Unsolicited advice to Gannett, from a shareholder

Before offering this advice, I should disclose that I am a Gannett shareholder as a result of being a former Gannett employee. My position with Gannett as an executive editor over a few of its small papers in Wisconsin was eliminated a little more than a year ago in a round of budget cuts. I’ve actually come out of that really well despite the position disappearing sooner than I anticipated, but as a shareholder by default of their 401K plan, I have legitimate concerns about Gannett’s expansion strategy.

Here is my advice not only as a shareholder but as someone who makes pretty good money giving such advice to media companies:

  1. Your USA Today Network strategy makes sense. Your local-to-national strategy does not. Your acquisition strategy makes less than no sense. Your Q3 results show that while you’re buying scale and adding revenue, you’re also adding costs at an unsustainable rate, especially with the double-digit quarterly decline in print advertising. If Wolfgang Blau of Conde Nast says the “war for scale” is over, why do you think your business is different?
  2. Look at your advertising base. You leave a lot of money on the table locally because you can’t afford to chase it on your cost base. The cost of acquisition for small local businesses’ ads in many small markets is too high for you. Your ad base is regional and national, not local in any meaningful way below a certain floor. That’s your business, and you need to build your content strategy off of that. (It’s also the reality of much of the media market in 2016.)
  3. On that assumption that you have a regional-to-national business rather than a local-to-national business, you should sell off the vast majority of what I’d call your hyperlocal properties, small sites like those I used to manage. Believing that the number of print properties you have translates into reach in 2016 is outdated print thinking that you need to jettison. You’re looking at consolidation through the wrong lens: Lots of properties != profit. If newspaper scale based on property count was the solution, it would have worked long ago. It hasn’t. Moreover, as Ken Doctor points out, the Street doesn’t believe you can wring out as much as savings as you think you can. Keep some local staff around the state, but be strategic about it. Look at your numbers, how often is there a story from these small sites that grabs national attention?
  4. Use the proceeds of these sales to buy a tent-pole property in as many states as makes sense. That’s the basis of a regional-to-national strategy, one that is built on  sensible cost basis. It gives you scale without the costs, tightly focused execution and dramatically fewer print properties to try to manage. You have been so focused on cost cutting at a ridiculous number of properties that the product and your focus on execution have suffered. Regional products will be stronger and more sustainable than local or hyperlocal.
  5. In states where you don’t have a property or it’s uneconomic to buy one, launch digital regional properties. It’s more cost effective, and it gives you a good place to experiment without print legacy costs or thinking. Or partner and invest in properties like the Texas Tribune. A national expansion strategy will have to be creative and use different tactics based on the realities of different markets and regions across the country. This is guerrilla warfare for your future. Be creative and nimble, not corporatist and monolithic in your approach.
  6. Get deadly serious about your customer data. I know that is part of your strategy, but if you want respect from the Street again, you need to put that front and centre. You’re still drowning in the red ocean of print and struggling in the red ocean of digital advertising where Google and Facebook, with their superior ad tech and mountains of data, are the Great White Sharks gobbling up the market and leaving little but scraps for the rest. The media companies that come out the end of this Great Disruption will be focused on their content and commercial customers. This is the Bletchley Park Project for media. Crack the code of data or resign yourself to annihilation.

Let me end with this question: Did a Last Dead Man Walking strategy in print ever make any sense considering the swoon in print advertising over the past decade? Do you want to be a consolidator in a business sector in decline or a disruptor of your own business and others so you might have a future?*

* My day rates are well within your budget.

US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale. 

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook.

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook. Full post at http://bit.ly/2cLUkYb

Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.

Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

I want to make an important point, though: Google didn’t actually kill the newspaper advertising market. Google replaced it with an entirely different market. It’s the same money, but Google isn’t in the same market as the newspapers. It instead created its own market and brands decided that was a better place to be.

I would also say that Google, via its Android mobile OS, also shifted its advertising model deftly to mobile. When you combine this graph with Mary Meeker’s graph about the attention minutes that people spend, you see why Google’s growth continues.

Mary Meeker's 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO

Mary Meeker’s 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO

In the US alone, Meeker estimates that there is a $22 b opportunity in the difference between the amount of attention that people are spending with their mobile devices and mobile advertising spend.

But it is not all doom-and-gloom. Baekdal also points out:

This is an incredibly important distinction to understand. Google isn’t winning because it’s big or that it has so much more scale. It’s winning because it created a way for people to have high-intent moments, which brands can reach with their ads.

We have shifted from having a single advertising market (all based on low-intent exposure), to having two different advertising markets… and the media only fits into one of them.

I would counter that the old print mass media fit into the scale model. However, there are many other media businesses that were never about scale, and if you look at some of the models that are showing success, they are about finding a committed niche, whether geographical or topical and serving it well. That might be B2B media, such as Rafat Ali’s travel business focused Skift, which just announced a new vertical to tackle, Chefs & Tech. In Tulsa Oklahoma, The Frontier has 500 subscribers, as of April, willing to pay $30 a month for local investigative journalism. De Correspondent in the Netherlands broke 40,000 subscribers last December.

Of course, this is all about reader revenue, not necessarily how to replace the fat revenue that advertising used to deliver to local newspapers. I don’t think that ad revenue will ever come back so we need to find a new model for local news and information, and I don’t think the answer is scale. Media cannot scale cost effectively to compete with Google and Facebook.

As for new models, maybe we already have one in the US, TV, but that isn’t going to go as deeply local as newspapers once did. But I think we’ll see more experimentation in local news media over the coming years supported by truly local entrepreneurs. But sometimes it’s good to know what isn’t working so you can move on to try other things.

Are Facebook ads good value for money?

I’ve never used Facebook to advertise anything to do with Ada Lovelace Day, but I thought I’d give it a go with a post about Ada Lovelace Day Live, just to see what happened. I assumed that FB would be quite effective at delivering my post to a large, relevant audience, but that’s not what happened.

When I set up the ad, FB said I’d reach 2,700 – 7,200 people, but in fact it only reached 1,588. The idea that FB somehow can’t find 2,700 people in the UK, over 7 days, who match my audience profile (ie, graduate or higher, in all the STEM-related fields they have) is absurd. Indeed, FB itself says that the potential size of my audience is 28 million, but it couldn’t find more than 1,588 people. Sure. Right. I totally believe that. *cough*

Of those 1,588 people reached, 25 “reacted” to it (ie used the like button), two commented (one of those comments is a guy being an asshole), five people shared it, and six people clicked the link.

These are not particularly impressive figures to me.

Now, I know that I only spent £10, but I run ALD on a shoestring, and that £10 was a test to see if it would be worth spending more. Frankly, I can’t say that I’m confident that it was even £10 well spent.

I had assumed that FB would be a cost-effective way to reach lots of people, but at £1.67 per click, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Frankly, it feels more like a rate-limited con than a useful service.

Kevin is more sanguine than I — he thinks 1,588 is good for a low-follower page (we have 124 likes on our page), and he has more experience than I do with the way that FB works. However, the point is that the whole reason for paying for an ad is because our page has few followers, and because FB has destroyed organic reach in order to force us to pay to reach more of the people we previously would have reached anyway.

But they’ve done a shit job of up-selling, because I would have invested £100 in ads, and would have expanded my ad horizons to include merchandise and similar if FB had delivered on this test. They didn’t deliver, so they’ve lost a potential advertiser and, sadly, I’ll have to just battle on and try to grow my organic reach.

This is a huge shame. The promise of social networks was that it would level the playing field, and that the smallest organisation or the least famous person still had the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. There is, of course, now a huge issue with noise which didn’t exist at the dawning of the social media age, but that’s not the problem with Facebook.

The problem is that they have deliberately locked small folks out of building reach organically in order to drive ad revenue, but are not providing good value for money when people with limited resources pay a small amount for ads. Had they delivered even the lower end of their estimated reach range, I might have considered investing more. Had they delivered 7,200 people, then I certainly would have, even though I still think that’s an artificially low number given that they said my audience is 28 million.

What rankles most is that not only is there no good reason for limiting ad reach this severely, but also that it hurts the very people that social media was suppose to help: those of us stuck in the long tail without the resources to spend loads on advertising.

The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.

My interview on TRT about Arianna Huffington stepping down from the Huffington Post

TRT World in Turkey interviewed me about the legacy of Arrianna Huffington as she stepped down as editor-in-chief from the ground-breaking site that bears her name. I will count myself as one of the sceptics when the site was launched, but I was happy to have been proven wrong.

The Huffington Post did create a new model for content in the digital era. On the plus side, it is good to see something that has worked, but on the downside, I see that model as creating as much content as possible for as cheaply as possible, which negatively impacts those who try to make a living from their creative efforts. It’s alumni also have made their mark, especially Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed.

When I was asked why she stepped down, I alluded to talk about her influence being diluted after Verizon bought Yahoo, which had bought the Huffington Post. But I also see another reason. In 2016, general news and comment sites like the Huffington Post are a lot more difficult to build into a successful media company, but the focused sites like the health site that she will now focus on are seeing much greater success.

Tackling Twitter abuse

Twitter has an abuse problem, and as this detailed article by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel, which interviews several (ex-)staff members shows, it is a problem of the company’s own creation. Allowing abuse has been Twitter’s conscious choice and, despite protestations, it can be solved.

The problem of abuse and harassment on Twitter is years old, almost as old as Twitter itself, and each attack brings renewed calls for Twitter to act. The drumbeat of people – usually women, LGBTQ people and people of colour – leaving Twitter because of harassment seems to have increased lately. Less visible are those people who self-censor more and tweet less, for fear that they might become the next target of the Twitter troll army.

Yet every time this conversation comes up, someone will say that this is a societal problem, not a technological one, and that there really isn’t very much more that Twitter can do than what it’s already doing. What we apparently need to do is fix society, and then all the racism, sexism, bigotry and abuse will just magically disappear.

The reason for citing technological difficulties is to punt the discussion of potential solutions into the long grass, because if it’s technologically impossible to solve a societal problem, then we don’t need to actually do anything about the technology. It’s a great way to stifle criticism of the status quo and to take the pressure off Twitter to act. It is also total bollocks. Twitter has created a technological problem and there are technological ways to ameliorate it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of ways to help solve The Twitter Problem. These aren’t fully fleshed out, they’re just a few thoughts I had whilst falling asleep last night, and if I can come up with this without even trying, imagine what Twitter could do if it bothered.

Privacy gradients

The first thing that always comes to mind when I think about social networks and communities is the idea of privacy gradient. This is what I wrote about privacy gradients in 2010:

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private ‘inner sanctum’. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it’s often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there’s a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate’s bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

I also said, back then:

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. […] The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share.

Six years ago, I thought that Twitter had a basic, but basically sufficient, privacy gradient. And, indeed, it might have been sufficient for the network in 2010, but it is now completely insufficient. Twitter doesn’t really have a gradient, as such, but a limited number of privacy modes:

  • Public account, with potentially unlimited @messages because everyone can see everything you write
  • Open DMs, where anyone can send you a DM, but only you and the sender see them
  • Private account, @messages are limited because only your approved friends see anything to respond to
  • Private DMs, that you can only receive from people you follow

These modes are far too clunky. If you want to reach lots of people, or merely want to be open, you have to have a public account, which means that you are open to an avalanche of @messages from the world and her husband. If you have open DMs you’re risking an avalanche of unsolicited messages, again from the world and her husband. These are ostensibly “private”, but you can’t control who they come from and only you and the sender can see them. And there’s nothing like a bit of pseudo-privacy to encourage abuse from people who feel empowered to be arseholes by the veil of secrecy.

Private accounts limit the number of people who can see your tweets to just those you approve. That reduces unwanted attention, but is also untenable for anyone who wants a broader conversation, or who is a public figure. Private DMs are the most limited form of interaction that Twitter allows.

This isn’t really a sliding scale of privacy; it’s more a choice between on and off, which is a bit of Hobson’s Choice if you want any level of broader discourse. For businesses, celebrities, or even just those of us who are — or, at least, have been — happy to exist online in public, a private account isn’t going to meet our needs. And yet, a fully public account with open-season @messages is fertile ground for abuse.

Some people do, of course, maintain both public and private accounts, which makes sense in some circumstances. But it’s not only a potential duplication of effort, it’s also risky: It’s very easy to post to the wrong account when you are running more than one. And it’s a greater cognitive overhead to run two similar accounts, eg public me and private me, as opposed to two very different accounts, eg me and my cat.

So Twitter needs to create a gentler, longer privacy gradient. This has often been done, by other social networks, by allowing the user to group their friends and send messages only to certain groups. The trouble is, no one actually wants to sit down and spend hours classifying their friends. It’s a ham-fisted solution to a problem that requires something smoother. And I think there is a smoother solution.

Use data smartly to curb abuse

One thing that Twitter has is data. It knows who your social network is. It knows who you follow, who follows you, how long they have followed you, how often they @ you, how often you @ them. It has detailed information about how you interact with your friends. It can analyse that behaviour and it can form a detailed understanding of what “normal behaviour” is for you and your friends.

This kind of network analysis is old hat. People have been digging into social graphs since the data first became available, and there are plenty of people out there who understand how to analyse and understand this kind of data better than I do. But suffice it to say that Twitter has the data, and I suspect the expertise, it needs to perform this sort of analysis.

Network analysis doesn’t just provide information on what “normal” interactions are, it can also point to patterns of abuse. Indeed, anyone who’s been on Twitter long enough can deduce the pattern of an attack on an individual. In no particular order, these sorts of things happen in a dogpile:

  • Target is RTd by someone with a lot of followers
  • Target gets @s from people they do not follow, and who do not follow them
  • Number of @s increases rapidly as the attack spreads
  • Target tries to RT or .@ to draw attention to the attack
  • Target retreats, but the attack continues

These behaviours are clearly different from normal interactions, and it should be possible to design an alert system that throws up a red flag as soon as these behaviours are noted.

One challenge is that, on the face of it, an abusive dogpile might look a lot like an enthusiastically positive response to a tweet or a RT by a celebrity. Or that a mostly positive conversation could include abusive tweets. Or a wide-ranging conversation around a popular hashtag.

I suspect, however, that if one were to dig into the details, it would be possible to spot the differences between these scenarios, not least by looking at the kinds of accounts taking part, the language used, whether there is a hashtag involved and what that hashtag is (hashtags can be used to coordinate attacks, so aren’t themselves indicative), the timing of replies, etc. For example, a popular user posing a question and then RTing the best answers is going to have a very specific profile that would be very different to that of abuse.

The right kind of analysis can also help to identify abusers through their behaviour, as they:

  • @ someone they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with before
  • @ someone whose friends they don’t follow
  • @ that person repeatedly and in rapid succession
  • Use abusive language
  • Follow other accounts who are also engaged in, or even inciting, the attack

Maybe the accounts are new sockpuppets that resemble spammers, or maybe they have huge followings, or somewhere in between. Maybe the inciting RT was made innocently by a celebrity whose followers take it all a step too far, or maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to drive someone off Twitter. It doesn’t really matter: Attacks seem to follow similar trajectories and should be detectable in the data.

More importantly, the analysis of your social graph could be used to forestall an attack. I imagine a system where all tweets coming from outside my immediate circle of long-term (say over 30 days) followers, and their long-term followers, are immediately suspect and subject to additional scrutiny before they get to my @ timeline. Perhaps they go through linguistic analysis to look for problematic epithets. As imperfect as such analysis is, as a part of a broader strategy it might well have its place.

The system would also look for other signs that an attack was beginning: Are there other @ tweets coming in from outside the target’s friends and friend-of-a-friend network? Are those tweeters related in any way, eg do they follow someone who RTd a tweet by the target, be they clueless celebrity or bigot? Are they responding to or using the same hashtag?

If enough flags were triggered, the system would escalate, either to a human moderator at Twitter (though frankly I think that would be a terrible idea, given how inconsistent human moderation tends to be) or to the next level of automated control. In the automated case, any tweets that look like they might be part of an attack would be quarantined, away from the target’s main timeline.  Rather like a spam folder, a user could either glance through them and “unquarantine” good tweets and permanently hide bad ones, or let them be automatically hidden from view without ever seeing them. Any data on false positives from users who do  could be then used to help train the system.

Users should also have control over whether they take part in such a system, and there’d need to be careful thought about appropriate defaults. Users tend not to change defaults, and whilst most new users wouldn’t be likely to need such a system, one wouldn’t necessarily know when one needed it until it was too late. For it to be effective, it would need to be an opt-out system that people have to turn off, rather than on. There would need to be both clear communication with users about what such a system would mean, how to activate it and deactivate it, and how to use it.

Notification trolling

A troll mitigation system needs to not just focus on preventing abusive content from reaching its target, but also on preventing abuse through notifications. As it stands, people who have notifications turned on get ding-ding-dinged like a rat in an electrified cage during an attack, as one friend put it. The frequency of notifications becomes a part of the attack, not just a side-effect. So there would need to be an emergency brake on those notifications to make sure that someone isn’t swamped by texts, emails and alerts.

So what happens if a user was found to be a part of an actual attack? Perhaps they would receive a warning for the first incident, detailing the problematic behaviours. If they continue those behaviours, their account would be automatically suspended for a period. Persistent offenders would be banned.

Clearly people can set up multiple Twitter accounts very easily, but an automated system would be able to deal with those far more easily than the current system, which relies on people reporting abuses. Equally, brand new accounts could have restrictions, such as not being able to successfully @ message or DM non-followers for 30 days — a new user might be able to send an @ message or DM, but if the recipient isn’t following them, they shouldn’t see it.

Now, I know some people are going to scream censorship over these suggestions, but really, that’s a nonsense. Twitter is under no legal or moral obligation to provide a platform to people who abuse others, and nor am I or any other user under any legal or moral obligation to listen to people who would abuse us. The right to free speech is not the right to be heard or have an audience. The right to free speech does not give people the right to abuse others, nor does anyone have any right to demand my attention. I am free to withhold my attention just as Twitter is free to withhold service to those who break its terms and conditions.

Other objections will be technical. How on earth would this data analysis all be done in real time? Well, most accounts won’t ever need this sort of protection. People with a handful of followers, people who rarely log in, people who rarely tweet and private accounts are unlikely to end up at the epicentre of a Twitter quake. But the accounts of those who might need it could be very lightly monitored for the early signs of trouble, and the full analysis would only kick in if needed. Equally, there are categories of users who are at higher risk of attack, such as women and people of colour, who could perhaps be given more computational attention.

And those who want Twitter’s firehose, the unexpurgated reckon of the unfiltered masses in all it’s glory could, obviously, opt out.

Finally, one thing you’ll notice is absent from this blog post is a call for better reporting tools. Ultimately, focusing on users reporting abuse is shifting responsibility for dealing with that abuse on to the target. That is unethical. It is, essentially, the technological equivalent of victim blaming. If I am abused, I do not want to have an easier way to deal with the abusive messages, I want to never see them in the first place. Sure, blocks and mutes can be fed into the system to help train it, but prevention is always better than cure.

Journalism and innovation: “Never outsource your future”

 Piechota quotes Clayton Christensen, the esteemed chronicler of corporate change, saying: “Never outsource the future.”

Ken Doctor does a great summary of a report by Grzegorz Piechota for the INMA. I met Grzegorz Piechota in Prague years ago now, probably 2007. We were both presenting at a small workshop for journalists hosted by the Transitions Online.

Rather than doing a full-blown summary of a summary, I’ll just highlight this because it is so relevant and important.

Greg doesn’t pull punches, and he is saying something that needs to be said but that almost no staffer or senior manager who wants to keep their job can say:

Today we pay the price for the sins of the past. Users are destroying publishers’ revenues with adblockers. Internet giants have sniffed the opportunity to drag us into their walled gardens and eat us alive. It’s high time for news publishers to give strategic priority to mobile and improve the user experience…Can we stop discussing in our newsrooms whether every reporter should be on Facebook or Twitter and move the debate on social media to the boardroom?

I know of a major news company in which the staff have to use ad blockers so that they can simply do their jobs and manage their sites. If your staff cannot use your own site without destroying your business model, does that take anyone even a second to realise how ridiculously broken your user experience and ultimately your business is?

The time for half measures is long past. This is a senior board level discussion, and the leadership and managers need to start listening to people on staff who are saying these uncomfortable things. I’m making quite a tidy living at the moment telling companies things they need to hear, that many of their staffs are telling but that they wouldn’t countenance from a staff member or members of their management team.

We didn’t need to get to this moment a moment when major companies are going to go to the wall because they couldn’t deal with the reality that was so clearly before them. Instead, they chose to listen to the people who whispered that it would all be OK in their ears. To steal one more line from Greg. He quotes a Polish proverb:

When someone tells you that you’re drunk, she might be wrong. When three different people tell you, you’d better shut up and go to bed.

The industry is drunk. It needs to wake up and come back with a plan to deal with 21st Century realities. Build a digital business or get ready for the deadpool.

Noted: UK print headwinds and growth v. revenue

As a media consultant, I am asked all of the time to point out models that actually work. I have almost always included the Financial Times in that list because they set the trend that others are trying to follow — building a reader-revenue driven digital business model. The FT was one of the early pioneers of the metered paid content model, and they have hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers. 

Now, Politico is reporting is that not even the mighty FT is immune from what most likely is the beginning of the end of print newspapers as a premium advertising platform. It might be, or it might just be a sign of Brexit uncertainty. We’ll know a lot more after 23 June. 

More worrying for the publishers in the long term is that some of the downturn is because companies are pulling out of newspapers altogether, putting their money into other formats such as the Internet and TV. The fear is: Many of those companies won’t come back.

I think in some sectors of print, they won’t come back. If they don’t come back to the FT, that would be a much darker turn for the industry and herald the beginning of final collapse of news-“papers”, at least in the Anglo-sphere.

I’m going to go out on a limb: Over the next two years, across large swathes of the English-language newspaper business, we will see widespread adoption of lower frequency printing — two or three days a week. Print will quickly become uneconomic as a platform.

Print represents the majority of the revenue for newspapers, yes, but also the majority of the cost. The economics will get ugly rapidly. The FT is lucky. It has digital revenue to fall back on, but for those newspapers that haven’t built digital businesses or other sources of revenue, the future will be bleak.

Growth v. revenue: The tension of the VC-backed model

I have to admit that I had never heard of live-streaming service Katch before Medium flagged up that a friend, Sue Llewellyn, like this post on Medium. For those of you like me, it looks like they came in second to Periscope, and I say that with no disrespect to what is obviously a small, passionate team. I do not mean to rub salt in their wounds.

In their post-mortem, something leapt out at me:

With a team as small as ours, taking the time to build out the revenue features for Katch would take away from building the growth features. When we got down to brass tacks, no matter how we ran the numbers, a premium version of Katch didn’t represent a venture-backed opportunity. 

With funding becoming more scarce, we’re entering a time where start-ups will rely much more heavily on founder, angel and seed funding. The VC’s are going to be suffering from a case of self-inflicted unicorn impalement for a while — taking the time machine back to 2002. Lots of innovation happened, but the dot.com crash was painful for a lot of people. Anyone got a fund shorting Silicon Valley real estate that they can recommend? 

EDF Energy support girls in STEM by giving prize to boy

EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign to encourage girls’ interest in STEM was controversial from its launch last September, but now they’ve really taken the biscuit to end all biscuits by awarding their #PrettyCuriousChallenge prize to a boy.

Before we go further, I have to emphasise that this is not the fault of the boy, Josh, at all. Nor is anyone saying that he didn’t deserve the prize he was given. That’s not the question. The question is, why was a competition run as part of a campaign to encourage girls into STEM open to boys at all?

To understand just how appallingly EDF Energy have mismanaged this entire campaign, we have to go back to September last year when EDF Energy announced their Pretty Curious campaign, and a supporting “study” that they said they’d done. From the Independent:

A UK-wide campaign is being launched to inspire teenage girls to pursue science-based careers after new research revealed how a third don’t think they are clever enough for such jobs.

EDF Energy polled* over 2,100 pupils aged between 11 and 16 to find 32 per cent of young girls don’t think they have the smarts to become a scientist – despite the subject being one of their most-enjoyed (28 per cent) and incurring the best performance rate in at school (38 per cent) in the last academic year.

*Total sample size was 2,167 children aged 11 to 16, who were in Key Stage 3 or 4 in the last school year (2014/15). 1,127 were boys and 1,040 were girls.

Now, the study results weren’t out of line with other such work, but nevertheless, it’s always a bit suspicious when a company releases ‘research’ that just happens to back up a PR campaign that they are launching at the same time. Curious to see how the study was conducted, journalist Kate Bevan asked EDF Energy to share their data and methodology so that it could be examined. They never did share that info.

A bigger problem was the name, “Pretty Curious”, for which EDF Energy were strongly criticised on Twitter and in the media. The very phrase “pretty curious” creates a relationship between girls’ physical appearance and their interest in STEM, a relationship that should not exist. Add to that the fact that the campaign website featured articles about women working in fashion and make-up, the link between attractiveness and curiosity is reinforced.

Women are too often judged on their appearance, and girls in particular are vulnerable to body shaming, being constantly exposed to unattainable ideals of beauty via the media. The association of science and beauty created by the campaign name both reinforced the idea that one must be beautiful to succeed, and created a new association, that you must be beautiful to be in science. This is incredibly corrosive, and meant the campaign might alienate girls who are interested in science but don’t consider themselves pretty.

Wired wrote at the time:

EDF responded to the criticism on Twitter, reassuring critics that it “purposefully chose the word ‘pretty’ to tackle the stereotype head on and create conversation around what is a very real societal issue”.

“We knew the name would attract attention and chose it in order to raise awareness of the campaign, which is aiming to address significant under-representation of women in STEM,” a spokesperson for EDF added via email. “The lack of women working in STEM is a critical issue for us. Whether one likes the language or not, the issue facing the UK is real, and we are determined to use our business to be part of the solution”.

What frustrated me about this response was the assumption by EDF Energy that a conversation needed to be created at all. There are already plenty of individuals and groups working on finding solutions to what is a complex and deep-seated problem. Not only are we always having our own conversations about it, those conversations go back decades, even centuries. But rather than listening to those of us already working in the field,  EDF Energy decided to put PR first and ignore the ways in which they could contribute to the community.

I was also frustrated by their idea that it would be in any way beneficial to create a controversy around girls and women in STEM. We already have enough people online who take an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards our work, and who try to undermine women’s contributions to STEM. We really don’t need a manufactured controversy as well.

Another major problem with EDF Energy’s plans was that they were very short term. Again, from Wired:

The Pretty Curious campaign is due to hold three events in the UK, encouraging girls to take part in activities including coding, 3D printing and laser cutting. EDF also recruited several female ‘role models’ who work in STEM careers — a chemical engineer from EDF, a cosmetic scientist with her own line of cosmetics, a computer scientist who created her own app and a TV presenter with a master’s degree in biochemistry.

We know from 30 years of trying to increase the number of girls studying physics that one-off interventions do not work, because over those 30 years the percentage of girls studying physics hasn’t changed. If short-term interventions like #PrettyCurious made a difference, we would have solved the women in STEM problem decades ago. But whilst some of the girls who took part in EDF Energy’s events might have individually been inspired to carry on studying STEM, it’s just a drop in the ocean. There are 5.4 million girls under the age of 14 in the UK, so inspiring even a few hundred is not enough.

What we really need is a major cultural shift, and that means long-term work tackling the attitudes of teachers, parents and children alike. It’s about getting more women on TV and in the media as experts and figures of authority. It’s about combatting the subconscious bias that marks girls down, that tells girls ‘no’, that they should do something ‘more appropriate’. It’s about understanding the evidence that we have gathered so far, learning how to apply those lessons, and changing our approach whenever new evidence shows us that we need to adjust.

Three events and a website is not going to achieve that. We need to be in it for the long run. For decades. Maybe for centuries. Certainly for as long as it takes.

So, where are we at, now, five months after the initial furore about this ill-conceived, arrogant, tone-deaf campaign began? Well, amazingly, EDF Energy have managed to trump even their terrible campaign launch with a truly breathtaking campaign finale: Their Pretty Curious Challenge has been won by a 13 year old boy.


The Pretty Curious campaign’s stated aim was to encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects. And yet the Pretty Curious Challenge was open to both boys and girls, and a boy won.

This is a fail on so many levels. Firstly, Marketing 101 includes the lesson that you must always know what your message is and you must always stay on message. From the beginning, the #PrettyCurious message was “Girls! Get involved in STEM, it’s fun!”, and that’s a message I have no quarrel with. But extending participation to boys rather undermines that message, and when a boy wins, it says “Girls! You will always come second to boys!”, which is not at all what we want them to hear.

Wrote Zoe Kleinmann on the BBC:

EDF said that while its Pretty Curious programme is still aimed at girls, the UK competition was later opened up to all 11 to 16-year-olds.

It continues to share the same website and branding as the girls’ scheme.

The BBC understands that the decision had been made to open the competition up to both genders in the interests of fairness, and that the contest attracted “a couple of hundred” entries.

Following three events held in the UK for girls last year, the contest was extended online and made available to boys as well.

So, let’s just recap: A campaign aimed at girls is opened up to boys in the name of “fairness”, when the whole point is that girls are not currently treated fairly and need encouragement to study STEM. How on earth does EDF Energy square that circle? It makes less than no sense.

It also raises some interesting questions: Why was the competition opened up to boys? How many entries came from boys and how many from girls? How does EDF Energy define “fairness”? And how does opening up the competition to boys fit in with their stated campaign mission? Was it that they didn’t get enough entries from girls? And if so, what else could EDF Energy have done to increase participation without opening up the competition to boys? How do you think the girls who engaged with #PrettyCurious, having been told that it was specifically for them, feel about a boy winning?

The whole thing is a total fiasco, and throughout it all EDF Energy have been condescending, patronising and arrogant. Here are a few of their Tweets from today, which show them again failing to understand the problem with their campaign, or why people are angry. Instead of addressing the issue, they simply double down:

Screenshot 26:02:2016 15:43

The sad thing is, it could all easily have been avoided. EDF Energy’s social media team said last October that they had spent 18 months researching this project, however not one person that I know who works with girls/women in STEM was approached by them. Any one of us would have been happy to act as a consultant, and to help them find a better premise upon which to build a campaign. I’m pretty sure that would not have been difficult.

But worse, by not engaging with the community, EDF Energy lost the opportunity to learn where their money could better have been spent. There is very good evidence that one-off interventions like Pretty Curious do not work. They do not address the core problem, which is a complex one made up of cultural, societal and psychological components (at least). Ultimately, the money spent on this project has been wasted.

Had they engaged with the community, we could have pointed them in the direction of projects that are working towards creating the right kind of change, and that have the necessary longevity and experience. There are a lot of organisations working on these issues, and many of them are working very effectively at a grassroots level with very few resources. A program of sponsorship would not only have produced better results, it would also be better for EDF Energy, showing a willingness to work with the community, instead of against it.

Instead, we get what is not just a publicity stunt, it’s a damaging publicity stunt, damaging to girls interested in STEM and damaging to EDF Energy’s reputation.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and the #PrettyCurious story doesn’t have to end this way. When Intel had to publicly apologise after becoming embroiled in an anti-woman online campaign, they realised that they had to do something urgently about diversity. They pledged to spend $300 million to increase diversity, said The Verge:

At the time [of the apology], the company said “Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. And, diversity is an integral part of our corporate strategy and vision with commitments to improve the diversity of our workforce.” Today, [Intel CEO Brian] Krzanich elaborated on that by saying Intel’s own internal goal was to reach what he referred to as a “full representation in all levels” in its workforce by 2020. That not only includes its rank and file, but at the executive level as well.

So come on, EDF Energy. You can do better than #PrettyCurious, you can do far better. There are many, many organisations that support women in STEM that you could fund and work with, including my own, Ada Lovelace Day. You don’t even have to pledge $300 million. A tenth of that would be a good start.

Every journalist needs a Plan B

"The key to life is how well you deal with plan B."

Photo: “The key to life is how well you deal with plan B.” by Betsy Weber, Some Rights Reserved from Flickr

Last summer, I noticed that a college classmate had joined a Facebook group called Plan B, a group for “former and current newspaper and video journalism people” looking for a second act, a job match for their transferable skills, a support group or simply a hedge against the instability in the industry. I joined because I sensed that my job as a regional executive editor wasn’t going to be around much longer, and I knew that I needed to start coming up with my Plan B. I would need my Plan B much sooner than expected.

It was clear that more cuts were to come last summer. In the almost two years that I held the job, there had been a straight-forward budget cut and a major reorganisation that was supposed to see us lose 15 percent of our payroll and 20 percent of our headcount. For a time due to existing staff getting promoted or deciding to part ways with the company, at one point last spring, we were almost 50 percent below our pre-reorganisation staffing. The budget was cut again before we filled any of the open positions due a miscalculation during the reorganisation planning. After months of recruiting and before we filled all of the open roles, a hiring freeze was implemented and an early retirement programme rolled out soon after. And then, last October, my role and another were eliminated.

Fortunately, the very next week I had two gigs, which had been in the works for months, and shortly after that, I set up my own consultancy, which is a continuation of work that I did before the job. I’m thrilled to have some very exciting projects in the coming months (although I still have time for more so feel free to get in touch). Ultimately, I want a full-time role, but this work means that I have the breathing room and space to find the best job and the best fit.

That space has been an incredible gift. It has allowed me to talk to a number of mentors and friends and think about all of my options. Compared to 2013, the last time I was looking for a full-time role, I’m actually more optimistic that I’ll be able to find the right role in journalism, but this is as good as time as any to think broadly. And this time like last, I’m thinking not just about the job but also about quality of life, closeness to friends and family and work-life balance.

Apart from the value of having a Plan B, here’s a few things I’ve learned already during this search:

  • Reach out to your network –  Last summer, I began reaching out to mentors and friends in the industry. It helped me get a head start on my job search, and if my friends aren’t in a position to hire me full-time, they still might be looking for a consultant with my skills and experience. But even if work isn’t in the offing, your friends will be a great source of support. I’ve been humbled at how much help friends have been in terms of brokering connections and helping me find new opportunities.
  • Take a passion inventory – One person on the Plan B group worried that she would never find a job as noble as journalism. Many of us got into this business because of the mission, the public service mission. But there are a lot of ways to serve the public. What other passions do you have? Journalism may be a noble mission, but it’s an industry in crisis. At times, I have asked myself if it has become the professional equivalent of an abusive relationship. If your current job in journalism robs you of your life through endless hours of toil while still not providing you a livelihood, there is nothing noble in it. I have seen too many journalists grow bitter after years of sacrifice. This is a chance to write your own story.
  • Think about skills, rather than a specific job – I just came across this today on Editor & Publisher by Tim Gallagher who left newspapers and now has his own small business. He spoke with a careers coach who told him, “We are going to talk about who you are. What your skills are. Not the jobs you’ve had.” He added, “And for the first time in nearly 30 years I began to think that there were jobs out there that did not start with journalism.”
  • Have a FoF – Call it a rainy day fund, an emergency fund or something more colourful, but if at all possible, bank some money so when the axeman cometh, it isn’t an immediate sentence for financial ruin. Before you rush to the keyboard to protest, trust me, I know how hard this on a journalist’s salary, especially when you’re just starting out. When I landed my first journalism job at the Hay’s Daily News in Hays Kansas in the mid-90s, I was making $2000 less than a first year teacher – $16,900 if you must ask. That said, I’ll own my own advantage or privilege, I got my bachelor’s degree debt-free, but only because my parents started saving for college almost the day I was born. They had to start saving early because they were both teachers, so not the demographic definition of high net worth individuals. I learned to save from my parents.

In an ideal world, I would have loved to have made the move on my own terms, but with the cushion my consulting has given me, I’m actually viewing this transition as a gift. I have recharged my batteries and am looking on my future as one of exciting opportunity.

Without my Plan B, I would be consumed with stress and overcome with fear, and I would leap at the first opportunity whether it was the right one or not. Certainly, I’ll be happy when I’ve filled in some more blanks, but I’m doing the heavy lifting now to answer those questions.

Ultimately, having a Plan B is about being prepared. With the industry in such turmoil, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to control the outcome, but the outcome isn’t the loss of a job, it’s what happens next.

Featured photo by Betsy Weber from Flickr.