links for 2009-04-30

  • Kevin: The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday make their first loss since they were founded in 1817, but that figure masks the fact that this loss was entirely predictable. The titles have lost more than 40% of their circulation in the last decade, and their website has faltered after a redesign. The problems at the titles seem worse than at most papers but not isolated. the Scotsman group editor-in-chief, John McLellan, refused to discuss the groups financial position but dismissed as 'a myth' that parent company Johnston Press insisted on 30% profit.

    Those profit demands, even if they were once true, aren't the issue here. This is about a long-time coming loss, not unreasonable profit demands. Journalists still seem to be in a state of denial about the sorry financial state of newspapers.

  • Kevin: "The rate of decline in print circulation at the nation’s newspapers has accelerated since last fall, as industry figures released Monday show a more than 7 percent drop compared with the previous year, while another recent analysis showed that newspaper Web site audiences had increased 10.5 percent in the first quarter." Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that owns The St. Petersburg Times in Florida, said, "One shouldn’t be in denial that this represents people quitting newspapers to get news from the Web. But there are many other factors."
  • Kevin: Former BBC correspondent Nick Jones looks at how British newspapers are working with video and sees great opportunities for them. He expresses concern about the journalistic standards while noting the commercial success. “Newspapers are making money out of video and audio. They are buying up exclusive material obtained in dubious circumstances – but it is getting good ratings,” he said. But he points to the Ian Tomlison video showing police hitting a man without any clear provocation. Tomlinson later died. A member of a the public, a man working for the financial services industry in New York, provided the video to the Guardian (disclosure: My employer). “The Guardian was prepared to take risks the BBC would not have contemplated,” said Jones, who claimed the BBC would have had to apply a ‘whole host’ of tests to the video evidence.

links for 2009-04-29

links for 2009-04-28

  • Kevin: The New York Times has an interesting project asking readers about their strategies to get by during the recession. They have them grouped by latest, most recommended and editors picks. It's a simple concept, but it definitely falls into the idea of user generated content as a service to users. Registered NY Times users can log in or Twitter users can submit their ideas using a unique tag.

Socially disrupting a major news site is trivial

I originally was just going to add Chris Applegate’s discussion of trolling and griefing at Social Media Camp London last weekend (we didn’t manage to make it) into our delicious links for the day, but then I realised that Chris has highlighted a really important issue.

The social sophistication of trolls completely out-strips the social thinking behind most news sites. As a journalist who hears a lot of complaints from other editors about trolling, I can honestly say if 4Chan turned their attention to a major news website, it would be trivial to socially disrupt it. Actually, 4Chan has already done this, gaming the Time magazine most influential person poll.

The Internet has different rules. The folks at Time just learned about it in a very amusing way, as their third annual poll for the world’s most influential person was topped by moot A.K.A. Christopher Poole, founder of the legendary memebreeding forum 4chan.

The fact that it’s so easy is probably one of the reasons that really good trolls don’t bother playing silly buggers with news sites. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Chris says, quite rightly:

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 – tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves – they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern – but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Anyone who has worked with social media on a news site knows that trolling isn’t a new problem. As soon as you have a forum, as sites that I worked on in the 1990s did, you will have people who enjoy poking at the other users. But there are just some folks who have a passion for more than mischief.

However, although we’ve increased the number of interactive features on our sites, news organisations mostly have failed to increase the emotional and social intelligence of their strategies. Some of this is an over-emphasis on technical solutions to what are largely social problems. Certainly, bad technology can make your job harder, but technology can only go so far in solving social issues.

A lot of the problems come from strategies that make perfect sense in the era of broadcast mass media but don’t make sense in terms of social media. And when I say broadcast, I mean uni-directional media, including print, not simply television or radio. Mass media constantly competes for attention, often by trying to shout over each other. Editors wanted to be talked about, and a lot of the strategies seem solely designed to outrage, upset or simply piss people off. Some mass media strategies aren’t social strategies. They are anti-social strategies. Journalists give sources a right to respond, but now the audience has a right to respond too. If we whip an audience into a mob, the result is predictable.

Social media journalism is about working in constructive ways with the audience to provide something of value both to the news organisation but more importantly to our co-collaborators in the audience. We have new opportunities to help people make sense of the world and make decisions in democratic socieities. If the only value that news organisations provide in terms of social media is an opportunity for people to vent their rage, that’s not a winning startegy. It’s a strategy that deserves to fail.

links for 2009-04-27

The long view in building news businesses

Google News Timeline

When Google Labs released their News Timeline feature, it prompted Mathew Ingram at Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab to call for more creativity from news organisations. Mathew wrote:

One question kept nagging at me as I was looking at this latest Google effort at delivering the news, and that was: Why couldn’t a news organization have done this? … Isn’t delivering the news in creative and interesting ways that appeal to readers what we are supposed to be doing?

In the comments, people pointed out projects that news organisations had done such as the a graphic visualisation of recent news at NineMSN in Australia. I pointed out time-based navigation at El Comercio in Peru. Mark S. Luckie who writes the excellent blog about journalism and technology, 10,000 Words wrote:

It’s kind of sad showing off innovative technologies over at 10,000 Words, knowing it will be years before most newsrooms adopt them, if at all.

Another commenter, Dan Conover, said, “I wish it wasn’t this simple, but the truth is that the newsroom culture is, and has been for years, overtly hostile to the geek culture.”

Getting past the frustration, how do we bring more innovation to news organisations? It’s something that Suw and I write about frequently here at Strange Attractor.

  1. Journalists, editors and senior managers need to learn about the software development process.  
    I often say that journalists think that technology is like Harry Potter. Many believe that developers need only to wave a magic wand and voila, faster than an editor can drain a cup of coffee, we have a new interactive feature. Web and software development is more like the Matrix. It’s a rules-bound world. Some rules can be bent, but others cannot be broken. Also, just like in life, some choices preclude others. Web technology is not a blank canvas. A good, dedicated developer can do amazing things, but no developer can do magic. They can’t rewrite the rules, rewrite a programming language or rebuild your CMS in a day.   
    Most editors don’t need to learn how to code, but editors do need to learn the art of the possible. Some things can be done quickly, in a few hours. Other projects take more work. A basic understanding of what is possible on a daily deadline is essential.
  2. Develop a palatte of reusable digital elements
    When I first started doing online journalism, we often built one-off projects that took a lot of time and had a mixed response from our readers. We were still learning, not only how to execute digital journalism projects, but also we were learning what type of projects people found engaging. We soon learned that ‘evergreen’ projects often were best, things that had a life-span much longer than most news events. Besides, there are very few editorial projects that merit huge one-off investments, and most news orgs can’t afford this in 2009.
    At the BBC, when I started, we had a limited palette of things that we could add quickly to primarily text-based news stories. The News website was still very young. But over time, we built on that limited palette. Our Specials team built things, and they tried to determine what worked and what didn’t. The things that worked were added to the ongoing list of elements that journalists could add to their stories.
    Modular interactive elements are easier in the Web 2.0 era. For instance, we often build maps, not just locator graphics but actual maps that draw on data (for instance one could create a map using data of the H1N1, swine flu outbreak). More news organisations are using Twitter and other third party services that call external APIs and cache the results.
    If you’ve got limited resources (and who doesn’t), you must think in a joined up way. Think of elements that will add value to your entire site not just to a certain section. Think of elements that will work in many areas of coverage.
  3. Interactivity is a state a mind and doesn’t always require technical development
    Much of this isn’t even about software development. It’s about a state of mind. Interactivity isn’t just about the web. It’s still about letters and phone calls. It can be about text messages. When I worked for World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service, Americans called or sent emails. Listeners in the UK mostly called, and Africans sent text messages by the hundreds. The first and most important step isn’t about developing a technology strategy but about developing a philosophy of collaboration with your audience.
    Everything will flow from that philosophy because there are many non-technical ways to get your audience involved. One of the most powerful things on World Have Your Say was getting people around a microphone in Africa to talk to Americans who had called in. The marriage of mass media and social media can be an extremely powerful combination.
    Add to all of this no-cost of low-cost web services, and you can do many things on a daily deadline.
  4. Strategic projects require long-term vision
    When I was writing the post for the Guardian about Google News Timeline, I found out that Google had begun creating a historical archive of news content in 2006. News is ephemeral, but as news is the first draft of history, news stories put in context can be a fascinating look at history. Google decided that archiving this content might have some value.
    There are a lot of things that take a strategic decision and not only long-term development but also a long-term commitment from a news organisation. I think that geo-tagging is one example. It’s a choice that takes a bit of development but actually more commitment from editorial teams, but the addition of a small bit of structured data generated by journalists creates a lot of opportunities, some which might have revenue.

Taking a long view is difficult as news organisations face very serious short-term challenges, but the lack of long-term thinking is one of the things that got a lot of news orgs into this mess. Developing a long-term, multi-platform strategy might have goals five years out, but that doesn’t mean developing the perfect five-year plan. It means setting some strategic goals and getting there one day at a time.

links for 2009-04-25

  • Kevin: The Wall Street Journal looks at the trials of the last four years for newspapers with some closing, others going online only and many cutting staffs, reducing pensions and putting staff on furlough.
  • Kevin: The superficiality and artificiality of commentary passing as news with respect to assessing Barack Obama's First 100 Days. The artificial mark dates back to FDR, when he met with Congress every day for the first 100 days of his presidency. It was a similar time of crisis as the US was mired in the Great Depression. But now, Howard Kurtz says: "Forget about FDR. It takes nothing more than a glance at recent history to see how absurdly premature this benchmark is. " And then explains the why it's still done. "So why do we do it? The media love anniversary-type stories."
  • Kevin: Jeff Jarvis makes an excellent argument for greater efficiency and less repetition in journalism. "Every day, with everything they do, the key question for journalists and news organizations in these tight – that is, more efficient – times must be: Are you adding value? And if you’re not, why are you doing whatever you’re doing?"
  • Kevin: The latest elegy for free web hosting site GeoCities by Fred Wilson, with Flatiron Ventures. He shares his memoires and lessons learned. "I learned a lot from that deal. I learned that the Internet is all about people expressing themselves on pages they own and control. I learned that a business deal made over dinner and a handshake can turn into hundreds of millions of dollars, I learned that good partners are worth every penny of returns you give up to get them, and I learned that selling too soon is not too painful as long as you don't sell too much. And most of all I learned that you can make 100 times your investment every once in a while. And when you do, it's something special."
  • Kevin: There are a few things worth noting in the Q1 results for US news group McClatchy. Gary Pruitt, chairman and chief executive officer, said: "The impact of the downturn had largely been limited to print advertising in 2008, but in the first quarter of 2009 it began to have a greater effect on digital advertising as well. Still, all categories of digital advertising are outperforming print advertising. In total, digital advertising revenues decreased 4.7% in the first quarter of 2009." But I think even more to note is how digital is increasing as a percentage of revenue. "Excluding employment advertising, digital advertising revenues grew 28.7% in the first quarter of 2009. Also, digital advertising represented 15.3% of total advertising revenues, up from 11.6% of total advertising for all of 2008…"
  • Kevin: Nancy Friedman writes a wonderful satire of Maureen Dowd's irritating interview with the founders of Twitter. In this pisstake, Friedman gives us a glimpse of what might have happened if Dowd had interviewed Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Here's how it starts:
    ME: The telephone seems like letter-writing without the paper and pen. Is there any message that can't wait for a passenger pigeon?

    BELL: Possibly the message I'd like to deliver to you right now.

links for 2009-04-24

links for 2009-04-23