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Social media: the biggest revolution since printing

UK lecturer delivers talk on modern journalism to packed audience

Charlie Beckett, from the London School of Economics, delivering last night’s Strickland Foundation lecture. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Charlie Beckett, from the London School of Economics, delivering last night’s Strickland Foundation lecture. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The turnout for the Strickland Foundation lecture on journalism and social media was so overwhelmingly high that lecturer Charlie Beckett, from the London School of Economics, quipped that perhaps people had mistaken his name for “David Beckham”.

It’s increasingly where people are getting their news from

About 300 people – young and old – armed with smartphones and tablets, crammed into the Green Room at the Phoenicia Hotel for Prof. Beckett’s insights on the virtual world.

“Social networks are out there and it’s increasingly where people are getting their news from,” said the founding director of a journalism think tank at the London School of Economics.

He compared the old media – television, radio and newspapers – to “a ticket office at the Hypogeum”.

“New media gets rid of the gatekeeper,” said Prof. Beckett, who heads the Media and Communications department at LSE.

Social media is the biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press in the Middle Ages, he said, adding that it has brought a shift from a manufacturing to a services industry.

The impact has had its downside: newspaper revenues around the world in these last 10 years have gone down drastically.

He cited The Guardian, the British national newspaper, as an example.

“It has a relatively small circulation of around 200,000 but online it gets some 10 million readers... because it opened itself up to all forms of social media,” he said.

Although it gained readers, The Guardian “is losing a lot of money”. However, said Prof. Beckett, it is now in the process of generating money through other forms: cookery classes, journalism courses and one of the UK’s most popular dating sites.

Social media has also marked the era of citizen journalism. By requesting help through their social media channels, readers are collaborating and enriching content. Typical examples were the start of the Syria revolution and the Arab Spring.

“Mainstream media could not be present in any way – and citizen media made it to the main news channels,” he said.

He also mentioned little Martha Payne – the young school girl in the UK who blogged about her school dinners.

“When the local council banned Martha from blogging, Twitter went crazy and by the evening she was back online.”

One of the direct results of social media is the loss of privacy.

“It’s like living in a glass room... actions are more transparent,” he said.

What sort of future can he foresee for journalism? Most national media houses in the UK have a social media desk, he said. “If you can’t take the heat from social media, then you need to get out of the kitchen.”

Journalism has to be social if it is to survive and thrive, and “journalists have to stop pretending to be pure and neutral and bloodless and unbiased.” He urged journalists to be “more honest about who they are”.

Prof. Beckett, who is an award-winning filmmaker and former editor at BBC and ITN, is the author of Super­media, a book that sets out how journalism is being transformed by technological and other changes and how this will impact on society.

His latest book is Wikileaks: News in The Networked Era.

The lecture, organised by Strickland Foundation, was preceded by a short feature on Mable Strickland.

“From what I can see, she would probably have been quite an active user of Twitter,” said Prof Beckett, summing up the spirit of the founder of The Times of Malta.

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