The secret sauce of The Economist (and the BBC): Globalisation

As news publishers look for a remedy to their current ills, many look enviously to The Economist, and I have heard a few newspaper editors ask how they can become more like it. At the risk of sounding a bit brusque and I will admit in engaging in an imperfect analogy, national newspaper editors in the UK envying the success of The Economist is a lot like a local car mechanic coveting the business of Porsche. Both are in completely different businesses, serving completely different clientele. Porsche is the most profitable car company in the world. It enjoys 20.5% profit margins on its vehicles, selling exclusive luxury to well heeled buyers around the world. Newspaper groups used to enjoy profit margins like Porsche, but that’s largely a thing of the past.

However, it’s still worth considering why The Economist has navigated the challenges facing the media as well as it has. In a conversation with my former colleague Roy Greenslade, Andrew Rashbass, the chief executive of The Economist group, puts a lot down to luck, which I think is a bit of false modesty. The Economist’s circulation is up 3% against the backdrop of high single or low double digit circulation annual declines for national newspapers here in the UK (although monthly circulation declines for the quality dailies in the UK can be even worse). Listing a number of fortunate decisions and developments, Rashbass lists one that stands out to me: Globalisation.

Why is The Economist unique? It is one of the few publications that speaks intelligently about globalisation and helps its readers make sense of it. It also explains the appeal of the BBC in its international incarnation. I remember when I joined the BBC in 1998, and as a young reporter I could tell how broad, how global the perspective was of the people I was working with. Yes, The BBC had a British perspective, just as The Economist does, but while the accent was British, the experience and point of view was international. Speaking to a global audience intelligently and helping people make cross-border connections is something that few publications or broadcasters have achieved. Exposing people to international events isn’t enough, which is what most broadcasters and publishers do. What both the BBC and The Economist do is help put those events in an international context. Reading The Economist is like being shown a foreign city by someone who lives there.

Can a national newspaper do this? Maybe. However, it’s quite a pivot for a national newspaper, and I’m not entirely sure any national newspaper has the resources for it. Moreover, most UK national newspapers still don’t feel international to me. They still feel British in the way that CNN International still feels so very American to this American. To be honest, British newspaper coverage of Europe (apart from the FT) is laughably parochial and riddled with continental stereotypes and standard issue British Euro-sceptism. Beyond Europe, there are spots of brightness with the occasional good correspondent, but the coverage is not cohesive or coherent in the way The Economist is as an editorial package. The Economist’s success is definitely something to envy, but I think when it comes to a model for national UK newspapers to emulate, there are lessons and some opportunities. However, there is more that is different than is similar and applicable.

What to take away from Rashbass’ comments? He has a canny view of the differences between digital and print, which he characterises as lean forward and lean back. He also understands business. Greenslade ends his interview with Rashbass with this key business insight:

You always have to equate your model to the value you can extract compared to the cost of creating that value.

It’s not enough to believe you’re creating value, whether social or financial, you also have to have a way to extract value from it. That’s the challenge we’re facing in the news business now. The business model is broken, and the key innovation deficit is finding a way to extract enough value from what we create to support the cost of creating that value.

A journalist with much to be thankful for

As an American, Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays. In my family, we took the day quite literally as a time to pause and reflect on the things that we were thankful for over the last year. In 2008, I had an especially memorable Thanksgiving, taking Suw back to my home in the US to celebrate our marriage with my family. Early in the year, Suw and I committed to taking this day off to reflect back on all that we have had this year to be thankful for.

When I took voluntary redundancy (a buyout) from The Guardian at the end of March 2010, it was the first time since my first job out of university that I had left a job without another bigger, better job offer. I had a lot of options to explore, and the buyout gave me the chance to explore some of those options. It also gave me some time to recharge, which I needed. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there were times I was anxious and times I was absolutely terrified.

I can’t say that things have gone according to plan, but fortunately, I couldn’t have planned it any better. Colleagues asked me as I left The Guardian what I planned on doing, and I joked that I was taking a global journalism tour. That was a reference to several speaking and training gigs that I had lined up immediately after I left, but I didn’t know how prescient that comment would be. Suw and I have worked with clients on five continents this year: Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Just a few things that we’ve done this year:

  • We helped launch a new news website in India, It was an amazing experience with a great team at Network18, and we continue to work with them. Suw is consulting tech editor, and I’m writer-at-large.
  • Suw helped author a report for Chatham House high-impact, low-probability events. She looked specifically at the media’s response to the travel and transportation chaos caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
  • I’ve conducted training in digital and mobile journalism and social media for more than 400 Al Jazeera journalists across Al Jazeera English, Arabic, Balkans and Turk. It’s been great to work with Al Jazeera, especially during all of their excellent work covering the Arab Spring.
  • I spoke at a number of events including Digital Directions 2011 in Sydney hosted by Fairfax Media and organised by X Media Lab and News Rewired here in London.
  • I’ve done data journalism training with journalists from the BBC, CNN and other organisations through as well as doing data journalism training for RBI in the UK and the US.
  • One of the most satisfying jobs, in a very satisfying year, was when I went to Tunisia and worked with journalists there ahead of their historic elections.

I’ve done training for the Norwegian institute of Journalism and also for Transitions Online, with journalists mostly in the former Soviet Republics. All told, I’ve probably done training with more than 800 journalists around the world this year. Thanks to everyone we worked with this year.

When people ask me what I’m up to now, I often joke that I do things to support my journalism habit. If I had to rely on freelance journalism, Suw and I would be eating pretty thin gruel, but I’ve had increasing opportunities not just to train people what I know but to get back to doing journalism. That has been satisfying as well. I still have that itch to scratch.

As I’ve travelled this year and seen the economic uncertainty build first hand, we feel very fortunate to be able to do such satisfying work. I just got back from Vilnius Lithuania where I worked with Belorussian journalists for Transitions Online. The journalists told me of the increasing repression they are facing, and it was great to work with them to use mobile tools that would allow them to continue to do their job despite threats from the authorities. It was especially satisfying to work with journalists covering the Arab Spring. I did some training for the Al Jazeera Training Centre with journalists from across the Middle East and north Africa. One Egyptian journalist told me of how people there had overcome their fear. It was something that I heard repeatedly from people enjoying their first taste of self-determination. Speaking with Tunisian journalists grappling with how to cover an election with 10,000 candidates, an election where the outcome wasn’t predetermined, was fascinating and inspiring.

It’s been a year of growth for me. It’s felt like getting a practical master’s degree. I’ve had to work hard to keep pace with all of the most recent developments in social media, mobile journalism tools and data journalism. I started doing data journalism in the mid-1990s in the US, but I hadn’t had much call to use it since then. I’ve really enjoyed not only dusting off those skills but building on them. I’ve learned more in the last year than I did in the previous five.

This has been a huge transition for me from stable, full-time work to working with Suw on our own. As I said, it was terrifying at times. It challenged my sense of professional confidence. When I left The Guardian last year, it was the first time since 1998 that I didn’t have a big international news organisation behind me. It was just me. When I started working for the BBC in 1998, it still seemed possible to find a job and keep that job for the rest of one’s life. However, since then, journalism has suffered the same disruption that most 20th Century industries did. There isn’t such a thing as a job for life. Journalism is going through a major disruption, and journalists’ lives are being disrupted by it.  Despite that, for the first time since I came to Britain in 2005, I feel like instead of dealing with disruption, Suw and I have actually been able to work towards our dreams. That indeed is something to be thankful for.

Journalism innovation for small towns and rural areas

As I sit in Vilnius Lithuania, the next to last stop on my 2011 journalism world tour, I was taken back to where my journalism career started: Hays Kansas I started my career as the regional reporter at a small town, 14,000 circulation newspaper, the Hays Daily News. The standard joke told by the locals was: It’s not the middle of no where but you can see it from here. My job was to cover 1100 square miles on northwest Kansas. I covered my first presidential election from Hays as local hero done good, Bob Dole, ran against Bill Clinton in 1996. Dole’s hometown of Russell Kansas was also the birthplace of another Republican candidate that year, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who also ran the nomination that year. Apart from that, I covered what most cub reporters at local newspapers do: School board meetings, the weather (think storm chasing in Tornado Alley), the odd agriculture story and a beloved Sunday feature called the Nor’wester.

It was a great place to start journalism, working with a curmudgeonly good hearted editor, Mike Corn, and an award winning team of photographers, Steve Hausler and Charlie Riedel. Charlie now travels the world for the Associated Press. It’s still the second greatest job I’ve ever had, second only to working for the BBC in Washington. My job meant something. Western Kansas was a place fighting off decline in the 1990s. It was still reeling from the farm crisis, and as its youth left because they had to find work and their way elsewhere, many of its small towns fought off extinction. When I first moved there, Mike used to quiz me on where these small towns were. Every once in a while with a glimmer in his eye, he would say: “Ha, got ya! Trick question. It’s a ghost town!” For these small towns, I was all they had when it came to news, and they thanked me for it. It was deeply satisfying work.

Hays was also a great place to start because when I worked there, it was very innovative for a small newspaper. I started in December 1994, and we all had Macs on our desks and a cutting edge production system. For a newspaper of that size, I’m pretty sure that was rare then. The paper went online in 1996, and I applied to become their first internet editor. It was definitely ahead of its time.

Hays is why I’ve always been interested in local news, now mostly talked about as hyperlocal. What took me back to Hays? The Colombia Journalism Review has an interesting collection of views about Modesto California and journalism. It’s a world away from Hays and ten times as large, but for Hays and a lot of even smaller communities, the issues of providing journalism to these places is even more challenging than when I was there, especially in my adopted home of England, where the crisis in local journalism is even more acute. Although I cringe a bit when I read the CJR piece and detect a whiff of big city condescension (I’ll always be a country boy), their larger point is right:

If the digital-news revolution is to truly serve a mass audience, beyond educated and reasonably affluent urbanites, we must account for Modesto; we must find ways for innovation to flourish in poor towns where, for so long, it has been allowed to die.

I guess broadly, it’s not just the dying of journalism in not just poor towns, but also small communities, that worries me but the existential threat to rural areas full stop both in the US and the UK. That’s another issue, but if you’re interested in local journalism, it’s well worth a read. I especially love Rusty Coats’ piece. I met Rusty in 2005 at Web+10 at Poynter, and his story and mine share a lot of similarities. I love this line:

Fledgling news websites have cropped up across the country, led by journalists who bleed local, sometimes down to the neighborhood.

Local journalism survives on the dedication of these journalists, like Mike Corn. When I pulled up the Hays Daily News website tonight, there was Mike’s name. He’s still in Hays. He has threatened to leave several times since I left in 1996, but he’s still there. You have to have that kind of dedication because it sure as hell doesn’t pay that well. I made $2000 less than a first year teacher when I started in Hays. I made ends meet by having no student debt and living very frugally. I drove a very used car that had no working air conditioning, something you miss when it’s 45 C (114 F) on a hot, dusty summer day in Kansas.

Sceptical optimism

Local news and information has always been a tough business, and the ongoing economic crises aren’t making that any easier. It is good to see a renewed vigour when it comes to local. John Paton, dubbed newspapers’ digital apostle by the New York Times this week, is pulling the industry forward, and his digital first strategy has been a clarion call to his editors and journalists, many who work at small newspapers. Steve Yelvington has long been a leader in digitally-led local journalism, and as Morris, the group he works for, moves digital close to its core, I’m sure we’ll see great things. I’m sure we’ll see new efforts in how communities cover themselves. For those of you working with such projects, it’s well worth reading the New Voices: What works report.

I continue to be sceptically optimistic about local journalism, more because I choose to be optimistic about small communities. Although I haven’t done truly local journalism for a long time, I remember all too well how hard it is and the dedication required. I remain slightly sceptical because I think a lot of the hype surrounding hyperlocal has needed tempering for a very long time, and I see a lot of hyperlocal projects make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Local journalism needs more of a rethink than national or international when it comes to remaking the business model. Thanks to CJR for trying to move this conversation a bit more front and centre.

News organisations’ activity on Google+ courtesy of MuckRack and Poynter

Suw wrote about the rollout of business pages for Google+, and I quickly saw a flurry of activity from news organisations. Al Jazeera quickly set up business pages for its channels and also some of its programmes, such as the social media program, the Stream.*

Muckrack has an excellent roundup on posts about Google+ and journalism. The links include articles by Caleb Garling on Wired about how Google+ posed a greater threat to Facebook pages than to Twitter and also from GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram who voiced concerns about linking journalists’ profile and their stories. The Muckrack post also a good list of news organisations that have set up their stalls on Google+. The number grew quite quickly after Google opened up Plus to businesses.

Jeff Sonderman at Poynter also has a good brief piece looking at how Fox News using Google+ Hangouts to interview Republican candidates. Broadcasters in the US and elsewhere are definitely using Hangouts, and I saw the English language channel of France 24 invite viewers to take part in a hangout in late September or early October.

Google+ vs Twitter vs Facebook (and vs LinkedIn)

I’m very curious about how to use Hangouts to engage audiences, and it’s good to see news organisations try to stay with audiences as they try out new social tools. As for Google+, I think it has potential, but as a user, it still hasn’t become an essential part of my day. As I said on Google+, this is why:

  1. Google+ is still a destination, and although I use a lot of Google products, it still doesn’t draw me back here.
  2. I travel a lot, and it’s not integrated into any of the tools that I use when I’m on the move, including apps like Gravity (or Tweetdeck or Seesmic).
  3. Even more importantly, Facebook and Twitter have great tools to use them with nothing more than SMS. No matter where I am, I can use it at very low cost. People can get messages to me. I can respond to comments or Twitter replies.

For that reason, Google+ still comes in fourth in terms of social media and networks behind Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

* Disclosure: I do digital and mobile journalism and social media training with Al Jazeera staff.