Journalism and innovation: “Never outsource your future”

 Piechota quotes Clayton Christensen, the esteemed chronicler of corporate change, saying: “Never outsource the future.”

Ken Doctor does a great summary of a report by Grzegorz Piechota for the INMA. I met Grzegorz Piechota in Prague years ago now, probably 2007. We were both presenting at a small workshop for journalists hosted by the Transitions Online.

Rather than doing a full-blown summary of a summary, I’ll just highlight this because it is so relevant and important.

Greg doesn’t pull punches, and he is saying something that needs to be said but that almost no staffer or senior manager who wants to keep their job can say:

Today we pay the price for the sins of the past. Users are destroying publishers’ revenues with adblockers. Internet giants have sniffed the opportunity to drag us into their walled gardens and eat us alive. It’s high time for news publishers to give strategic priority to mobile and improve the user experience…Can we stop discussing in our newsrooms whether every reporter should be on Facebook or Twitter and move the debate on social media to the boardroom?

I know of a major news company in which the staff have to use ad blockers so that they can simply do their jobs and manage their sites. If your staff cannot use your own site without destroying your business model, does that take anyone even a second to realise how ridiculously broken your user experience and ultimately your business is?

The time for half measures is long past. This is a senior board level discussion, and the leadership and managers need to start listening to people on staff who are saying these uncomfortable things. I’m making quite a tidy living at the moment telling companies things they need to hear, that many of their staffs are telling but that they wouldn’t countenance from a staff member or members of their management team.

We didn’t need to get to this moment a moment when major companies are going to go to the wall because they couldn’t deal with the reality that was so clearly before them. Instead, they chose to listen to the people who whispered that it would all be OK in their ears. To steal one more line from Greg. He quotes a Polish proverb:

When someone tells you that you’re drunk, she might be wrong. When three different people tell you, you’d better shut up and go to bed.

The industry is drunk. It needs to wake up and come back with a plan to deal with 21st Century realities. Build a digital business or get ready for the deadpool.

Content metrics aren’t bad, measuring the wrong things is bad

My friend George Brock has taken aim at Trinity Mirror‘s Newsroom 3.1 plan on The Conversation:

Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work.

Later he adds:

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued.

Ouch. I agree with George that volume numbers of alone – clicks and even unique users – aren’t going to help us grow our audiences.

Like Trinity Mirror, Gannett, where I work as an executive editor, has also been training our journalists on how to use metrics. It is part of a larger strategy to be more audience focused. But fortunately, the training goes beyond volume metrics to include engagement and loyalty metrics. The main question that we are trying to answer is how do we produce something that is so valuable to our communities that they will pay for it? Just this week, I pointed out to one of my staff that her story wasn’t just getting a lot of views or clicks, but that it also was having higher than average engagement. People were spending time with her story.

Suw and I often say in our training and consulting that metrics aren’t bad but be very careful about what you are measuring because you might end up optimising for the wrong thing. Suw says that we often fail to measure what is important because we focus on measuring what is easy.

Measuring impact and what what our audiences value is challenging, but we have to do it. And we have to get smarter in how we do it.

ICYMI – Gannett at #ONA14: Data-driven insights with Chartbeat

I missed the Online News Association conference last week because I had just returned from Asia speaking at the WAN-IFRA India conference and doing some data journalism seminars with journalists in India and Singapore.

However, my Gannett colleagues were at ONA14 in force, and they highlighted how we’re using analytics tools like Chartbeat to make sure that our journalism reaches the widest audience. We’re doing that with a mix of dayparting and content programming to make sure that we have the right content for the right audience at the right time of day, and we’re also driving an audience focus in our newsrooms that delivers real public service and engagement.

Kevin Hogan, who is the digital editor for some Gannett sites in New York, created a great Storify summary of the discussion at the Gannett Salon about the insights that Chartbeat is providing us.

A few highlights:

  • Only about four percent of readers who come to a story from a link shared on social media will return to the homepage of the site.
  • At Gannett, we get our highest loyal traffic at 9 am in the morning. This is definitely true at my sites. Traffic starts building at about 6:30 to 7 a.m. and then starts a gentle glide path downward through the day after 10 a.m.
  • Readers use tablets and mobile more in the evening. Our desktop/mobile mix shifts to mobile between 4 to 6 p.m., and it is driven almost entirely by Facebook.

Hacking: Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the law

After the phone- and email-hacking and the illegal payments to police and other public officials scandal currently engulfing the British press the key question is, What needs to be done to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Journalists are obviously resistant to statutory regulation, which they believe will undermine the watchdog role that the press is supposed to play with respect to the government and the police. The belief by journalists is that this isn’t an issue of regulation but rather of enforcing existing laws. In an interview with the Guardian, outgoing Associated Press president and chief executive Tom Curley sums up that point of view nicely:

The laws on hacking and payments are rather clear. We don’t need more laws there but somebody didn’t enforce what was already there. Why did they not enforce them? What was really going on and how does that get resolved?

That’s really key. Not only is there clear evidence of wrong-doing, there has been clear evidence of wrong-doing for years, almost a a decade. What perverted the course of justice to such an extent that the News International’s ‘rogue reporter’ defence stood up for so long?

As an American, I come at this from a distinctly American point of view, not just in terms of journalism but also in terms of a fundamentally American civic point of view. The entire basis of US constitutional governance is a system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers believed that government power needed to be held in check, which is why they invested counter-balancing power in the courts, Congress and the office of the president. Despite an increase in the concentration of executive power beginning in the 1930s, you only have to see how Barack Obama is checked by a hostile Congress to see how checks and balances operate.

The press is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, another centre of power, another check against authority. However, it’s pretty clear that in the UK, power actually became so concentrated in the tabloid press that it effectively has gone unchecked. The police didn’t hold the tabloids to account, and politicians actually courted Rupert Murdoch’s king-making Sun.

Now as the investigations into illegal payments to public officials and police yield arrests for questioning, Sun Associate Editor Trevor Kavanagh thundered in defence of his paper and the British press today under the headline Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom.

An effort by the police to finally do a proper investigation and hold people to account is a Soviet-style witch-hunt?

Read his article. It’s typically good Sun bombast, but it’s also typical of tabloid diversion: Change the subject, frame the argument so that something very unseemly seems righteous and pure. He says his journalists are blameless:

Their alleged crimes? To act as journalists have acted on all newspapers through the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors. These stories sometimes involve whistleblowers. Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.

Chequebook journalism is a pretty common feature in securing tattle for the tabloid press. However, if you start to whip out the chequebook to pay a police officer or a public official, that’s something entirely different. It starts to establish a potentially corrupting relationship between officials and the press. Yes, it is done in extraordinary circumstances, such as obtaining the records for the explosive MPs expenses story. However, a nonchalance about money changing hands between journalists and public officials shines a spotlight on the problem; it doesn’t provide a defence for the practice or for those involved in it.

Occasionally journalists will engage in surreptitious recording if it is in the public interest. Occasionally, and in extraordinary circumstances when there is no other way to get a story, we will conceal our identity as journalists. However, we only bend or break our own professional rules if there is an overriding public interest in doing so. There is no public interest defence for breaking the Computer Misuse Act. There is no public interest defence for intercepting voicemail messages.

With sufficient justification and internal editorial oversight, normal guidelines can be set aside when there is an overwhelming public need to do so, but journalists cannot break the law without understanding that we will be held to account.

The journalists now being investigated are not being treated any differently than anyone else would be in an investigation, and if journalists are suspected of breaking the law, there is nothing special about our profession that allows police to treat us any differently than anyone else. Members of the Fourth Estate are not exempt from the laws of the other three. A press card, even the new one proposed by the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, is not a licence to break the law. The sooner that tabloid journalists accept that, the sooner we can move on from this dark chapter in the history of journalism.

CNN and Zite: What other tech companies have been bought by Big Media?

With the news that CNN has bought iPad news app Zite, I started thinking about what tech companies have been bought by media organisations. I could think of a couple off the top of my head including Newsvine and Everyblock by MSNBC, Reddit by Condé Nast and Blogrunner by the New York Times. If you think of any others, feel free to pop them in the form below. I’ll publish the list as soon as we get it into some shape.

Tottenham riots: Data journalists and social scientists should join forces

In the wake of some of the worst riots in London in more than a decade, Ben Goldacre has said on Twitter:

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Yes, we’re now going to have to suffer through lots of ill-informed speculation from columnists. Brace yourself yet again as they take out their favourite axe from the kitchen cupboard and grind away on it just a bit more until the head is gone and they’re whittling the handle into a toothpick. It will enrage more than enlighten.

I have a better suggestion. With the current interest in data journalism, this would be a great time to revisit one of the seminal moments of data journalism carried out by Philip Meyer in the wake of the 1967 riots in Detroit. As a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Meyer studied not only how social science could be applied to journalism, but he also explored how main frame computers could be used to quickly analyse data. (For data journalists, if you don´t already own it, you should buy a copy of  Meyer´s book, Precision Journalism, first published in 1973 and since updated.) As a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, Meyer was sent to Detroit to help cover the riots.

The 1967 Detroit riots stand as the third worst in the history of the US, only eclipsed by the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King and draft riots in New York during the US Civil War. As the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan said:

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News threw every resource they had into covering the uprising. And as the disturbance died down, journalists and commentators, most of them white, struggled to understand who the rioters were and why they had taken to the streets. One theory was that those who looted and burned buildings were on the bottom rung of society—riff raff with no money and no education. A second theory speculated that rioters were recent arrivals from the South who had failed to assimilate and were venting their frustrations on the city.

But for many, those theories rang false.

A survey had been done following the 1965 Watts riots. Meyer approached Nathan Caplan, a friend from graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They both had a similar idea to see if a survey similar to the one done after Watts could be done in Detroit. One challenge was that the Watts study took two years, but Meyer wanted it done in three weeks. The ISR has an article that looks at the process in great depth, and what is clear is that the study of the 1967 Detroit riots and the journalism that followed had a lot of support not only from the newspapers but from the university, government and local foundations. They recruited and trained 30 teachers to conduct the surveys, drew up a random sample and interviewed 437 black residents.

The survey debunked a number of theories put forward to explain the violence.

  • One theory was that the rioters were poor and uneducated. No, the survey found otherwise. ¨There was no correlation between economic status and participation in the disturbance. College-educated residents were as likely as high school dropouts to have taken part.¨
  • Another theory laid the blame at recent arrivals from the south who had little connections to the community. That theory was also wrong. ¨Recent immigrants from the South had not played a major role; in fact, Northerners were three times as likely to have rioted.¨

Like Ben, I´m sure that we´ll see hours of speculation on television and acres of newsprint positing theories. However, theories need to be tested. The Detroit riots showed that a partnership amongst social scientists, foundations, the local community and journalists can prove or disprove these theories and hopefully provide solutions rather than recriminations.

Journal-Register’s Brady talks mobile and advertising for local news business

In Journal-Register’s Brady: Local Advertisers Have a Tech Gap | Street Fight., Jim Brady recently has moved to the Journal Register Company, a local newspaper group in the US which is moving aggressively to remake its business. Brady gives a lot of great ideas on the future of local journalism. He talks about mobile and how location can be used to deliver information. He also weighs in on local paid content, and I think he makes a valuable point that the customer base is so small that it might not be economically worthwhile, especially when you factor in marketing (acquisition) costs.


Finding the signal in the flow

Suw and I had been noticing a bit of an economic uptick on our local high street here in London last autumn and into the winter. Shop fronts that had been empty were getting new tenants, and just in our corner of the Big Smoke, we could see green shoots of recovery.

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This morning Jonathan Lloyd who has a hyper-local content and commerce platform, Media Street Apps (story about the platform here on journalism.co.uk), tweeted this observation that he was seeing gutted shop units. It’s not the first rather grim economic observation that I’ve seen on Twitter as the UK economy seems to be softening again.

As a journalist, I immediately started to think of how we might find the signal in this flow of updates. Jonathan is very close to local retailers, and he might be flagging up an indicator of the direction of the economy. Google is already mining its own online shopping data to map local inflation trends in the US to create its own price index, and while I was writing this, Techmeme editor Mahendra Palsule says that financial market analysts are already doing this and flagged up the Stocktwits service.

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I wonder what other signals we could find in the flow of social media and how this might be used for journalism.

Making it easier to climb the ladder of participation

There is no such thing as a perfect participation platform when it comes to building engagement around news and other content. Too often we try to outsource to technology what are really social functions that have to be done by human beings. In terms of social media journalism, the best examples come from journalists actively engaging with people to involve and engage them with news, information and their communities.

Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Joy Mayer has a great interview with Denise Cheng who works on a local community news site in the US state of Michigan. The interview is chock full of gems of what it takes in terms of mindset to be a social media journalist and community wrangler. I also really like the last paragraph talking about how Denise works to build participation.

Denise said she works to build investment and ownership in The Rapidian. She wants folks to plug in at any level they feel comfortable with

But engagement isn’t just encouraging interaction. Denise wants to make the ladder of participation easier for people to climb up, with lots of manageable steps, from the bottom (wearing a Rapidian pin around town) up to things like contributing content and helping distribute it.

It’s a really great post with a community journalist working to build a deep sense of engagement and participation not only with her site but also with the civic and social life of her community.