Is a lack of trust really what ails newspapers? Not the British tabloids

I’m going to mix apples and oranges here a bit, mixing the US newspaper industry and the British industry. If you think that isn’t fair, then you can click away now.

Some have argued that the decline of newspapers has been down to a loss of trust. A couple of examples of that point of view. James O’Shea, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times said in 2008:

“(the) main problem journalism now faces is the lack of public trust in journalists.”

O’Shea feels that for newspapers to thrive and prosper they “have to figure out how to deliver journalism that makes the public believe we once again are a public trust, something of value and something they won’t hesitate to pay for.

When The Economist asked Jay Rosen last August what the biggest problem was with the news media in the US, he said:

Another example is the decline of trust. In the mid-1970s over 70% of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the press. Today: 47%. Clearly, something isn’t working. But revisions to the code of conduct that has led to this decline would be seen by most journalists as increasing the risk of mistrust. I’ve tried to argue that the View from Nowhere—also called objectivity—should be replaced by “here’s where we’re coming from.”

The other problem he identified was that the bulk of revenues still came from print “but cannot provide a future”.

For those who argue that the decline of the newspaper industry is down to a loss of trust, I’ve never been convinced that this is the fundamental issue. It might be coincidental, but I’m not entirely convinced that it is causal. To me, the decline of newspapers is down to competition from other media for attention, disruption of display and classified advertising and changing media consumption habits. Did they move to other platforms for news because they had more trust or were those other platforms simply more convenient? Do people in the US trust TV news anymore than they trust print?

Roy Greenslade at The Guardian makes the point forcefully today that trust and reading a tabloid in the UK have little to do with each other. “Trust and the red-tops? It’s irrelevant to the millions who read them“, pretty much sums up his point. At the risk of quoting a bit too much from Roy, in terms of the trust=readership argument, at least in terms of print circulation in the UK, that doesn’t really match reality.

Yet, as the print sales figures show, those red-tops – The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star – together sold 4.2m copies even in the dismal sales month of December (with a probable readership of 12m plus readers).
To put that in perspective, sales of the other seven national titles – the middle market pair and five quality titles – collectively totalled roughly the same as the three red-tops.
In other words, though we might think trust plays a crucial role in the decision about media consumption, it is not the defining factor for the regular red-top reader.

To put this in stark terms, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun had a circulation of 2.5m, -6.85% YoY, -3.56 MoM, compared to The Guardian which had a circ of 230,108, -13.11 YoY but fortunately up 1.61% MoM. The Sun has more than ten times the circulation of The Guardian.

I’m not saying that I like this reality. Frankly, I’d rather that trust guaranteed financial success for newspapers, but sadly, the world doesn’t seem to work quite that way. The tabs are easily digestible entertainment, and they show their readers the world they want rather than an accurate picture of reality. However, to argue that a decline in trust is the cause of declining readership and the decline in fortunes for newspapers, doesn’t quite square with reality.

I’m not saying that trust and credibility aren’t important. They are core to my professional identity. However, when it comes to answering the business problems of newspapers, it’s probably down to a collapse in traditional sources or revenue rather than simply collapse in trust.

Ebooks vs apps: What next for news?

I was just writing a comment on Adam Tinworth’s blog post pointing out that there’s a huge ebook market out there that’s largely lying untapped by news organisations, but it started to get too big so here it is as a blog post.

There are a few challenges that news organisations need to overcome in order to really make the best of the ebook market. The first is around file formats. A friend of mine who does web comics looked at the Kindle, and the problem she came across was that anything with images becomes problematic, not just in terms of how the layout is affected by the ebook formatting, but also about upload file size limits. It makes doing a webcomic on Kindle impossible, and I would imagine that the same would be true of any news content with images. The standard news article format of image or video plus text doesn’t seem like it would work well on the Kindle.

That means that one would have to properly repackage content for ebooks: either big, timely articles, such as Ars Technica’s Apple OS X Lion review by John Siracusa, which netted Ars Technica $15,000 in 24 hours OR content with more legs, such as analysis, market intelligence, etc. I know some news orgs are experimenting with this, but some ebooks that I’ve seen of the latter type have been terrible – just a bunch of articles cut and paste into a file, barely formatted, and with no sense of cohesion or context.

In order to do ebooks well, you do need to have someone able to spend the time both on making sure that the content is right and typesetting it in a style suitable for ebooks, and getting it out onto the main ebook platforms, not just Amazon. I personally think there’s a market there, and news orgs really should have all the requisite skills in-house, but what seems to be missing is vision, budget, and time. The idea that you can simply slap a load of related articles into an ebook and Bob’s your uncle is erroneous in the extreme. You need to add value to your content, so provide analysis or information or context or something that your readers can’t simply get from your website. The added value in terms of the Ars Technica Lion review was timeliness and convenience, but single topic articles where that will be enough to prompt so many sales will be rare. I do think that news orgs should be looking at ways in which they can use ebooks to exploit their archives and start to gain revenue from reanalysis of existing content.

As for apps, I think they actually scratch a different itch. They are mainly about accessing today’s news in a more convenient manner. Were I to be pointing in a direction for news apps,  I’d say that news orgs should be looking at hybrid HTML5/native apps which require less in the way of original coding (think of platforms like PugPig), and which can stretch across operating systems with just a single source of content (the HTML5). The development and redevelopment of apps for this platform and that platform is time-consuming and uses up resources unnecessarily. As I said to .Net Magazine, this is the only real way that content producers can keep up with the demands of different platforms.

Of course, this isn’t actually an either/or scenario. News orgs should be looking at both ebooks and apps with a clinical, disinterested eye, working out what users want and how to provide that effectively, rather than simply shoehorning their existing content into these different-shaped buckets and hoping no one will notice that it doesn’t really fit.

Journalists: Create your own career

Richard Gingras, head of news products for Google, was talking about the disruption in the journalism industry at a recent seminar for Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford and made this observation:

Perhaps in journalism it will be like it was in music for a long time: there are a lot of people doing great stuff, but only a handful, the stars, will be able to make a good living out of it. Most will be doing it for a nickel and a dime, out of passion instead of profession.

There is no doubt that newsrooms will be much, much smaller in the future. At a future of news event at NESTA (National Endowment for Society, Technology and the Arts – an innovation NGO here) in London a couple of years ago, I threw out the figure that I thought there would be 40% fewer jobs in journalism than in the past. Charlie Beckett of the POLIS think tank at LSE disagreed. His figure? 80% fewer.

Low pay isn’t a huge change for local journalists, especially journalists just starting out. I made $2000 less than a first year teacher when I started as a journalist in a small town in Kansas. (Sadly, a first year teacher is a benchmark for low pay in the US.) Of course, my pay at the newspaper was high compared to some of the junior producers at local TV stations. A differential in pay isn’t new either, especially in TV, but increasingly in newspapers and other news organisations. People all assume that journalists make huge salaries, but that has always been only for a few – star columnists, television anchors and executive editors.

I won’t take issue with Gingras. I think he’s simply making an observation, and I made the same observation a couple of years back, around the time that I took a buyout from the Guardian. Furthermore, the star system is a fickle game. It’s media fashion, not journalism. I don’t want to pin my livelihood to being the media flavour of the month. I know how the media love to build up stars only to take equal zeal in destroying them in short order. I’ve seen the media eat its own over and over, and I have no interest in it.

Also, my primary interest in journalism is public service, and the media star system is built on totally different values with totally different priorities. Having said that, I’m honest enough to know that money isn’t made in offering a public service, just ask teachers. The real money is made by the media not public service journalism, and the media is about framing debates and entertaining readers with comment on the events of the day. Twas ever thus.

However, as my journalism professor Bob Reid told us:

Know what your price is.

A precious few get rich from journalism, especially public service journalism. At the end of the day, we all have bills to pay and personal goals, like a home and time with friends and family. You have to balance what the profession will provide and what you want from life. As 2012 starts, I’m asking myself a lot of questions about career-life balance.

Moreover beginning in the boom and continuing to this day, my digital skills have always been more valuable economically than my journalism skills. However, if there is one thing that I have learned since I took a buyout: I’m a journalist. I love it. My passion is still journalism, and not only journalism, but practically exploring the new opportunities created by digital journalism. I still get up every day excited about creating a new medium for journalism.

Gringas is right on two counts. Journalism is fuelled by passion, and an increasing number of journalists will struggle to make their living solely based on journalism. In the future, I think more people will do what I have done the past two years. Former colleagues don’t read our blog and don’t follow me on Twitter ask what I’m doing these days. My standard response is:

I’m doing things to support my journalism habit.

I’m frequently asked to write for free on someone else’s site, and I respond, when I write to write for free, I write on my blog. They say that it will be good exposure for me, and I can understand why it might be for some. However, most of these sites are comment sites. Their interest isn’t in public service journalism, and therefore, it’s not in my interest.

More broadly though, I realised years ago that I didn’t need someone to make me a star for me to have a career in journalism. When I was researching for the BBC how we could use blogs for journalism, I started to realise that not only could I take responsibility for my own profile and my own career, I should. I’m not naturally self-promotional, but I’ve never seen what I do here as promoting me. I’ve always seen my blogging as allowing me to talk about my passion for digital journalism.

It has meant that our blog is the centre of our business. As Suw often says, we don’t make money with out blog, we make money because of it. However, in the new world of post-industrial journalism, we’re going to be more responsible for our own careers, and we can rely less on the organisations that we work for to create opportunities for us. I say post-industrial journalism because we’re just suffering the same displacement that so many in the West have gone through in the post-industrial age. The news factories of yore are down-sizing, and mini-mills are taking their place. We’re going to have to take responsibility for our retooling and for nurturing our own profile. If that seems unseemly, I see my blog not so much as a single-minded exercise in career building. It has been really important in network building, and as I’ve navigated the wrenching changes, it’s been a lot easier with the friends and professional contacts I’ve made here.

This is all to say: Carpe diem! Some digital models rely on free content, and it might seem like a way to get exposure and build your profile. I’d still argue, set up your own site, a blog works very well, and take ownership of your own career. It’s hard work, just as hard as trying to stand out on the comment for free sites, but in the end, it can be a lot more satisfying and rewarding.

Pseudonymous commenters aren’t so bad after all

Disqus has released an infographic of some analysis they’ve done on their comments to compare pseudonymous, eponymous (real name) and anonymous commenters. They looked at both quantity and quality and found that pseudonymous commenters are better for a community than either eponymous or anonymous commenters. To save you from having to wade through a rather pointless infographic, here are the key facts:

Disqus measured Quality and Quantity:


  • Positive measures
    • Number of times a comment is liked
    • Number of times a comment is replied to
  • Negative measures
    • Number of times a comment is flagged
    • Number of times a comment is marked as spam
    • Number of times a comment is deleted

They found that, by these measures:

  • Pseudonymous comments were
    • 61% positive
    • 28% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Anonymous comments were:
    • 34% positive
    • 55% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Real name comments were:
    • 51% positive
    • 40% neutral
    • 9% negative


  • Aggregate number of comments by identity
  • Average number of comments by identity

They found that the percentage of comments by identity was:

  • 61% pseudonymous
  • 35% anonymous
  • 4% real name

The average pseudonymous commenter contributed 6.5 times more than the average anonymous commenter and 4.7 times more than commenters identified via Facebook.

Now, this data is interesting, but although it’s not really a smoking gun, it certainly should give companies pause before they start trying to force people to use their real names instead of pseudonyms; they may well be encouraging a less civil environment rather than the more civil one they are trying to, or telling us that they are trying to, nurture.

I would like Disqus to repeat their work but be a bit more rigorous. For example, testing their data to ensure that they are accurately differentiating between pseudonymous, anonymous and eponymous commenters. After all, using Facebook to log in doesn’t guarantee that someone is eponymous, nor does not using it mean they are not. I’d also like them to test their quality measures against both sentiment analysis and a panel of real humans. The latter would be relatively easy to do via something like Mechanical Turk. Of course, if they’ve done this already they should publish the details in a methodology.

The whole argument about anonymity, pseudonymity and real names on the internet over the last year or so has been mainly people arguing from assertion, so it is nice to see some real data. And there can be no doubt that Disqus has a lot of comments to analyse, so this isn’t just some skewed sample from a tiny corner of the web. But we do need both to see more work in this area and more companies taking notice of the evidence instead of sticking to their well-oiled but misfiring guns.

A healthy debate about ‘he-said-she-said’ journalism

I credit the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane with starting a good debate about fact-checking in journalism, and I like Bernard Keane’s of Australia’s Crikey with a pretty level-headed summary of what Brisbane said:

Brisbane’s point was that op-ed columnists have the freedom to challenge such assertions, and that the Times has been running a sidebar to presidential nomination stories that fact-checks claims by candidates, but such analysis was not currently part of the straight reportage of the Times, and he wanted to know whether it should be.

Fact-checking rather just parroting what politicians say has been on the rise in American journalism. has been running was launched 2003 by Brooks Jackson who did a similar features CNN, and Politifact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its web-based fact-checking operation. Even the Associated Press has had fact-checking projects running for years. As Brisbane says and also New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, fact checking and truth telling is a part of the Times’ journalism.

Jay Rosen has long been criticising what US political coverage calling it the Church of the Savvy with its “view from nowhere”, and Brisbane’s column really got under his skin. Jay writes:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

I would ask: Whose side is the press supposed to be on? I’ve always assumed my readers. Sure, it’s our job as journalists to call out political, corporate or other figures when they peddle falsehoods, and I don’t accept an objectivity that cannot distinguish between what is false and true. I also think it’s important to put points of view in perspective, rather than think that absolute balance should be a goal of journalism. That requires not only editorial decisions but judgement calls. However, I’ll be honest. I don’t see it as my job as a journalist to take sides. I’ll call bullshit on any side, and my independence is core to my identity as a journalist. My university had the largest fraternity and sorority system, and I used to say that I belonged to Gamma Delta Iota – God Damned Independent.  I’m still that way. I respected my colleagues at the BBC who had the ability to hold everyone’s feet to the fire, regardless of party. That’s not a view from nowhere, that’s about accountability, including my own.

As for Jay’s issues with objectivity, the idea has a lot of detractors these days, and it’s constantly been under attack since the day I left j-school. Objectivity does not mean false balance. Giving bullshit peddlers equal time is not objectivity. Radical relativism, or false equivalence as James Fallows refers to it, where everyone’s views or narrative is valid or reported without challenge isn’t objectivity. However, I still check my biases because as my journalism professor, the late, great Bob Reid, bellowed at us:

Check your biases, because your biases will determine the questions you don’t ask!

It’s still burned into my mind.

I’m not as het up as Jay about this. As James Fallows says:

So I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let’s hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it’s one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be “fair” and “objective” in the new political-infosphere terrain. (And, yes, I realize that these choices are difficult — there’s a whole book on the topic!)

I also see it as an opportunity for journalists to outline their professional values and rebut some of the caricatures that people hold of us.

This is a healthy discussion, and as Keane at Crikey says, this isn’t just about views on objectivity, balance or false equivalence, this is also about resources. I hope he pardons me for the extended quote, but this is important:

The complicating factor when criticising he-said-she-said, however, is resources. Should a radio reporter, rushing to air coverage of a press conference, instead devote an hour to researching every claim made by the politician at the microphone? More to the point, what would her producer say? What about an audience now accustomed to instantaneous coverage of everything? In an era of ever-more constrained media resources, time spent fact-checking is now at a premium. People love to bag journalists, especially on social media, and it’s frequently merited, but what’s missed is that journalists are placed under ever greater pressure from editors and producers to meet ever faster deadlines, in an ever greater number of formats, with fewer and fewer resources.

Yup. Everyone working in journalism knows this right now. We’re under greater and greater pressure to produce more and more as there are fewer and fewer of us.

I’ve only linked to and quoted a few of the posts on this topic. Jay has lots more links on his post. The Atlantic has more. Missed out in that round-up is Clay Shirky’s piece today in the Guardian. James Fallows’ post is worth reading in full. Politicians have stepped up their game in ways that the US press has yet to find an effective response to. Although journalists’ favourite passtime is navel-gazing, this has brought up some important questions. It’s a good discussion to have in an election year.

Digital has changed reporting

Jay Rosen has an interview with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who said in a recent column that the Post might be guilty of innovating too quickly, and as Jay highlights, Pexton says:

I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging. And the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally.

I couldn’t disagree more. Certainly, there are reporting formats that haven’t changed much since the rise of digital. However, in saying ‘online’, Pexton is merely thinking of digital as the internet and thinking of the internet as nothing more than a publishing platform. I also think that he doesn’t see any change in reporting because he sees reporting as a fundamentally text-based project. Furthermore, reporting is part of the journalistic process, a very important part of it. It’s the raw material of story-telling, but digital has fundamentally changed how we tell stories. In short, he’s not thinking of digital as mobile or multimedia devices or services.

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist. I continued to report from the field as an editor at The Guardian, and I’ve seen a revolution in reporting in that time. Casting back to my first job at a local newspaper in the US, digital was already changing my job. I had a mobile phone then, although it was what we called in the US a bag phone. It had a simple modem, and we were testing how to use it to file. Our sports reporters used TRS-80 Model 100 portables to file stories from remote locations. Explain to me how that didn’t change reporting? This allowed reporters to remain in the field, report the story and file without having to read a story down the phone.

When I covered the 2000 US presidential elections for the BBC, we used satellite equipment and an small, inexpensive digital video camera to conduct live webcasts where we took questions from our readers around the world. Two years later, I covered the one-year anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks with colleagues. I shot video and edited it on my laptop, compressing it so I could file it over a modem to London. During the same assignment, I had an early mobile modem capable of a then blistering 128kbps, and I worked with my colleagues to cover the concert in Central Park. We took pictures with digital cameras, wrote the text and filed all from park before Billy Joel finished New York State of Mind. My colleagues told me that someday all journalists would work like this.

Then in 2008, my main reporting tool was my mobile phone. I used Twitter to bring readers along with me as I journeyed across the US with a Guardian Film team in the lead up to the election. I filed updates and pictures via Twitter. I could report and file pictures as people celebrated outside of the White House in the wee hours of the morning. It was a watershed moment for me. I didn’t have to leave the scene of story to keep reporting. Explain to me how that hasn’t changed reporting.

Beginning in November 2010, I began working with Al Jazeera, training hundreds of producers, correspondents and staff on how to use social, mobile and digital tools. Their work stands on its own as proof that digital has changed reporting.

Since 1996, I have worked as a digital journalist. I have never pushed change just for the sake of it but because that is where I knew my audience was going. They were going online. They were getting their news via social media and engaging directly with journalists and sources.

Many journalists have have been working to adapt to this change for a long time now. We’ve been fighting for a long time, and only recently, did I feel like the conversation was starting to move again. After a lot of innovation in the 1990s, we lost a lot of great young digital journalists to the crash. After rebuilding in the last decade, we sadly lost a lot of excellent digital veterans to the integration wars.

As former Sacramento Bee editor Melanie Sill said recently:

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

I can see green shoots again. Leaders are rising to meet the change rather than to rehash the tired arguments of the last 15 years. It’s heartening, and I’m starting to get the itch to get back into a newsroom after being independent.

I’ll agree with Pexton that we don’t pursue innovation just for the sake of change. As journalists, we pursue it because it can serve our audiences better, engage them more deeply and, with innovation on the business side too, generate revenue to support our journalism. In 2012, I’m looking for the next big challenge and for like minds to meet that challenge with.

Newspaper innovation: Not too much but too little

If you’re a newspaper editor, and you want some much needed inspiration, you’ll want to add the blogs of Melanie Sill and John Robinson to RSS feeds or daily reading, and follow both John and Melanie on Twitter. John recently stepped down as the editor of the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina, and Melanie recently made a similar move, leaving the top job at the Sacramento Bee in California. John wrote an excellent post about rebuilding a newspaper’s relationship with its community last week, and in her most recent post, Melanie looks at newspaper innovation. It comes after the ombudsman at the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, agreed with some readers who thought the Post was innovating too quickly. (As someone who lived in Washington for seven years and considered the Post my local paper, it was always a schizophrenic place with a lot of digital innovation under Jim Brady while the print offices in Washington tried to change as little as possible.)

Melanie’s thoughts on the pace of innovation?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

Yes! Digital is different. It’s something digital folk have been saying since the 1990s. It’s not enough to shovel print content onto the web just because both print and the web are largely text-based. Just as reading a newspaper out on TV would seem silly (although there is some value in the newspaper reviews common on European television), simply copying text to the web was always an approach lacking imagination.

  • How is digital different?
  • What is possible in digital, on the web and via mobile, that isn’t possible in print?
  • How does this change audience expectations about news and information?
  • How do we meet those expectations?
  • How can use those differences to come up with new opportunities for revenue to support the work we do?

This is what I’ve been thinking about since I first became an ‘internet news editor’ in 1996. We’re at a pivotal time, and it’s great to see leadership from veterans like John and Melanie. I look forward to working with leaders like them in the future.

Unique content part of metered paywall success

Last year, a university journalism classmate of mine and I were talking the various plights of journalism, and he told me some advice that a business-savvy relative had given him. Roughly, it was this:

To be successful, you have to know how to create value but also how to capture value.

Basically, this means, that yes, you have to create value. Many journalists are focused on this part of the equation, the valuable service that we provide and the social value that we create. However, to be a sustainable business, we also have to know how to capture value. From that service or social value that journalists create, how do we get a return on it so that we can continue to provide the service? This is really the pressing business issue for digital content businesses, including journalism. How do we capture the value of the service that we provide? Subscriptions? Advertising? Events? Consulting? Marketing services? Most likely all of the above and more.

It’s worth interrogating the first part of that and being pretty ruthless and honest with ourselves as journalists about what value we are creating. There is a lot of redundant content out there right now, and as I said over and over in 2011, content is abundant; attention is scarce. Metered paywalls such as those at the Financial Times and the New York Times seem to be working. Is it because of the metre or the content (or a bit of both)? Adam Tinworth has a view on that:

I was involved in a significant amount of work in my final year at RBI looking at exactly what kinds of content people will pay for, through what mechanism, and how to create more of it. Uniqueness was certainly one key factor – as was the amount of business value that investment returns to the reader, which is exactly why the FT does so well.

Adam was responding to Frédéric Filloux’s most recent Monday Note looking at how both the Financial Times and the New York Times are increasing the cost of their printed product, which makes their paid digital product seem less expensive by comparison for loyal readers. Filloux also keyed in on unique content:

Of these three factors, the uniqueness of content remains the most potent one. With the inflation of aggregators and of social reading habits, the natural replication of information has turned into an overwhelming flood. Then, the production of specific content — and its protection — becomes a key element in building value.

To me unique content and a strong, active social media strategy builds audience and engagement. Note that I said an active social media strategy. The only thing that has continued to propel my career forward has been a personal active social media strategy, engaging my peers and also my audiences. This isn’t just about promoting myself or my content via social media but also connecting with people and connecting those people with information that I think they will find useful, whether I reported and wrote it or not.

New year, new blog, new report

In a happy coincidence, today I launched both my new blog on and Chatham House released the report on the effects of the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud event to which I contributed.

My new blog will be covering the rather disparate topics of book publishing and high-impact low-probability (HILP) events. Slightly an odd mix, perhaps, but both are fascinating topics and we’ll see how it develops.

The Chatham House report, Preparing for High-impact, Low-probability Events: Lessons from Eyjafjallajökull, looks at the impact that the ash cloud had, as well as examining the need for companies and organisations to be prepared for these HILP events. My contribution was Chapter 4: The Battle for the Airwaves, which looks at the media response to the ash cloud disruption. You can get an overview in my first post on Forbes.

Do let me know what you think, both of the report and the new blog!

Journalism: Here’s to second chances

Two years ago over the Christmas holiday, I finished a series for The Guardian looking at deep job cuts in the British media industry. I wanted to look both at the numbers, but I also wanted to speak to journalists to get a sense of the human toll. It was heart breaking to find the devastating impact on local newspapers and journalists in England, Wales and Scotland.

Personally, I hadn’t yet decided to take voluntary redundancy (a buyout) from The Guardian, but I had turned a corner. In November of 2009, I had decided that not only was change possible, it was preferable. As I often told friends, I saw more opportunities outside of The Guardian than inside. However, it would be the first time that I would leave a job without another waiting, and it was the first time that I would leave a job without something clearly bigger and better waiting.

As I knew from the series that I had just finished, my story was far from unique. I joined thousands of journalists in making the difficult decision and thousands more who had the decision made for them.

Like people that I interviewed for my series, I found the buyout gave me some time to recharge, dare I say heal. It also gave me time to explore options and navigate the initial transition. Two years later, I’m thinking about second (and third and fourth) chances sparked by a piece in Smithsonian magazine by Meghan Daum about her decision to trade her native New York for Lincoln Nebraska, more precisely a tiny farmhouse on the outskirts of Lincoln. More than a decade later she isn’t entirely sure why she made the move. However, she returns there usually once a year. Why?

“Lincoln gave me a faith in second chances. In third and fourth chances, too. I’d had a nervous upbringing in the tense, high-stakes suburbs of New York City, after which I lived hungrily and ecstatically, but no less nervously, in the clutches of the city itself. This was a life that appeared to have no margin for error. One mistake—the wrong college, the wrong job, embarking on marriage and family too soon or too late—seemed to bear the seeds of total ruination. Terrified of making a wrong move, of tying myself down or cutting off my options, I found myself paralyzed in the classic New York City way.”

In November of 2009, I too was paralyzed, which was a new feeling for me. I’ve never been too fussed about making pretty major course corrections in life. My entire journalism career started because of my first, but not last, left at the lights. When I entered university, I was an aeronautical and astronautical engineer. Yes, I was going to study to be a rocket scientist. However, I soon realised that my interests were too broad, and I loved writing too much to throw myself into an engineering career. (I will admit to a slight twinge of regret last year when the Space Shuttle flew for the last time. Yes, I grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut.)

After graduation, I passed up a prestigious political journalism internship in Washington for a fellowship with an environmental group. It didn’t work out as planned, and I learned a valuable lesson: My journalism values – providing accurate information so that people could make their own decisions in a democratic society – trumped my own personal, political values. However valuable the lesson to me personally, the experience handicapped my effort to land my first journalism job. Like Meghan Daum, I found myself on the Great Plains, in Kansas rather than Nebraska, working for a small newspaper. I’m still grateful for that second chance. Apart from my job for the BBC in Washington, being a regional reporter for the Hays Daily News is still my favourite job.

Fast forward to 2009, with The Great Recession and now a wife, I didn’t want to leave a full-time job without something to go to. Suw and I wanted to stay in the UK at least until I could apply for citizenship, which was still two years away. I felt stuck, and I felt worried about the risk, not only immediate but also in the long-term to my career, of leaving. Suw remembers the day when I woke up cheery again in November of 2009 knowing that I didn’t have to accept the status quo.

I now look back at 2011 with a sense of the importance of second chances and also that life and careers are a bit more forgiving than we might think. I look forward to 2012 with a lot of excitement. We’re actually more financially secure than we were in 2009, and the work is fascinating. After I get that British passport, we’ll have a few more options open to us. Here’s to 2012 and second chances, mine and yours.