Newspapers, changing paradigms and defining priorities

If you like this post and are looking for an editor or digital media leader, I’m still in the market for a full-time editorial management job, so get in touch. After a few years of working independently with news organisations including Al Jazeera, CNN International, B2B publisher RBI and India’s Web18, I’m looking to invest in a news organisation that will invest in me. 

Although John Robinson has stepped out of the editor’s chair at the News & Record in North Carolina, (a beautiful state if you haven’t been), he is still challenging his newspaper and his fellow journalists to think different. In his latest post, he looked at how he spent his time and how those priorities were reflected – or not – in his newspaper. He writes:

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?


This reminded me of a report from 2007, Frontiers in Innovation in Community Engagement, by Lisa Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, which challenged news sites to become better at “translating the lived experience of their community”. I blogged about the report at the time, and the quote that really jumped out at me then is still relevant now:

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organization is that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Recently, I interviewed for an executive editor’s position in the US and, during part of the interview, I did have a moment when I was possibly too honest and said the papers seemed to be “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life”: Crime, council meetings and planned events. They did have features, in which I could tell the reporters were trying to stretch their wings a bit, and excellent coverage of school sports, but it still was a heavy diet of life as seen through the lens of cops and councillors. A bright spot was their blogs, which covered a range of lifestyle issues including local music and even video games. They promoted them in the paper (minus a link or QR code), but the blogs were hidden pretty effectively on the sites themselves.

Were I to get that job, I would love to revamp the blogs into a mixed community platform that opens up to outside contributors. For the live entertainment blog, I’d get free tickets for contributors. It would take effort and some editorial resources, but it is a formula that scales. I think a food and drink blog would be essential, and it is easy to monetise. And that is exactly what newspapers need right now, editorial projects that generate income to allow them to cover what the blogger won’t or can’t – cops and councils – while bringing in their community to cover that broad range of lived experience.

Dan Conover, left this great comment on how to choose the verticals for this type of community network:

For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

To put it succinctly, Ken Sands, who set up a pioneering blog network in Spokane, told me a few years back that the sweet spot is the intersection of location and passion. Local isn’t enough, and hyperlocal plus hyper-niche simply doesn’t work. It’s too narrow to generate enough of an audience to justify the effort or to attract advertisers and sponsors.

Setting priorities

That brings me to another point. This post grew out of a post on Facebook in which John asked about rethinking beats. He quoted Matt DeRienzo of Digital First Media who left a comment on Facebook and said:

We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.

I applaud Matt for establishing a poverty beat because when I’m back in the US I see green shoots of growth after the Great Recession, but I also see a lot of people struggling mightily. I also hear about the struggle to prioritise because of competition from local TV in real-time, breaking news. TV is brilliant at it, and the workflow is much better suited to it, which is something I realised during my years working for the BBC.

Newspapers are facing all kinds of challenges these days, and one of the biggest is how to set priorities in an era of scarce resources. As John says later in his post:

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

In digital, in fact, in journalism, there are so many things you can do that you have to decide what you must do. As Rob Curley at the Orange County Register says to new hires:

• Truly understand what our readers need from us
• Truly understand how our readers consume our stories
• Truly understand relevance

Relevance and needs go beyond hard news, and newsroom leaders need to figure out how to cover more of the lived experience of their communities in a way that scales and supports public service coverage. Understand relevance to set priorities and find out what people really groove on, and allow the community to help you cover those passionate niches.

UPDATE: Thanks to Francesco Magnocavallo who let me know in the comments that the original link to the Frontiers in Innovation of Community Engagement no longer worked. I’ve added the working link to the post.

Highlight good discussions to encourage positive online debate

There has been a lot of handwringing about the broken-ness of comments online. Great comments take the right strategic editorial approach and a bit of effort. Did anyone really believe the only thing a media company needed to do was slap a comment box on the bottom of articles? Too often that seems like the case.

What still baffles me after all these years is the low-hanging fruit that most news organisations are missing with community. Digitally native media doesn’t miss these easy wins. For instance, Lifehacker has a Discussion of the Day. Walter Glenn sums up the idea:

Great discussions are par for the course here on Lifehacker. Each day, we highlight a discussion that is particularly helpful or insightful, along with other great discussions and reader questions you may have missed. Check out these discussions and add your own thoughts to make them even more wonderful!

It’s a simple and positive way to drive people to the editorial features focused on discussions. They even call their commenters participants. Simple touches that all communicate a positive sense about the conversations they want to create.

Why don’t newspapers do this more often and print the best responses in the paper as well? Highlighting the comments in print would be a way to reward the  best comments, and hey, it might also drive some print sales. It ain’t rocket science, just some simple strategic thinking about user engagement.


Journalism: Paid content and determining the cost of free

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I’m a huge fan of NPR’s Planet Money programme. The show guides you through the arcana of finance and economics in a witty and accessible way. Recently, they rebroadcast a programme on the cost of free. In this case they were talking about free doughnuts and rumours of a longstanding grudge that US veterans have against the Red Cross. Planet Money’s Chana Joffe-Walt investigated, and sure enough, American vets do grumble about the Red Cross charging for their doughnuts. The story is a bit more complicated, and I don’t want to spoil the reveal, but the story illustrates in Planet Money’s own wonderful fashion the cost of free, or more precisely, the cost to businesses of charging for something that used to be free. In the case of the Red Cross, they still have trouble shifting the opinion of vets who once got doughnuts for free and then found themselves paying for them.

If consumers are used to one price and it changes, the change will seem more dramatic, according to economist Uri Simonsohn, who is interviewed in the piece. When that reference price is zero, consumers will have one of two reactions. They will either adjust their reference price, the price that they are accustomed to paying, or Simonsohn says a price change can be seen as a categorical change, a change in the relationship between the consumer and the organisation. Simonsohn compared this categorical change to akin if your parents charged you for a holiday meal. The Red Cross charging servicemen for doughnuts was send as a categorical change, and Joffe-Walt said that the servicemen felt betrayed by the change in price and the change in the relationship brought about by that price change.

Simonsohn says businesses make these massively damaging categorical mistakes when they start charging for things that “people don’t think are part of business”. For example, Delta Airlines made the mistake of charging to speak to agents over the telephone in the 1990s, and Planet Money host Alex Blumberg says that customers “freaked out” and were so furious that Delta were forced to reverse the decision. As Blumberg said at the top of the programme, “Free can backfire. When you take something that was free and give it a price, that is a highly a risky move.” When people view a change in their relationship with a business as categorical, their imagination starts to run wild. If a business is going to charge me for this previously free product or service, they ask, where will it end?

Some price changes, however, are accepted. People won’t stand for being charged to speak to an agent, but now many Americans and most Europeans flying on low-cost carriers have accepted paying for bags. The idea that they have to pay to move not only themselves but their baggage from one place to another makes sense, but paying someone to have a conversation, that doesn’t make sense at all.

So how can businesses, including news organisations, avoid making the mistake of a categorical change in what they charge? As Joffe-Walt says, news organisations like the New York Times are wrestling with this. Blumberg said that people can either view the New York Times as a newspaper, which they know they pay for, or they can view it in the online ‘information wants to be free’ category. “Avoid for charging for things that people would not describe as ‘hey, I got this for free’ because that mistake could be very hard to fix,” Blumberg said.

We are seeing a lot of experiments by news organisations who are trying to generate revenue from readers to help pay for journalism, but it’s important that publishers not try to charge  for things that their readers don’t see as part of the journalism business. Making a category change error could have serious ramifications, and many news organisations do not have the resilience left to survive such mistakes. The big challenge of paid content has been, and continues to be, in understanding what things (or, more often, what bundle of things), readers will pay for. Fortunately, we’re starting to figure out what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

Journalism transformation: Break down silos and innovate strategically

News organisations are still facing a lot of challenges in 2013. Tribune newspapers is reportedly looking for $100 m in savings, which will probably mean more staff cuts. Gannett recently eliminated 200 jobs at its local newspapers. Reuters has been the focus of a lot of rather unflattering coverage of how it blew through an estimated $20 m on a consumer website revamp that failed to deliver a working website.

I don’t mean to be a “prophet of doom” to borrow a line from Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics, but times are still tough. However, Charlie looks at some recent research to find out management strategies of news organisations that are successfully navigating this disruptive period and transforming themselves into multi-platform news providers. In a recent piece in inPublishing, Charlie says:

Recent research on the most progressive newsrooms says that the successful ones are those that combine commercial, technological and editorial management most closely. This is not just a case of slavishly following the money by following the clicks. Instead it is more a case of linking editorial tactics to a clear plan for revenue growth.

This reminds me of a conversation I had this week with my former editor at the BBC, Nic Newman. In the past, we had editorial, commercial and technical silos in news organisations, and we need a lot better coordination. There is a lot of discomfort from journalists about breaking down the wall between editorial and commercial, but I believe Charlie has found the right way of putting it. We have to link editorial strategy to revenue growth if we want to have sustainable, independent news organisations, and I think that there are a lot of ways to build the business of journalism to support the mission of journalism. However, as Nic says, we’ve all got to work together, commercial, technical and editorial.

Joy Mayer, the director of community outreach for the Columbia Missourian, the newspaper run by the faculty of the University of Missouri and staffed by journalists there, wrote a great piece on how to create editorial tactics that work. Speaking specifically about social media strategies, she says that to create an effective strategy, you need to ask three questions:

1. Why am I doing this?
2. What do I hope to happen? (Is your answer measurable or trackable?)
3. How will I track what works and use that feedback to craft future strategies?

With print, broadcast and digital strategies, we need to ask why we are doing something, and I think that this is really important in terms of opportunity costs. What is the cost of doing this as opposed to something else? Let’s stay on the topic of social media. This week there was quite a hullabaloo about Popular Science shutting off comments on all but a handful of debate focused articles. PopSci associate editor Dan Nosowitz said in a radio interview: “we think that the current form we have for comments wasn’t doing our readers much of a service”, according to a post on Poynter.

Let’s step back and look at a different way. What is the opportunity cost for PopSci of comments in their current form? What would it cost in terms of staffing to improve the experience? Is that staff time better spent elsewhere? Of course, I skipped to question two on Joy’s list. Going back to her first question: Why do they have comments in the first place? Is there a better way for them to achieve their goal another way? What are the metrics for success of this new strategy? If you answer the why question, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively to staff what they’re trying to achieve, and as an employee, I can remember examples when editors or managers helped me be more effective by giving me clear guidance. Yes, we want to experiment a lot, but we also need focus to be effective.

This is what transformational management looks like: Clear goals that achieve the journalistic mission and help generate revenue to support that mission.

NPR head of apps: Mobile media doesn’t mean on the move anymore

In the UK, nearly half of the population uses a smartphone – that’s 60 percent of all mobile phone users – according to data from eMarketer. In the US, two-thirds of mobile users access the internet on their phones, according to a recent Pew poll, and mobile has nearly doubled the amount of time spent online. Across large parts of Africa and South Asia, the mobile phone is the only way that many people access the internet, according to research from browser maker Opera.

Research in the US from comScore and Jumptap showed that while mobile has doubled time spent online, in the sport and general news categories, 62 percent of time is still on desktop or laptop computers with 31 percent on tablet and only 7 percent on mobile. Josh Benton at Nieman Lab said:

The high desktop/laptop number makes sense — an awful lot of online news is consumed by deskbound office workers — but the tablet share has to be disappointing to all the news execs who bet the iPad would revive their business models.

This is why some news leaders, such as Digital First Media’s Steve Buttry, have long been arguing for a mobile first strategy. In 2009, Buttry said:

News organizations are belatedly, reluctantly and often awkwardly pursuing “web-first” strategies. As we fight these web battles, I am increasingly coming to believe that “web first” is what the military would call fighting the last war. News organizations need a mobile-first strategy.

The digital world never stops moving, and Steve, who I count as a friend, is right. We need to keep pace with the rapid shift in consumer preference.

IJNet has a great overview of a talk that NPR news app editor Brian Boyer gave about ‘mobile first’ at a recent Hacks/Hackers events in Buenos Aires.

Since the iPhone, people expect the internet to just work on their mobile devices, and Boyer believes that it is his job to make sure that their apps work for their audience. That makes sense, but catering to mobile users isn’t just about user experience, although that it is important.

Mobile first is more than making sure your content fits the smaller screen of a smartphone, but just as importantly, the strategy is more than being mobile, being on the move. As Jessica Weiss pointed out in IJNet:

According to Business Insider, 77 percent of people in the U.S. use mobile phones while lying in bed, 70 percent while watching TV, 65 percent while waiting and 41 percent in the bathroom.

Boyer said that mobile news is about filling the “cracks in the day”, the “in between moments” people have. That might be “before they go to work, while they are commuting or ‘in bed after children are asleep”.

A number of sites are now seeing an evening mini-spike in traffic as people take their tablets to bed. How are we serving those consumers? How many news organisations are developing evening tablet editions for these consumers? Would this be an attractive edition that would add subscribers to a bundled print-digital paid content strategy? How can news organisations use mobile notifications more effectively? There is a lot of opportunity here, and news organisations need to be prepared to move quickly with this rapidly changing market.

Journalism innovation: Asteroids and adaptation

This is a follow up to my piece or The Media Briefing looking at why integration might have been the wrong response to digital disruption. Like that piece, this originally appeared on The Media Briefing

After I challenged a lot of the conventional wisdomabout print-digital integration, Neil Thackraycompared digital disruption to “a sci-fi B-movie where Earth is threatened with destruction by an incoming asteroid”. I love the analogy.

He broke down the response of media managers to digital disruption like this:

  • Asteroid deniers, who don’t believe that digital is a threat.
  • Radio astronomers, who spot the asteroid at a distance and know the world is doomed but see the threat as so distant that they take no action.
  • Naked eye astronomers, who have only just spotted the asteroid and are making frantic but futile changes.
  • Rational scientists, who spot the asteroid early and invest in a rocket ship to carry them away to safety.

As Neil points out, being able to spot the asteroid doesn’t mean we’ll be able to save the planet. One of the major lessons of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma is that even once a disrupted industry sees the asteroid as a threat, they still too often fail to adapt successfully.

Kodak developed the first digital camera in 1975, but it couldn’t capitalise on that early innovation. It created an iconic, successful business based on its dominance in the film, chemical and paper business.  But as cheap digital products got better, Kodak was killed by its cash cow.

It has been much the same for print media. In a 2011 report, Christensen, working with Canadian journalist David Skok and Harvard Business review writer James Allworth explained how magazines and newspapers’ dominance in print became a weakness:

For many years, the systems and processes used to gather, distribute and sell the news worked well. And in most respects they still do. It is a marvellous sight to witness a newspaper brought to life or a newscast on air, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those systems were designed precisely for that process. But what was once an advantage has become an albatross.

The result is that much of print media finds itself stuck. Christensen, Skok and Allworth put the situation for news organisations like this:

Four years after the 2008 financial crisis, traditional news organizations continue to see their newsrooms shrink or close. Those that survive remain mired in the innovator’s dilemma: A false choice between today’s revenues and tomorrow’s digital promise.

At this point, if you’re a regional newspaper publisher in the UK or a print consumer magazine group, you know that your traditional audiences are declining, but you also know that your current digital revenue won’t pay the cost of supporting your traditional business. Yes, print media groups are all trying to grow their digital revenue as quickly as possible, but the big question still remains for most groups in this very different market: How to adapt?

The economist and writer Tim Harford has an entire book on the subject,Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. In the book, he lays out a three-part “recipe for successfully adapting”:

  • Try new things, in the expectation that some will fail.
  • To make failure survivable, because it will be common.
  • And to make sure that you know when you’ve failed”.

When I was digital research editor at The Guardian in 2009 and early 2010, my goal was to bring down the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible and try different things using low or no-cost third party services. It’s a rather simple strategy to increase experimentation.

These days if you want to try something editorially, there’s an app, a web service or a plucky start-up for that. To know whether I was successful or whether I had failed, I had a set of goals that ranged from higher user engagement, mining our own stories for data or a more efficient editorial process. In an ideal world, I would have worked with commercial teams to add revenue goals for some of the projects. Goals are important because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.

It is a model that increases experimentation, and for those projects that are successful, they can be deployed across the organisation.

Experimentation, especially editorial, is easier than ever, but organisational change is still really hard. In the next piece, I’ll look at how to scale innovation and create organisational change.

Microsoft and Nokia: Death by management

When Steve Ballmer announced that he was retiring, I said on Twitter that the announcement was unsurprising but that Microsoft needed a surprise to replace him. Ever since Microsoftie Stephen Elop took the helm of Nokia, everyone has been predicting that Microsoft would scoop up the fallen mobile giant. The speculation only intensified when Elop decided that the only way to save Nokia’s burning platform was to abandon its own operating system and adopt Microsoft’s minority mobile platform. At a conference in 2011, I asked fellow speaker and media innovator Robert Tercek what he thought of a potential Microsoft-Nokia tie up, and he said, “Tying together two rocks doesn’t make them float.”

Now Ballmer has followed up his rather predictable decision to retire with a rather predictable acquisition, a big chunk of Nokia. I am sure that in Ballmer’s mind he was trying to demonstrate boldness. He has instead shown just how unimaginative he is as a leader. He’s run out of time to launch Microsoft into a new era of growth so instead he’s decided to build a bigger corporate beast.

Microsoft’s Windows empire is besieged by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, and Ballmer and his lieutenants knew they needed to boost their mobile efforts. But how does this acquisition help that? While Microsoft feels like it is just past its peak but still has its strengths, Nokia’s position is much more precarious.

In the PowerPoint explaining the acquisition, Microsoft said that this acquisition would accelerate growth. Pray tell how? Nokia has seen its smartphone share collapse in the last three years, from 34.2 percent to 3 percent. Looking at that slide deck, I see a company in denial. They say that success in phones will drive success in tablets and success in tablets will drive success in PCs. To achieve this, Microsoft would need Nokia’s Lumia line to take off like a rocket, and they also need to sort out their own tablet strategy. Writing off $900 m on their Windows RT Surface tablets means they need a tablet strategy. It doesn’t mean they have one.

Microsoft is facing The Innovator’s Dilemma. They have a couple of lucrative business lines that are under pressure – Windows and Office, but both face competition. PC sales are flagging, and many people are finding that tablets are good enough for most of what they do. In terms of Office, Microsoft is under pressure from cloud competitors such as Google.

Now there is a lot of talk of Elop replacing Ballmer at the helm of Microsoft? Really? He has done precious little to right the ship at Nokia, and most of his strategies have yet to show real results.

Microsoft and Nokia both needed a new vision, a coherent strategy to the relentless change in technology, but instead of inspirational leadership and a clear headed view of how the companies need to adapt, they have an uninspired tie up.

Newspapers versus Netflix: Adventures in the attention economy

Newspaper circulation continues to decline at almost all of the national newspapers in the UK (with the notable exception of the ‘i’), with sales down 1.4 m over the past year, according to ABC. Pat Smith at The Media Briefing highlighted this and also drew attention that over the same year, Netflix added 1.5 subscriptions. Pat made this observation (emphasis his):

A coincidence? Maybe. On-demand TV and films are hardly substitutional for newspapers. But what this shows is there is a vast audience out there willing to pay for digital content. As desire for print media falls, enthusiasm for paid-for digital services grows.

It doesn’t matter to me whether people decided to drop their newspaper subscription and use that money to buy a Netflix sub instead. This isn’t about whether TV and films are a substitute for newspapers and journalism, but rather the staggering rise in choices for how people spend their time and where they spend their attention. In the digital era, content and entertainment choices are exploding, but the one finite resource is people’s time. My friend Mohamed Nanabhay, the former head of Al Jazeera English, put it this way:

My colleagues who work on the broadcast side of the business can easily say our competitors are CNNi and the BBC. But I don’t get that luxury, because we’re competing with everybody who puts up a webpage on the internet. And everybody who tweets, or posts on Facebook, or anything.

That might sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t at all. American journalist and digital pioneer Steve Yelvington broke down online attention when the news group he works for announced their “audience first” strategy a little more than a year ago. Look at the graph he created, and see the big slices of the pie that are Facebook and Google. Hell, Yahoo Mail even beats the local newspaper in the market he analysed.

I will take this one step further, which is why I think that Pat is right to compare sales decline in print with subscriber growth for Netflix; in the attention economy, journalism competes against everything that competes for people’s time and attention. What this means is that we’re moving from mass media to relevant media. Netflix created a model that killed the local video store by mailing DVDs without a hard return date and then pivoting to take advantage of digital delivery.

How does journalism compete against Netflix, XBox, Apple TV and YouTube? Mahendra Palsule said in looking at this shift that we should move from “information overload” to “filtered, relevant information”.

If you want this shift put more in a journalistic context, journalists need to add value. Journalists need to move away from thinking that it’s not old unless it’s told by me, to thinking about whether the story is relevant to their audiences and how they add value. In a world swimming in information, the who/what/where/when has become commoditised, Jim Moroney, the publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, says. Now he adds that journalists need to provide PICA – Perspective, Interpretation, Context, Analysis. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin this spring, he said that the more relevant your content is the higher the value. Relevant, differentiated content is more valuable and more valued by audiences, he says, and people might just be willing to pay this content. (Special thanks to @cindyroyal for collecting Moroney’s comments on Storify).

It’s the editorial side of reach versus each, which Alan Mutter highlighted in terms of advertising earlier this year. Smart content sprinkled with a little technology can help deliver more valuable, more relevant content to audiences struggling to sift through all of the choices for news, information, entertainment and distraction.

I also believe that active social media strategies where journalists and editors engage their audiences help build loyalty. Relationship and relevance are key to rebuilding journalism’s relationship with the public. Competition is fierce in the attention economy, but I believe that journalism can compete and win.

Below is my full talk about how journalism can succeed in the battle for attention. I delivered this talk at Digital Directions in Sydney Australia in 2011.

Journalism and disruption: Change is easy and hard

With nearly 20 years of digital journalism experience, I’ve been through a lot of change in the industry and, editorially, 2013 reminds me a lot of the late 1990s. We’re seeing a lot of editorial experimentation – drones, Google Glass and all kinds of data journalism. I lived through an earlier era when editorial innovation exploded, and I hacked together a lot of projects using all kinds of technology and web services during my time as a field journalist for the BBC and digital editor at The Guardian. With the mobile, multimedia and web technology in 2013, these digital projects can seem easy and effortless (especially compared to the duct tape and spit we had to use in the early days).

However, it would be a mistake to think that just because it’s easier than ever to produce amazing digital editorial experiences that this makes organisational change easy. It takes an entirely different set of skills to get buy-in from stakeholders or to Jedi mind trick the empire builders of senior management. It is hard, and even I underestimated the size and nature of the challenge as I transitioned from young digital maverick field journalist to digital editor in the middle of the last decade.

While a lot is different in 2013 than it was in 1996 when I started in digital journalism, or even than it was five or six years ago, change still is hard. In some ways, it is even harder now as most newspapers struggle with redeploying diminishing resources carefully from the core business to new digital initiatives. The politics are fierce. Even when it is in an organisation’s best interest, even when it is an organisation’s stated interest to embrace digital, winning the political and cultural battles is hard, thankless work. I know people who stayed and fought these battles inside organisations, and I have deep respect for them and learn from them whenever possible. When I return to working for an organisation, hopefully soon, I will take lessons that I’ve learned from these friends.

If you want to know how hard it is, it’s really worth reading an article by David Cadogan at The Canadian Journalism Project. I love the piece because it takes me back to my own early days in digital journalism, the days of dial-up internet and lots of hacked together solutions, just with much, much more primitive technology. He writes:

In November of 1997, we put my flagship paper, the Miramichi Leader, online with a piece of off-the-shelf software our web press company manager found. By that time, our readers had 28k or 56k dial-up modems and access to Internet. Still, we could publish only stories, pictures and classified ads. A full-page colour ad would have taken more than a day to download.

I remember how exciting it was to push the limits of what we could do with the technology we had. For example, working on a video project for the BBC a year after the September 11 attacks I shot and edited video on my laptop, and then went out to dinner as my computer compressed the video to send via a very slow connection to London.

David talks about online subscriptions, message boards and even user generated story ides. This was in the late 1990s, about the same time I joined the BBC, and we were doing very similar work. I loved it. It played to my passion for journalism, technology and exploring news ways of storytelling. I still get excited thinking about what we achieved.

In the final section of the article, David says twice that he failed. “I failed abjectly at trying to get newspapers to buy into these opportunities,” he says. He was a publisher, investor and newspaper association director. He had industry connections and some of his own resources, and yet he couldn’t convince other publishers to embrace digital opportunities and get ahead of digital disruption. It was, and it often still is, incredibly hard to convince people to change, particularly when the full impact of new technology, in this case the Internet, isn’t yet obvious. I’ve heard stories like David’s from editors and managers across the industry, and I have a few of my own.

When I took the buyout from The Guardian in 2010, I felt sad because I knew that as a digital journalist with 15 years of online experience, that there was so much more I could have done had I been able to figure the secret handshake that unlocked resources and strategic support. I often joke that at The Guardian, anything was possible for me as long as it required no staff and no budget.

I do think that 2013 is a different era, because major organisations have stated that their goal is to focus on digital. There are news orgs that say they are digital first, and that was really rare in 2006. The direction of travel is, without doubt, towards digital.

A lot of young journalists will be like I was in the mid-1990s, able to work on exciting projects that push the boundaries of journalism and engagement. But move away from the coal face, and battles over digital, over change, are still happening. These battles are not unique to just one or two organisations, they are commonplace across the industry (and across many other industries too).

I’ve learned a lot during my work as a consultant about how to help organisations change. I can’t wait to take this experience to my next job. I’ve still got the passion and the fire for creating the future of journalism, but I have a few new tricks, beyond being geekier than the average journalist, to move the dial of organisational change in the right direction.

David’s article is also is important for young digital journalists to realise that there were a lot of innovators who fought, and sadly often lost the battle, to help newspapers respond to digital disruption. To believe that you are the first generation of digital guerrillas is to be ignorant of journalism’s history. I started in digital journalism in 1996, and I count true digital pioneers from a generation before me as mentors and friends. My work and the work of the current generation of digital journalists is built on their shoulders. All of us from those early days can look back and see points where we failed to bring about the change we wanted, but I salute David and so many others like him. They might not have achieved all of their ambitions, but they made this new era of digital journalism possible. You, sir, did not fail.

Digital Journalism: Focus on the software not the hardware

Journalist and professor Carl Sessions Stepp celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first published story with a series looking at 50 lessons from his 50 years as a journalist in the American Journalism Review. In the final instalment of the series, he has a great call to action to revolutionise online content:

In many ways, we’re still in the hardware stage with digital journalism, still fixated on the tools. Journalists have lagged behind other entrepreneurs in imagining revolutionary content. Their momentum should accelerate into developing mind-boggling, irresistible, until-now-impossible information services for their readers. As we have already seen, if journalists don’t do this, others will.

In the past he says, progress in journalism relied on hardware, the platforms, from printing presses all the way through to the internet. Now, it is much more about software.

When Stepp says that we’re obsessed with the tools, I think he’s saying that we’ve been focused on platforms, and I think that is true. However, I have also seen enough digital techniques come and go that sometimes we become tools of our software tools too. How many editors are saying that they want their own Snowfall or Firestorm, their own immersive multimedia stories? Don’t get me wrong, I love immersive storytelling and some of the new techniques, but it’s always worth understanding which stories are appropriate for those techniques.

Fortunately, digital journalism has matured. When blogs were first popular, every journalist wanted a blog because a lot of them saw blogs as a short-cut to their own columns. They didn’t really see them as social media, just a digital incarnation of an existing format they understood. Now that digital has become a primary platform, rather than just another channel for distributing content originally crated for another platform, we’re seeing a lot more sophistication with digital storytelling.

That said, I know that Stepp is making a broader point, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s not just about telling stories in new ways. It is about delivering information and engagement in new ways. Although journalistic storytelling is my passion, I know that this is about thinking beyond stories to information services.

We are now seeing some great experiments in creating indispensable new information services. Mobile news service Circa is on to something. I’m not entirely convinced about breaking up stories in single screen swipes for mobile, but I think getting notifications about new developments on stories I would like to follow is something very interesting. Zite, which was acquired by CNN, is the first thing I open in the morning, and Watchup, the tablet app that lets me roll my own TV newscast, is my second.

All three of those groups are start-ups, but that doesn’t mean that traditional news organisations can’t create such innovative services. However, one of the hardest bits of software to manage in this process has been, and is, the culture of news organisations themselves. We already have a pretty good strategic template for rebooting a news organisation — the Newspaper Next project. Although few newspapers have followed the strategic advice that the project provided, we are seeing it in action with Clark Gilbert at the Deseret News where a core strategy is to develop print and digital separately. On a tactical level, we’re also seeing hack days and internal incubators. So companies are tackling some of these major cultural and organisational issues, but even Clark Gilbert is honest about the difficulty of this task.

I think it’s clear that we don’t have a choice but to do this hard work. Stepp is right if we journalists don’t do this, others will. But I know that journalists can and will do this.