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.

Facebook and media: Show me the revenue!

After the Facebook announcements yesterday at its 2011 f8 developers conference, I’ve been trying to find the revenue model for the media apps. Will Facebook share revenue? Is this just a traffic driver? This is especially a concern if the audience never has to leave Facebook to read stories. How will these news organisations capture the value from the Facebook audience? I’m not finding many answers.

AdAge has a great story answering some, but not all, of these questions, but the answers should raise alarm bells for news organisations struggling to monetise their digital content. “Stories don’t link out to the publisher and can be read within Facebook.” So, will Facebook be paying for this content? Will news organisations now be counting Facebook impressions in their traffic stats? Will news organisations be able to sell ads against their content in Facebook? If that is the case, then Facebook will obviously want a cut of this.

Revenue models seem either non-existent or not well thought out.

When asked about the revenue model for Social Reader, a Washington Post spokeswoman said, via email, “The focus right now is on getting people to use it.”

What? You’re joking right?! At least the News Corp spokesperson said that there might be some ad support and it would tie into other apps. Clear Channel wouldn’t comment on the revenue model for its iHeartRadio app.

Simply getting eyeballs isn’t enough in 2011, and the lack of detail about how these news organisations plan to capture revenue from these apps to support journalism is very, very worrying.

News organisation web stats: Break out bounce

Frédéric Filloux looks at the metered paid content systems that the FT an the New York Times have in place in his most recent post. I have yet to be sold on how the New York Times is trying to segment their readership based on platform, but I think they are doing the right thing in terms of trying to get their most loyal readers to help support their journalism. I also like how they are trying to reward their most loyal readers with extras, such as their behind the scenes report on how they covered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Frédéric touches on the issue of loyalty in his post.

One the dirtiest little secrets of the online media business is the actual number of truly loyal readers — as opposed to fly-bys. No one really wants to know (let alone let anyone else know). Using a broad brush, about half of the audience is composed of casual users dropping by less than 3 times a month, or sent by search engines; 25% come more than 10 times a month.

Spot on, and I think there is a lot of evidence to support his assertion that this has contributed to an erosion in advertising prices. Advertisers know that not all unique users are created equal. If a user views a single page during a visit, or even worse, is on a site less than 5 seconds, they might be counted as a unique user or visitor, but they are next to meaningless in terms of engagement with content and completely meaningless to an advertiser.

It’s quite clear that raw audience numbers do not a sustainable digital content business make. If that were the case, digital would be contributing significantly more to the bottom line than the 15% average that US newspapers are seeing. If this was the case, The Daily Mail would be making a mint off of its newly found digital success. The Mail has not only rushed ahead of its online competitors in the UK, but in April, it became the second most popular English-language ‘newspaper’ site in the world. (Quotes around newspaper because I’m not sure how the Huffington Post is considered a newspaper site, and if you were to include other news sites such as the BBC not to mention Yahoo News, that league table would look a lot different.) However, the Mail is squeezing paltry sums out of that audience, about 2p per visitor across Mail Online and (Rob Andrews at paidContent also points out in the same piece that DMGT makes most of its digital income, some £44m, from a separate digital division that operates travel, jobs and motoring ad services.)

The move from monthly uniques to average daily uniques has eliminated some double-counting from the stats, but it still doesn’t break out these fly-by visitors. The industry has to move to more honest and realistic metrics. In the UK, newspapers no longer report bulk print sales. I’d argue that it’s time to at the very least break out ‘bounce’, single-page, less than 5 second visitors (or however the industry wants to transparently measure it). If the industry really wanted to come clean, they’d just leave bounce out of the stats entirely. It’s meaningless traffic, the internet version of channel surfers. Loyalty is the new coin of the digital realm, and I’d wager that if we focus on that, it might even bring in a bit more coin.

#ONA10: Real-time, mobile coverage

My road trip kit

Tomorrow I fly to Washington ahead of the Online News Association conference. I’ll be doing a pre-conference session next Thursday on real-time coverage with Kathryn Corrick, digital media consultant and ONA UK Chair, Gary Symons of VeriCorder Technology. Kathryn is going to focus on desktop-based real-time coverage. There is a lot that is possible from the newsroom, and often when you’ve got a lot of journalists in the field, you need someone back at base to help collate and curate all the content. Gary is going to focus on multimedia, especially some of the tools that Vericoder offers. I’m going to focus on a wide range of mobile tools and techniques highlighting some of the examples of what news organisations and innovative journalists are doing.

Two years ago, I was traveling across the US on my way to Washington covering the 2008 elections. It was my third presidential election. I covered the 2000 and 2004 elections for the BBC. Every election, the mobile technology got a little more sophisticated and a lot more portable.

In the 2000 election, Tom Carver and I traveled across the US in six days answering questions from the BBC’s international audience. We used portable satellite technology, a mini-DV camera and webcasting kit to do live and as-live webcasts. The satellite gear was similar to what would become standard for live video feeds from Afghanistan. We used it in much less threatening locales such as a bar in Miami to talk to college students about apathy amongst youth. The gear weighed about 70 pounds, and it was a bit temperamental. I had to buy a toolkit in Texas and perform emergency surgery in a Home Depot parking lot. That definitely wasn’t in the job description when I was hired, but we got the job done.

In 2004, everything had changed. I used an early data modem to file from the field. The BBC content management didn’t quite work in the field, but we could at least send text and images. Richard Greene and I worked to engage our audiences, again fielding their questions and bringing them along on our journey. I blogged through election day, and that blogging experiment would send my career in a radically new direction.

It would be 2008 when I finally realised my dream of being able to work almost constantly on the move publishing via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and the Guardian blogs via a laptop and mobile modem and a state-of-the-art multimedia mobile phone, the Nokia N82 . The picture above shows my road trip kit. It did more with much with so much less weight than the gear I lugged around in 2000. I could fit it all easily in a backpack. I had my laptop, a data modem, a power inverter, a Nikon D70, a geo-tagger and my Nokia. I geo-tagged all of my pictures, posts and most of my tweets. Before anyone knew what Foursquare or location-based networks were, I saw an opportunity to geo-tag content to map it and eventually deliver relevant content to where people are. I have a detailed explanation of how I did it.

The trip was the realisation of a journalistic dream; I could report live while staying in the middle of the story. I could use my phone to tweet and upload pictures from the celebrations on the streets of Washington. This was two years ago. The technology has moved on, and now it’s easier and the the video, images and audio are better. It’s now easy to broadcast live video with nothing more than a mobile phone.

We’ll cover the latest developments and then go out on the streets of Washington just days before Americans go back to the polls in this critical midterm election. There are a still a few slots left so if you’re coming, come join us from 2-5 Thursday 28 October.

Obama celebrations Washington DC

News of the World: 1995 is calling, it wants its digital strategy back

Not to beat a dying horse, but the News of the World doesn’t have a digital strategy for 2010. As I said yesterday, sometimes I’m willing to be generous about News International’s paid content strategy. The Times had to do something. They were losing £240,000 a day last year, and by their own admission, those losses were unsustainable. However, when you hear things like this from News of the World’s Digital analogue editor Rachel Richardson:

The majority of our content will be published on a Sunday. We will update our exclusive stories as they develop through the week. We also offer a comprehensive sport service and update match reports etc frequently. A lot of our content is timeless. Fabulous [celebrity magazine] is a great example of this, so we’re confident our site will be appealing mid-week without constant updates.

You have to wonder what planet she is on. Seriously. Now, it would be interesting to unpack what she means by ‘constant updates’, but this seems like a strategy from another age. The type of gossip that News of the World peddles is a constant stream of whispers coursing through the internet. It’s not something that pauses politely for a print driven publishing cycle. Yes, the News of the World thinks it has exclusives, and too many people living in the silos of newspapers believe it’s not old until it’s told by them. In terms of exclusives, with a few notable exceptions (the Telegraph’s MP expenses reporting being one of them), an exclusive in the online era has a shelf-life shorter than a Z-list reality TV star, possibly shorter. I don’t read celebrity gossip, but I actually don’t feel the need to. It’s so utterly ubiquitous that I absorb it through osmosis. There are so many choices. It’s everywhere. Are they really going to be able to charge to catch up on Sunday’s shock headlines by Wednesday? They already will seem tired by 5pm Sunday night.

Reading excerpts from the transcript of an interview with Richardson what comes through is that this isn’t a business strategy, it’s a sense of entitlement. Yes, it costs you something to make the News of the World, and you think that it has a value that should cost a set price. If everyone was able to price their products at what they thought they should be paid for instead of what people are willing to pay for them, we’d have a much different world.

Bravo for having a launch partner, but their other ads are supplied by ad networks?!? If your content is as exclusive as you say it is, surely there has to be value in building up your own premium ad services. Of course, no one will know whether it is successful because we won’t know the traffic. Murdoch has pulled out of the ABCes, leaving others to speculate. News International isn’t even being forthcoming with their advertisers about their numbers, and their advertisers are punishing them. That’s not strategic. It’s arrogant, or fearful.

There are times when I wonder if News International’s digital strategy is actually designed to fail. I often wonder if Murdoch in a fit of pique will actually just shut down the digital offerings once they have failed to meet his targets. It seems outlandish, but no less so than some of the non-strategic nonsense coming out of News International wrapped in PR assertions as being bold visionary thinking.

Philip Brohan, Volunteer online transcription of historical climate records

Interested in observation, and particularly extreme weather such as torrential rain, storms.

Morning of 16 Oct 1987, Great Storm in SE England, have weather records for that day, coloured by pressure. Low pressure – storminess. Can we understand its dynamics, can we predict it? Take observations and model them.

Previous big storm was 1703, so if we’re interested in climatology of storms, we need 100s years of records, and need them for everywhere in the world. Europe is well represented, but, say, Antarctica is not. Even in 1987, we didn’t have good records for there.

1918, rather badly observed period of time. People were distracted from weather observations (!).

This is the problem we’re trying to solve. We need more weather observations from 1918. Easy part of the problem: Public Records Office has a tremendous amount of info in their archive. Weather data potentially available if we can extract data.

Ship’s log of HMS Invincible, covers 1914 – 1915. Records actions each hour, and takes weather observations every 4 hours, six per day. Full weather obs. World’s collective archives have millions of these observations, and they are tremendously useful.

Started photographing the logbooks, 250k images. Tried OCR, doesn’t work. Using citizen science project to solve this problem.

Working with the people at Zooniverse, collaborating with them for 5 months. Funded by JISC.

At the moment developing the systems, Old Weather won’t be live for another month. You can pick a ship, join the crew of that ship and start to extract that information from its logbook: date, location, weather information. Doing some beta tests at the moment, hope that in a few weeks time it’ll be launched as a real project.

There is other information in these log books that might be of more interest to others. Expecting to find a lot of this sort of data, e.g. Invincible on 8 Dec 1914, at 5am it was engaged with Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Mostly, don’t know what is in these log books, so need to find out.

[I’m personally very excited about this project as I’m working with the Zooniverse chaps on a small part of it, so very please to see it’s close to launch!]

Christian Thiemann, Follow the money: what we’ve learned from ‘Where’s George?’

Where’s George? is a project tracking one dollar notes in the US. Put a stamp on the note, and log it on the website. Creates link between the two places where the not was logged. Provides a lot of data about how money moves around the US, therefore data about how people move around the US.

Administrative system of US: Divisions contain States contain Counties. Spatially compact hierarchical structure historically evolved with geographic determinants.

Human mobility – are these divisions spatially compact, determined by geography? How much geography is encoded in the network of money movements?

Can make groups of counties, run algorithms to test the strength of borders between devisions/states/counties. Shows Mississippi River is a strong border, as is Colorado/Ohio border.

Compare to epidemiology, SIR model – susceptible, infectious, recovered, i.e. what happens when an infectious person meets a susceptible person, etc. No spatial element in this model. When modelled, see a wave of infection moving through the world.

But modern transportation, aviation, changes it. Incorporate that, creates new model of spread of disease worldwide, e.g. SARS. Modelling based on country doesn’t provide enough granularity. Using Where’s George? data, can see how people move around the US.

No dataset like WG. Local travel data and aviation data, but doesn’t show full picture.

Nw model for Swine Flu, combine WG data with for spread, and show where possible flu hotspots might be, e.g. LA, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, NY areas.

Can look at multiscale mobility and local mobility, they show very different spreads of disease.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Mohamed Nanabhay The Al Jazeera model

Some more live blogging from the Al Jazeera Unplugged conference. Previous caveats apply. I am sure that there are grammatical errors. I have tried to be true to the essence of the comments.

Mohamed Nanabhay talked about what is news. He first quoted the legendary editor CP Scott of The Guardian that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” EH Carr, the historian, said that facts do not stand on their own. They are called upon to tell a story.

How do we constitute news in this online world? When we look at news, what impact is the internet having? What is a news story? Fundamentally, it’s news because we say it’s news.

Over the last 10 years, we are seeing a shift in our industry. Now that we have the internet, everyone has a voice. We need to ask ourselves, how has this changed? Has writing news, setting the agenda changed?

In 2006, Rupert Murdoch said that the power has moved from away from the press, the media elite, the establishment. “Now, it’s the people who are taking control,” Murdoch said. Mohamed said that this was a utopian view. Murdoch bought MySpace based on this thinking. He thought that Murdoch’s view has probably changed. In November 2009, Murdoch said, “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change…” Mohamed said that the editors are taking over again.

As news organisations, we can’t do everything anymore. That’s not viable anymore, he said. Quoting Jeff Jarvis, you have to focus on what you do best and partner with your audience to do the rest. (At the conference, Al Jazeera announced an initiative to provide support such as cameras for people to do their own footage.)

He talked about Al Jazeera decision to use Creative Commons. Wikipedia, film makers, music video producers, artists, students, indy media, activists and video games makers were all using the video.

Every form of media that you can think of used this footage. It spread across the internet. It was quite powerful. People decided to use it in ways that we never thought possible.

Once you remove barriers, you see this creative expression flourish. It enhanced our distribution and reputation. It did provide financial benefits to Al Jazeera. It helped empower the community, which is quite important in the Arab world. They hope it will inspire the next generation of journalists and documentary film makers. It showed respect their audience, Mohamed said. They also wanted to challenge their competitors.

What we really do is constitute and reconstitute culture and knowledge. This is how culture diffuses, how it is created. If you look at culture in the Middle East, people travel through it. People move. People interact. There is no such thing as a stagnant culture. In this globalised world where everyone interacts with each other, the act of this spreading culture is important, he said.

Al Jazeera took this open posture. They put their content on YouTube while other broadcasters were taking their content off of YouTube. These audiences are on YouTube. Audiences (often young people) saw Al Jazeera content, many who had never seen this before. They spread our content on their blogs or Facebook. Some might become loyal readers or viewers.

Journalism: What next?

For many news and media businesses to survive the recession and thrive after it has ended, they will have to adapt to the economics of abundance. It’s something that I’ve written about before, and Clay Shirky continues to make some of the most cogent comments about the economics of abundance and what many have been calling the attention economy for the last few years. From a keynote at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services, Clay says:

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity.

Ann Michael at Scholarly Kitchen blog (which is now in my RSS feeds) for the Society of Scholarly Publishing also quotes Clay as saying:

It’s easy to say “preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new,” but in revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way.

I have struggled with this tension ever since I became a digital journalist in 1996. I knew that the internet would radically disrupt journalism the first time I first used a web browser at a student computer lab at the University of Illinois in August 1993.

However, I have always, always advocated and hoped for a transition that would wed the best of the old with the opportunities provided by the new. As I often say, I’m a very traditional journalist in terms of standards and ethics who uses cutting edge tools. However, it’s clear that many news organisations don’t have the resources anymore even to make strategic decisions about keeping the best of the old and combining it with the best of the new. Tough decisions will need to be made about what they stop doing. It’s sadly, no longer an option to continue doing everything they did in the past.

What is rare in a ‘world of cheap perfect copies’?

As Adam Tinworth said recently, publishers don’t have a great track record of adapting to this disruptive development:

We, as an industry, botched the transition online. We treated the internet as, at best, the poor cousin of the print title, to be filled with the left-overs from the established product and, at worst, a mere marketing device. Then, when the invention of the single most efficient information distribution mechanism mankind has yet come up with transformed our industry and its economics, we descended into panic.

How did print botch the transition online? It wasn’t for lack of trying. Steve Yelvington, someone I consider both a friend and mentor, was one of the few people who can say he was there at the beginning in terms of the internet and print, working on digital projects in the early 1990s. In his post, “Early to the game but late to learn how to play“, he makes a key observation:

The future gets created by individuals full of fire and passion, not institutions.

Clay supports Steve’s view and experience. It wasn’t that print publishers didn’t see this coming. They tried a number of plans. Clay said:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!”

The focus on preserving the legacy institution continues, and if you look at most of the paid content strategies, they are largely based on monetising current activities and content. About the only exception to this is recent attempts to sell iPhone apps and apps and content for the iPad, Kindle and new media slates. However, in terms of the web, most of the talk is about different ways to get people to pay for existing content created using existing forms of organisation and existing methods of newsgathering.

The problem that Clay is pointing out is that the economics of content have shifted. What will people pay for? Journalists will instantly say distinctive writing. Most journalists think their writing distinctive, but let’s be honest and even slightly logical here. If everything is distinctive, it’s no longer distinctive is it? Distinctive writing will only work for a very small group of writers. Thinking we can all be distinctive writers is like every 5-a-side footie player thinking he or she can play in the World Cup.

To pay for great reporting and great writing and the social mission of journalism, we’re going to have to think beyond the story in the digital age. We’re going to have to think about services that deliver value to audiences. In a world of content with “more alternatives than the human brain can process” as Steve puts it, suddenly intelligent, social filters become important and useful. People now pay for ‘filters’ that distill the vast amount of information produced everyday or every week into something human scale, for instance magazines like The Week. Smart, social filters can do better.

As I was writing this, I have found an example of people ready to pay for a deeper connection to those they trust. I grew up west of Chicago, and I grew up watching the At the Movies, hosted by Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They were famous for their thumbs up or thumbs down movie reviews. Roger Ebert has just launched a club in which he offers some extras to his loyal fans, including special private discussions, advance ticket sales to his Ebertfest and a meet-and-greet at the festival with club members. They are only charging $5 a year. Read the comments. For everyone who thinks the web is full of nothing but venom, read those comments. Granted, he is a cancer survivor who lost his voice four years ago and just had an emotional appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, but here is someone who has created a community.

Distilled insight, intelligence and connection. Content may not be rare in a ‘world of cheap perfect copies’, but these things still are. People will support organisations that deliver this. That’s where I see my future in journalism.

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FOR HIRE: I’m leaving the Guardian

FOR HIRE: That was the subject line of an email that I sent to Neil McIntosh, then of the Guardian, in the summer of 2006. I had met Neil at the Web+10 conference at the Poynter Institute in the US in 2005 before I came to London, and the email was a long shot. I wanted to stay in the UK with my then girlfriend, now wife, Suw, and my options were running out at the BBC. I had managed to extend my temporary assignment in London once, but now we were bracing for my return to the US to my old post, Washington correspondent of We expected to be separated by an ocean for months. Fortunately, that’s not what happened. A few days later I met with Emily Bell and, after what can be described more as a meeting of the minds than a job interview, I had an offer.

Now, three and a half years later, I’m joining many of my colleagues in accepting another offer from the Guardian, voluntary redundancy. My last day is 31 March. I don’t have a new position confirmed at this point, although Suw and I have a number of exciting possibilities. Like my colleague Bobbie Johnson, I’ve picked up a bit “entrepreneurial zeal” not only from the technology pioneers that I’ve covered, but also from the journalism pioneers that I’ve worked with both at the BBC and the Guardian. Suw and I want to continue to push the boundaries in our fields and we’re both open to new opportunities. If you’ve got a cutting edge journalism or social media project, get in touch.

It’s been a real honour to work at the Guardian and I’m grateful to everyone who helped me. We’ve achieved a lot in the past three and a half years, although it felt like we were always impatient to do more.

Despite the wrenching changes in journalism right now, I’m optimistic. Suw and I are excited about writing the next chapter of our careers. For me, I’m hoping it will be one that helps journalism make the transition to the future. I have almost 15 years of experience in digital, multi-platform journalism, both in strategy, implementation and just doing it, and I’m thrilled by some of the options that Suw and I have before us at the moment. Nothing is settled, though, so I’m still open to offers, as well as being available for short-term writing and freelancing. If you’ve got something exciting in the works and need one of the most experienced hands in digital journalism, get in touch.