Interview: Paul Mason, Journalist, BBC

Journalist Paul Mason is the Economics Editor of BBC’s Newsnight series and an active consumer and user of new media (follow him on Twitter). He’s been the most digitally-engaged reporter on the BBC’s flagship news analysis programme, asking serious questions about the role of digital media for society at large. Recently, he outlined Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere for his blog, Idle Scrawl, based on “various conversations with academics who study this and also the participants themselves”. It received much attention both on- and offline from pundits and commentators around the world.

I spoke with him about how the Web has transformed his news gathering practices, why the recent events in Egypt demonstrate why on-the-ground reporting is still essential, and what effect the digital medium has on who he views as his audience.

How do you use the Web to gather information on stories, and how has this changed over the years you’ve been a journalist?

I use the web as a general noise, or zeitgeist, which signals to me what’s happening and filters what’s important. If you are following 10 key economists on twitter, and some very intelligent blogs – above all the FT’s Alphaville, Roubini etc – you can quickly get to where you need to be which is that stomach churning question: OK what do I do to move this story on? I first used the Web as a journalist in 1995 when Netscape came out: Reed Elsevier put terminals in the canteen. Social media - blogs, Facebook and then Twitter - have really changed my levels of interaction with the audience and changed the speed at which I can respond to stuff.  

What are the features of the Web that have had the greatest impact on how you report news?

Immediate peer review and bullshit detection. Long before I have to make a call on something, an online global civil society is making its own call. However this is most effective the nearer you are to reporting the world of the global business elite. It has limited impact on the way you would report, as I did, a shooting in Croxteth or even a dockers strike in Greece. The web and the global online community have almost nothing to say about this half of the world: but of course once you then delve into the world of Merseyside gangs, you can find them parading their weapons and little push bikes on Youtube – but it’s not all there on a plate. The closer you get to reality, I am really saying, the more the web presents you with unmediated information.

How must news journalism adapt to cope with the new news gathering techniques and opportunities afforded by the Web?

The web and above all mobile digital comms makes 24 hour rolling news seem slow. So 24 hour news has to do news and instant analysis: the news bulletins become very heavily dominated by analysis instead of reportage; and an analysis programme like Newsnight can assume a lot more knowledge in the audience.  

How much of an effect will Wikileaks have on news reporting/news gathering in the long term?

I don’t think it’s Wikileaks that is changing the world: it is the more oblique and gradual process of opening governments and corporations to realtime scrutiny.

The Media Standards Trust recently released a report about the decline in international news coverage in the British press. Why should this be a concern, when people consume news online anyway?

TV used to be seen as a dumb medium – the poor relation of print. But now print is all about “moving” the page: updating it. So a lot of print journalists are as tied to their desks as TV journos are to their satellite trucks. It is vital – I would shout it in all caps if the subs would let me – that news organisations break out of this and fast. Because as Egypt shows, participants can now report; if you are not there, the participants shape the story and the News organisations run behind. It was gratifying to see so many foreign corrs suddenly turn up in Egypt and interface with reality and a sign of hope.