When trusted guides don’t guide

Canyon Country Fire by respres

Canyon County Fire by respres on Flickr, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved

I was looking through my feeds and found this on Mashable: This Disaster Will Be Twitterized. Mark Hopkins recalls how more than 10 years ago, he aggregated all of the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing on his Angelfire page. His page was listed prominently on the Yahoo page showing coverage of the tragedy.

Mark fast-forwarded to the present day and watched the California wildfires unfold in Flickr, Twitter and a number of other Web 2.0 sites. And he makes this observation:

Any news channel or show on the TV is prominently featuring this disaster in varying degrees of detail, but if you reside outside of Southern California, what exactly are you going to learn from the national news reports that will be useful to you in a situation like this? CNN isn’t going to point you to the ten mile long Google Map mashup that shows where the fires are. MSNBC isn’t going to aggregate the links for you.

The question for any news organisation is why not? This isn’t rocket science. There are no technical hurdles to doing this if you have even a half-way decent CMS, and it’s dead easy if you’ve got some blogging software. If part of news organisations’ job is to be a trusted guide, why are so many blind to the aggregating this content and helping their audience navigate it?

Chris Vallance and Rhod Sharp had a couple of great interviews on the BBC’s Pods and Blogs last night. (Note: I used to help Chris and Rhod with the programme, and Chris will be the best man at my wedding.) But I’m still baffled why web aggregation during breaking news with follow up interviews still are the exception not the norm. There are all of these people living through a news event making themselves known through blog posts, photo sharing sites, social networking sites and more, and yet we’re still telling the story through wire copy, agency video and stills. It’s yet another missed opportunity by doing what we do the same way we’ve always done it. Editorial innovation can happen while meeting the demands of breaking news.

links for 2007-10-23

links for 2007-10-19

links for 2007-10-17

The passing of BBC News Interactive and integration

This week, staff and managers of the BBC News website will gather in what friends and former colleagues have described as both a birthday party and a wake. The BBC News Website will celebrate its 10th anniversary just as it is about to cease as a separate news operation.

I won’t pretend that this post isn’t personal. I joined the Guardian a year ago, but for eight years before that, I worked for the BBC. I joined BBC News Online in October 1998 as the first online reporter outside of the UK. For most of that eight years, I worked for the BBC News website, or BBC News Online as it was called before management felt that it could use a rebranding.

A few weeks ago, I read “BBC News Interactive will be ‘an empty shell’ in two years” by Jemima Kiss on Guardian Blogs with a heavy heart (disclaimer: I’m now the Blogs editor at the Guardian).

She quoted BBC News Interactive chief Pete Clifton, who said:

If you come up to the seventh floor in two years, it will just be an empty shell, hopefully.

Hopefully? I can’t see my former online colleagues being filled with hope. Despite his talk about the online staff joining the radio and TV staff to “make the best platform for our journalism”, it’s hard to see this as anything but happy talk. While Pete was at AOP, I was having dinner with a friend and former colleague, and he confirmed that Pete was basically managing himself out of a job. He’s not the first manager at the BBC to do this over the last few years, but Jemima put it well when she said:

It sounded like news interactive is about to evaporate, to disappear into the ether like it never existed – as if online news does not deserve, demand or need its own dedicated department. Surely integration isn’t as brutal or as straightforward that?

This isn’t integration. This is the systematic dismantling and destruction of a site and a staff that has helped lead the way in online and interactive journalism.

Yes, the site will survive, and I’m sure that remaining staff will soldier on. But the online managers and editors, who have built up so much experience over the last decade, face an uncertain future. The problem is that, inside the BBC, the News website simply does not have the political capital to withstand the powerful managers in TV. Everyone inside Television Centre knows the pecking order. Radio is the poor cousin to TV, and online is the poorer cousin to radio.

Case in point, I was told by another former BBC employee that she recently asked someone still there what would happen for the News site and its staff. The response?

They will do what they’re told.

The arrogance, the shear arrogance. And it’s all too believable.


Integration should be greater than the sum of its parts, bringing together the combined audio, video and interactive talents of the BBC. When I was there, I knew that to achieve the kind of multimedia storytelling that I wanted, I could learn much from my radio and television colleagues. And through the camaraderie and shared sense of purpose, we achieved great things in Washington and at the BBC News website.

Nick Newman came up with the great idea to turn over the election coverage agenda to our users back in 2000, and Tom Carver and I flew, both literally and figuratively, across the US in an Election Challenge. We covered 6,500 miles in 6 days using web conferencing gear, a mini-DV cam and a portable sat dish to webcast once a day, answering questions posed by visitors to the website. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I travelled to New York three months, six months and one year after, marking the dates with text and video storytelling with correspondent Peter Gould and Simon Oldfield, Sarah Dale and Nick Buckley from the News website. And on the suggestion (and later great encouragement) of Steve Herrmann, I blogged during the last US presidential election, again taking interactive journalism a step further. And the news website has done so much more in pioneering multimedia newsgathering, including their laptop link-ups, Joseph Winter’s great work in Africa, just to mention a few projects.

At the BBC’s Washington bureau, we did feel almost like Greg Dyke’s “One BBC”, although we would get the most ridiculous duplication-of-effort requests from London. At the time I left Washington, we had more than 30 requests for President Bush and his cabinet from the various ‘flagship’ programmes at the BBC. One senior aide on Capitol Hill once quipped to a BBC producer that with so many flagships there mustn’t be any room for other ships in the BBC armada. But we did do integrated journalism in Washington. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for online, radio and TV as I did the Millennium Bug, although I spent much of the night doing two-ways and finding new ways to say “nothing much to report”. But it was this that made the BBC both a great place and a great place to work.

The BBC News website Washington job was one of the best jobs at the site, and I look back fondly on those days. But when I tried to take my new media skills to other areas of the BBC, they were neither used nor rewarded, rather I was criticised for my lack of TV or radio skills.

In the year before I left, many of my colleagues both inside and outside the BBC tried to talk me out of it. Why would I want to leave the BBC? I told them simply that in four of the last 5 years, 2003-2007, the budget for the News website had been cut. In 2003, BBC management tried to cut the site’s budget by 25%, but only managed 18%. I took a year off to do a video journalism attachment in Washington, not knowing if I would have a job to come back to. The cuts in 2003, reportedly at the suggestion of the highest levels of BBC New Media management, came because “Friends Reunited runs on 6 people, why does the News website need a few hundred?” With budget cuts for the foreseeable future at BBC News, how could I stay? My pay wasn’t keeping up with housing inflation in Washington and there were no opportunities for me. The pioneering work that we had once done was no longer possible with the budget cuts.

I would love to think that, under an integrated news operation, the BBC News presence would flourish online, but knowing the way the BBC works, I can’t realistically see that happening. The BBC’s internal politics are so poisonous that some of its flagship programmes are at open warfare with one another, calling up Sky to offer their guests instead of sharing them with their BBC colleagues. That was why Greg Dyke’s “One BBC” was the punch-line of a joke in the Washington bureau. I can’t see how this will suddenly change overnight, especially in light of the scrabble over resources as these cuts bite deep. Politics is the allocation of resources, and one surefire way to ratchet up the political battles at the BBC is to make the pie that everyone fights over just that much smaller.

Real leadership at the corporation, which it does have, should put a stop to the petty battles of managers and remind them that the real competition is at Sky or CNN, not down the hall. But that is not the atmosphere at the Pit of Vipers, as one friend and former colleague refers to Television Centre. I’m not sure that anyone could pull the BBC together. As anyone who has worked there knows, it’s not one corporation but rather a thousand fiefdoms.

Brain Drain

Now, I fear, through this arrogance and so many missteps, big and small, the BBC will see what started as a trickle become a flood. In February 2006, I told a BBC executive who I count as a good friend that I was seeing a brain drain. The number of digital natives leaving the BBC, not only in News but across the organisation, I feared would leave the BBC incapable of realising its digital ambitions. He had seen it before he said, as had I. During the dot.com boom, many of my colleagues the News website left for lucrative (albeit often short-lived) jobs in the booming sites of the late 1990s. But this more recent brain drain was different. I saw people leaving not because there was silly money to be made but because they were frustrated. They felt throttled and hemmed in by bureaucracy, infighting, regulation and technical bottlenecks, especially after the forced sale of BBC Technology to Siemens. (For those not familiar with the sale, the BBC had reached its borrowing limits. The government wouldn’t increase the limit so the BBC needed to sell something, fast. When I left, the annual service contract for an iPaq handheld computer was three times the high street value of the device itself, and if I recall correctly, that didn’t even include the data charges.)

Now with this forced integration of radio, TV and online news, I fear that they will lose – or, at best, relegate to the sidelines – the online management, editors and journalists who have built a world class online news service. Done wrong, this could be a huge step backward for the BBC, back to the bad old days of ‘shovelware‘ and simple re-purposing.

I worked side by side with so many respected journalists there, and I really felt pride in what we were doing. As I said, I know that they will meet this challenge as best they can. They have spent five years miraculously finding ways to do more with less. Now, they will have no choice but to do less with less.

links for 2007-10-16

It’s not just newspapers

Last week, Kevin wrote about Alan Mutter’s Brain Drain post on how the journalists who most get this new digital era are the people least likely to be able to effect change within their organisations, and how many of them are looking to get out of the media because they can’t see a future for themselves there. Many voices from the journalist blogging community chimed in, and Kevin does a good job of linking to some of the most prominent posts. But I have something really very, very important to say to everyone who reads Strange Attractor who isn’t in the newspaper business.

It’s not just newspapers losing their brightest talent.

I have a lot of conversations with a lot of different people from a lot of different places, and recently a theme has started to emerge. The people who most clearly understand the way that the internet and Web 2.0 is transforming business are leaving jobs that frustrate them with companies that don’t get it, and are either finding other jobs with companies that do get it or are cutting loose completely and going freelance. And I’m not alone in this observation – Dennis Howlett blogs about a conversation he had with a Barclaycard developer who was profoundly unhappy with his job because there was no opportunity to innovate:

I was struck by the profound sense of frustration experienced by this person. Geeks invent stuff. They solve problems. They love puzzles. Stifling the ability to engage in those activities is anathema. It’s like sucking out the oxygen they need with which to thrive. Any time organizations do that to anyone, productivity plummets.

It’s not just geeks, either. On more than one occasion I have been brought in to talk to a company by someone who sits in the room with me and nods vigourously (but often silently) as I speak. When they do talk, I find myself nodding vigourously as well and it becomes clear that they are on the right track, that they understand social software and the changes currently being wrought. One day, I asked one of my contacts, “Why did you bring me in when you so obviously know what you’re talking about?” The response came, “Because they won’t listen to me – maybe they will listen to you.”

These people aren’t journalists or developers; this isn’t about a particular industry or job title. These are people who have a passion for the internet, who see how useful social tools can be, who just want to make small changes that might have a big impact, but they can’t, because management won’t let them. Whether that’s via direct commandments or through an anti-change, anti-innovation, anti-technology culture that’s been fostered by them doesn’t matter – the fact is that smart, innovative people aren’t being allowed to experiment, and they’re getting so frustrated by it that they are leaving to go elsewhere.

It’s not just newspapers that need to wake up to the fact that their middle managers and CXOs just might not have the right skillset and mindset to help them survive the digital era. As far as I can tell, that problem is rife in all industries. And any business that refuses to take notice of its own talent, (or even the knowledge of digital experts – who, it has to be said, may turn out not be white, male and middle-aged, and may even come from outside your sector), is going to find itself very much at the bottom of the heap as their brightest people go off to help more open and aware companies.

Duty to buy a newspaper?

Roy Peter Clark at Poynter certainly has kicked off an interesting discussion with a column on the journalism centre’s website in a call to journalists to dig into their pockets and buy the newspaper. His full argument is worth a read, but the essence is:

I owe it to hard-working journalists everywhere — and to the future of journalism — to read them. It’s no longer a choice. It’s a duty.

And here’s why: There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? Who will pay for good reporters and editors? Who will pay to station them in statehouses, or send them to cover wars and disasters? Who will finance important investigations in support of the public’s health and safety?

Poynter has done a great service in collecting some of the blog posts that comment on the column. I’m not going to take aim at the original column. There are plenty of people who have done that.

My information diet

I’ll be honest. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a physical newspaper. I get them from time to time on flights and at hotels, but the last time I put down money and bought a newspaper. I’d have to think hard about that. I think I bought a Guardian right before I joined the newspaper.

But I’m drowning in information. If this diet were food, I’d be the size of a small block of flats. Super-size me. I actually have to do a lot just to filter and sift the massive amount of information available. I’m constantly looking for signal in the noise. No one news source does it for me, and I compare a lot of news sources because they all have a point of view.

Before I leave the door, I have Sky News and BBC Breakfast on the laptop TV, more for background noise than information to be honest, although it’s good to know what the domestic (read British) media and press are exercised about today. I can’t filter TV news so I don’t ‘use’ it much. It’s too time consuming for what I get out of it. To be brutally honest, sometimes I get so pissed off at TV news for wasting my time I flip the channel to Everybody Loves Raymond. The BBC TV news podcast isn’t updated until I’m at work or else I’d just watch that and skip the fluff. If there is a good piece of video, I’ll see it. If a politician or presenter says something of note, I’ll see it repeated a million times during the day or in the papers.

Now, on my half hour commute in the morning before I hit the Tube, I listen to the NYTimes Front Page podcast and the hourly NPR news update downloaded to my iPod via iTunes. I just can’t find a good top of the hour headlines podcast in the UK. I haven’t checked the BBC lately. I wish they would produce a World Service headlines podcast. If I have time, I also listen to podcasts from On the Media, the Economist, the BBC’s Pods and Blogs (which I used to contribute to) and This American Life (although Suw and I usually listen to that together over breakfast on the weekend).

On the Tube, I usually skim stories from four newspapers: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald-Tribune and the Guardian. If I see something I need to read, I’ll mentally bookmark it for when I get to work. I also check on the headlines the BBC News website and do a quick check on CNET and Wired. I’ve been doing this for years on my Palm handheld using a service called Avantgo. The screen is great, and I don’t really have this fetish about paper. It’s just information, and it’s easier to organise this way. And it’s much easier to deal with on the Tube. I also have an RSS reader on my Palm, QuickNews, which I wish was better. That gives me headlines from Marketwatch and a half dozen blogs.

Most everyone else on the Tube reads the Metro free-sheet. I don’t. It’s just a rehash of what I’ve already seen on Sky and the BBC, and unlike most everyone else, I’m not interested in celebrity news. Besides, I never have to go looking for celebrity gossip. It’s everywhere. I also have an environmental issue with all of those free-sheets. What a waste.

When I get to work, I fire up my RSS reader, NetNewsWire, and look through the blogs and traditional news sources. I check Popurls.com to get a quick filter of social news sites, video sites and aggregators. I usually have NPR on in the background and give a quick check to NBC’s evening news via iTunes. I get e-mail newsletters from the Washington Post – my old hometown paper – and the NYTimes. I also get an e-mail from NewsTrust and SimplyHeadlines.com, aggregators of different sorts. I also get a morning e-mail from Global Voices giving a great roundup of global blog buzz. Friends are always sending me links via Del.icio.us, mostly to do with new media journalism, and I get things passed along directly via IM.

A former colleague at the BBC said that someday everyone will consume their news like me. I’m not so sure. Very few people actively seek out as much information as I do. I don’t extrapolate my own behaviour too much. I am a very wired news junkie. It’s my job to know what’s going on. But there are a lot of people doing one or more of the above.

But as some people in the Poynter discussion have pointed out, lack of information is not my problem. Lack of time and a limit to the amount of attention I have is more of a problem. I still don’t think this is an issue that most journalists have grokked. There’s who, what, where, when and why, but too many journalists don’t seem to think they need to explain to readers, viewers, listeners: Why should I care?


Again, this is one of the posts where the comments are worth reading. Steve Yelvington in his post, A troll in scholar’s clothing, echoes one of the sentiments in the post which is that news has to be relevant to consumers, the audience in order for them to buy it. Steve says:

Quit blaming the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with paper. It’s your journalism that isn’t relevant. … We’re not going to get meaningful content and services from journalists who spend their time reading each other and sniffing around each other’s scents like a pack of dogs.

Don’t compare your journalism with that of another newspaper. Compare it with the needs of the community.

Amen brother. As Steve has often pointed out, newspaper audiences (in the US), have been declining since the 1970s, when the Internet was still in the lab.

I love the depth of the style of journalism that newspapers have traditionally done. That’s not to say that television is not capable of it. TV documentary units in Britain and long ago (and long since dead) in the US have produced some excellent journalism. But now, what is the business model for this content? What pays for this relatively expensive work? That’s the crux of the original post.

For a number of reasons, most people aren’t like me. They don’t see the reason in their busy lives to seek out news and information like I do. I grew up with newspapers and watching the evening news every night with my parents. I knew that to make economic, political and any of a number of other everyday decisions, I needed quality information. But I am in the minority, and as long as I am in the minority, newspapers and the kind of journalism that they represent will be in decline in the developed world.

I think the issue of relevance is at the heart of newspapers decline. Why should most people care about news? Journalists take it for granted, but I fear that it’s only occasionally obvious for our audiences.

When I was back in Washington this March, I struck up a conversation about world affairs with an IMF employee on the Metro. She got off a couple of stops before me, and an African-American man had overheard us and came up to me after she got off. It was after the wobble in Chinese markets had sent stocks swooning the world over. He wondered how something in China could affect the US economy because suddenly it had affected him. I had to get off at the next stop and didn’t have time to say that the Chinese and Japanese held a majority of the United States’ foreign debt. Anything that impacted the appetite for the debt would hit the US, possibly hard. And that’s just one link between the two countries. China and the US need each other economically for a myriad of reasons. China has its own finely tuned balancing act in terms of growth, inflation, internal stability, resources and the environment.

The man on the Metro represents, to me, a failure of journalism. It was a failure by journalists to explain to everyone in our communities why the story was important. Until our journalism really is essential to people’s lives and we make that case, newspapers will get crowded out by a dizzying array of information and, yes, entertainment choices.

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