The secret sauce of The Economist (and the BBC): Globalisation

As news publishers look for a remedy to their current ills, many look enviously to The Economist, and I have heard a few newspaper editors ask how they can become more like it. At the risk of sounding a bit brusque and I will admit in engaging in an imperfect analogy, national newspaper editors in the UK envying the success of The Economist is a lot like a local car mechanic coveting the business of Porsche. Both are in completely different businesses, serving completely different clientele. Porsche is the most profitable car company in the world. It enjoys 20.5% profit margins on its vehicles, selling exclusive luxury to well heeled buyers around the world. Newspaper groups used to enjoy profit margins like Porsche, but that’s largely a thing of the past.

However, it’s still worth considering why The Economist has navigated the challenges facing the media as well as it has. In a conversation with my former colleague Roy Greenslade, Andrew Rashbass, the chief executive of The Economist group, puts a lot down to luck, which I think is a bit of false modesty. The Economist’s circulation is up 3% against the backdrop of high single or low double digit circulation annual declines for national newspapers here in the UK (although monthly circulation declines for the quality dailies in the UK can be even worse). Listing a number of fortunate decisions and developments, Rashbass lists one that stands out to me: Globalisation.

Why is The Economist unique? It is one of the few publications that speaks intelligently about globalisation and helps its readers make sense of it. It also explains the appeal of the BBC in its international incarnation. I remember when I joined the BBC in 1998, and as a young reporter I could tell how broad, how global the perspective was of the people I was working with. Yes, The BBC had a British perspective, just as The Economist does, but while the accent was British, the experience and point of view was international. Speaking to a global audience intelligently and helping people make cross-border connections is something that few publications or broadcasters have achieved. Exposing people to international events isn’t enough, which is what most broadcasters and publishers do. What both the BBC and The Economist do is help put those events in an international context. Reading The Economist is like being shown a foreign city by someone who lives there.

Can a national newspaper do this? Maybe. However, it’s quite a pivot for a national newspaper, and I’m not entirely sure any national newspaper has the resources for it. Moreover, most UK national newspapers still don’t feel international to me. They still feel British in the way that CNN International still feels so very American to this American. To be honest, British newspaper coverage of Europe (apart from the FT) is laughably parochial and riddled with continental stereotypes and standard issue British Euro-sceptism. Beyond Europe, there are spots of brightness with the occasional good correspondent, but the coverage is not cohesive or coherent in the way The Economist is as an editorial package. The Economist’s success is definitely something to envy, but I think when it comes to a model for national UK newspapers to emulate, there are lessons and some opportunities. However, there is more that is different than is similar and applicable.

What to take away from Rashbass’ comments? He has a canny view of the differences between digital and print, which he characterises as lean forward and lean back. He also understands business. Greenslade ends his interview with Rashbass with this key business insight:

You always have to equate your model to the value you can extract compared to the cost of creating that value.

It’s not enough to believe you’re creating value, whether social or financial, you also have to have a way to extract value from it. That’s the challenge we’re facing in the news business now. The business model is broken, and the key innovation deficit is finding a way to extract enough value from what we create to support the cost of creating that value.

Africa Gathering London: Putting the social in media

On Monday, I spoke at Africa Gathering London which looked at how new media was revolutionising Africa. I usually do a presentation, but I only spoke for 10 minutes and thought the presentation might get in the way of the points I was trying to make. Here’s the talk, obviously not as delivered and a bit expanded. I still haven’t mastered the art of live blogging myself.

Journalism: More networked, more distributed

Journalism is becoming more networked, not only in how it’s distributed but also in how it’s created.

Since I left The Guardian about a year ago, I’ve done quite a bit of work with Al Jazeera, training more than 250 journalists across Al Jazeera English, Arabic and Turk on how to social, digital and mobile journalism. I started with Al Jazeera English last November and early December, and I’m told that they’ve put the training to good use. (That was a bit of a joke.) Riyaad Minty, the head of social media at Al Jazeera, has a great formula that sums up how Al Jazeera approaches the new realities of networked journalism:

(information – noise) + content = accurate reporting

Throughout the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera has used social media both to distribute its journalism but also as a source for their journalism. As we’ve seen in Syria and Libya, the story of the Arab Spring would be almost impossible to tell without the help of social media. Al Jazeera has developed a sophisticated way to engage with and evaluate social media.

  1. They have built a network of contacts through social media. When they realised that Libya might be the next story in the Arab Spring, the social media team worked to build up a network of contacts there. When their reporters were kicked out of the country, they still had eyes and ears on the ground. In Syria, they have used a closed Facebook group to vet and keep in contact with sources.
  2. They also have a UGC platform of their own Sharek. It allows them to build up a history and profile of the people who send in submissions. They also take in submissions via mobile phone that allow them to get contact information so that they can easily follow up with the people submitting the images or video.
  3. They not only take in content from social media, but they also use social tools to report and distribute their journalism: AudioBoo, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. AudioBoo is a tool that allows you to easily record audio on your iPhone or Android smartphone and upload it directly to the internet.
  4. Al Jazeera also licences some of its content via Creative Commons. Creative Commons is an alternative to traditional copyright. Traditional copyright which says that for people to use your music, images or text only by paying to licence it, Creative Commons gives content creators flexibility in how they want their content used. For instance, you can licence your content using an attribution licence that means that people are free to reuse and remix your content as long as they give you credit. Al Jazeera has its own Creative Commons repository to distribute the content that they licence. It’s been a great way for Al Jazeera content to get a wider viewing, for instance their coverage of the Israeli attacks in Gaza in 2009.

The process is about seeking, finding and amplifying the right voices. Just as with traditional sources, not all social media sources are created equal, and as Riyaad says, if we amplify every voice, it just becomes noise.

Journalism is increasingly becoming networked, distributed and participatory. We need your help to help us filter out the noise. This spring during the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, someone came up to an Al Jazeera correspondent in the field and gave them a video that claimed to show atrocities being carried out. Unfortunately, the video was actually of ‘witch burnings’ in Kenya in 2009.

 

Communication by any means necessary

This morning, someone mentioned that we need to use social media to motivate people, but I think we need to consider what is motivating people to use social media.

One thing I want to stress is that social media is not about technology. It’s about something much older. It is about the fundamental human need to communicate. Often when you hear journalists parody what they see as banal chatter on social media, they mistake communication for publication. Most people aren’t posting on social media to become famous writers, but they are writing for the 15 people they are famous for. Sometimes, they are caught up in a news event, but I often refer to this as random acts of journalism. It’s the modern form of amateur video that we started seeing in the 1980s with the rise of the video camera. Now, with mobile phones, there are cameras and video cameras almost everywhere. The possibility of catching a chance event are higher than ever before.

More than this, what I’m constantly amazed by in the my coverage is the great lengths that people will go to and the creativity that they demonstrate in communicating despite enormous risk and persistent barriers from authorities.

Who has heard of the strange create the Grass Mud Horse? Grass Mud Horse refers to coded slang that internet users there write to poke fun at the official system of censorship as The Great Firewall. The Grass Mud Horse is close to the characters that when translated say something very rude about your mother. Internet users also use a strange date, May 35, which refers to 4 June, the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When I was working with Al Jazeera in March and late April, they told me how some of the videos were getting out of Syria. They weren’t be posted on the internet. Syrians were burning the videos onto CDs, walking to the border and throwing the CDs into Jordan.

People want to communicate. I was part of the launch team for World Have Your Say, the sister programme of Africa Have Your Say, and we had passionate listeners around the world. One of them was Abdelilah Boukili, who worked in the Ministry of Education in Morocco. He started a blog just to capture all of the comments that he made on World Have Your Say.

 

Old school rules: socialising the media you have

There has been a lot of talk today about social media as if it is only Twitter and Facebook, and often the response has been that this is representative of only a small sections of voices in Africa and old, but valid, concerns about creating a digital divide. I also think that when we talk about social media, we need to think about how we can create social experience using whatever media is available to people.

One of my favourite quotes about media is from Arthur Miller that I believe he said in an interview with The Observer:
‘A GOOD newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”

 

It’s about building a social experience, not about getting jiggy with the technology. The world’s largest circulation English language newspaper isn’t in the US, UK or Australia. It’s in India, Newspapers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are seeing double digit growth. There are huge opportunities in socialising ‘old media’.

As I said, I worked on World Have Your Say. People around the world joined the discussion in the easiest and most affordable ways available to them. We felt a thrill when a ship’s captain in the Mulucca Straits called us via satellite phone to take part in the discussion. What we found over time is that people in the US, where I’m from, often emailed us. It was easy and inexpensive for them. People in the UK would ring us because the call wasn’t expensive, and they were in our time zone. If we ever did a show that touched on a subject in Africa, we would be inundated with text messages.

Often, we would use quite traditional technology to get voices in the conversation. We would send producers out with broadcasting kit into Kenya, for instance, to hear from people there.

Last year I was working in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, doing digital media training with journalists and NGOs. When I was there, the Government was holding a celebration  to promote ties to the EU with the idea of possibly joining the union. In the square in Chinsinau, a public broadcaster had a huge public message board. It wasn’t a digital messaging board, it was a place where people could write their messages with pens and markers.

Public TV comment board in Chisinau

The message board in Chisinau Moldova.

Let’s look to Poland. Gazeta Wyborcza is a national daily newspaper in Poland. Fifty percent of Polish internet users are younger than 25, so that affects the type of information that they will look for. Older readers are not so fast in adopting he internet, an editor there told us. They worked to engage their readers whether they were online or reading in print. They asked people about healthcare in Poland. You could have your say on the website, but you could also answer questions and give your views via a form printed in the newspaper.

After joining the EU, Poland €70 billion to spend. The question was how should this money be spent. Asked the question in the newspaper across 21 regions, and used the local newspapers and journalists to write a front page commentary “Seven sins of my city”. They asked people to list the worst things about their cities. It was quite a shocking experience, because most local editors believe they have to write nicely about their city.

They organised local debates but promoted them nationally. The result was amazing – 70,000 letters, emails and calls on this topic. They asked readers for feedback, and they got it! Local TV and radio stations organised news shows about it, despite not being related to Gazeta.

People want to communicate. They want their voices heard. It’s often said that FM radio is to Africa what satellite television is to the Middle East. When we think about social media, there is a lot of ways that we can engage people socially regardless of the technology.

Twitter’s International Growth: Becoming the World’s Water Cooler? | Fast Company

Kevin: Some fascinating statistics showing Twitter's international growth. Kit Eaton writes at FastCompany: "Specific events around the world sparked peaks in international growth, Sanford notes–with the February 2010 Chilean earthquake prompting a 1,200% spike in member sign-ups. A 300% spike was seen after Colombian politicians began to use the system, and speedier growth was seen in India after local politicos and Bollywood stars began to Tweet."