links for 2006-12-11 Readers’ Revolution: Robin Hamman

This post is greatly delayed from the Readers’ Revolution panel that I spoke on last week for

Robin Hamman, a friend and former colleague at the BBC, spoke about the Manchester Method and engaging with ‘stuff’. Like me, Robin doesn’t like the dry as dust term, user-generated content. (Jon Pareles of the New York Times questions whether we’re not seeing something a bit more basic: Self-expression. And Cynthia at IPDemocracy asks whether users are better filters than media moguls. I ask, “Better or more successful?”)

Robin said that people are creating all kinds of ‘stuff’, whether it is video on YouTube, photos on Flickr, podcasts or even meaning through social bookmarking on or Amazon recommendations.  (Robin is an important part of my network and often sends bookmarks my way.)

He used to sheepishly admit that he was a blogger, and I can understand the way he feels. The Church of Journalism often seems to me to want a purity test for membership. I’ve spent most of my career trying to justify my self-identification as an ‘online journalist’. Many friends simply left journalism after the crash. Industry purists were going to make them pay for their dalliance with the trendy internet by making them take many steps backward in their career. We lost a lot of smart people in the post crash schadenfreude surplus. We could use those people now.

I digress. Ironically, Robin found that the average income for a blogger in the US is $39,000, a good $10,000 more than most journalists or reporters. (That’s not necessarily from blogging, but still, it means that bloggers aren’t doing badly for themselves.)

But Robin went on to highlight a very fundamental change in thinking in the Web 2.0 age, which is decentralisation. In
the past, he said that we talked about building big expensive stuff, huge big systems,
like message boards to host discussions and recommendation systems. They were resource intensive and took massive amounts of development and time.  But he admitted that the BBC was a broadcaster, not a software developer, and the BBC made really second-rate systems. “Our software is several years behind in comparison to the
industry,” he said. 

And after the sites and systems were launched, the BBC was opened up to ongoing management costs and legal issues. Now, the BBC is heading in a new direction. “Sustainable development is sexy,” he said. “We are trying to figure out a way that doesn’t force us to develop big expensive platforms”

Robin had his first job with the BBC eight or nine years ago. With the the first message boards, people would sign up and select a user name and
password. Editorial Policy blanched. “You can’t possibly allow people to post on our website
without verified first name and surname,” Editorial Policy staff protested.

Fast forward to the present with the BBC Manchester
. It is a more honest and more sustainable
approach to dealing with ‘stuff’.

Thousands of people send pictures to the
BBC. But what happens to them? “Thousands of people send us stuff but never
get anything more than an automated response,” he said. It’s a fair question of any project that deals with ‘stuff’. How to evaluate the ‘stuff”? You can’t have a strategy based on failure, based on a paucity of submissions. Also, most organisations can’t just throw more people at the problem of evaluating submissions, and I would argue that simply having your staff evaluate submissions misses the point. The audience should be involved not only in creating ‘stuff’ but also in determining quality and relevance for themselves.

Robin’s basis for the BBC Manchester project is that there are mature tools out there: Flickr, YouTube, Revver, Photobucket,, Furl, Reddit and on and on. Robin knew that just as he began blogging that he was joining a conversation, and that by using tools like Technorati he could plug into this conversation.

Robin is pointing out such an important point. Instead of simply trying to create parallel tools – MySpace or YouTube killers – media organisations looking for a community strategy would be smart to plug into these communities not trying to steal other sites community. No big media site is going to get me to move my photos from Flickr because part of the importance is the community that I have at Flickr with friends and professional contacts. However, media organisations can become hubs in these networks, but the thinking is completely different than a traditional media strategy.

Robin put it this way. He’s like the host of a party, and hosts are different than police. Hosts get their guests started talking. They wander around and make sure that no one gets too
drunk and that friends don’t get too disorderly.

Blogs are a great source of contacts, context and content. Every
once and a while, Robin says that he will wrap some of his own editorial content around other bloggers’ posts, but that’s pretty typical blogging behaviour. But his motivation is “all about linking
and sending them to traffic”. They are doing their first workshop in Manchester on January 18 for bloggers or people who want to learn. They will teach people
how to put Google and Amazon ads on their sites. They will teach them about best blogging practices. 

Having worked for the BBC, I will admit that they are free of market pressures that a lot of companies face and can do things other companies probably can’t. Part of Robin’s Manchester Project is about digital literacy, which is one of the goals of the Nations and Regions division of the BBC. But linking out, being part of the network instead of trying to dominate it or co-opt is one of those clueful Cluetrain ideas that also make good business sense.

  • You can see Robin in action here at an edited version of his talk on YouTube. (He told me at the BBC Backstage party -sponsored in part by ORG – on Saturday he was a little disappointed that the edit focused on his comments about the BBC development process.)
  • Clyde Bentley’s talk is here on YouTube.
  • I am here talking about something I called: Newsgathering in the Age of Social Networks. I am seriously jet-lagged. Having driven 15 hours the Friday before across New Mexico and Texas, only to grab a few hours of sleep before hopping on a jet back to London.

links for 2006-12-09

links for 2006-12-07 Readers’ Revolution panel on MyMissourian

UPDATED: On Monday evening, I had to rely on the wisdom of the crowds to help me find Skempton Hall at Imperial College and managed to be only slightly more than fashionably late – good for a party but maybe not so good for a panellist for a discussion. The topic was the Readers’ Revolution, various ways in which media consumers have also become media producers.

Clyde Bentley of the University of Missouri – who I had the pleasure of meeting at Poynter’s Web+10 last year, talked about the hybrid web-to-print MyMissourian project. And Robin Hamman, a friend and former colleague at the BBC, was speaking about his Manchester blog project (I’ll post about Robin’s presentation tomorrow). I talked about what I call newsgathering in the age of social networks and also ways in which the Guardian is moving community and participation from the edge to the centre of our digital strategy.

Clyde was already speaking when I arrived. After giving an overview of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the Missouri Method, he talked about the media landscape that media organisation find themselves in. According to Netcraft, there are now 101,435,253 sites.

We’re fighting for attention.

Now, I hear media leaders say that this is why brand and quality are even more important in the age of the Attention Economy. I disagree. I think relevance trumps industry-defined measures of quality, but Clyde will touch on that.

Clyde may be a professor, but he understands the economics of media, which I think more journalism students need to get to grip with as they enter the job market (and it’s a tough market out there for new grads or even old hands). The most valuable voices in journalism today are passionate about journalism and realistic about the numbers.

Last month, I heard executives from the Washington Post and the New York Times talk about how they are focussed on growing their online businesses as quickly as possible to make up as revenue tails off from the print business. But the numbers, as they stand, are sobering. Online journalism is not enough to meet the shortfalls as newspaper
revenue falls. Clyde said:

The money isn’t there. Revenue is 5.41% , only about $1.9m for newspaper revenues online versus the print revenues. … Plot line of online revenue versus print
revenue doesn’t meet soon. We are not making enough money to turn off
the presses in my lifetime. We need an interim strategy.

UPDATE: I asked Clyde the source of those figures. Too many slides going by my sleep-addled brain at that point. The figures are from the Newspaper Association of America. It represents expenditures for online advertising in newspapers only. Clyde said: “Our initial research shows most of the overall online advertising is for messages that do not support editorial content — corporate sites, click-throughs from other commercial sites, free-standing ads, etc.” And there is not a major shift from print to online, yet. Clyde said that the shift was a bit more than 4% last year.

The citizen connection is about easy blogging and social networking. Clyde added: “Money is going online; it just isn’t going to support journalism.”

Initially, they drew a fiscal blank. How about a hybrid of citizen journalism and their own? “Web and print. Users with journalists. News and fun.” was born. It is a site that anybody can participate in. It’s not hard news.

Inspiration came from OhMyNews, started by a radical leftist journalist. It has changed the face of Korea. Dean Mills, the dean of the prestigious school of journalism at the University of Missouri, recognised the potential and asked us to move quickly. was proposed in May 2004, and launched in October 2005.

It didn’t go over too well initially, Clyde said. Critics complained: “People are ripping you off. They are going to flood it with commercial messages.”

But they had done their research before launch. They wanted to give the voice to the voiceless, and allow non-journalists to set the agenda. And, they knew that they were going to make money.

They proposed to allow citizens to gather stuff online – photos and stories – and use that material in a print product to pay the bills.

All US newspapers have a TMC product, a total-market coverage product. With circulation dropping, they send TMC products free to non-subscribers. The vast majority, 88% of US newspapers, have a free product. Pre-print advertising, not classifieds, account for 25% of our revenue. But then there is driveway rot. Free-sheets sitting unread, rotting on the driveway. (Or tube-stop rot here in the UK with the blizzard of free newspapers.)

The print edition of MyMissourian launched in October 2005. It allowed them to use of the efficient advertising pattern of print. The print MyMissourian has Increased their readership by 28,000 households. They have 900 or writers who contribute to the site and, therefore, to the print edition. People are more interested in MyMissourian because they help create the site and the newspaper.

Is there a future for journalists? Yes, both professional and citizen journalists, but the job of professional journalists is changing, Clyde said. It is now more about guiding people to content and covering stories from a different way. Journalists should invite the public to the table.

Many editors are concerned about errors, credibility and libel. The arguments: How do you deal with issues of decency, commercialism, literacy and banality?

They looked for simple, logical solutions. As for banality, Clyde said, “Banality? Journalists are poor judgements of what or who is stupid.”

For the MyMissourian community, they laid down four simple rules:

  • No nudity
  • No profanity
  • No personal attacks
  • No attacks on the basis of race, religion, national origin or gender

The site meant the end of ‘no’ when it came to what they could cover. “We don’t say: ‘No won’t cover your event’, or ‘No, we can’t run your youth baseball story’,” he said.

The citizen journalists write about personal memories, faith of all kinds (“Journalists hate covering religion because it’s not matter of logic. It’s a matter of faith,” he said). We enlist senior photogs, older members of the community, and give them disposable cameras.

This is gut level journalism. Some people just want to share their recipe. They’re planning on releasing a cookbook just based on the recipes that people have shared.

You know what’s not popular? Politics. It’s less popular than Clyde and his colleagues had predicted. Religion
is far more popular than we predicted. And pictures of dogs, cats, even
rats trump most copy.

And the bottom line is that that it cost less than $1000 in new costs in a year and a half.

The cultural issues

Suw and I often say that the cultural issues are more challenging than the technical ones. And Clyde said that this has been hard on journalism students. “They want to write, not guide.”

Many of his students were at a loss at how to cover non-news topic like Little League. And I was fascinated when he said that few students are well prepared to work with the public. Journalists are basically shy people.

The lessons from their hybrid experiment:

  • Use citizen journalism to supplement not replace.
  • UGC isn’t free.
  • Online attracts the eager, but print serves the masses.
  • Give people what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
  • Get rid of preconceptions of what journalism is.
  • Every day people are better ‘journalists’ than you think.

Next, they want to integrate blogs with print.

It’s a very interesting model, and it’s the kind of creative, ‘hybrid’ thinking that is needed to reconnect journalism with readers, viewers and listeners. It reminds me of a talk I recently heard. We live in an ‘and’ world, not an ‘or’ world. Although I’m a strong advocate of online journalism, I recognise that strength lies in new combinations of the strengths of online and traditional media. Creative and organisational tensions will exist, but I’ve convinced it’s where the opportunities lie. The challenge is helping inspire the change.

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