Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.

* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

The future of journalism is not in the mythologising its past

When I discovered blogging six years ago, one thing that instantly got me hooked was the conversation and the community. Soon after meeting Suw, I started writing with her here on Strange Attractor about my passion for the future of journalism. After a bit of a downturn in the journalism blogging community a few years ago, I’ve felt a new energy this year. One of the fellow travellers I’ve recently ‘met’ through blogging is Reg Chua, Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post. He blogs at (Re)Structuring Journalism, and he’s been commenting here for several months.

On my last post profiling regional news site TBD, I wrote this footnote:

It’s difficult to make a business built on investigations. Accountability journalism is important, but let’s be honest, investigations have always been an expensive and relatively small part of what we do.

Reg had this to say in a great comment:

And it’s also true that investigations have traditionally been a small part of what news organizations do; there’s a lot of harking back to an imagined past that didn’t exist, where every paper was a paragon of public service and broke important stories of official corruption every day. That’s not to say it’s not an issue that old media is in trouble; only that we should recognize what we did and what we are – because only then can we really move forward.

Spot on. There is a lot of mythologising about journalism right now. Psychologically, I can understand this. Journalists feel threatened, and we’re trying to make the case of how essential we are to democracy. We’re trying to make the case that what we do is indispensable. I understand this, but I think that sometimes this imagined past is getting in the way of creating a new sustainable future for journalism.

I’ve spent most of my career working for news organisations that had a strong public service ethos, the BBC and The Guardian. The BBC is publicly funded, and The Guardian is supported by the Scott Trust. They are unique organisations, and they provided me with unique opportunities to develop the type of journalism I practice. Even with their unique funding, these organisations are under pressure.

The business of newspaper journalism has been severely disrupted, and it will take creativity, honesty and hard work to create new sustainable businesses to support sufficient journalistic capacity to support democratic societies.

TBD: Hunting for a new business model for regional news team speaking at ONA10
From right to left, Steve Buttry, Erik Wemple and Jim Brady of TBD at the recent Online News Association Conference in Washington

One of the areas that I’ve been watching closely has been the effort to rebuild the business model to support local and regional and regional journalism, and this week I wrote a brief profile for the Media Guardian of a new regional website in the US, TBD. I wanted to go into a little more depth about the business model and also answer some questions from Twitter.

While there has been a lot of hand-wringing about a decline in investigative journalism, local and regional journalism has suffered even more during the recession than high-end investigations*. Local and regional has really been hollowed out in the US and the UK. Circulation declines and an over-reliance on advertising revenue has led to massive job losses in local and regional press. According to an OECD report:

The regional and local press are particularly affected and 2009 is the worst year for OECD newspapers, with the largest declines in the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Canada, and Spain

The OECD also found: “Employment losses in the newspaper industry have intensified since 2008 particularly in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain.” Erica Smith, who runs the site Paper Cuts, counted 15,992 job losses in 2008, 14,783 in 2009 and 2761 job cuts in 2010 in the US newspaper industry. 166 newspapers have closed their doors. In the UK, Francois Nel of the University of Central Lancashire did a study of journalism job losses in the UK this past summer. Hedging a bit, Francois “guesstimates” that since 2001, the UK journalism corps has shrunk between a quarter and a third.

In Washington where TBD launched in August,  the iconic Washington Post, the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal, saw its circulation fall 6.4%, according to the latest figures.

While there has been no shortage of attempts to build a new local news business model, there have been more failures than successes: Backfence, Bayosphere, Sidewalk and others.

TBD, a Washington metro area web and TV news service launched by Robert Allbritton’s Allbritton Communications in August, is the latest to try to create a new model for local news. Industry watchers are keeping a close eye on it. Allbritton has already found success where others saw no opportunity in launching Politico, and now I wonder if he can create a new local news business model.

The editorial strategy

Unlike Politico, TBD is not a pure start-up and a hybrid operation on many levels. It is joined to two established TV stations, a 24-hour local news channel formerly called News Channel 8 but now re-branded TBD TV, and another traditional local TV station, WJLA. has taken to heart Jeff Jarvis’ advice to “Do what you do best and aggregate the rest”. Its editorial strategy is focused on aggregating existing content while searching for new opportunities in covering traditional subjects including entertainment, traffic, weather, sport and local politics. It has a staff of 12 to 13 reporters and bloggers, supplemented by the news staff at the TV stations.

“We tried to focus on things other people weren’t doing,” said Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for the site. For instance, they view local political coverage as essential, Buttry said, but “rather than covering the horse race of the day-to-day campaign, Kevin Robillard, our [politics] reporter is fact-checking.”

Much has been made of hyperlocal strategies with content delivered at a postcode level, but the management of TBD describes it as a regional site with hyperlocal elements. Buttry has 190 bloggers across the area who provide hyperlocal content, and a team of four community hosts that highlight the best posts from the blog network and are also responsible for community outreach.

The commercial strategy

The real challenge for local journalism is to rebuild or create a sustainable business model.

“When people say there’s no money in local, I just don’t buy that,” said Jim Brady, general manager of TBD. He recognises, however, that a new local news business model needs multiple revenue streams. “There are no silver bullets,” he says. “Only shrapnel.”

TBD has one advantage that most start-ups only dream of: an ad sales team of 22 with contacts and contracts with major advertisers in the region. When the story was published on the Guardian, Jonathan Lloyd made this comment on Twitter:

“TBD has one advantage that most startups only dream of: an ad sales team of 22” < woah, that's one hefty payroll though @kevglobal #salesless than a minute ago via web

He has his own hyperlocal start-up, King’s Road, in London. To clarify from the piece in The Guardian, TBD the website doesn’t have to support that sales staff on its own. Will the TV-web sales team succeed in selling digital as well as they succeed in selling broadcast? Time will tell, but it is a competitive advantage over other hyperlocal start-ups who have to start from scratch. 

TBD also has a commercial relationship with about a third of its bloggers, something that Brady sees as a competitive advantage, giving advertisers additional reach.

The site adds location information to all of its content, including network blog posts, so that people can find content related to where they work, live or play. This could open the door to future geo-targeted ads as the site develops.

Buttry is bullish on local, mobile advertising, and based on the expertise they are developing in building mobile applications, TBD might also launch a business to develop mobile apps for its advertisers and others.

Growing pains

As I was writing the feature, TBD had a management shake-up. Less than three months after its launch Roger Allbritton announced that Brady was stepping down as general manager of TBD due to “some stylistic differences”. Editor Erik Wemple is stepping in to take his place.

Reports said that Allbritton wanted someone with more of a focus on original content instead of Brady’s expertise with technology and aggregation.

Staci D Kramer, editor of paidContent, dismissed this characterisation of Brady: “The idea that Jim Brady is too much tech and not enough content doesn’t match anything I’ve known about him over years of coverage.”

Comments from Brady reported by Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute indicate possible friction between the website and the TV stations. When asked if Allbritton could succeed digitally, Brady was quoted as saying: “TBD is digitally forward enough … Time will tell in terms of the rest of the organization.”

TBD is not alone in having friction between digital and legacy operations, whether that is print or broadcast. In fact, I don’t know of a single organisation that hasn’t had some pretty major issues with integration or cooperation. Whether this be a minor bump or the signs of bigger issues down the road, I guess that is TBD.

* Footnote At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I believe some of the focus on investigations in terms of saving journalism is misplaced. Trying to save journalism by focusing on investigations is like trying to save the auto industry by saving Porsche. The point where the analogy falls down is that Porsche is the most profitable car company in the world, and one could argue that investigations have always been subsidised by general interest journalism such as sport and other revenue streams. It’s difficult to make a business built on investigations. Accountability journalism is important, but let’s be honest, investigations have always been an expensive and relatively small part of what we do. I think there has also been a conflation of investigations and the broader category of original content and original reporting.


Sky News got the argument it wanted

Last week, Sky News announced the closure of its discussion forums.

Simon Bucks, Sky News Online’s associate editor, wrote:

We did this after a lot of thought and consideration. Although the boards were very popular, a small number of people had hijacked them and reduced the level of debate to meaningless abuse.

He continued:

At Sky News we welcome robust debate about the news, but we want it to be of a high standard. I am afraid that too often on the discussion boards threads which started intelligently would degenerate into mindless name calling.

The closure comes a couple of months after Sky Sports quietly closed their forums, saying:.

The forums have been a popular part of the site for several years but we are no longer able to provide the sort of service users expect from Sky Sports.

Some of the commenters on the Sky News announcement aren’t very happy about this turn of events. User TryAgain1234 said:

400+ replies and hardly a response from Simon, goes to show exactly how interested Sky really are in the comments of their customers. He can’t even be bothered to respond to his own blog.

Any news community manager worth his/her salt will tell you that the involvement of the journalists in the comment threads on their blogs is essential to the debate. The same is true of forums: If you are running a news forum, having your news journalists engage with the discussion can help keep the tone of the forum polite. Of course, this is predicated on the journalists in question keeping a civil tongue in their heads – and not all do.

Another important influence on how a community develops is how the people running it react to the different behaviours that their commenters exhibit. News communities often struggle because comment threads on contentious issues are highlighted, rewarding bad behaviour. That’s because of an editorial miscalculation: Because contentious threads get lots of comments, they are mistaken for successful threads, and are so promoted in order to get even more comments. The metrics are purely quantitative. By any qualitative measure, most discussions around hot issues are utter failures, devolving into slanging matches and providing no value to readers, participants, the news organisation or its advertisers. Indeed, vitriolic comments can put advertisers right off a site.

When news communities go bad, it’s often because they’ve been mismanaged or not managed at all. Commenter Sphinx said on the Sky News blog:

meanwhile over at a differentsky posters are getting used to a forum where the admin does respond to things and does care.

If Sky News have not been paying full attention to their community, then they only have themselves to blame when things go south. You can’t just leave people to it. As human beings we are used to living within constraints, and the idea that the web is a place where they are not needed is a myth. Communities need limits, and those limits need to be communicated, discussed and thoughtfully enforced.

Ultimately, you get the community that your marketing deserves. If you market your forums as News Fight Club Online, you’re going to get exactly that. Asking people if they are ‘looking for an argument’ sets up an expectation in the user of extreme hostility, so they will react intemperately to the slightest thing.

I am entirely unsurprised by the closure of Sky News forums. I could have predicted its demise in 2007, when Sky started running these idents.

iPad expectations for content companies coming down to earth

I was always sceptical that the iPad would dramatically change the economics of digital content. Well, more accurately, I called content execs “delusional”. We’ve now got a few months of data under our belts, and Brian Morrissey of AdWeek comes to many of the same conclusions that I did after looking at some of the early apps and pricing strategies:

Despite the optimism that greeted the new device, there is a danger that publishers are squandering an opportunity with clunky apps, bad pricing strategies and unsustainable ad tactics.

Yes, and unlike when I wrote the post back in April, we now have months of user data, interviews and sales figures.

The first month, Wired sold more copies on the iPad than in print. After that promising first month, the designer was described as a cross between Jesus and Pele. There was lot of messianic talk around the iPad. I still love the line from Mathias Döpfner, head of Germany’s Axel Springer, who said:

Sit down once a day and pray to thank Steve Jobs that he is saving the publishing industry.

I wanted to see what the sales were after a few months, after the early adopters that read Wired had a chance to use it and decide whether static images of print pages was the digital experience that they wanted.

Wired: 100,000 iPad downloads for June; July, August, September averaged 30,300.

It looks like the early enthusiasm is cooling. iPad sales from other titles are even less impressive. When I listened to the magazine and newspaper industry talk about the iPad, they talked about how close it approximated the paper experience. As a digital consumer, I said it then and I will say it again: I don’t want a paper experience. Frankly, on a recent flight, I was frustrated trying to wrestle my print FT into submission in an economy seat. I can’t search it. I can’t flick between sections. I have no problem reading on a screen. I want to save and share what I read. As designer Khoi Vinh says in AdWeek:

The magazine app experience, according to Vinh, is akin to a “remote, suburban cul-de-sac” while the digital world is moving to a real-time chaotic city.

In a lot of ways, publishers thought that the iPad was the future that could take them back to the past of the fat profits of the print era. It doesn’t look like it’s as simple as replicating the print experience and waiting for the money.

It never was going to be that simple, and it’s a bit disappointing that the leaders in the industry believed a single device was going to overturn years of experience and expectation from the web. In the end, it just reinforces that we’re in need of a fundamental rethink. There is no magic technology that will transform print into digital success. Think digitally and commercially and then we can start building sustainable digital businesses.

Washington Post buys #Election for US Midterms

The Washington Post bought #Election, the hashtag on Twitter, for the US Midterm election. This meant that as people using Twitter followed the hashtag to keep up on breaking developments for the historic elections, The Washington Post would be guaranteed top billing. Steve Myers of Poynter explained what the Post bought:

The Post’s sponsorship of the term #Election means that it will appear at the top of the list of Trending Topics on Tuesday. When users click on that topic, one of the Post’s tweets will appear above other tweets with the #Election hashtag — giving the Post prime real estate to promote its coverage and updates.

It starts to highlight a way for Twitter to find new revenue streams, and it also showed how media organisations and businesses might use Twitter trends and hashtags to promote their content. Just as newspapers have bought search terms to promote their content for the last few years, I expect to see quite a healthy market develop for sponsored trends and hashtags in markets where Twitter is strong including the US and the UK.

The Post also used Twitter to allow their audience to ask questions of their political blogger Chris Cillizza. The Post, which was my hometown paper for almost seven years, is breaking some new ground here. They have long had live Q&A’s with their reporters, but now they are using Twitter to connect to an engaged audience online.