The Daily: Digital publishing at the speed of a slow-motion car crash

The Observer has an entertainingly scathing report about The Daily, News Corp’s iPad “newspaper”. Murdoch-haters will probably enjoy the reference to the family patriarch as a “cuddly Emperor Palpatine”. For long-time Murdoch watchers, the key thing to watch for in reports of any digital project at News Corp is the attention and focus given it by Rupert Murdoch. Once he bores of a bauble, you can put the project on watch for the dead pool. (*See MySpace)

I read The Daily for a few days, when I could be bothered to wait for it to download. Initially it was slower than a download of photographs of an issue of Wired, known to some as an iPad magazine. More than its early clunkiness, even as an American, I found the content uninteresting, which surprised me. The Observer said that it’s aiming to be middle of the road populist. You can accuse Murdoch of a number of things (queue begins to the left these days), but one thing you can’t accuse him of is boring content. The Daily is boring.

The Daily also lives up to its name. It’s a daily newspaper with some tablet navigation, and The Observer explains why it seems so slow and clunky.

But the sleekness of The Daily’s presentation belies a “devilish” production routine for those inside, according to one source. Attempts to perfect the content management system were abandoned in order to launch closer to the announced date. After copy is filed, coders work a night shift to build the pages, each of which must be laid out both vertically and horizontally. Those familiar with the operations report long, frustrating nights.

Ouch. On one level, I’m willing to cut them some slack. The iPad is a new platform, and the tools are still emerging. However, when you’re creating a new product, it hardly seems wise to make life so difficult. I wonder what requirements were made editorially in an attempt to justify such a painful production process. This is often the source of a lot of bad production, editorial requirements that actually ‘cost’ more than they are worth.

Digital can and should work at the speed of news. Just look at the rise of live blogging. Tablets and e-readers can take digital backwards. If they slow down the production of news, it’s an unnecessary speed bump that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be justified with their small use compared to the web (at least until the revenue picture improves). Fortunately, we’re getting through the teething process with tablets. HTML5 is maturing much faster than anyone expected, and soon, we’ll get past these very first generation efforts. It will be interesting to see if The Daily survives to see that day.

Unbalanced coverage in the US balanced budget debate

I almost never, ever write about politics. I steer well clear of it. However, I’m going to risk it because I’m not sleeping well right now because it looks like my country, the once United States of America, is about to drive itself off a cliff.

When I say the coverage of the almost entirely self-inflicted US debt crisis is unbalanced, I don’t mean lacking objectivity or prejudiced, I mean insane. Balanced coverage would quote Tea Party darling Michele Bachman saying that there isn’t anything to worry about and Tea Party darling Jim Demint saying this is “manufactured crisis” on one side and then queuing up economist after economist, the ratings agencies, major financial companies, Fed chief Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and just about every other credible economic and business voice on the other side. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote in referring to 20 Tea Party Republicans as the Default Caucus:

So far, the Default Caucus is disregarding the advice of the Wall Street Journal editorial boardwarnings from Standard & Poor’s, the record of Ronald Reagan and even the permission of Grover Norquist, the conservative loyalty enforcer who said that ending the Bush-era tax cuts would not violate lawmakers’ anti-tax pledges.

Not to quote too liberally from Milbank’s column, but this is the problem:

Pew Research Center poll last week found that 53 percent of Republicans, and 65 percent of Tea Party faithful, believe that the Aug. 2 default deadline can be ignored without major problems.

A responsible press would be driving home the point to all who cared to listen that this will have consequences. Dire ones. It’s not just another government shutdown like 1994. No, even if a default doesn’t happen immediately because the US can’t meet its obligations, the ratings agencies will downgrade the US debt rating almost immediately. That may be abstract to most Americans, but it will have real and immediate consequences. Doing nothing is not an option, and it may already be too late to convince the ratings agencies that the US government isn’t broken.

I couldn’t agree more with US National Public Radio’s On the Media, when they criticised the US media for covering the political drama while almost entirely missing the point. They interviewed Rick Newman of US News and World Republic, not exactly a liberal publication, who said:

the Republicans are digging in their heels and saying no tax increases. And President Obama has basically said he will accept something that is about 75 percent spending cuts and 25 percent tax increases. That is a moderate position, based on the whole range of recommendations we’ve seen, but the media is struggling with how to re – relate to that. So they have to say Obama, on one hand, and these Republicans, on the other hand. And that’s where I think people get pretty confused.

As an American journalist, I was trained in objectivity. It is not a violation of objectivity to accurately portray what is at stake here. With a downgrade, borrowing costs will be higher. Overnight, the cost of serving the US debt will rise because it will be more expensive our basket-case government to borrow money. Recovery? Buh bye! Some economists estimate that for every 50 basis points (half a point of interest) rise in borrowing costs, you can kiss 600,000 US jobs goodbye. (A post by Ezra Klein at the Washington which will be quickly dismissed by conservatives as from a liberal rag.) Interest rates will rise making borrowing for average Americans higher. Americans, who like me, want to buy a house, will find it harder to finance. The already fragile housing market will take another knock. These are on the mild end of predictions. It goes rapidly downhill from there.

A few years ago, I chaired a panel about journalism and the financial crisis. A good friend, Kate Mackenzie from the FT, expressed some justified frustration when time and again the audience asked why journalists didn’t warn them of the coming debt-fuelled financial crisis. The general press mostly missed it apart from a few. However, Kate was right in pointing out that the business press had been covering this for at least two to three years before the crisis hit. I remember reading a Bloomberg magazine cover story titled Toxic Debt, all about CDOs and how they hid ridiculously risky assets including sub-prime mortgages. I read that in the summer of 2007, and I came home telling Suw that this could be 1929 all over again. It nearly was, and now, this crisis is entirely created by childish leaders who want it all and won’t compromise. As for the anti-compromise brigade, I hold Huffington Post liberals almost almost as responsible as the Tea Partiers. Both have made compromise a dirty word in Washington. Compromise is a sign of maturity. You never get everything you want. Most of us learned that on the playground as children.

With this balanced budget debt debacle, we can see this one coming. We can do something about it. We will have no one to blame but ourselves.

As a journalist, I’m paid to pay attention, and I’ve been paying attention from the start. This is serious. The clock is ticking on the US. There wasn’t any time to waste a month ago, and the political posturing has to stop. The Republicans are now accusing Barack Obama of playing politics and looking to his re-election. As if they aren’t. As if the half of the Republican Party queuing up to take his job isn’t looking to 2012. Don’t be silly.

The US is about to face a debt downgrade and possibly a default. It could take us back to the stomach-churning autumn of 2008 when the global economy hung in the balance. This is serious, and it needs some maturity and some compromise. I’d really like to come home, but I won’t be able to move back to the US if the Tea Party wrecks the economy. Man up both Republicans and Democrats. Too much is at stake to pander to those who won’t accept reality. My fellow Americans, get on that phone now. Call your Senator. Call your member of Congress. Your future, our future is at stake.

The Huffington Post, ‘over-aggregation’ and the attention economy

When does aggregation become appropriation? The question needs to be asked.

A writer for the Huffington Post has been suspended for “over-aggregation”.  The suspended writer had linked to and paraphrased an article by Simon Dumenco of AdAge, who writes about it.

I aggregate a lot of content here on Strange Attractor, via Delicious and also through the social networks I use. Whether it’s here on the blog or for the journalism organisations I work for, I view it as sharing my attention with others, which they in return share with me. There are quite a few posts that I have written here that draw heavily on other sites. Sometimes, they draw from a single story on another site. However, I always take great pains to not only link to and identify the source, but I also try to give readers a reason to click and see the original source. That’s part of the value exchange. For the value that I get from that article and excerpting that article, I try to pay it back with traffic. That’s part of the attention economy for me.

It’s an issue I have with the Huffington Post. For me, too often they aren’t playing fair with fair use. They have built a video business off of aggregating and embedding lots and lots of video. For smart video producers, their ads travel with their embeds, and a click on the Huffington Post is as good as a click on their site. For other video producers, it’s a lost impression. Cynically, one could lay all of the blame on those not so smart video producers. That side steps other issues though. Hopefully, those video producers have related content in their embeds so that once the clip stops playing, they capture a little more of the viewers attention, but that’s a couple of related videos drowning in a sea of Huffington Post links.

Then there is the aggregation that the Huffington Post does. Sure, they paraphrase longer pieces into attention-deficit friendly shorter pieces. Yes, there is some value in that, but again, ramp this up to an industrial scale and we’re back to a pretty cynical strategy overall.

Of course, the standard defence is that the Huffington Post returns the value of its aggregation with traffic. Simon Dumenco challenges that, and he also draws a helpful distinction between the HuffPo and TechMeme, which he describes as a “an aggregator that takes a minimalistic approach (usually just presenting a headline and a one- or two-sentence snippet)”. In terms of traffic?

So what does Google Analytics for tell us? Techmeme drove 746 page views to our original item. HuffPo — which of course is vastly bigger than Techmeme — drove 57 page views.

I love the link economy, and I link to give my readers more detail if they want it. However, I try to tell them what is behind the click so that they not only have the opportunity to explore but are encouraged. If the reader has no reason to click on the link, what purpose does it serve other than to try get a bit more link authority?

I know that I’m running the risk of being called a curmudgeon so be it. The Huffington Post’s practices make me feel uncomfortable as a digital journalist. There I’ve said it. I expect the shock troops of digital puritanism to descend. I believe that digital journalism needs to have standards, and at this point, I feel comfortable saying what I’ve long believed: The Huffington Post makes a mockery of fair use. We will lose the great value that fair use delivers if we continue to allow it to be treated unfairly.

Huffington Post UK: What does it add?

The head of AOL Europe, Kate Burns, says that the newly launched Huffington Post UK has no competitor. Really? Let’s ignore the over-served national newspaper market here in the UK for a minute and focus on the aggregation plus blogger network model of the Huffington Post. While Burns points out Rue89 as one of the European competitor, she conveniently overlooks the Guardian’s Comment is Free here in the UK. Both sites were inspired by Huffington’s success in the US and roughly follow the same model although adapted for their markets. Beyond that, the Telegraph has a blogger network, MyTelegraph, that allows anyone who wants some space to air their views.

It is interesting to see that HuffPo UK is going a bit up-market compared to its US model. For a US transplant in the UK like me, the US HuffPo always has felt like the bastard offspring of the Indy’s opinion page crossed with the Mail’s skin-tastic, pap-driven parade of c’lebs. Plenty of American friends have taken to complaining that it’s the skin that wins when it comes to HuffPo’s page views. It has toned down the celebrity sidebar for the UK homepage, probably in no small measure that the UK is not only over-served in quality national dailies but has a veritable smorgasbord of ethically challenged tabloids. One tab recently criticised Pippa Middleton for allowing its dwarf photographer to take an upskirt shot. (No, I’m not going to link to it even if I could find it. Yes. I’m being completely serious.)

I’m still wondering just what HuffPo adds to the UK market apart from a new outpost in its namesake’s global ambitions. AOL’s display ad sales are starting to rebound, but it’s pouring money into its local project, Patch, with growing evidence that it’s a money pit with no prospect of becoming a money maker. It’s on a high-salary hiring spree in the US as Arianna has opened a second front to Rupert Murdoch’s first against the New York Times. One thing is certain, with the BBC, The Daily Mail and The Guardian launching in the US and the HuffingtonPost launching here in the UK, cross Atlantic competition is definitely heating up. The big question is whether the ad dollars will follow or be spread thinner than ever.

Advice to a younger self

The Media Briefing is using LinkedIn very effectively, and on one of their discussions, they have the following question:

Q: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself as a fresh-faced young entrant to the media industry what advice would you give?

I thought about this for a while, and to be honest, some of this advice I’d give to myself just a few years ago, not in the distant past of my career. One criticism that I would have of myself is that I’m absolutely horrible at office politics, well I used to be horrible.  Being independent, I can observe politics without being threatened by it and without threatening those I work with. In the respect, striking out on my own has been wonderfully liberating.

With that bit of self-criticism in mind, I have to be fair to myself. Office politics is challenging enough on one’s own culture. I’ve had to learn not only British office politics but also some of the very subtle cultural cues of British society. That notwithstanding, I’d give myself this one bit of sage advice:

…take time to figure out the invisible org chart when you start a new job. Those invisible walls you run into are just border crossings between one fiefdom and another.

Like most journalists, I know how to work in a newsroom. I know what’s expected of me and how to tick the necessary boxes. When you become an editor, you enter an entirely other world, especially in an industry in crisis.

Google Plus as Google’s glue

Suw and I have been using Google Plus for the last day. The company’s latest effort to try to get social definitely learns a lot from it’s previous failed attempts to inject some social into its ever growing collection of services. More than learning from past failures such as Buzz and Wave, Google does something that it had to do, it started to knit together that sprawling collection.

Google was running the risk of pulling a Yahoo. With the rise of web 2.0, Yahoo not only developed its own services but also went on a shopping spree, buying up Flickr, Delicious and other services. One of Yahoo’s issues is that it has never been able to tie those services, as excellent as they are on their own, into any kind of meaningful coherent network or business plan. On one hand, it’s probably down to leftover 1990s portal thinking for Yahoo, and on the other hand, Yahoo spent a lot of time over the last decade pursuing Terry Semel’s dreams of becoming a major content player. (A strategy that AOL’s Tim Armstrong seems intent on giving another go, possibly with similar results.)

For a while, Google seemed to struggle with its quest for another growth driver apart from search advertising and Android. They seemed to launch and acquire service after service without much overarching strategy. The services seemed isolated and often poorly integrated. That has started to change with some very subtle navigation changes, but Google Plus really starts to knit them all together, including Gmail, GTalk or Picassa. It’s a good start, although I’m a little baffled why Google Reader is not integrated into Plus. I’d guess that is because Google Readers is a minority sport, but it seems like a logical addition, even if they had only added a tool that easily allows you to share from inside of Reader as you can already with Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and a range of other blogging platforms, bookmarking services and social networks.

They also seem to have learned some lessons about privacy from the Buzz debacle and also Facebook’s issues. Privacy controls are woven throughout Google Plus, and I think that’s a welcome addition to social tools. While folks who live in public like Jeff Jarvis believe that “social is for sharing, not hiding“, most people want to be able to exercise some choices with their online privacy.

As a journalist, I’m going to be keeping an eye on Sparks, which is a social content discovery system built into Plus. It’s not quite there, and it feels much more of a search product than the solid type of social recommendation service that I’ve come to love with services and apps such as Zite on the iPad. Sparks are supposed to be driven by Google’s +1 service, and maybe it’s an indication of a lack of uptake on that. At the moment, the recommendation is weak. Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has some excellent suggestions on how Google could improve Sparks. It’s well worth reading.

Google has dealt itself back into social and managed to start to integrate its offerings into a cohesive whole. Even if the social aspects weren’t all that compelling, bringing some order to what had seemed a bit of a haphazard collection of web services is crucial for Google’s ongoing success.

Some services I explore because I feel I have to. Others I start using because they offer me something. Google Plus definitely piqued my interest enough to take a proper tour and explore more in the past day. I like the ability to group people as I see them in my life and share things with the appropriate group.  I’m sure my Mom won’t use Google Plus, but I’m not sure I agree with Scoble that this is early adopter only service. If you’re a Google or Android user, Google Plus makes a lot of sense. I’ve watched a lot of my friends in media and tech flood into Google Plus. It already feels quite a friendly, busy place. For Facebook diehards, those people for which Facebook is the internet, I doubt that Google Plus will have much pull. Google also is facing increasing anti-trust (anti-competition in the EU) scrutiny, and integrating its services will seem to its detractors as another attempt to seize new territory. Despite that, Google has shown that it can learn from its mistakes. It showed that it can do social, including some innovation in what is a very crowded space. It will be interested if the early adopters who flooded into Plus over the last 36 hours will stay around and what happens when the doors are opened to the wider public.