Print-digital paid content debates require reality

If you have any hope of solving a problem, you better have a clear sense of what the problem is and what causes it. Listening to the paid content debates in the newspaper industry, the debate has become polarised and filled with assumptions and assertions rather than clear-headed thinking informed by research and data.

One assertion that I’d like to challenge right up front is the oft repeated claim that no one makes money with digital content. In the late 90s, I often heard editors say, “The internet is great, but no one has figured out how to make money with it.” The crash only reinforced this view. However, internet use continued to grow through the crash. Advertising shifted online, especially after Google introduced its search-based advertising model. Within a year or two after the crash, many large news sites like the New York Times and the Washington Post were making money. A 2008 study in the US by Borrell Associates found almost all of 3,100 news websites surveyed were profitable.

The Great Recession has hit both the print and digital businesses of the newspaper industry with a vengeance putting tremendous pressure on newspapers. As I’ve said, the economic crisis has reopened divisive debates between the print and digital sides of the newspaper business. To get through this crisis and rebuild sustainable businesses that support professional journalism, we’ve got to get real about the economic reality we face, not just in the depths of this recession but after it ends.

Steve Yelvington has more experience with digital journalism than many people have in journalism full stop. He fights bluster with data and even a graph. Most news websites exhibit a long tail with a hump, he writes.

Most of those visitors come once or twice, probably following a link
from a search engine or another website. They’re looking for something
very specific. They find it (or not) and leave.

Then the number drops like a rock. Hardly anybody comes five times in a month.

But over on the right side you have an interesting little lump.

That lump is your loyalists. You’re going to have a hard time getting people to pay who come via a search engine, look at a page and leave. However, your loyalists see value in what you do and might be willing to pay. Working to convert more users to loyalists and giving your loyalists some way to pay for the content they value might be a revenue model that begins to add a revenue stream in addition to business cycle sensitive advertising.

Steve argues for a sophisticated model that leaves visitors who only look at one or two pages “unmolested” but asks those who view several pages to register with the site. News group McClatchy used this model, and the FT uses this model as well.

Determining how many pages people should see before registering and paying and what to charge are unknowns, but with a flexible system with graduated fees and clear benefits, this is a much more sophisticated model than some of the absolutist, binary solutions being thrown around.

Rewarding and building loyalty

I think that loyal readers should be rewarded, and I believe that they will reward publications they value with not only their traffic but also their monetary support. I think that newspapers could do much more to convert some passing traffic to more loyal readers, but it’s going to take better design and more engagement from journalists, which I know will be difficult with slimmer staffs. Not all journalists want to engage with readers, but I think that those who do and do it well should be encouraged and supported.

To successful deal with the problems that we’re facing during the recession and will be facing once growth returns, we need more data, more research, more experimentation and more sophistication in our discussions about business models. There is no silver bullet, no one solution that will save journalism. We’re going to have to try a number of things and a number of ways to earn money to support professional journalism. However, one of the first steps we need to take is to get past these lazy assertions and out-dated assumptions about the business. Lots of the conventional wisdom is based in the print-digital culture wars in newspaper newsrooms, and it’s in desperate need of updating.

Talking social media with Peter Shankman

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Michael O’Connor Clarke, a long-time friend of Suw who I only recently had the pleasure of meeting, provided a virtual introduction to Peter Shankman. Peter was on a whirlwind trip to London and wanted to meet some people to talk about social media. Peter wants to help PR and journalists have a better working relationship in the age of blogging, vlogging, Twittering and social networks.

We walked down the road from The Guardian to St Paul’s Cathedral, and Peter pulled out his Flip video camera. He asked me about where to get some lunch, the differences between social media in the US and Europe (and lots of differences between European countries) and cats. Well, the conversation veered off onto cats largely because of Suw’s (I have only written one post) side project, Kits and Mortar. I think Suw and I should start keeping a blog list of most irrelevant PR pitches we get by way of Kits and Mortar.

And as I mention in the chat with Peter, ‘social media press releases’ need to be more than a normal press release done with an old school mail merge from a list of bloggers. Social media is personal media, and if you spend just a few seconds finding a post that somehow relates to your product, you’re going to be more successful. Peter also caught up with video blogging David Brain, CEO of Edelman Europe so he got both the journalist’s view and a PR view during his visit to London.

I had a fun time chatting with Peter. But hey man, you said I wascorn fed? Just checked on that definition: “large and often muscular, but lacking in intelligence, refinement or sophistication”. Am I really that muscular?

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Newspaper burnout

Romenesko points out a study from Ball State University pointing that more than a quarter of newspaper journalists plan to ‘leave newspaper journalism’. One thing that should be particularly worrying is that the number wanting to leave the profession is higher for younger journalists. The conclusion is that newspaper journalist burnout is on the rise.

When those who said they wanted to leave the profession were asked why, “36 percent said money or salary was the reason, 27 percent said hours or schedule and 19 percent said stress or burnout. Also, a reference to family life was mentioned in 13 percent of the responses.”

One line that caught my attention is that there is opportunity for those journalists who leave newspapers:

He further speculated that many might try their hands at online media, and that those who do want to move away from newspapers but remain in the media have plenty of opportunities elsewhere.

If you’re thinking of leaving newspaper journalistm, feel free to leave an anonymous comment. I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for leaving.

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New, new uses, or new to you?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some thoughts about innovation inspired by the close of The Economist’s Project Red Stripe, to which Jeff Jarvis responded. Jeff’s post was interesting, as were the comments, but one in particular from Malcolm Thomson stood out:

John Robinson says rightly “A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body.”

But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

Many months ago, I collaborated on a project looking at the future of retail. I’d been asked to take part in two discussion sessions by the company writing the report, and four of us sat around a big whiteboard thinking about trends in retail, and what the future might hold 5, 10 and 15 years out.

Our main conclusion was that the final recipients of this report, a global company who wanted to be prepared for the future, were woefully unequipped to even make the most of the present. Many of the most basic things that you’d expect such a company to do online were not being done and it was clear that, given the culture of the organisation, they were not likely to get done any time soon. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t Web 2.0, more than that they hadn’t even made it as far as Web 1.0 yet.

Much of the media – and other sectors too – struggle to understand the developments of the last 5 – 10 years, and find it difficult to work existing technologies into their business, even when there are clear benefits to doing so. But it’s not like things are actually changing that quickly, especially if you stay on top of developments. As Tom Coates said about the broadband vs. TV ‘debate’ last year (his italics):

These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

When businesses talk about innovation, they frequently mean “new” in the sense of “brand, spanking, no-one-has-ever-done-this-before new” or “first mover new”. Because they see the landscape as changing at an alarming rate, and they see innovation with the same blank-paper fear as the blocked writer, the whole thing becomes terrifying. Add to that the fact that they do not have a good solid grip on the state of the art as it is now, and you end up with a group of petrified execs standing on the brink of a chasm they fear is too wide and too deep to risk jumping, because the only outcome they can see is crash and burn.

Another type of innovation is the “new use” – taking tools that someone else has created and using them in an innovative way. How do you use all this Web 2.0 stuff that people are creating all the time and work it into your business? How does it bring value to your audience? What symbiotic relationships can you nurture that will enable you to do something different? This is the sort of innovation that I think the media needs to focus on.

Some are trying very hard to do this, some are just paying lip service, but many aren’t trying at all. Comments are a great example of a relatively new technology – it’s only been around for a few years – which the press have embraced en masse, but entirely failed to use effectively. The point of comments is that it allows writers to have a conversation with their readers, and for stories to continue to be developed post-publication, yet in the majority of cases comment functionality is slapped on to the bottom of every article – regardless of whether that article would benefit from comments – and readers are left to fight it out by themselves. Little of worth is added to either the articles, the publisher’s brand, or the commenters’ lives.

Creating a boxing ring online is not an innovative way of using comment technology, it is obvious, old-school, and short-sighted. It’s creating conflict to sell newspapers, increase hits or get more viewers for your TV slug fest.

Equally, using video to replicate television is like using Thrust to do the shopping – it makes no sense and is a massive waste of money. There are plenty of big hitters already doing TV rather well, and in an era of 24 hour rolling news, the last thing that we need is to replicate that online. Rather, the media should be using online video to do things that TV cannot do, to get places TV cannot go, to examine issues with the sort of depth and nuance that 24-hour rolling news couldn’t manage if their very lives depended upon it, to tell the stories that TV has no time for.

Where are these media outlets – newspapers or otherwise – who can honestly say that they are using even just comments and video truly innovatively? In so many cases I see new-school technologies used in old-school ways that transform it from groundbreaking to mundane. One case in point was Ben Hammersley’s BBC project about the Turkish elections. Yes, he was using, and Flickr and he was blogging and using RSS, but with a distinctly old-school flavour that robbed the tools of their own potential.

A pneumatic nail gun can put nails through steel girders, but if all you do with it is build a garden shed, you might as well have used a hammer.

Finally, technology may not be new, but if it’s “new to you”, it can have real value. It used to be just blogs that provided an RSS feed, but then the tech press started using RSS, and now it has become standard across the majority of major news sites – no one sensible is without it. Other outlets might be using blogs or or wikis, but that shouldn’t stop you from assessing how best you can use these tools yourselves.

But businesses are inherently neo-phobic, and this has resulted in the Great Race to be Second: the burning desire of companies everywhere to watch what others do and see if it succeeds before they follow suite. Neo-phobia also leads companies into a state of group-think, where they use technology only in the same ways that they’ve seen other people use it. RSS is another fabulous example of this – news outlets will only provide a headline and excerpt news feed, rather than a full feed, because they are scared that if people can read their content in their aggregator, they will not visit the site and if they don’t visit the site then valuable page views and click-throughs are lost.

Every now and again I see an article saying that full feeds increase click-throughs, the most recent being Techdirt, and their argument is compelling (their italics):

[I]n our experience, full text feeds actually does lead to more page views, though understanding why is a little more involved. Full text feeds makes the reading process much easier. It means it’s that much more likely that someone reads the full piece and actually understands what’s being said — which makes it much, much, much more likely that they’ll then forward it on to someone else, or blog about it themselves, or post it to Digg or Reddit or Slashdot or Fark or any other such thing — and that generates more traffic and interest and page views from new readers, who we hope subscribe to the RSS feed and become regular readers as well. The whole idea is that by making it easier and easier for anyone to read and fully grasp our content, the more likely they are to spread it via word of mouth, and that tends to lead to much greater adoption than by limiting what we give to our readers and begging them to come to our site if they want to read more than a sentence or two. So, while many people claim that partial feeds are needed to increase page views where ads are hosted, our experience has shown that full text feeds actually do a great deal to increase actual page views on the site by encouraging more usage.

But even if the assumption that partial feeds drive traffic to ads is correct, there’s still no excuse for having partial feeds, because ads in RSS have been around for ages. I don’t remember when Corante started putting ads in the RSS feed, but they’ve been doing it for ages and I have never had a single complaint about it. I don’t know what the click-through rates are compared to the ads on the site, but I’m sure that it would be possible to experiment and find out. It is undoubtedly possible to design a study that would give you the right sort of data to compare the effectiveness of partial, full, or full with ads feeds, but I’ve yet to hear of one.

And therein, I think, lies the rub. We don’t always know what will happen when we introduce new technology, but instead of experimenting, the majority prefer to go along with group-think and the old-school ways. They want innovation but only as a buzzword to chuck around in meetings – the reality is just too scary. Yes, there are mavericks who get this stuff, but they are frequently hamstrung by the neo-phobes, and have to spend their time pushing through small, bite-sized changes whilst they wait for the dinosaurs to die off.

Where’s your innovation?

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but Neil McIntosh’s post about the closure of The Economist‘s skunk works, Project Red Stripe, has finally prodded me into action.

Project Red Stripe was a small team of six Economist employees who were given £100,000 and asked to “develop something that is innovative and web-based and bring it to market” within six months. They brought in outside experts to talk to the group and solicited ideas, from Economist readers and the wider blogosphere, which they then “evaluate[d …] against a set of criteria that the Project Red Stripe team have predetermined”.

Unfortunately, the idea that they came up with wasn’t really one that The Economist could see a way to earn any money out of. Project Lughenjo was described as:

[A] web service that harnesses the collective intelligence of The Economist Group’s community, enabling them to contribute their skills and knowledge to international and local development organisations. These business minds will help find solutions to the world’s most important development problems.

It will be a global platform that helps to offset the brain drain, by making expertise flow back into the developing world. We’ve codenamed the service “Lughenjo”, an Tuvetan word meaning gift.

Announced only four weeks ago, it has now had the plug pulled.

Neil, in his response to this turn of events, rightly questions whether ‘profitable’ is the only definition of success, and points out that innovation isn’t always radical and that a single innovation’s success can be, instead of based on it’s own performance in isolation, a result of its position within a group of innovative components that are profitable only in the aggregate. He says:

The lessons for news organisations? We needn’t make innovation hard by insisting the end product is always huge and/or high-profile. We shouldn’t think that innovation is something that can be outsourced, either to a small team or to a software vendor (the latter being a surprisingly popular choice for many newspaper publishers).

And we needn’t necessarily worry that we’re not having enough ideas. If you ask around, you’ll probably find it’s not ideas we’re lacking. What’s tricky (I know – this is my job) is capturing the best ideas, mapping them to strategic goals, and delivering them in a way that makes them successful.

To do that, you need innovators who understand the importance of baby steps and can deliver them, one after the other, regular as clockwork. And, unlike Red Stripe, you can make their life easier by making sure they’re not locked away from the rest of the business, worrying about a blank sheet of paper and a mighty expectation from the mother ship that, somehow, they’ll be able to see the future from there.

Neil also links to Jeff Jarvis, who says:

[T]hey ended up, I think, not so much with a business but with a way to improve the world. Their idea, “Lughenjo,” was described in PaidContent as “a community connecting Economist with non-governmental organizations needing help – ‘a Facebook for the Economist Group’s audience.’ ” It wasn’t intended to be fully altruistic; they thought there was a business here in advertising to these people, maybe. But still, it was about helping the world. And therein lies the danger.

I saw this same phenomenon in action when, as a dry run for my entrepreneurial course, I asked my students at the end of last term what they would do with a few million dollars to create something new in journalism. Many of them came up with ways to improve the world: giving away PCs to the other side of the digital divide, for example. Fine. But then the money’s gone and there’s not a new journalist product to carry on.

This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try.

But we also need to improve the lot of journalism. And one crucial way we’re going to do that is to create new, successful, ongoing businesses that maintain and grow journalism. We need profit to do that.

A very good point. Altruism isn’t really what’s needed, and it doesn’t necessarily equate to innovation (although in rare cases, it does – think of the $100 laptop project).

It’s not just newspapers
One thing that’s really important is to remember that the problems that The Economist have with innovation also face many other businesses in many different sectors. I see, for example, the PR industry just storing up trouble, the way that they have segmented themselves in to different agency types such as creative, print, TV, or online. I don’t think that any company can afford to segment its PR and marketing like that, let alone an entire industry. How can the situation where your creative team is separate from your online team – and those teams are run by different companies – be a good way to keep abreast of technology, to understand and grasp the opportunities? If a creative agency has an idea for online, how will they be able to implement it if online is run by someone else who is actually in competition. Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding the way that the PR world works, but that’s how it looks to me on the outside: like built-in failure.


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Search useless for blogs

Interesting little piece from eMarketer about how people find the blogs they read. It’s really no surprise to discover that 67% of respondents find blogs through links from other blogs, and 23% via recommendations, but I like the way they analyse this for the benefit of businesses used to dealing with old-style websites who try to use search engine optimisation techniques to make their site more visible:

The fact that blog awareness is effectively spread by word-of-mouth is key for anyone using one in a campaign. Not only can you not build it and expect them to come, you cannot even build it and optimize it for search and expect them to come. Blog launches must be accompanied by links on established blogs, and some good recommendations from established, influential bloggers.

My only quibble with that advice is that you have to launch your blog without links from established blogs – you can’t just go round emailing influential bloggers and asking them to link to a blog they’ve not yet had the opportunity to read! Trust – and links – have to be earnt over time and there’s just no way round that. You can’t have a “launch accompanied by links on established blogs”, you have to launch, write what you write, and the links will come if you are good.

Another quote:

Two-thirds of blog readers said that they read to be entertained, and 43% said that they read to keep up with personal interests or hobbies (multiple answers were allowed).

Businesses really need to understand this point. People don’t read blogs to be marketed at, they read blogs to be entertained and kept up to date with stuff they are interested in. If your blog doesn’t do either of those things, it just won’t be read. Bunging any old crap up on a blog isn’t going to cut the mustard – you’ve got to be passionate, interesting, and entertaining.

Of course, none of this is news, but it’s good to see some statistics to back it up.

Is Flock the ultimate blogging tool for journalists? Almost.

I first used Flock last year after meeting Chris Messina in Paris. He was working to get the word out about the read/write browser at the time. I really liked the idea, partially because it just makes sense as a concept. With blogs, photo-sharing sites Flickr and social bookmarking sites such as, it makes sense to have a support for these social tools on the browser level.

I have to admit. I downloaded it in December, wrote one blog post and quickly decided that it wasn’t ready for prime time. The tools didn’t work as advertised. I couldn’t even get it to work with my Flickr account, and it made life more difficult not easier.

That was then. This is now. A few weeks ago as I was looking for an RSS reader and other blogging tools to make life easier for my new colleagues at the Guardian. I downloaded Flock again. It’s now my default browser at work. The RSS reader alone is pretty good. RSS is the most under-utilised technology for jourrnalism bar none. For journalists wanting to use RSS, Flock is definitely worth a download (and this article is worth a read). It’s not as full-featured as NetNewsWire, but it’s damn good.

And from a blogging standpoint, it’s better than Sage, my favourite RSS plug-in for Firefox. If you see a post in your feed reader you want to blog, just click the blog button and up pops a window for a new blog post.

I actually like the uploader tool for Flickr photos better than Flickr’s own tool, although truth be told I haven’t used the Flickr uploader in a few months. But even more than the uploader, I like the fact that with a click, I can create a new blog post from my Flickr photos. I can easily see the pictures of my Flickr friends, too, which is a nice feature for personal use.

It has all the search functionality of Firefox and more. You can also set it to search your local history. It has all of the search plug-ins from Firefox.

OK, that was the good. Now for the bad, or at least the work in progress. I liked the spell checker because as you well know if you’ve read Strange for a while, I really benefit from a good editor. However, I discovered just yesterday that it puts span tags around the words it questions or changes. Well, initially, I just saw all the span tags and wondered WTF? It was only after a quick Google that I discovered it was the spell checker that was spawning the spans. It doesn’t look like a new problem, blog posts about it since the summer. I hope it gets fixed.

Suw downloaded Flock after finding Firefox 2.0 broke her can’t-live-without session saver plug-in. Here are her impressions:

I am finding that it isn’t behaving well when posting to a blog either – it just sits there and tries to post without ever completing the action (even though it does post). As you say, minor but annoying.

I also have a problem with the behaviour of their search bar – the sub-menu comes up whenever you click in the search area, instead of when you click on the G, (which is Firefox behaviour) meaning that when I am trying to select all by triple-clicking, it doesn’t work so well.

I have to admit, I am still liking Firefox better than Flock, but determined to still give it an honest trial

The HTML code is not entirely clean. I’m just looking at the source code of this post. The code definitely needs a tidy up.

But it’s getting there. Beginning bloggers could definitely do worse, and journalists who find Movable Type or WordPress’s interface daunting or difficult will find it much easier. It’s come a long way in the last year. I’m hoping that development continues and the bugs and quirks get ironed out.

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Blogged with Flock

Edelman: Must try harder

As you might or might not know, I’ve got a relationship with Edelman, the PR company. I know Richard Edelman, I’ve spoken to their clients about blogging, had meetings with them, and spoken at two of their events. I have also worked closely with Jackie Cooper PR, their sister company, providing training and consultancy.

So I’m pretty embroiled with Edelman, and that makes me even more disappointed to be using the ‘Blog Fuckwittery’ category on this post, but it can’t be helped, I’m afraid.

If you’re into the whole PR thing, then you’ll likely have noticed recently that Edelman have got themselves into a bit of a pinch by helping create a fake blog for Wal-Mart. Called ‘Wal-Marting Across America‘, it purported to be a blog by a couple who decided to go on a cheap holiday in an RV (that’s camper van to us Brits), staying in Wal-Mart car parks overnight. What the blog failed to mention was that the project was a publicity stunt and that Wal-Mart were paying for their petrol, food, and the RV. This trick is known in the trade as ‘astroturfing’ (i.e. faking grassroots). Another way of describing it is ‘lying by omission’, and we all know lying is bad.

I’m not going to go into detail here about what was wrong with this specific project because lots of other people have done that, and I don’t much feel like parroting them. (For balance, I include the frankly lame responses from Richard and Steve.) But I do want to discuss a creeping disquiet I’ve felt lately that this serves only to reinforce.

Now, I like Richard Edelman – he seems to be a nice guy, quite savvy, and genuinely interested in the blogosphere, but the problem here is not just that Richard and his team were not transparent, it’s more fundamental than that. It’s that they are still thinking in old media terms: This was a typical ‘broadcast media’ stunt, an attempt to change the way people think about Wal-Mart by playing up the warm fuzzy angles and neglecting to mention that the whole thing was set up from the start. That is such an old-school way of thinking and it reveals just how much of the bloggers’ ethos has percolated through to the heart of what Edelman do, i.e. ‘not a lot’.

The other week, Kevin and I were invited by Richard and his team to attend a briefing that they, with Technorati, were giving their clients about the European blogosphere. Kevin was on the panel and I was asked by Richard just before the event if I could stand up and say something about the difference between US and UK top ten bloggers. I didn’t really blog it, bar a quick mention on Chocolate and Vodka, because I ended up feeling a little bit uncomfortable with some of the basic premises on show, such as ‘the A-list are important’.

There were a lot of other bloggers there, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it, because it was a little too much like they were there for show. For a long time I’ve felt that Richard is indulging in the zooification of bloggers – collecting and displaying them the way that rich people used to do with exotic animals. I worry that this makes him feel that he’s got a better understanding of the phenomenon than he actually has.

Surrounding myself with Chinese speakers does not instantaneously make me a fluent Chinese speaker. Yes, having access to Chinese speakers can help me learn Chinese better and faster, but only if I actually bother to speak Chinese to them. Surrounding yourself with bloggers is a pointless tactic if you don’t talk about blogs with them, if you don’t actually put some effort into learning what all this stuff means. You can’t pick it up by osmosis.

And this Wal-Mart debacle shows that Edelman still have a long way to go before they genuinely understand blogging. There are a lot of values and ethics they have yet to instil in all their staff at an instinctive level – Wal-Marting Across America should have been simply impossible to conceive, one of the ideas that they never had because it runs so counter to blogging culture. The fact that it wasn’t shows that too many people at Edelman think the old school way, about control and being on-message and spin. This is not the blogger way.

Kevin frequently talks about how he sees big media trying to adapt blogs to their business model instead of adapting their business to blogs, and Edelman are making exactly the same mistake – trying to use blogs for PR, instead of trying to adapt PR to blogs. Having a blog isn’t a magic bullet, it doesn’t fix anything. The magic comes from transparency, openness, honesty and engagement. As Kevin says, that’s the cluetrain, this is just clue-fucked.

Now, a few days after the furore, Richard has outlined the steps Edelman are taking to remedy the situation within Edelman. I have a few thoughts about his ideas, in order:

1. ‘Best practice’ is not something you get by put down rules into a document, or creating a set of processes you make people follow. It’s achieved by ensuring your staff have a deep understanding of what blogging is and how blogging culture works.

2. A single class on ethics in social media will not solve your problem – it will barely scratch the surface. I spent six months this year with employees from JCPR, giving them as thorough an insight into blogging as possible by introducing them to all the surrounding technologies and communities, and by encouraging them to read and write blogs. We spent two hours every fortnight for six months talking about and participating in social media, and you know what? There’s still a lot more they don’t know yet (but we’re working on it!). Blogging is not something you can learn in an afternoon, or a day – it’s as complex and alien to PR people as Chinese culture is complex and alien to me. Do not underestimate the scope of the differences – what’s acceptable in PR circles is far from acceptable in blogging circles and it takes a lot of unpicking to see exactly what’s what.

3. A hotline? That indicates to me that you know your staff haven’t got the requisite clue. But tell me, where are you getting all these lovely guidelines from? I’ve been doing blog consulting for nearly three years, and frankly I’m still learning things. The field is evolving rapidly, and I have yet to come across a nice set of guidelines that encapsulate it all.

4. Who’s writing your ethics materials? Please, God, don’t say WOMMA.

Finally, Richard asks for advice, to which my response is: If you really want to understand blogging properly, stop collecting bloggers to display at your events and start actually learning about the blogosphere. Set up a proper training course for your staff, run by someone who actually knows blogs, and who is not a PR blogger. I am highly sceptical of PR, and that allows me to point out to PR people where what they do is at odds with what bloggers do. If you simply employ PR people who happen to blog, all you’ll get is the same old PR attitudes, but with comments and trackbacks. And we all know that that is not enough.

I do think Edelman are doing better than most, but you are also more vocal than most, and if you’re going to talk the bloggy talk, you damn well better be capable of walking the bloggy walk, otherwise you’re going to look more than a little foolish.

Monaco Media Forum: Quality and news

I just finished listening to a panel discussion titled News 2.0 here at the Monaco Media Forum. It was depressing on a number of levels.

There is a pressing question in the news business right now: What is the business model that will support ‘quality’ journalism? That is usually how it’s phrased. Putting aside the issues of quality for the moment, let’s just talk about the business model of news. I have colleagues in the news business who envy the companies that I’ve worked for: The BBC and the Guardian. The BBC has a huge war chest based on the TV licence fee, and the Guardian has the Scott Trust so that it’s not completely based on profit motive. It’s nice not to worry so much about the money side of things.

Newsgathering is expensive. There is just no doubt about it. I was just thinking back to my former BBC colleague Jonathan Baker who said that the Beeb spends about $2.5 million a year to pay for coverage in Iraq, most of the money going to pay for security. Jonathan was really honest about what that $2.5 million buys in terms of journalism: A lot but not nearly as much as any journalist would like. But the bottom line is that it’s very, very expensive. Newspaper readership is declining, and newspaper readers pay a lot more into the coffers of newspapers than online ads do yet.

And let me be very clear about this, I believe that journalism is very important in a democratic society. Odd as this may seem for what I do and have done for 10 years, I was trained as a newspaper journalist. I still prefer newspaper-style journalism over most broadcast journalism. Mostly because it fits my news consumption patterns. I can scan a lot of text a lot faster than I can quickly scroll through video. I like video news for certain things, but I have to say, it’s not for 24 hour news. I want that kind of news on demand, not every 15 minutes. I just don’t have time to wait, and the presenters telling me to wait for the story that I really want to watch just pisses me off.

But notice, I said newspaper-style journalism. I want information. I want insight. I don’t have time for shouty commentary. It’s of little value to me. But it’s just the style of journalism, I’m not hung up on the delivery medium.

One of the panelists talked about a Latin American newsroom of 1400 journalists. Wow. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. It takes time and investment to do investigative journalism. But recently, the Dallas Morning News ‘right-sized’ their newsroom to deal with current economic realities. Newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves, but it’s painful work.

But what troubled me in this conversation is the issue of quality and what separates what professionals from amateurs in gathering news. Personally, I’m trying to get closer to my audience, not further separated from them. I had another journalist tell me: Well, certainly some of what we do must be telling people what they should hear. I agree with that. I’m not going to write stuff just to please my audience and keep them blissfully ignorant. What I have a problem with is that I’m really uncomfortable having the final say in what my audience thinks is important. When I was a cub reporter, I learned that listening was a pretty important part of my job.

I am just really uncomfortable with this obsession, this almost divine right that some journalists feel in setting the agenda and determining what is important. It’s the gatekeeper role of journalism driven by ego and arrogance. I’m probably going to get frogmarched out of the Fourth Estate for saying that. But it plays into this whole debate about quality, which is really just about control. And I think it’s simply a defensive position that is largely unhelpful in dealing with the real problem of adapting the news business model. Newspapers really need to hop onto the Cluetrain.

Involving your audiences isn’t pandering. Listening improves the quality of your product, and in this Attention Economy, there is no shortage of information, quality or otherwise.

And personally, while they were trying to figure out ways to defend the purity of the Fourth Estate, I was happy to get on with News 2.0, writing my blog post, uploading the video I took with a consumer digital camera that cost £140 and being very happy about my new job.

UK AOP: Awards and sessions I didn’t blog about

I’m still recovering from the Association of Online Publishers awards bash on Wednesday night, but Mark Sweney at Guardian’s (yes, my new keepers) Organ Grinder blog has a roundup of the award winners. Host Jimmy Carr was baffled by one winner: Nature’s Avian Flu Google Earth Mashup. Too bad he didn’t have a clue what a mashup was, and too bad that this is behind Nature’s pay wall. I’d love to have a play with it. But you can get a feel for it here at Declan Butler’s blog. Declan is a senior reporter at Nature and helped put the mashup together.

(Thanks Declan for the updated link!)

Congratulations to the CiF editorial team for their award and several honourable mentions. The team works hard to keep their rambunctious community happy. It’s a bit anarchic sometimes at CiF, but the commenters seem to like it that way. Well done, Georgina, Tom, Ben and Toby.

Jemima Kiss was there for PaidContent, and she has a nice write up with pictures of Tim O’Reilly’s session. You can see that brilliant IBM visualisation of a Wikipedia change log. She also wrote up the session about marketing to youth, or The Mystery of Teenage Boys. As Jemima says, “kids are watching less TV, spending loads of time online and on mobile and just love IM,” which are trends that pretty much everyone knows already. But there were interesting experiences given by panelists. I also liked how she wrote in the post about how social this generation are. They are just socialising in different ways.