fears that Trump may sack the investigator, following the precedent set by President Nixon with regard to the Watergate enquiry - an action that led to Nixon's impeachment. Could the same happen to Trump?

    Certainly, the President has been responsible for initiating outright lies and greatly distorted facts while doing his best to neuter the Press, often by his use of Twitter. In doing so, he is following the policy currently adopted by Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey.

    In Britain, the current plague of fake news can be seen in Boris Johnson's claim that, when we leave the EU, we will have an extra £ 350m a week to give to the NHS (which may or may not be true) and, by the Remainers, their forecast that the economy will 'drop off a cliff,' an event that has been disproved so far by full employment and the benefits received by our exports due to the fall in the value of the pound.

    The dissemination of fake news has been made easy by the fragmentation of the news media and by the fact that platforms enable anybody to become digital journalist. Thus anyone can claim that 'facts are facts' and, in the case of the last Presidential election, Russia can use Facebook in its campaign against Clinton. At the moment, Facebook is doing its best to avoid any responsibility by claiming that it is only a platform. What is now at issue is whether it can be classed as a publisher and held to account for its content.

    With regard to newspapers, the most significant impact by the arrival of digital platforms is that today, some 90 per cent of adverts go to Google and Facebook and in some cases, as with The Guardian's loss of its classified ads, the financial loss has been colossal. There is no doubt that the newspaper in its newsprint form is doomed without a huge subsidy and that, in most cases, ie those – unlike The Guardian – without an endowment fund, will only survive if they go digital.

    The Financial Times, whose motto is 'better to be right than first,' despite its 870,000 subscribers, cannot survive without it network income. And, as platforms become an integral part of the newspaper industry, so some countries are incorporating them into their laws. Germany, for example, has enacted lawns that enable platforms to be heavily fined for hate speech or fake news.

    However, the Meeting Minds conference also considered slow journalism as shown by a magazine called Delayed Gratification (though its definition might also be applied to ArtWork).

    Its co-author, Rob Orchard, echoed the bleak outlook for journalists following the decimation of the newspaper industry (in Britain, over180 local newspapers have gone out of business), and described the philosophy of his quarterly as covering stories that no-one else thinks worth reporting; initiating quirky investigative stories by having, for example, an under-cover reporter working in McDonalds; and returning to already-published stories to provide a follow-up, as in the case of the Turkish coup and its long-term effects.

    But even Delayed Gratification (like ArtWork) can be accessed on-line. The future, it seems, belongs to digital news.


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