EDF Energy support girls in STEM by giving prize to boy

EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign to encourage girls’ interest in STEM was controversial from its launch last September, but now they’ve really taken the biscuit to end all biscuits by awarding their #PrettyCuriousChallenge prize to a boy.

Before we go further, I have to emphasise that this is not the fault of the boy, Josh, at all. Nor is anyone saying that he didn’t deserve the prize he was given. That’s not the question. The question is, why was a competition run as part of a campaign to encourage girls into STEM open to boys at all?

To understand just how appallingly EDF Energy have mismanaged this entire campaign, we have to go back to September last year when EDF Energy announced their Pretty Curious campaign, and a supporting “study” that they said they’d done. From the Independent:

A UK-wide campaign is being launched to inspire teenage girls to pursue science-based careers after new research revealed how a third don’t think they are clever enough for such jobs.

EDF Energy polled* over 2,100 pupils aged between 11 and 16 to find 32 per cent of young girls don’t think they have the smarts to become a scientist – despite the subject being one of their most-enjoyed (28 per cent) and incurring the best performance rate in at school (38 per cent) in the last academic year.

*Total sample size was 2,167 children aged 11 to 16, who were in Key Stage 3 or 4 in the last school year (2014/15). 1,127 were boys and 1,040 were girls.

Now, the study results weren’t out of line with other such work, but nevertheless, it’s always a bit suspicious when a company releases ‘research’ that just happens to back up a PR campaign that they are launching at the same time. Curious to see how the study was conducted, journalist Kate Bevan asked EDF Energy to share their data and methodology so that it could be examined. They never did share that info.

A bigger problem was the name, “Pretty Curious”, for which EDF Energy were strongly criticised on Twitter and in the media. The very phrase “pretty curious” creates a relationship between girls’ physical appearance and their interest in STEM, a relationship that should not exist. Add to that the fact that the campaign website featured articles about women working in fashion and make-up, the link between attractiveness and curiosity is reinforced.

Women are too often judged on their appearance, and girls in particular are vulnerable to body shaming, being constantly exposed to unattainable ideals of beauty via the media. The association of science and beauty created by the campaign name both reinforced the idea that one must be beautiful to succeed, and created a new association, that you must be beautiful to be in science. This is incredibly corrosive, and meant the campaign might alienate girls who are interested in science but don’t consider themselves pretty.

Wired wrote at the time:

EDF responded to the criticism on Twitter, reassuring critics that it “purposefully chose the word ‘pretty’ to tackle the stereotype head on and create conversation around what is a very real societal issue”.

“We knew the name would attract attention and chose it in order to raise awareness of the campaign, which is aiming to address significant under-representation of women in STEM,” a spokesperson for EDF added via email. “The lack of women working in STEM is a critical issue for us. Whether one likes the language or not, the issue facing the UK is real, and we are determined to use our business to be part of the solution”.

What frustrated me about this response was the assumption by EDF Energy that a conversation needed to be created at all. There are already plenty of individuals and groups working on finding solutions to what is a complex and deep-seated problem. Not only are we always having our own conversations about it, those conversations go back decades, even centuries. But rather than listening to those of us already working in the field,  EDF Energy decided to put PR first and ignore the ways in which they could contribute to the community.

I was also frustrated by their idea that it would be in any way beneficial to create a controversy around girls and women in STEM. We already have enough people online who take an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards our work, and who try to undermine women’s contributions to STEM. We really don’t need a manufactured controversy as well.

Another major problem with EDF Energy’s plans was that they were very short term. Again, from Wired:

The Pretty Curious campaign is due to hold three events in the UK, encouraging girls to take part in activities including coding, 3D printing and laser cutting. EDF also recruited several female ‘role models’ who work in STEM careers — a chemical engineer from EDF, a cosmetic scientist with her own line of cosmetics, a computer scientist who created her own app and a TV presenter with a master’s degree in biochemistry.

We know from 30 years of trying to increase the number of girls studying physics that one-off interventions do not work, because over those 30 years the percentage of girls studying physics hasn’t changed. If short-term interventions like #PrettyCurious made a difference, we would have solved the women in STEM problem decades ago. But whilst some of the girls who took part in EDF Energy’s events might have individually been inspired to carry on studying STEM, it’s just a drop in the ocean. There are 5.4 million girls under the age of 14 in the UK, so inspiring even a few hundred is not enough.

What we really need is a major cultural shift, and that means long-term work tackling the attitudes of teachers, parents and children alike. It’s about getting more women on TV and in the media as experts and figures of authority. It’s about combatting the subconscious bias that marks girls down, that tells girls ‘no’, that they should do something ‘more appropriate’. It’s about understanding the evidence that we have gathered so far, learning how to apply those lessons, and changing our approach whenever new evidence shows us that we need to adjust.

Three events and a website is not going to achieve that. We need to be in it for the long run. For decades. Maybe for centuries. Certainly for as long as it takes.

So, where are we at, now, five months after the initial furore about this ill-conceived, arrogant, tone-deaf campaign began? Well, amazingly, EDF Energy have managed to trump even their terrible campaign launch with a truly breathtaking campaign finale: Their Pretty Curious Challenge has been won by a 13 year old boy.

Yup.

The Pretty Curious campaign’s stated aim was to encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects. And yet the Pretty Curious Challenge was open to both boys and girls, and a boy won.

This is a fail on so many levels. Firstly, Marketing 101 includes the lesson that you must always know what your message is and you must always stay on message. From the beginning, the #PrettyCurious message was “Girls! Get involved in STEM, it’s fun!”, and that’s a message I have no quarrel with. But extending participation to boys rather undermines that message, and when a boy wins, it says “Girls! You will always come second to boys!”, which is not at all what we want them to hear.

Wrote Zoe Kleinmann on the BBC:

EDF said that while its Pretty Curious programme is still aimed at girls, the UK competition was later opened up to all 11 to 16-year-olds.

It continues to share the same website and branding as the girls’ scheme.

The BBC understands that the decision had been made to open the competition up to both genders in the interests of fairness, and that the contest attracted “a couple of hundred” entries.

Following three events held in the UK for girls last year, the contest was extended online and made available to boys as well.

So, let’s just recap: A campaign aimed at girls is opened up to boys in the name of “fairness”, when the whole point is that girls are not currently treated fairly and need encouragement to study STEM. How on earth does EDF Energy square that circle? It makes less than no sense.

It also raises some interesting questions: Why was the competition opened up to boys? How many entries came from boys and how many from girls? How does EDF Energy define “fairness”? And how does opening up the competition to boys fit in with their stated campaign mission? Was it that they didn’t get enough entries from girls? And if so, what else could EDF Energy have done to increase participation without opening up the competition to boys? How do you think the girls who engaged with #PrettyCurious, having been told that it was specifically for them, feel about a boy winning?

The whole thing is a total fiasco, and throughout it all EDF Energy have been condescending, patronising and arrogant. Here are a few of their Tweets from today, which show them again failing to understand the problem with their campaign, or why people are angry. Instead of addressing the issue, they simply double down:

Screenshot 26:02:2016 15:43

The sad thing is, it could all easily have been avoided. EDF Energy’s social media team said last October that they had spent 18 months researching this project, however not one person that I know who works with girls/women in STEM was approached by them. Any one of us would have been happy to act as a consultant, and to help them find a better premise upon which to build a campaign. I’m pretty sure that would not have been difficult.

But worse, by not engaging with the community, EDF Energy lost the opportunity to learn where their money could better have been spent. There is very good evidence that one-off interventions like Pretty Curious do not work. They do not address the core problem, which is a complex one made up of cultural, societal and psychological components (at least). Ultimately, the money spent on this project has been wasted.

Had they engaged with the community, we could have pointed them in the direction of projects that are working towards creating the right kind of change, and that have the necessary longevity and experience. There are a lot of organisations working on these issues, and many of them are working very effectively at a grassroots level with very few resources. A program of sponsorship would not only have produced better results, it would also be better for EDF Energy, showing a willingness to work with the community, instead of against it.

Instead, we get what is not just a publicity stunt, it’s a damaging publicity stunt, damaging to girls interested in STEM and damaging to EDF Energy’s reputation.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and the #PrettyCurious story doesn’t have to end this way. When Intel had to publicly apologise after becoming embroiled in an anti-woman online campaign, they realised that they had to do something urgently about diversity. They pledged to spend $300 million to increase diversity, said The Verge:

At the time [of the apology], the company said “Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. And, diversity is an integral part of our corporate strategy and vision with commitments to improve the diversity of our workforce.” Today, [Intel CEO Brian] Krzanich elaborated on that by saying Intel’s own internal goal was to reach what he referred to as a “full representation in all levels” in its workforce by 2020. That not only includes its rank and file, but at the executive level as well.

So come on, EDF Energy. You can do better than #PrettyCurious, you can do far better. There are many, many organisations that support women in STEM that you could fund and work with, including my own, Ada Lovelace Day. You don’t even have to pledge $300 million. A tenth of that would be a good start.

"The key to life is how well you deal with plan B." by Betsy Weber,

Every journalist needs a Plan B

"The key to life is how well you deal with plan B."

Photo: “The key to life is how well you deal with plan B.” by Betsy Weber, Some Rights Reserved from Flickr

Last summer, I noticed that a college classmate had joined a Facebook group called Plan B, a group for “former and current newspaper and video journalism people” looking for a second act, a job match for their transferable skills, a support group or simply a hedge against the instability in the industry. I joined because I sensed that my job as a regional executive editor wasn’t going to be around much longer, and I knew that I needed to start coming up with my Plan B. I would need my Plan B much sooner than expected.

It was clear that more cuts were to come last summer. In the almost two years that I held the job, there had been a straight-forward budget cut and a major reorganisation that was supposed to see us lose 15 percent of our payroll and 20 percent of our headcount. For a time due to existing staff getting promoted or deciding to part ways with the company, at one point last spring, we were almost 50 percent below our pre-reorganisation staffing. The budget was cut again before we filled any of the open positions due a miscalculation during the reorganisation planning. After months of recruiting and before we filled all of the open roles, a hiring freeze was implemented and an early retirement programme rolled out soon after. And then, last October, my role and another were eliminated.

Fortunately, the very next week I had two gigs, which had been in the works for months, and shortly after that, I set up my own consultancy, which is a continuation of work that I did before the job. I’m thrilled to have some very exciting projects in the coming months (although I still have time for more so feel free to get in touch). Ultimately, I want a full-time role, but this work means that I have the breathing room and space to find the best job and the best fit.

That space has been an incredible gift. It has allowed me to talk to a number of mentors and friends and think about all of my options. Compared to 2013, the last time I was looking for a full-time role, I’m actually more optimistic that I’ll be able to find the right role in journalism, but this is as good as time as any to think broadly. And this time like last, I’m thinking not just about the job but also about quality of life, closeness to friends and family and work-life balance.

Apart from the value of having a Plan B, here’s a few things I’ve learned already during this search:

  • Reach out to your network –  Last summer, I began reaching out to mentors and friends in the industry. It helped me get a head start on my job search, and if my friends aren’t in a position to hire me full-time, they still might be looking for a consultant with my skills and experience. But even if work isn’t in the offing, your friends will be a great source of support. I’ve been humbled at how much help friends have been in terms of brokering connections and helping me find new opportunities.
  • Take a passion inventory – One person on the Plan B group worried that she would never find a job as noble as journalism. Many of us got into this business because of the mission, the public service mission. But there are a lot of ways to serve the public. What other passions do you have? Journalism may be a noble mission, but it’s an industry in crisis. At times, I have asked myself if it has become the professional equivalent of an abusive relationship. If your current job in journalism robs you of your life through endless hours of toil while still not providing you a livelihood, there is nothing noble in it. I have seen too many journalists grow bitter after years of sacrifice. This is a chance to write your own story.
  • Think about skills, rather than a specific job – I just came across this today on Editor & Publisher by Tim Gallagher who left newspapers and now has his own small business. He spoke with a careers coach who told him, “We are going to talk about who you are. What your skills are. Not the jobs you’ve had.” He added, “And for the first time in nearly 30 years I began to think that there were jobs out there that did not start with journalism.”
  • Have a FoF – Call it a rainy day fund, an emergency fund or something more colourful, but if at all possible, bank some money so when the axeman cometh, it isn’t an immediate sentence for financial ruin. Before you rush to the keyboard to protest, trust me, I know how hard this on a journalist’s salary, especially when you’re just starting out. When I landed my first journalism job at the Hay’s Daily News in Hays Kansas in the mid-90s, I was making $2000 less than a first year teacher – $16,900 if you must ask. That said, I’ll own my own advantage or privilege, I got my bachelor’s degree debt-free, but only because my parents started saving for college almost the day I was born. They had to start saving early because they were both teachers, so not the demographic definition of high net worth individuals. I learned to save from my parents.

In an ideal world, I would have loved to have made the move on my own terms, but with the cushion my consulting has given me, I’m actually viewing this transition as a gift. I have recharged my batteries and am looking on my future as one of exciting opportunity.

Without my Plan B, I would be consumed with stress and overcome with fear, and I would leap at the first opportunity whether it was the right one or not. Certainly, I’ll be happy when I’ve filled in some more blanks, but I’m doing the heavy lifting now to answer those questions.

Ultimately, having a Plan B is about being prepared. With the industry in such turmoil, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to control the outcome, but the outcome isn’t the loss of a job, it’s what happens next.

Featured photo by Betsy Weber from Flickr.

 

Peak Content: When the Attention Economy bubble bursts

This is a follow-on to an analysis that I wrote for The Media Briefing, published on 4 January. Simply put, I think a shake-out in the media business is coming due to a glut of content and advertising. I am not alone, and it would seem that 2016 begins with a lot of concerns about the sustainability of the current path in terms of media businesses. I’ve seen a raft of reports over the last week that sound like the beginning of this shake-out, both between legacy players but also amongst digital media pure plays. 

Never have we had so much choice in terms of news, information, music and entertainment. The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

The bottom line is this: Pressure on legacy media businesses and the current state of digital advertising means that you either go premium and paid – think The Economist, The New York Times, pay television, business intelligence – or you go mass and scale, trying to reach as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. There is a limit to scale, and a limit to the model of producing as much as possible as cheaply as possible, especially as the digital ad space is as super-saturated as the world of digital content.

As I said over on The Media Briefing:

For a long time, we’ve been creating too much content, so much so that I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.

Market crashes are the tsunamis that sink, if not all, then a lot of boats, and it’s time to take strategic action.

And although I’ve spent most of my career working in journalism, I’m not just talking about journalists and the commentariat, I’m talking about every kind of content. We’re producing too many podcasts, too many TV shows, video games, status updates and images than we could consume in a million lifetimes. Social updates are as much about communication as they are publishing or broadcasting, but they still eat up that scarce resource of attention. As a data journalist, I like hard numbers, and streaming music service Pandora gave us one on just how scarce attention is.

Attention is such an important topic for marketers this year because living in a connected world means our attention spans are at an all-time low (8 seconds1, to be exact), turning people into master jugglers of devices and content.

As my piece went live on the Media Briefing, it coincided with a number of articles indicating that a shake-out is already in progress. Ricardo Bilton at Digiday predicted a “winter of discontent” for digital publishers as many high-profile sites saw their traffic plateau, including Buzzfeed. Some of this is to be expected. It’s nearly impossible to maintain triple digit growth. He writes:

The challenges on the business side are fueled by the overabundance of publishers on the Web. Ad buyers are looking for deeper deals with a handful of partnerships, which is bad news for the sites that don’t make the cut.

This year will begin as 2015 ended, with a rush for digital publishers pivoting or looking for buyers. Bilton wrote that Mashable is shopping itself around, and it wasn’t too long ago that we heard that The Atlantic was exploring a sale of Quartz. For those not seeing the growth that they need to sell at a valuation that will sate their funders, we are seeing retrenching and pivots, or both in the case of Upworthy. Even seemingly safe and stable digital media players such as the Huffington Post are announcing layoffs in one area that had seen a lot of growth over the past 18 months, video.

This is all to say that those people commenting on my original piece who focused on the disruption in the legacy media business are missing the main point: This glut of content is hitting everyone who operates in the digital media space, apart from the only true unicorns of Google and Facebook.

We are fast approaching the end of this cycle though that has prioritised cheap scale above all else. As I wrote for The Media Briefing:

…flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.

Tom Mullaly said in a comment on the post: “The market does not ‘abhor super-abundance’. Businesses trading in a super-abundant commodity abhor its abundance, and that’s an entirely different thing. Consumers of it revel in it, and that means you can monetize it, even if it’s not quite the news you knew.” Sure, for lovers of high quality content, it’s a golden age of choice in terms of incredible TV, international journalism and audio content, but it cannot last if it cannot be paid for. As Clay Shirky said years ago, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.”

What happens now? 

For years now, one of my conference presentations begins by laying out this issue of overabundance and different ways to try to deal with it. As Peak Content becomes more well-known as an issue, we’re seeing a number of different prescriptions.

Tom Goodwin of Havas has written that in this flood of content, attention shouldn’t be our focus but rather clarity.

And I’m far from the first person to use the term Peak Content. It’s been circulating in marketing circles for a while now, and Erica Berger used the term in a Medium post in early December. She wrote:

To sum this up, the ecosystem we’re in right now is at highest editorial capacity for content, coupled with a shifting revenue stream away from publishers and to networks and large tech companies. There’s no hack that I or many smart people can see. That’s why we’ve reached “Peak Content.”

That said, she is optimistic about the passing of Peak Content seeing it as “an opportunity of a generation” to remake media.

But having survived both the dot.com crash, when an early generation of digital content companies were wiped out, and the Great Recession, which I survived by building my own global media consultancy, I know that when a bubble bursts it wipes as many good companies as bad. Yes, there is an opportunity here, as there always is, but it will also get messy. I absolutely agree with Tom and Erica that it’s a time for clarity and an opportunity to make something better than what came before.

But how?

I’m not going to rewrite my Media Briefing piece, but I think media companies, and this goes for you whether you’re a seed-funded start-up or a legacy media business trying to ride out what seems like the perfect storm, need to as a minimum:

  • Sharpen your strategic focus – If you’re not going to play the volume game, ask yourself what audience you serve and how will you monetise that attention. Get creative and think of things beyond the ad/subscriber dichotomy.
  • Iterative agility – Screw fail fast; instead learn quickly. Yes, failing fast is about the willingness to experiment and take risks, but the major challenge that I have seen in a lot of companies is that they fail to funnel the lessons, good and bad, back into the business.
  • Decide what you stop doing – When I worked for the Media Development Investment Fund, one of the key lessons we realised that digital start-ups had to learn was when to let go, when to stop doing something because it wasn’t supporting their success. The same goes for legacy media companies. As I wrote at Media Briefing, “one of the biggest challenges I had as an executive editor, (was) figuring out what we could stop doing that would free up enough staff time to innovate in a way that could really move the dial.”
  • Invest in revenue innovation – Never launch anything without revenue streams in mind. For every editorial innovation, I’d invest in two on the commercial side.

I want to amplify that last point because the biggest issue we have right now is that, in terms of unique users, we can reach a larger audience than ever, but no one can monetise millions of single unique users who spend 30 seconds or less with you each month.

Of all of the predictions and forecasts that I saw at the end of 2015, Amanda Hale’s, of Talking Points Memo, struck me as the clearest. She wrote for Nieman Lab:

We’ve reinvented journalism school time and time again and have nobly funded countless entrepreneurial journalism fellowships aimed at equipping journalists with basic tech and business skills (“entrepreneurial journalism,” while adjacent, is a different discipline — email me and I’ll explain), but as an industry, we have done very little to identify, pipeline, and train the publishing talent that will be responsible for securing the financial future of news.

Amen. She notes that her Twitter bio says, “Without a business plan, there is no freedom of the press.” Yup. That. As this shake-out gathers pace, scale at all costs will fade as the goal. To quote my Media Briefing piece a final time, “huge audiences don’t matter in the absence of a business model”.

If you want to hire me to work with your media, advertising or marketing company or start-up, I have just launched a consultancy, Ship’s Wheel Media, to provide digital product development, content strategy (especially social, mobile, data and visual) and content services. I am also open to discussing full-time roles. If interested, send me an email – kevin AT charman-anderson.com – or connect with me on LinkedIn

Which newspapers will survive?

For much of the nearly two years that I served as an executive editor for a shifting group of small Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I often asked myself: Which newspapers will survive? Trust me, it wasn’t an idle thought experiment. That’s the question I decided to try to answer in a recent piece for The Media Briefing in the UK.

The newspapers I oversaw were actually doing pretty well with growing reach and revenue. However, I know that the picture wasn’t so sunny across much of the industry.

Since my job as executive editor of a group of small newspapers in Wisconsin was eliminated in early October, it seems like a week hasn’t gone by when there hasn’t been announcements of cuts in newspapers – Tribune Publishing (almost 10 percent of its workforce is gone in 2015, the Boston Globe, swingeing cuts in Pittsburgh and Philly. It is pretty bloody out there, and we’re entering a final convulsion of consolidation in the industry as big groups like Gannett try to scale their way to compete with the big digital platform players.

Personally, I believe the next three to five years will see a major shakeout in English language media. Simply put, there is too much content chasing a finite amount of attention and advertising. Market corrections almost always overshoot, and this correction has been a while in coming so I expect that this will be bloody and brutal. And newspapers aren’t the only media that will suffer. As we’ve seen in the last month, premium cable sports giant ESPN and even early digital publishers like Gawker are having to retrench and retool. But print was in the vanguard of media to suffer, only really trailing music in terms of digital disruption. This leads me to the question: Which newspapers will survive?

Size matters

Simply put, quite a few won’t. However, I think that some newspapers will survive, and print will still be a pretty significant part of their business, although digital will drive a lot of their growth. I agree with John Stackhouse, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail in Canada, newspapers (and newspaper groups) will survive if they are either huge or small. The middle is getting clobbered, and that includes a lot of major metro and mid-size papers in the US.

The challenge for any newspaper group is that while on aggregate they fare pretty well in terms of scale, even when traffic from all of their properties are put together, they simply don’t reach the scale that the major digital platform players do. According to ComScore’s list of Top 50 Digital Media Properties for October 2015, Gannett, with the highest traffic of any US newspaper publisher, came in at number 17, just ahead of eBay. That’s not too shabby. But Gannett’s more than 101 m unique visitors were only 41 percent of Google’s uniques for the same month. That shows the challenge that most media companies are facing. ComScore Top 20 Digital Media Properties in the US October 2015

The major digital platforms are playing an entirely different game. When you look at Google and Facebook, they have all the advantages of massive scale and laser-guided ad targeting without the cost of running a large network of newspapers. Sure, they have their overheads, but they do not compare with the cost of running the 20th Century industrial legacy that is involved with a national newspaper group. And if you’re the Guardian or the New York Times, and, let’s throw a newly resurgent Washington Post, in the mix, you can have national reach without the expense of a local footprint.

For newspaper survival, I really think that small is beautiful. They are still rooted in their communities, but beyond good will, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, two of the newspapers I oversaw as an executive editor, we didn’t have any local TV competition. They only came when we had a Rob Ford-esque mayor, had an odd crime or needed some snowstorm pictures.

So, size does matter but so does the economic health of the community. If your community is on the economic rocks, it makes it very difficult for a newspaper to survive. Sheboygan County is rocking it economically. It had the third lowest unemployment of any county in Wisconsin in September, reaching a 15-year low, and it has major national and multinational companies headquartered here.

There is a lot of opportunity in community publishing that serves communities like Sheboygan. Not only do I think that newspapers and their digital services will survive in the Sheboygans across the country, if I were an investor, that is where I’d be putting my money.

 

For Hire: Heading back to the future

Nearly two years after I joined Gannett, and as a result of the ongoing restructuring and latest wave of cuts, I now find myself back on the job market. My job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Oshkosh Northwestern and Fond du Lac Reporter has been eliminated, and my responsibilities shared out amongst other staff.

I feel lucky to have worked with some amazing people, and I want to pay tribute to my former colleagues at all of the sites that I oversaw at some point during the 20 months. You delivered the best journalism that you possibly could; you pushed the envelope and tried new things; you were visible on social media and in the communities; and you rolled with the punches. I’d thank every one of you personally, but they’d start playing the Oscars end-the-speech music. I must thank one person in particular, though: Lowell Johnson, the general manager of Sheboygan and Manitowoc. He taught me a lot about management and the business of local media. More than that, he is a champion for his communities and a great guy. I really will miss working with him.

I saw the handwriting on the wall several months ago, so was already in the process of developing a Plan B. It is essential these days, no matter if you work in legacy media or a VC-funded start-up, to have an eye on other opportunities. Luckily, the market is much better now than in 2013, when I was last looking and the world had barely begun its slow climb out recession. In the past 36 hours, I’ve already discussed some options that have me more excited than I’ve been in years.

That being said, I really want to think broadly about my next steps and I am very much open to exploring other ideas and opportunities. In 1996, I went boldly towards digital because I had seen the future, and knew it was digital. A decade ago, I was sitting in the BBC News Online newsroom chatting with Paul Brannan, then the deputy editor of the site, and he expressed succinctly why we were passionate about what we were doing. “Everyday, we get up and get to create the future of media,” he said. Damn straight. It was thrilling then, and it’s just as thrilling now. My future still is digital.

That’s about the only filter I’ll put on this job search. Here’s my goal:

To find a position that fully utilises my two decades of global experience as a media innovator, leader and executive. That position could be with a disruptive project at a major news organisation, a communications position with a progressive company, a leadership position with a media start-up or a teaching and research position at a forward-thinking higher education institution.

For those of you who don’t know my background, here’s my potted bio and achievements:

  • In 1998, I became the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. We pioneered multi-platform storytelling and audience engagement techniques years before they became mainstream.
  • In 2005, I was part of the launch team of the BBC World Service interactive radio programme, World Have Your Say.
  • In 2006, I became The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and I was part of a team that oversaw a dramatic explosion in the blog network at The Guardian.
  • In 2010, I took a buyout from the Guardian to join Suw and take our media consultancy global. I trained hundreds of Al Jazeera journalists in engagement and social media verification techniques before and during the Arab Spring. Suw and I were part of the launch team for Firstpost.com for India’s Network 18.
  • Since 2011, I have been and continue to be an in-demand data journalism trainer and consultant, working with CNN International, Reed Business International, Czech TV, Singapore Press Holdings and WAN-IFRA.
  • Since 2012, I have been a faculty member for the Eurovision Academy, the training centre for the European Broadcasting Union. I have done data journalism and multi-platform newsroom management courses and am co-presenting a seminar on innovative converged newsrooms.
  • In 2012, I was a member of the management team of the Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in independent media in countries without a history of free media. I was the editorial lead and a on staff consultant for the Fund’s Knowledge Bridge, which was created to help clients in the portfolio transition successfully to digital.
  • From 2014 until recently, I was a regional local media executive with Gannett, overseeing a handful of news sites in Wisconsin. In the first year, we grew reach at the two sites I initially oversaw off the back of strong digital growth. At HTR News Media, we grew reach from 84 percent to an astounding 87 percent.

In an ideal world, Suw and I would love to stay put in Sheboygan. We love where we’ve landed, our lovely little corner of Wisconsin, but we are both realistic and are willing, albeit reluctantly, to relocate.

Good talent is hard to find, and the depth of global, digital experience I have is very rare.  If you’re interested, get in touch.

Podcast revolution driven by mobile devices with four wheels

Podcasting has been buzzing over the last year in the US. One reason is smart content, with NPR’s Serial, which was download at least 80 million times.

However, there is a tech aspect at play as well. According to podcast hosting service Libsyn, two-thirds of podcasts were downloaded by mobile devices in 2014, up from 43 percent just two years before. But this is not just about the rise of the smartphone but also of connected cars. 

My car can connect to three apps on my iPad or smartphone – podcast and local service discovery app aha, music streaming app Pandora and podcast app Stitcher. Of course, I can stream anything from my device to my car via bluetooth, but these apps have controls integrated with my car’s infotainment system. I can move easily through the menus using a joystick dial in the centre console of my car. If I find a coffee shop, restaurant or retailer via aha, the address finder is integrated with my cars satnav. 

And all of this means that podcasting is starting to make appealing revenue. For the full piece, head on over to the Media Briefing

What do we do less of, what do we more of?

My good friend Steve Yelvington highlighted this great post by John E. McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun: More more with less. He was commenting on the move by the Boston Globe to create a new class of multi-platform editors and the response that it had in the industry.

The idea of doing more with less or less with less is common as many legacy news organisations contract. Both phrases have become a bit toxic. Overworked journalists don’t feel they can do much more, and they also fear giving up more. I’ve seen journalists obsessively hold onto tasks because they think their jobs will be protected if they have enough tasks they do. If only that were true.

The real question is not simply about doing more or less with less, it’s really about what we must do and what we must stop doing. One of the biggest obstacles to innovation in legacy media organisations is how tightly we hold onto things we’ve always done. Without giving up some things, we simply will not have the capacity to innovate.

As a local news executive, I also know how important it is to bring staff and your communities with you. If there was one bit of self-criticism that I would have of myself is that I haven’t been as engaged with my communities as I would like, wasn’t explaining as transparently as I would like what we’re doing. I can give the excuse that I’ve been sucked into the operational side of things far more than I had expected as we reorganise four newspapers, but that has to change.

Where you’re working, what is the thing you think you have to give up? What thing will do instead? I’m serious. I’d like to hear what you’re thinking. We have to brainstorm to deal with this. One of the most important things that nimble organisations do is that they decide what they stop doing so they can focus on what they must do.

Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

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.

How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media.