Mobile kills the 24-hour-linear TV news channel

Last night, I was where I have been on so many election nights in the last two decades, I was in the newsroom working with my staff to deliver real-time election results to our audiences on desktop, social and mobile. We fired off mobile alerts to our subscribers as soon as we were confident of the result, and I realised that we’re at the beginning of the end for linear, 24-hour news channels. Mobile eats linear TV for breakfast. 

TV remains powerful, and I know the power of being able to go ‘LIVE’. I worked for the BBC, but I have long thought that the 24-hour news channel was a technological kludge, a sticking plaster before internet access was ubiquitous and video on demand became a much more elegant solution for getting news to readers and viewers when there was real news to break. Last night, that sticking plaster seemed to come off.

I’ve passed back and forth between broadcast and print through my career, but last night I was in a local newspaper newsroom for the first time since the mid-90s. We had CNN on in the background and I had my iPhone next to me. We groaned every time Wolf Blitzer said that they had a “major projection” as every projection became major, especially after it became abundantly clear that the Republicans would take control of the Senate. If we would have had a drinking game for every time Wolf had a “major projection”, we would have been plastered by half eight. What really grated was when the on-air banter went on-and-on while the “major projection” had come into my mobile phone 10, 15 or even 20 minutes before Wolf projected, the music played and the graphics on the telly showed me what I already knew.

The cable-beating alerts came from USA Today or NPR. (Disclaimer: I’m an executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, and USA Today is our flagship national newspaper.) But there you have had it. Real-time, rolling TV was beaten by print sending out mobile alerts. Now, CNN might have been beating their on-air projections with their own mobile alerts; I don’t have CNN’s app installed on my iPhone. 

The important thing is that mobile told me what I wanted to know earlier and more efficiently than cable news. The days of the technological kludge of 24-hour, rolling news channels are numbered. 

Gamergate, journalism and the dark future of politics

The extremely violent hate posse attacking women in conjunction with Gamergate is horrific. Whatever other issues are involved, the fact that women have been threatened and intimidated so graphically and violently that they have been driven from their homes pushes the weak accusations of compromised gaming journalism to the background. However, it shines a spotlight on some troubling trends that we’re going to have to grapple as digital technologies reshape our societies.

Gamergate isn’t just a group of criminally violent griefers intent on making women’s lives miserable as a form of sport. As Kyle Wagner of Deadspin points out, there are also groups using it to engage in “grievance politics”:

In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it’s captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you’d expect to see if, say, you’d asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.

These groups are very effectively exploiting weaknesses in mainstream journalism. As Wagner says, “Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith.” Journalism is really poor at dealing with bad actors, tending to treat them as if they are acting in good faith and thus giving them a legitimacy that they do not deserve.

As journalists, we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be played like chumps, especially when it comes to politics. We all know the game. We’re being spun, but at some point, we have to be brave enough to call bullshit. As the editor of two local newspapers, trust me, I get a lot of pressure from readers to toe their political line. However, it is a fundamental part of our job to help our readers separate spin from reality, not to parrot talking points and definitely not to cave to political bullies.

We’re going to have to up our game quickly. Wagner’s article reminded instantly of Neal Stephenson’s dystopian political thriller, Interface, which he wrote with his uncle, J. Frederick George. I’ll agree with our friend Cory Doctorow, that the book is an “under-appreciated masterpiece”. I read the book in 2008, and the parallels with that year’s presidential election were eerie. The book, written in 1994, looks at the politics in a United States laid low by a housing crisis. An Illinois governor (rather than a Senator) is running for president and his campaign uses data to segment the electorate, something which is common place now that it has led to a technological arms race between campaigns to have the best data crunchers.

In Interface, the bad actor was a terrifying mash-up between Karl Rove (or most likely in 1994, his mentor Lee Atwater) and Hannibal Lechter. You don’t need a political bogey man to see where this leads. Combine ruthless political ambition, the unlimited cash of Citizens United era and a technological arsenal that only Neal Stephenson could dream of, and you can easily chart the terrifying trajectory of politics in the real world.

When I was covering the 2000 US presidential election, there was a couple of rich Texans who set up a shell political group, Republicans for Clean Air, attacking John McCain’s environmental record to support George W. Bush. Texas entrepreneur Sam Wyly headed up the group and had donated thousands to Bush’s campaign. His brother Charles, was a Bush “Pioneer”, a supporter who had helped raise more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. The issues ads allowed the Wyleys to spend even more to support the Bush campaign. McCain cried foul, called Republicans for Clean Air a “sham group”, and said that the Bush campaign had to have been coordinating with the group, something which then and now would have been illegal. However, the McCain campaign was never able to prove coordination. More than a decade ago, we already saw the kind of campaigning that the Citizens United case would unleash.

Of course, that is low-tech, linear TV’s child play compared to what we are seeing with Gamergate. When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, such as creating sockpuppet social media accounts and using feminist critiques as a weapon against Brianna Wu (to demonstrate that her games were “anti-feminist”), you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion. The newest import from China will be the 50 Cent Party of paid political commenters. Gaming the system will take on an entirely different meaning.

With unlimited money flowing into politics thanks to Citizens United, a lot of cash could be poured into automating the process. Who needs robo-callers push-polling voters when you’ve got an army of AI-driven Twitter and Facebook accounts all spewing your line and endlessly quoted by cable TV show hosts who don’t care if the accounts are real, only if they reinforce their own talking points? They’ll be found out eventually, but it will be too late. A cynical electorate will be even more confused and all but the hardest of partisans will simply roll up into a foetal position to shut out the cacophony of spin. Moderates will be further marginalised as the bases retreat to the comfort of their sock puppet spun reality. Heaven help us.

Facebook and co-opetition: I don’t fear reality but I want my reporters to eat

If Facebook and journalism had a relationship, it would be: It’s complicated. David Higgerson urged “journalism … to get over its fear of Facebook“. He wrote:

Facebook is huge, and needs to remain huge. To do that, it needs to remain relevant to users. It needs to ensure it doesn’t alienate people. That, in turn, is good news for journalists and news organisations. We want our content to be read. Facebook is telling us it has a huge audience and it wants to get stuff they will like to those people.

Facebook is a market reality. I don’t fear Zuck and his crew. And of course we want our content to be read, and there is absolutely no doubt that Facebook drives a lot of traffic to our content. However, as News Corps’ Senior Vice President of Strategy said on Twitter:

Yeah, we want people to read our content, to pay attention to our journalism. Facebook has a huge audience and can help us meet that goal.

But using Facebook to grow audience is only part of winning in the attention economy. The other challenge we must face is how to monetise that attention. The readers of my two papers see our Facebook Page as the freesheet of the digital age. Hell, they say as much. How do I help those readers help me pay for the journalism we’re doing? That’s a really important question.

The angst about Facebook with respect to journalism is about that value exchange, making sure that we get as much out of sharing our content on Facebook as Zuck gets out of it in terms of good old dollars and cents, pounds and pence. To quote my good friend and university classmate Theo Francis who works at the Wall Street Journal, we know we are creating value as journalists, but how do we capture it.

No serious journalistic leader that I know of is saying ignore or be afraid of Facebook, and of course, we need to make sure our content is where our readers are. We’ve moved on from that discussion, and it’s time to acknowledge that on the digital side so we can focus on the hard work of figuring out how to capture the value in the attention we earn. We cooperate with Facebook in gaining attention. We compete with Facebook in monetising that attention. That is the reality we need to face. So, yeah, as a relationship it’s complicated.

But it’s time to get real. At this moment of great flux in the attention economy, we know that any ole fool can publish, but it’s a bitch getting paid. Attention is great, but it only goes so far when it comes to paying the rent or paying staff. I can’t pay my hard working reporters in Likes. I know what Zuck gets out of my papers having Facebook pages, and I know Facebook helps me win in the battle for attention in my communities. I’m working hard to figure out how to turn those Likes into subscribers, opportunities for advertisers and cold hard cash to pay my staff.

That’s not hating on Facebook. It just is what it is, and although I could do a lot of things, I have chosen to fight the fight on the front lines of local journalism. It’s a fight I aim to win.

ICYMI – Gannett at #ONA14: Data-driven insights with Chartbeat

I missed the Online News Association conference last week because I had just returned from Asia speaking at the WAN-IFRA India conference and doing some data journalism seminars with journalists in India and Singapore.

However, my Gannett colleagues were at ONA14 in force, and they highlighted how we’re using analytics tools like Chartbeat to make sure that our journalism reaches the widest audience. We’re doing that with a mix of dayparting and content programming to make sure that we have the right content for the right audience at the right time of day, and we’re also driving an audience focus in our newsrooms that delivers real public service and engagement.

Kevin Hogan, who is the digital editor for some Gannett sites in New York, created a great Storify summary of the discussion at the Gannett Salon about the insights that Chartbeat is providing us.

A few highlights:

  • Only about four percent of readers who come to a story from a link shared on social media will return to the homepage of the site.
  • At Gannett, we get our highest loyal traffic at 9 am in the morning. This is definitely true at my sites. Traffic starts building at about 6:30 to 7 a.m. and then starts a gentle glide path downward through the day after 10 a.m.
  • Readers use tablets and mobile more in the evening. Our desktop/mobile mix shifts to mobile between 4 to 6 p.m., and it is driven almost entirely by Facebook.

Russian journalism students, the FSB and a warm First Amendment welcome


I’ve left some of the details purposefully vague for reasons that I hope are obvious.

A couple of years ago, I was in Russia working with a newspaper for the Media Development Investment Fund. While there, the publisher of the newspaper asked me to speak to her daughter’s university journalism class. I love talking to students about journalism so I quickly said yes.

A few hours before I was supposed to speak, the publisher took a phone call. Russians have this singular ability to express displeasure without needing words: “Rrooohhh, wwrrrooohhh, wwrrooohhh,” was all I heard her say in her husky alto.

She got off the phone and had a quick chat with my Russian colleague, who then turned to me and said, “The FSB has noticed you are here.” The FSB is the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. The students had been talking about me on vKontakte, one of Russia’s most popular social networks, and the FSB had noticed and called the dean of the journalism school. My colleague continued, “They say, ‘Who is this Guardian guy? Why you no tell us?'”

My colleague tried to calm me and told me not to worry. “Don’t worry. Last time Danish guy only detained for two days,” she said. I wasn’t comforted. I didn’t really care about being detained, well much, but it was Suw’s mother’s 70th birthday party the following Sunday, the day after I was due home, and I was more worried about missing that than the FSB, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t really care that much about me. However, in an abundance of caution, I let Suw know what was happening, and told her to put the American embassy in Moscow on speed dial.

The publisher made a phone call to someone she thought had connections to the FSB, someone who could smooth things over. It must have worked because a few hours later, I was at the university speaking to a packed room of students in the international journalism programme.

I gave the presentation that I had intended to give about the changing world of journalism and the opportunities open for young journalists, and then I opened up the floor to questions. A few questions in, one student asked, “If you had to choose between writing a story critical of the government and going to jail, which would you choose?”

I quickly scanned the room, with the tune “One of these things does not belong” going through my head. Was there an FSB agent lurking somewhere in the shadows? No one jumped out, literally or figuratively, but I still took a moment to carefully think over what I was about to say. I replied that, thankfully, I had never had to make that decision, and that in fact, in Britain, if you didn’t criticise the government, you would be pilloried by your peers.

Things went pretty smoothly after that, but near the end, one of the students asked, “Would you care to comment on the press situation in Russia?” I looked at my colleague before responding, “No,” with a bit of a laugh. The room, fortunately, laughed with me. The student persisted, and I relented. I collected my thoughts, and then I said, “I am an American, who has worked in the US and the UK. For the past seven years, I’ve worked mostly in the UK. I miss the First Amendment every single day.”

Which is to say that the press enjoys incredible freedom in Britain, but the First Amendment provides another level of protection, both for the press and freedom of speech. (Of course, there are the issues of the insane libel and privacy laws in the UK, but that’s not nearly as pithy.) The First Amendment not only grants journalists in the US freedoms, but it also gives us a sense of responsibility about those freedoms. I sometimes got the sense in the UK that some journalists couldn’t tell the difference between freedom of the press and a libertine press, a press devoid of any sense of principle or moral purpose. The tabloids and the mid-market Mail have an electric monk morality, being able to hold two entirely contradictory moral positions simultaneously. They wring their hands about the moral degradation of the country while simultaneously, in an act of total self-denial, basing their businesses largely on selling soft porn. I am sure tabloid hacks will call me a puritanical American, but the tabloids love to point out hypocrisy unless it involves their own activities.

As I said a few weeks back, I have come back to the US to take up an executive editor position overseeing a couple of newspapers. The picture above is from the stairs leading up to the newsroom of the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin, one of my two newspapers. When I saw the First Amendment written on the wall, it was a great welcome, back to the US and back into a newsroom.

Digital disruption: Bigger audiences but lower revenues

This is the paradox of journalism in the digital age: Journalism organisations reach more people than was ever possible in the analogue age, but those larger audiences have not translated into higher revenues. Some of this has been almost constant pressure of digital ad revenues since the beginning of the financial crisis, driven by an oversupply of ad space. Digital media offer a dizzying array of choices for consumers and advertisers.

From the standpoint of journalism, like all industries facing the Innovator’s Dilemma, we scoffed at scrappy upstarts but not only editorial ones but more importantly commercial competitors for ad revenue that we didn’t even see as being in our business.

For an interesting view of this, take a look at this piece from The Conversation in Australia, a site that publishes comment on current issues by academics in Oz and the UK. Franco Papandrea writes:

The industry clearly underestimated the threat posed by the development of online competition. Although several newspapers moved early to establish an online presence, the initiatives were largely pursued to complement traditional activities rather than strategic actions to reposition their operations and bolster their competitiveness in the rapidly changing environment.

More recently, once the magnitude of the threat became evident, newspapers have scrambled to restructure in an effort to contain its impact. Their efforts so far have been concentrated in two broad areas: restructuring of publishing operations to re-align production costs with lower revenues; and seeking to convert their online readerships to earnings.

The increasing range of news and advertising services accessible on the internet is changing the relative comparative advantages of established media. The adjustment process is having a significant impact on established structures. The impact on newspapers has had both positive and negative implications.

He says we shouldn’t write off the incumbents, and he’s right. But in an age of disruption, incumbents strengths can quickly become their Achille’s heel as the market shifts.

Too much ‘I’, too little team thinking at legacy media for innovation?

It’s not news that digital technology is driving rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and while it took some time for that shift to affect the economics of the media, the disruption is now in full swing. While the metered paywall has given a number of legacy media companies breathing room, to use the bump in reader revenue as a base to build on rather than a temporary reprieve from the dust heap of history will take focused, innovative thinking.

I’ve been involved in journalism innovation since 1996, when I took my first job as an internet news editor. I’ve held pioneering positions at major news organisations such as the BBC and The Guardian. Both of those organisations can be innovative in ways that have proven difficult for other media organisations because they aren’t purely commercial. How do other news organisations keep pace with their audience and just as importantly create new revenue opportunities?

Charles Warner, part of the Forbes network teaches Media Management Program at The New School, was recently asked how to drive innovation at an “old-line media company, and he thinks it is down to the individualistic culture at legacy media organisations.

Finally, success in legacy media companies (newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) is driven by individual success – stardom – not by collaborative team success. The internecine, hand-to-hand combat inside legacy media companies is about who gets the credit for a hit or success, not about innovation or team success.

I’ve seen this first hand, and I used to say to colleagues, “Our real competition isn’t down the hall but across town” at one of the other newspapers, broadcasters or now one of the digital news and media startups.

This isn’t unique to media companies. Office politics is pretty universal. One of the benefits of having done consulting both inside and outside the media industry is that I have realised that positive corporate culture is rare and needs a lot of work. In media, you’ve got a lot of creative people, and journalism is populated with professional sceptics who question everything, including management’s latest change strategy.

However, that doesn’t excuse just how frankly, effed up the culture is at a lot of news and media companies. In the past, when owning a media company was a licence to mint money, we could afford these poisonous, dysfunctional cultures. We can’t anymore, and besides, it’s a lot more satisfying to succeed as a team than fight amongst ourselves on the decks of sinking ships.