PPA: Rise of the Super Editor

A last minute invite has me on a panel at the Periodical Publishers Association half day conference: The Rise of the Super Editor. It’s largely about talking the range of skills required of a editors in the digital converged age. We’re all being asked to do from producing and editing text content now to producing podcasts and designing websites and now web services. What skills are needed?

“Magazine” editor in a digital age

Jonah Bloom of Advertising Age (USA) kicked things off. He started off just publishing magazines. They publish a ‘newspaper’, e-mail newsletters as well as produce a couple of conferences a year.

We don’t have a magazine at the centre of our business model. We have a consumer at the centre of our business model.

The major difference in the US was the pace of broadband adoption. The first thing that had to happen was that the print publication had to evolve. The first change was a major exclusive on an advertising takeover. They felt they could hold the story until Monday, but someone else broke it on the web before them. It was a bit of a turning point. Frankly, nothing holds. The news will break on the web. The print product had to evolve to become useful to readers in ways than just telling them what they didn’t know. The print product had to go behind and beyond the news, do more service journalism. They had to do more investigative journalism.

They have just under 1,000 blogs in their space. Many of them live off of the content that they produce, which was a slight annoyance. That is one of the threats. (I might disagree with that as a threat.)

He also wanted to talk about the opportunities. They have risen from about 100,000 registered web users to more than 700,000 from Q4 2004 to Q3 2007.

You can ‘slice and dice’ your audience. Ad Age has been able to tailor their content to niches in their audience. They could re-purpose their content their content for their media, magazine or digital communities.

You can hear your readers. Your connection to your readers 10 years ago was when you and your publisher came up with a survey and asked them if your content was ‘useful, very useful or very, very useful’. Now, you can see from statistics, polls and interactive features what people are reading and thinking. They harvest comments on their pieces for new stories. He gave the example of a feature on ‘How would you fix The Gap?’.

They transformed their letter pages, Adages, into a blog. Their ad critic, Bob Garfield, has his own blog, and they are even blogging about the 2008 presidential campaign. They have two blogs created by their readers, a small agency blog and also a blog about multicultural issues.

Five or 10 years ago, it would have been scary to send people to other sources or your competitors. Now, we link out. We try to put ourselves at the centre of the community. They have a list of the best ad sites based on Google and Technorati ranking.

They allow people to share their stories through Google reader, Netvibes, Bloglines and other sites. They built a Facebook widget.

They have three types of video. They set up a video studio in a ‘broom closet’ and spent $20,000 for a two-camera setup. They do event coverage in their space. Editing the video from a two-day conference into three minutes is truly a challenge.


I wasn’t planning to blog this conference, but this is an excellent snapshot into the reality that we as journalists and editors confront every day. I went to school to become a print journalist, and as I’ve often said, the only digital offering when I was at university (graduated mid-year 1993) was a computer-assisted reporting class. I learned web skills, audio and simple video editing all on the job. Most of this, I just picked up on my own. I took the initiative. The BBC does have a relatively good professional development programme, but for many smaller and less well funded (it was well funded when I was there) organisations, training is out of self initiative not necessarily out of structured programmes.

To journalism students, I say that you should prepare for a lifetime of learning, and your job will change over time. The entire industry is in state of flux, and you will be called on to fill a variety of roles.

The same goes for journalists. I don’t really understand journalists who want to freeze their jobs in amber and pine for some glory days of being able to focus on one task. That’s just not been my experience professionally. I’ve always had to multi-task as a journalist even when my only job was print reporter.

I’ve always been excited about multi-media story telling, and I’ve tried to learn lessons from the great print journalists, photographers, video editors and camera men and women and radio journalists I’ve worked with. I took the initiative because I was interested in doing it.

Ryan Sholin gathered up a good list of skills for new media journalism. I think for editors and journalists, it’s always been about knowing the art of the possible. Ask yourself:

  • What is the story?
  • What are the elements?
  • What format – text, audio, video, and interactive – is the best way to tell the different elements of that story?
  • Longer term, how do I put the technology in place to take advantage of digital opportunities?

And digital allows us to not just tell the story and leave it, but tell the breaking story and build on it.

And one final point, as Jonah Bloom said during a Q&A:

If you think that you just want to be a print writer and write 2,000 words, you can still do that. But you better be damn good at it.

Not everyone has to be all things to all digital editors, but the industry really needs digital natives to serve increasingly digital audiences.

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Death of TimesSelect: You can’t control your readers

One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s On the Media. It’s a great mix of meta coverage about media and the business of media as well as reviews of international media. For instance, they often have the blogger Mark Lynch of Abu Aardvark giving Arabic-language media reviews. They had a great piece this week about Cambodia trying to convince sceptical youth that the Khmer Rouge really did commit such horrific acts.

This past week, they also had a great interview with nytimes.com general manager Vivian Schiller about the death of TimesSelect. She does a good job explaining why the New York Times tore down the pay wall, and it was refreshing to hear someone in commercial media talk about ‘the public domain’ as a reason for opening the Times’ archive before 1922.

…in fact, 1851 to 1922, which has got a lot of cool stuff, including coverage of the Civil War and the Titanic, is now available for free because it belongs to the public. It’s the public domain.

Why did they take down the pay wall? In the long term, the single-digit growth from subscription revenue was outstripped by the growth from advertising. The comment that really stood out in my mind though was when she was asked whether they were worried about losing paying subscribers by having a totally free site (apart from the archives from 1922 to 1987). She said (my emphasis):

Well, yes, and there may be some that do that. But you know what? We can’t force behavior on people. We have to provide our content in the way that consumers want it, and if we lose a newspaper subscription, then so be it. But you can’t force change. You can’t work against the tide.

You can’t force behaviours on people. You have to learn how your readers/viewers/listeners behave and how they want their news, information, conversation and community. Follow their lead so you can keep supporting, as Ms Schiller puts it, the social mission of journalism.

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Abusing goodwill

I like to think that the world is based on goodwill. People are, generally speaking, nice and, by default, they will respect and help others. Certainly humans are fundamentally and inescapably social creatures that need each other on a minute-by-minute and day-to-day basis, and I think that being nice is one of the attributes that which fuels the reciprocation that makes helping someone else ultimately worth it for us ourselves.

I also think that the social web is an expression of the niceness that lubricates society. All the mores that have built up around blogging and wikis and sharing and Creative Commons are based on being nice: if you quote someone’s blog, it’s being nice to credit them; Wikipedia encourages everyone to be nice to newbies; sharing anything with strangers is an act of niceness in itself; and Creative Commons licences are predicated on the idea that people will be nice and respect them.

Whilst niceness isn’t universal – there are people who aren’t nice – it is a desirable attribute, so much so that niceness is taught and enforced from birth. I doubt there’s anyone reading this who wasn’t told as a child to “be nice” or to “play nicely”. Nice is good. We need nice.

This might explain why I get so cross when I come across examples of people, or especially businesses, not playing nice. But thanks to the internet, we now get to call out companies who, whilst sticking to the letter of the law (or Creative Commons licence), are flagrantly abusing its spirit.

First up, Virgin Mobile Australia. They found a photo of two American girls on Flickr, and decided to use part of it on billboard and online ads, with the taglines “Dump your pen friend” and “Free text virgin to virgin”. Alison Chang was the girl featured, and her family is now suing, saying that the ad “caused their teenage daughter grief and humiliation”, and listing both Virgin Mobile and Creative Commons as defendants.

The photo in question was shared on Flickr using an attribution licence, meaning that technically, it could be used by any company for commercial purposes without requiring permission from the photographer (although the licence has now been changed to “all rights reserved”). But there are legal issues around this use, because, despite the liberal reuse licence that was used, Australia requires model release forms to be signed before an image can be used in an advert. The original photo is still on Flickr, as is a photo of the billboard ad.

But what really stings about this is that it’s just not nice. Whether or not the CC licence allowed for commercial reuse, what Virgin Mobile and their PR companies – Host and The Glue Society, according to blog, Duncan’s Print – did was really unpleasant. There was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have used stock photos for any ads that needed to feature people, but instead they whipped free photos off Flickr without giving a moment’s thought to the impact it might have. And Virgin Mobile Pty Ltd.’s response is absolutely disgraceful. The AP quotes them as saying:

Virgin Mobile Pty Ltd., the Australian company, released a statement saying the use of the photo is lawful and fits with Virgin’s image.

“The images have been featured within the positive spirit of the Creative Commons Agreement, a legal framework voluntarily chosen by the photographers,” the statement said. “It allows for their photographs to be used for a variety of purposes, including commercial activities.”

The “positive spirit” of Creative Commons is about constructive reuse, and this cocky attitude that they can take someone’s image and insult them publicly in the name of advertising is repulsive. Virgin and its PR company might not have broken the letter of copyright law, but they certainly showed no thought or consideration for Alison Chang.This sort of behaviour is just not nice, and Virgin should be castigated for it.
Now, on to Jo Jo, whose story is much more straightforward. Jo Jo writes about and photographs food on her blog Eat2Love, the trouble is, journalists keep lifting her ideas – both in terms of the things that she writes about and the way that she styles the food she photographs. Whilst this has been going on, according to her, since January, the straw that broke the camels back for her was seeing photographs that looked very much like hers on the cover of Gourmet magazine. And it’s not just Gourmet. In an email to me a couple of days ago, Jo Jo names another two publications and talks of a “major” website that poached her work.

Again, the journalists, photographers and editors who are lifing ideas from Jo Jo aren’t breaking the law. You cannot copyright ideas, and I think that’s a damn good thing, otherwise nothing would ever progress, but regularly poaching someone’s ideas without ever acknowledging how heavily your work is influenced by them, or without building something original on top of their idea, isn’t a very nice thing to do. Journalists and photographers get paid for their creativity, and nicking someone else’s is a cheap shot.

I know people who would probably respond to this by saying “Well, tough – that’s how it goes when you put your stuff online for free, and you just have to suck it up,” but the sad thing is that it forces a binary decision to be made. Either Jo Jo puts up with being constantly ripped off, or she stops blogging. She decided to at the very least cut back on blogging – she’s written just two posts in the last two months, and has removed much of her archive:

90 % of the articles on this blog have been removed from view. what you are viewing are my write-ups of a few food events, and some restaurants.

I think that’s a real shame.

I have real sympathy for Jo Jo. I remember when I was a budding music journalist trying to get a commission from a very high-profile glossy music magazine. I was asked to fax them five different feature ideas, which I did. I was fobbed off by the editor with some feeble excuse as to why my ideas were no good, only to see a few months later one of them written up by someone else. Could I prove that it was my idea? No, I couldn’t, but it was distinctive enough that it pretty clearly was my idea. And that was really galling – I felt like I’d been played for a fool, and it was this sort of shitty behaviour that, along with the shitty pay, drove me away from music journalism.

Now, I think there’s a different thing going on when people release under Creative Commons, and make the choice to let others reuse their work, or when you can see a professional benefit from seeing your stuff redistributed by other people. But one of the main tenets of Creative Commons is attribution, saying where you got stuff from. When someone poaches ideas and doesn’t admit that they weren’t being original, that’s unacceptable.

The flip side is that it’s easier and easier to find out who is ripping whom off, and who’s not playing nice. Companies are going to have to learn that it’s just not worth their while being the schoolground shark that tricks the other kids out of their pocket money, because they are going to get found out. Even monkeys have a sense of what is fair play, and in the blogosphere, this innate sense is getting honed to a sharp point.

So my advice to any business intending to take advantage of all that lovely free content out there? Play nice.

We’re back

Ypsilon Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park

We meant to leave an ‘out of office’ post while Suw and I were visiting the United States for the first half of September. It was strictly pleasure and no business trip so we actually left the computers behind. Yes, we went unplugged for a couple of weeks.

We spent the first week near Chicago where I grew up, and the last week and a half, we spent in Colorado. Suw joined me for my annual week in the wilderness walk. We hiked up to Lawn Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and then up to Ypsilon Lake. The weather was beautiful with some storms rolling in just as we went out. The nights were crisp without being too cold, and the rain helped cut through some haze, and unfortunately, some pollution that had been obscuring the views.

But we’re back and plugged back in for a the busy autumn ahead. Blog on.

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