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December 09 2010


Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston on the new shape of social in The New York Times’ newsroom

In some ways, the most successful social media editor is an obsolete social media editor. The better you do your job — integrate social media into your newsroom, make it a seamless part of your organization’s workflow — the less you’re required to actually, you know, do your job.

By that measure, Jennifer Preston’s work as The New York Times’ first social media editor has been a resounding success — as evidenced by the fact that she will also likely be the outlet’s last social media editor. Earlier this week, the paper announced that it’s scrapping its SM editor role, instead folding responsibility for the Times’ social media oversight into the paper’s Interactive News division, under the leadership of Interactive News Editor Aron Pilhofer.

Pilhofer’s team is composed of developers who are at the vanguard of the journo-hacker movement (we wrote a bit about their intriguing backgrounds this summer), and they’ve already had a big hand in developing some of the Times’ most notable forays into social media: creative commenting systems like Health Care Conversations (which uses what the team internally calls a “bento box” structure to visualize commentary); crowdsourcing efforts like Survival Strategies, which asked for readers’ approaches to coping with the recessed economy; and other efforts. The move into social, in fact, isn’t a move at all. As Pilhofer notes, “It’s really more of an expansion of something that we’re already deeply involved in.”

That expansion has been met with general approval from the Twittersphere and elsewhere: The idea of diffusing the responsibility for social media, shifting it from one person to a team and a newsroom, makes eminent sense. And Preston, for her part — who will continue in the Times’ long tradition of editors-returning-to-reporting, helping to cover, fittingly, the social media beat — likes what the shift to Interactive means for the Times’ future. “That’s where social media belongs, and that’s the direction we have been taking it,” she told me. “And I am thrilled — I am just so delighted — that social media is now going to sit in Aron Pilhofer’s group.”

Evolving toward obsolescence

The shift marks something of a victory for social media at the paper of record — and the news organization where some of the most exciting interplays between tradition and technology are being developed. Social media, at the Times as everywhere else, has undergone an evolution — something that’s been in the works long before Preston took the social media editor role. “The New York Times had a very robust presence in the social media space before I took on that role,” she notes; for the past year and a half, Preston has been not only overseeing the paper’s efforts when it comes to social media, but also playing a get-the-word out role within the Times’ newsroom itself.

One of her great successes in that respect has actually been a quiet one: She has, in a way, normalized the newsroom’s relationship with social media, taking it from a somewhat controversial presence — that newfangled tool of the Twitters — into something now generally accepted as part of the new way of doing journalism. “When I took on the role of social media editor last summer, my primary responsibility was to be an evangelist among our journalists,” Preston told me.

Increasingly, though, that role is becoming obsolete: “Our journalists get it,” she says. “Which has just been so exciting.”

Now, under Pilhofer, social media’s presence will be even more widely distributed throughout the newsroom — and, thus, even more finely integrated within it. “A lot of people, I think, think of engagement as just comments,” Preston notes. “And we have to do such a better job in that area, which everyone is aware of, and we’re really focused on making improvements there. But there’s so many other ways that you can engage people and use social to help drive that.”

In taking over Preston’s general social media responsibilities, Pilhofer told me, he’ll still be playing a training role, introducing Times journalists to new tools for social engagement — Twitter, Facebook, whatever’s next. “We are now at a point when we can start pushing these ideas, and these tools, and responsibilities, and getting this out into the newsroom to continue what Jennifer was doing so effectively for so long.” Pilhofer agrees with Preston, though: It won’t be about evangelism. In fact, “I’m always looking for other words besides ‘evangelizing,’” he notes. “I don’t like it because [social media] is not faith-based. There are very clear, very demonstrable, empirical data we can point to, if that’s what it comes to, to convince somebody that this is worth taking very, very seriously and building into your reporting process. We can show you that. You don’t have to take our word for it.”

And the job of trainer/advocate, going forward, will be distributed. “I think, to some degree, we’re going to be relying on folks who have — to continue the metaphor — ‘gotten the religion’ to continue that,” Pilhofer says. “And one of those people, obviously, is going to be Jen.”

“A seamless mix”

Another aspect of social media’s diffusion into the newsroom will be a broad definition of what “social media” means in the first place. “When this first came up, I was very clear that I wanted to think about all things social — not just a handful of websites that we now talk about,” Pilhofer says. Social media, he points out, “is the entire conversation: It is anywhere readers are talking about us, talking with us, talking with one another, talking about issues that are important — things we’re covering — whether that occurs on NYTimes.com or off. To me, that’s a continuum of things. It’s not just one thing.”

Included in that is an idea that’s especially exciting for future-of-newsies: social-media-as-reporting-tool. “Social media,” as Pilhofer construes the term, includes “a lot of really, really cool new tools that are coming online to help more effectively filter the flow of information — and home in on those interesting tidbits that could turn into great stories.” (Preston echoes that: “I think it’s a mistake just to think of Facebook as a platform just to push out — as a distribution tool. I think it’s just a real opportunity for news organizations to use it to seed communities around your content,” she notes.) And — Pilhofer again — “helping reporters do that, I think, will be very much a part of our responsibility.”

Pilhofer’s team is used to working with text reporters, web producers, business side-ers, and other members of the Times’ organization to accomplish its goals. Interactivity, increasingly, touches every corner of the building. And the entire group of journo-hackers will be involved in making the interpersonal connections within the newsroom that, hopefully, will translate to interpersonal connections in the world beyond its walls. “In effect,” Pilhofer notes, “the responsibilities are coming under the team, and into the team.” The community-building strategies and the technological strategies, currently somewhat separate, are going to be folded into Interactive News. The vision? “A seamless mix of technologists working with journalists to accomplish those kinds of goals. That’ll happen inside the group, but it’ll happen outside the group, as well.”

September 30 2010


Reuters experiments with new points system for comments

A new points system for managing comments on news articles is being experimented with at Reuters. Comments which meet its guidelines will be rewarded with higher status.

Writing on Reuters’ For The Record blog about the issue, the organisation’s global editor for ethics, innovation and values Dean Wright says he was becoming increasingly concerned about the state of comments on Reuters’ and other news organisation’s websites.

On some stories, the “conversation” has been little more than partisans slinging invective at each other under the cloak of anonymity.

I believe our time-challenged, professional readers want to see a more rewarding conversation―and my colleagues who lead Reuters.com are introducing a new process for comments that I believe will help bring that about.

EditorsWebLog provides a simply summary of what is being developed:

Once a person creates an account with Reuters, he is assigned a “new user” status. His comments are initially treated with caution by moderators, who award the user “points” for every satisfactory response published. Once the user gains enough points, his account is promoted so that comments will be immediately published. If a promoted user decides to write distasteful comments, he will lose points and could be demoted back to the “new user” status.

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August 03 2010


Journalism students, put down your pints and get into student media

Joseph Stashko is a journalism student at UCLan and co-editor of hyperlocal news site Blog Preston.

So, you’re studying journalism at university. You’ve paid your fees, bought a copy of McNae’s law, and at the end of three years slogging away at intros, pyramid writing and shorthand, you’ll become a journalist, right?

Obviously it’s a naive and unrealistic view. Getting a job in journalism is more difficult now than ever. And yet the industry saw a 24 per cent surge in applications for journalism courses last year, many of them undergraduate. Clearly people still want to be journalists, and the idea of a vocational degree is still considered attractive.

Considering the uptake in journalism courses, student media offices should be bursting at the seams. So why are so many journalism students unwilling to contribute to student media outlets?

The University of Central Lancashire, home to the first formal journalism course in the UK, currently offers more than 20 undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It has legions of journalism students at various stages in their career, with a wide range of skills and ideas. Yet the student newspaper, Pluto, is run by a skeleton crew.

Pluto’s news editor David Stubbings is hoping to hoping to refresh and improve student media at UCLan by redesigning the fortnightly paper and website and improving the means of communication to students.

“I think a lot of students arrive at university very excited and want to try and do everything. They’ll maybe write a bit but then just lapse and do the bare minimum, especially in first year,” he said.

He pointed out that the blame for a poorly staffed student media also lies with the editors, who should be encouraging more students to participate to avoid an elitist environment.

“Those who are heavily involved must make an effort to attract more contributors and crucially keep them interested. I think there are a lot of students who fail at doing that, so when you see the same writers names appear again and again people start to think that there’s no point trying to get involved.”

The outlook is, admittedly, bleak for nascent journalists. With all that’s written about mass redundancies, newspaper profit going into freefall, and seasoned journalists being laid off, you’d forgive a journalism student for wanting to crawl back into halls and stay there.

But I’d suggest the opposite. Student media, if done well, can offer a forum to throw around ideas (no matter how far-fetched), collaborate with like minded people, and practice journalism that is probably far closer to the romantic ideal of a roving reporter than any entry level job.

Journalism students have a lot to offer in an industry that is constantly in a state of flux. While interning at a national newspaper, I recall pointing out to a senior editor how to integrate his articles into Twitter, engage the readers and help tell a story better with data visualisation and diagrams. Skills which my generation take for granted are still thought of as innovative by many senior journalists, and what students lack in experience they can make up for with imagination and a little creative nous.

Student media can, and should foster this. At worst it can be self indulgent, and have the best interests of its writers, not its readers, at heart. But at its best it can be a melting pot of new ideas, encouraging experimentation and unusual content, all the while in the stable incubation stage of higher education.

In this uncertain time, journalism students can hold the key to unlocking a lot of different possibilities for the future of the profession. So lose your inhibitions, put down your pints, and get involved in your student media.Similar Posts:

June 30 2010


Will Google use email contact lists to build a new social network?

Rumours of Google’s new social network are flying this week. The BNET Technology blog has some thoughtful speculation about its form here.

What will it look like? What elements of existing Google products will it incorporate? And how much control will users have over their profile information and data?

But what’s of interest to me was captured in a tweet by Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief at Mashable – journalists and anyone interested in protecting email contacts data should take note:

Google’s supposed new social network will be doomed unless they start over from scratch on the contact/friends list.

Another Twitter user, Marshall Haas (@marshallhaas), asked him why it was a problem; Ostrow answered:

“Same problem as Buzz … Gmail’s contact list isn’t an accurate definition of who my ‘friends’ are. At all.”

He’s talking about automated ‘friend’-making systems, in which Gmail contacts (i.e. email address book data) are automatically connected to you in a new system – as originally happened with Google Buzz.

Many users were not happy to see private email connections made public via Buzz; an issue Google quickly addressed. When developing its new connection tools for the new social network, Google would do well to remember the furore it faced over auto-friending in Buzz.

On a related topic, a few months ago Journalism.co.uk examined the practice of address book importing, in which social networks use members’ email address books to make connections between users and issue invitations.

As we reported, tools used by social networks to harvest new members can threaten the privacy of confidential sources and put journalists’ careers in jeopardy.

We tested out various services we showed that by using someone’s email address book data, a social network can link users publicly, risking source exposure.

Facebook, the social network on which we focused most of our attention, concerned us with its use of users’ data and descriptions of systems were muddled. We called on Facebook to make their systems clearer.

Facebook’s European policy director Richard Allan later told us: “[I]f somebody were a journalist with a professional [contacts] list, it would make sense for them clearly not to use any of these address book importers at all”.

In subsequent email correspondence with Facebook’s public relations team, I was told that for some users (who wish to import an email address list, but not reveal certain contacts): “… it may be better to upload your contacts from an Excel sheet or similar so you can remove ones you don’t wish to upload”.

While concerned about Facebook’s unclear and potentially misleading settings around address book importing and recommendations, we were impressed by the effort they made to answer our enquiries and we’ll be watching to see how they develop their systems.

Interestingly, this week I received this message from Twitter, in my inbox:

XXX knows your email address: YYY@googlemail.com. But Twitter can’t suggest you to users like XXX because your account (@YYY) isn’t configured to let users find you if they know your email address.

It then provided a helpful button to allow me to: “Review & confirm your settings”.

To explain: a friend (XXX) has shared her address book and Twitter has matched my email address to an unused Twitter account I hold (@YYY). I am then given the option to connect with this person, or open up my account to email address matching. i.e. I have to opt *in* to her sharing of email address book data.

It’s curious because in the past, I’ve received follows from people in my email address book to this same Twitter account – an account, I should add, that’s not in my name. I’m surprised therefore they found it without importing their email addresses, but I don’t know this for certain. With only four followers to this account, it seems unlikely two of them should be in my address book!

Anyway, in my case, it wasn’t important whether they followed me via this unused account or not, but anonymous bloggers out there (public service workers or political dissidents for example) should be careful to *never* use their real email addresses when registering social network accounts. Even if the account is in a different name, and the email address is private, the connection can still be made.

For a journalist, Twitter’s new alert system is good news. Twitter may not have answered any of Journalism.co.uk’s numerous enquiries about its address book importing methods, but at least it is developing techniques to allow users to make informed choices about who and how they connect with contacts with whom they have exchanged emails.

Has Twitter changed its ABI system? Did it read Journalism.co.uk’s initial enquiries outlining our concerns? I’ve sent the press people a line, but I’m not holding my breath.

I also contacted Google to ask about the rumoured network and whether Gmail address book data will be used for building membership. The spokesperson’s comment? Simply: “We do not comment on rumour or speculation”.Similar Posts:

June 21 2010


Mumbrella: ‘The Australian shows it’s easy for a paper to go overboard’

Down under, a fascinating media battle continues to play out: between News Corp’s Australian newspaper, the newspapers’ critics and the Victorian Office of Police Integrity (OPI).

In fact, via regular Crikey updates I’m truly hooked, but every time I come to summarise the plot for a UK audience I get put off by its numerous layers. However, I think it’s worth attempting, and directing you to more thorough pieces on Australian media sites.

I’ve previously written about the so-called ‘OzLeak’ case, which Margaret Simons has been steadily reporting for some months on politics site Crikey.

It involves a journalist’s source, an award-winning scoop about a police terror raid by the Australian, an inquiry by the Victorian Office of Police Integrity (OPI) and the attention of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI). Eventually the Australian prevented publication of the OPI/ACLEI report on its scoop with a court order.

Since my last update, the situation has got even more tricky. The Australian has published more attacks on the OPI and Victoria Police’s chief commissioner Simon Overland. The Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper has also turned its attention to Simons’ journalistic activity, accusing her of receiving “inaccurate leaks” from Victoria Police and the OPI that discredit the Australian and its reporter Cameron Stewart; a charge she denies.

Fortunately for us observers, trying to make sense of all this, another independent Australian media site, Mumbrella, steps in to provide a little more commentary and summary:

“This appears to be a story that is of more interest to journalists than the public, and it feels a little like whoever writes about the issue ends up being sucked into it,” writes Tim Burrowes. “Certainly Simons is now involved in her own tussle with The Australian.”

Drawing on his own journalistic experience, he says the newspaper has got caught up and gone “overboard” in its coverage of the OPI.

So far, those outside the story probably see one of two sides. Either, the paper is cynically pursuing its own agenda to prosecute a private war. Or it is subjecting a powerful figure to long overdue scrutiny. It is, I suspect, neither of those two things, and both of those two things.

Once you’ve got something, it’s hard to let go. Particularly when you take it personally. That’s the nature of  investigative journalism.

But I don’t think this is a story that would have got anything like the column inches if The Australian wasn’t directly involved, and the senior editorial staff were not heavily invested in it.

Is there a story there? Yes. But has The Australian gone overboard in telling it? Yes.

I’ll try and update when there are further developments. In the meantime, I’ll be following Australian media news with interest.

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June 11 2010


#VOJ10: What is ‘networked’ journalism – and what’s its value?

I’m in session 2 of the second track of the BBC CoJo / POLIS Value of Journalism conference. This one is chaired by Charlie Beckett with his colleague Dr Damian Tambini, Times web development editor (business) Joanna Geary, and Mark Oliver of Oliver and Ohlbaum.

Oliver has done research into news consumption. Audience behaviour doesn’t necessarily reflect news silos of old, he says. For example, if they paid for all the sites they consume in one month, it would start adding up. On public value he says: if you don’t have professional intermediation of content it could undermine public value. He’s written a paper for Polis on public service broadcasting, but I can’t find it – I’ll link to it when I can.

Now Damian Tambini: there seems to be a crisis in good journalism. But, some – like Charlie Beckett – are saying it’s an opportunity for a golden age. So, there seems to a crisis but also an opportunity. Crucial to that, is understanding that journalism is not simply an individual activity or a commodity on the market. It’s also a set of institutions, rules and rights. The lobby system for example, has won a “privileged access” in society.

We see that journalism serves a social purpose. Journalism is not just a set of individual practices, Tambini says. It’s an “institutionalised profession”. “This idea of journalism as a profession recognised in law is familiar”. In part this debate is about how new forms of journalism can access funding and other privileges journalists have.

In regards to ’saving journalism’ Tambini explores a few ideas – and whether/how ‘new media insurgents’ can access those privileges of old. “We need to think more innovatively about how to support [journalism],” he says. “We need to think about creating new kinds of privileges and support…” He refers to his paper with some suggestions for how to do this (again, I’ll try to update with a link when I find it).

Joanna Geary says she is a ‘networked journalist’. She asks: why is she trusted? And why does she trust sources of information? She has formed a relatively good idea of how to trust people, as a result of observation. She talks about why she started in journalism. She went into it because she wanted to be “useful”. She felt strange to give her opinion on something she didn’t feel that qualified to talk about. So blogging, where the answer is not definitive, suited her. But when she was wrong, her audience didn’t leave her. She realised that  that was how she would like to consume journalism herself. She thinks that by being at the Times, which is about to introduce a paywall around its content, she has the opportunity to create a “space” online where journalists can contribute as they haven’t before. Geary says it will create “a much closer relationship” between the Times and its readers.

Now we’re onto questions… some highlights…

Oliver talks about “self-correcting” and says he’s worried about viral marketing, in which people are under-estimating the way companies have worked out to use the web to sell products.

Will Perrin, in the audience, suggests Ben Goldacre as an example of ‘networked’ journalism and community. He says Goldacre has shown how you can use the web effectively to show up articles as “bunk”.

Kevin Anderson (who is a pioneer in social journalism) says that even for people have all the multimedia skills there aren’t enough jobs. Geary meanwhile says she’s seeing a skills gap between technology and journalism.

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#VOJ10: The realities of multimedia journalism

I’m in track 2 of the POLIS/BBC College of Journalism Value of Journalism conference and we’re discussing innovation in journalism, the importance of content and the practicalities of being a multimedia journalist. It features multimedia journalist and notonthewires co-founder Alex Wood (chair), freelance multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook, CNN journalist and notonthewires co-founder Dominique van Heerden, freelance and former BBC video journalist Angela Saini, and multimedia lecturer and VSC Creative director (and also notonthewires co-founder) Marcus Gilroy-Ware.

Once they introduced themselves, we’re onto the practicalities of the jobs.

Saini, who said she got fed up of the daily pressure of being a VJ, says she’s come full circle and is now spending time on separate radio or print projects – which are of better quality. She also notes that we haven’t yet got an editorial layer of people who have actually been VJs on the ground, who understand the realities of the job. The most successful multimedia journalists are the ones who know their subject inside out, she says. It’s key to be niche. As for the freedom now she’s not a fulltime VJ: “I do much meatier stories… than I did before…”

Someone asks whether there can be too much focus on technology. “What does it enable us to do?” is the question, says Gilroy-Ware, answering with a question. There’s too much emphasis on products, he says. Saini adds that she doesn’t see herself as an innovator per se (she’s only just got on Facebook and doesn’t use Twitter) but she’s in the multimedia field. The younger generation don’t feel a pressure to do tech; they do it because they enjoy it.

Adam Westbrook, who has written an e-book on making money online, says he sees enormous potential in self-publishing. But Saini points out the obvious: that her money is still made from the big organisations.

Some very interesting experiences and contributions from the audience: are we misleading students by encouraging them to get in…? Do traditional news orgs understand how multimedia can/should be used…

And someone asks just what is notonthewires; business model etc…

Giroy-Ware says it’s about multimedia journalism being taken seriously: “really embracing the bottom-up cultural change that needs to happen in the news industry.” Van Heerden says it’s about partnership with big partners. Gilroy-Ware talks about Steve Jobs’ ‘Beatles’ business model and says they’re also looking to the ‘band’ element as a possible commercial opportunity.

Meanwhile a ‘Is Content King?’ poll is running behind the panel, up on the screen, powered by UltraKnowledge. Participants can “#ukn5yes” for YES or “#ukn5no” for … NO. The yeses are leading… (I personally find this one a bit tricky to answer, and don’t know what it really means, but that’s probably for another blog post)

Gilory-Ware says ‘make the journalism you want to make’ – chances are others will like it too. It’s a nice positive note to end on, but I have a feeling not everyone would agree with that.

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May 28 2010


iPad or why pad? Mixed messages for UK news publishers

For those of you that have been in hiding and didn’t know, Apple’s iPad launched in the UK today with granular reports from the media on who was the first to buy the device to who was the first to emerge from Apple’s London store holding one (hopefully we’ll soon have details of who’s been the first person to leave theirs on the London Underground or to ask for a refund).

Bit of a love-in for the Apple store in the Telegraph’s report:

While braving the cold, the trio were given food and drinks by sympathetic Apple staff with several other customers offering them hundreds of pounds to replace them in line.

As Jake ran into the store, after a countdown, he was greeted by screams and cheers from dozens of excited staff members who hugged and high-fived him before posing for the world’s media.

And plenty of coverage from the Guardian, which, despite having its website on much of Apple’s pre-launch marketing material, has decided not to launch a news app on the device in time for launch. The title did announce today, however, that its Eyewitness photography app has been downloaded more than 90,000 times since the US launch of the product in April.

The Financial Times, as expected, and the Times have jumped onto the new touchscreen bandwagon. The Times iPad edition comes hot on the heels of the launch of its new website earlier this week, though the app’s pricing structure adds another layer to News International’s paywall plans.

Accompanying the Times’ launch, an article on ‘How iPad may make the future of newspapers a different story’, which suggests that:

Many media organisations think that it will give them the opportunity to correct past mistakes with online journalism, allowing them to charge customers for content and in return provide an enriched experience more compelling and interactive than printed newspapers.

Let’s hope the latter does come hand-in-hand with the former to make these news apps something worth paying for. New research from analysts Ovum warns publishers about sticking all their eggs in one Apple-shaped basket and ignoring other devices and a digital strategy addressing all platforms: web, mobile, tablet and future. At least the Financial Times, which is operating a standard, tiered pricing structuring across its various digital outlets, seems to get this. Meanwhile, media journalist Patrick Smith wonders whether you need a news app at all, arguing that apps are a convenient, but limited way of publishing information.

As a Financial Times report earlier this week says:

[M]any of the most popular European publications on the web – including the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Economist – will not be in the App Store when the iPad launches in nine countries this Friday.

Digital publishers, analysts and design experts say the first publishers’ apps are confusing to use or boringly faithful to the offline product, and are not being used as much as hoped.

Media organisations might get the charging for content right this time around (although the Times’ model leaves some questions), but will content and designing to make the most of the iPad’s features be overlooked by some news organisations in the rush?

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May 25 2010


Comment: Reaction to the new Times and Sunday Times websites

Having had a day to “browse and snack” on the new Sunday Times and Times websites, what’s the feedback so far? What’s the reaction to the new editorial layout, multimedia changes and approach to journalism behind a paywall?

Starting with those bloggers who were given a sneak preview of the sites the night before they went live:

Malcolm Coles on the Times:

Without the need to chase search engine traffic or page views for advertisers, the idea of covering fewer stories but in a better way sounds appealing (…) an article, for instance, with an information graphic and tabs to let you explore the history and different aspects of the story without leaving the page. This package of content is brilliant – it works much better as an experience than lists of related articles or auto-generated tag pages.

But, asks Coles, shouldn’t readers be allowed to subscribe to just one site with completely distinct sections and topics?

It strikes me that there is either sufficient distinction in the audience for the two brands that you let users subscribe to just one site; or the audiences cross over so much that you combine the two sites in one and think about what makes most sense from the user’s point of view.

Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross-linking, seems a bit odd.

Adam Westbrook on the experience of reading the Times and Sunday Times online:

Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.

Rory Cellan-Jones on how a smaller audience might offer a more engaged readership:

[T]he company is convinced that advertisers will find the smaller audience of committed readers more attractive than the 21 million promiscuous passers-by who flit through the free Times Online site each month at present. While there’s been plenty of sniping from the sidelines by News International’s rivals, I suspect they are all glad that someone is at least testing the waters.

Tim Fenton:

It’s a slick package, although whether well-bundled, good content is enough of a differentiator from everything on Google News remains to be seen. For me, the biggest surprise is that the Times is not planning a splashy ad campaign to launch the paywall – it is relying chiefly on promotion in the newspaper.

It’s a low-key – and very analogue – start to one of the biggest experiments in modern digital media.

Of those reviewing the sites today, TechCrunch Europe expands on concerns raised that the papers’ journalists will miss out on social media conversation around their work, with thoughts on what the paywall means for mobile and ecommerce developments:

I don’t know The Times’ development roadmap, but if it does not have an API for its content (I presume it won’t since the whole of the new sites will be paywalled and invisible to search engines) then there will be no opportunity to catch the Third Wave of social or indeed of mobile or commerce. The Times cannot possibly come up with all the ideas which will happen in the Third Wave, which is why third-party developers will be so important.

Will the Times and Sunday Times be taking themselves out of the social media conversation with paywalls that redirect deep links to a generic login page? (Interesting to note findings from a Pew Research Center study, which report that bloggers will share more links and stories produced by mainstream news organisations, Twitterers less so, suggesting there’s is still a reliance of the social media news world on traditional news outlets. Interesting also – digital director of Mirror Group Matt Kelly’s remarks last week about the importance of honing news sites to niches that their readers identify as the values of that particular paper or brand.)

Adam Tinworth provides food for thought on the issue with his post on the potential impact of a subscription wall on a site’s community:

People sharing what they think will be identifiable, and they will have paid an entrance fee to get in there. This is, in fact, a community model, just one that differs from the wide, inter-connected community model we’re used to on the open web.

I recall Lee Bryant saying at last year’s Social Media Influence conference that sometimes its the wall that defines the community. And that maxim will be tested on these sites.

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May 07 2010


#ge2010: Election Night review – a night of TV drama starting in Northern Ireland

Broadcast journalism lecturer at Coventry University John Mair reviews last night’s election coverage from the BBC from his post in the broadcaster’s Northern Ireland election newsroom:

Lunchtime Friday and still no clear answer. The British people have spoken but in a divided way. The politicians are wriggling to get advantage or cling on to power (you decide). The most exciting election campaign of modern times has been followed by the most exciting night of election drama of modern times.

Nowhere was the drama greater than here in Northern Ireland where I was working on election night – the other election, often ignored by those ‘across the water’. First casualty, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson whose 31-year stint as MP for East Belfast ended in stunning defeat by a woman of the centre – Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. Robinson has had an annus horibbulis having to face television investigations announcing his wife’s affair and, after that, his own land dealings came under scrutiny. Last night was his nadir. He rushed to the count at Newtonards Leisure Centre, spoke briefly to the local media and was then ushered out. Now he has gone to ground to lick his wounds and fend off predators.

The Robinson moment was magic telly: milked by the local outputs, but less so by the networks. They wanted more of Lady Sylvia Hermon, who defected from the Unionists when they joined with the UK Conservatives. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) were seen off in what should have been their heartland North Antrim by Ian Paisley Jnr – brands are as important in politics as anywhere else. He and father – who preceded him in the seat for 40 years – showed their contempt for the TUV by singing the national anthem before his victory speech. Worse for ‘moderate’ Unionism, Sir Reg Empey lost out in South Antrim to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The planned Tory beachhead in Northern Ireland became a washout. It was a media confection.

The BBC Northern Ireland Election programme ran for seven-plus hours using all the 18 counts at eight locations as their prime material. Down-the-line interviews galore at the outside broadcasts based on deep local knowledge. The local commercial station – Ulster Television – did not even make it to the starting line. No election news between 10:30pm and 09.30am. That did not go unnoted by fellow hacks.

The BBC’s ‘Dimbleby programme’ had a magnificent set on its side and some pretty special Jeremy Vine virtual reality graphics too – my favourites being the Downing Street staircase or the House of Commons with real faces smiling and nodding. Modern Television journalism is about entertainment and keeping it simple. Nowhere more so than in the use of electronic graphics. All of that plus live reporting from many of the big beasts of telly journalism. It’s fascinating to see how many of them still used the basic journalistic skills, like Kirsty Wark doorstepping/walking besides and interviewing Nick Clegg on the hoof on the way to his count.

It’s difficult from inside my bubble to know how the drama played out in the nations. It certainly kept us rapt in this television control room. You could not have written the script. But the 2010 General Election story has not yet reached its final chapter. Plenty more drama to come…

Read John Mair’s report from the BBC’s TV ‘hub’ in Belfast on the build-up to election night.

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May 05 2010


Comment: Tension mounts in Johnston Press newsrooms

Unless Johnston Press executives do something quickly, internal pressure could rival Eyjafjallajokull’s. Week after week the internal resentment bubbles up. A summary of recent events, according to the National Union of Journalists and previous reports:

  • JP staff stuck abroad due to the ash cloud were asked to take it out of their holiday allowance, or as unpaid leave.
  • On the same day NUJ members attended the Edinburgh shareholders’ meeting, asking the board “questions about executive pay, staff morale and the pressures on journalists to continue to produce quality newspapers in the face of 12 per cent staff cuts, a pay freeze and inadequate training on the Atex editorial production system.” (NUJ May 2010)

Across the group, there was a 70 per cent vote by NUJ members for industrial action “to combat job losses and  increased levels of stress and workload caused by the introduction of the Atex content magagement system,” according to the NUJ.

New content management system, Atex, is causing embarrassment for its journalists, resulting in misaligned pictures, or even missing pictures. They have difficulties with formatting the content properly.

Jon Slattery hosts a candid and sensibly anonymous account from a Leeds-based Johnston Press journalist today:

Here in Leeds, on the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, we have been waiting for months now to be told we are going Atex – i.e. replacing subs with templates for reporters to fill. We have heard from smaller centres all over the group what is likely to happen. It started to get close when we heard Scarborough subs had been “offered” redeployment to Sheffield – a two-hour drive on a good day.

Much of a recent NUJ meeting agenda was taken up by Northern divisional manager, Chris Green, says the anonymous correspondent. He adds:

We have seen a lot of nice suits pass through this place and walk away with pockets bulging, leaving the papers thinner and crappier.

JP’s recent strategy would suggest that the ’suits’ aren’t really prioritising the web, after its failed pay wall trial – with reports of very (very) few subscribers. Journalists aren’t even asking for that much. Slattery’s man on the ground says:

…I do not want to make a stand for standards in journalism. I want to make the best of a bad job. I am not even sure I want to make a stand for strict demarcation between subs and reporters. But however you carve it up, somebody has to do the bloody work…

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April 09 2010


Jonathan Rayner: ‘Time to put some balance back into journalism’

The Law Gazette’s Jonathan Rayner attacks newspapers’ lack of balance, in the run-up to the election. Of both national and regional journalists, he asks: “When did reporters stop reporting the news and become political propagandists instead?”

What is the journalist’s job? Is it still finding out and reporting what’s going on, because how else will everyone know? Or is it convincing the readers, because of their proprietors’ commercial or political interests, to vote in a certain way?

Full post at this link…

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March 08 2010


#IWD: Why do men dominate newspaper letter pages?

It has always fascinated me why male names dominate the readers’ letter pages in newspapers, the original home for crowdsourced comment. What’s more, it’s a trend that plays out online too: men are already significantly noisier on Google Buzz, for example, and dominate online comment in subjects like politics and media.

I was pleased to discover around this time last year that the unequal gender split bothered one @patroclus too (aka writer Fiona Campbell-Howes) who actually set about documenting the trend in 2008 with the blog Guardianletters.blogspot.com/.

She never got any real answers from the newspapers she studied and eventually she let the blog run dry. But the old posts are still there to see, with some revealing graphs, too. The chart below, for example, shows the percentage split between men, women and indiscriminate for April-May 2008 at the Guardian and Observer.

Most recently, the theme was picked up by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in January 2010.

“Why is the letters page, of whichever newspaper you care to choose, invariably dominated by men?” the programme asked. The Observer has actually called for more women to write in.

Jenni Murray talked to Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor at the Observer, and Sarah Sands, deputy editor of the London Evening Standard. Pritchard and Sands seemed to agree that time was a crucial factor – maybe women had less of it. Sands also identified a reluctance on the part of women to declare their opinion publicly.

But does the lack of time and innate modesty theory really hold true, when we look at the amount of female time spent, and number of views shared, on MumsNet, or fashion and food blogs and forums?

I’d be interested to see some more research in this area. It’s a theme that journalist Gaby Hinsliff picks up on in her introductory post for today’s International Women’s Day themed LabourList. Of political blogging, she says “there are too many women waiting to be invited to blog, where men just pile in”.

Like Hinsliff, I’m reluctant to see female-only gimmicks used to remedy the situation, but simultaneously intrigued by the louder male voice, a phenomenon that may be key in understanding why men dominate executive boards across so many industries. Yes, we have a lot of female journalists in the newsroom, but only a handful of women make it to the top levels of the media industry – and even fewer become CEO or editor.

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December 18 2009


November 19 2009


Biscuitgate myth revived as Cameron gets ready for Mumsnet

Any crumbs of truth in the so-called Biscuitgate episode, when Brown allegedly refused to reveal his cuppa accompaniment of choice? Short answer: no. (myth at this link)

Unless Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts was engaged in some bizarre get-on-the-good-side of Downing Street cover-up exercise.

It was quite some ago (October 22) that Roberts clarified:

“Now I can’t say I often find myself feeling sorry for politicians but I have to admit to feeling more than a pang of sympathy for the PM over the past few days. Because the truth is that Gordon Brown didn’t follow the live chat on the screen directly – he answered the questions grouped and fed to him by MNHQ and his advisors. He didn’t avoid the biscuit question because it didn’t cross his path (as I said on Radio 5 on the day, in fact).

“Why did we do it that way? Well, there were so many questions and they were coming in thick and fast on every subject under the sun, so we reasoned that the most effective way of getting as much ground covered as possible was to group them together for him, rather than him answering random ones that he happened to notice.”

But as David Cameron gets ready to step up to the mumsnet challenge, the truth hasn’t stopped people bleating on about blimmin’ biscuits.

For more pertinent comment, visit POLIS director Charlie Beckett’s blog:

“Mumsnet, in particular, has become the destination of choice for politicians who see it as the way to reach a large and significant section of the electorate. But are there other online forums who do a similar job?


“[I]s Mumsnet the exception or, as I keep saying, the new rule? And if so, are there forums for teachers, medics or even just men?”

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November 18 2009


Will inquiries find PCC a chocolate teapot, or a serious ‘moderator’?

The Press Complaints Commission enjoyed mainstream coverage this week, as newspaper titles lapped up the comments of the body’s chair, Lady Peta Buscombe, at the Society of Editors’ conference: she not only called for greater press support, but cited evidence allegedly showing that 6,000 attempted phone hackings were ‘wrongly quoted’ by solicitor Mark Lewis in the House of Commons.

Funnily enough, the papers who were so eager to report Buscombe’s words, didn’t then – save the Guardian it would seem – pick up Mark Lewis’ call for Buscombe’s resignation as PCC chair. You can read Lewis’ letter, sent to Buscombe, the select committee and copied to the Press Association, in full at this link.

Lewis has since told Journalism.co.uk:

“As I said in my [House of Commons evidence, given immediately after that of Mr Yates [Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner], it wasn’t that I had access to documents that the police did not have, I got the documents from the police. Didn’t they read them? Didn’t they understand them?”

“The PCC has shown its true colours. If there is to be non-court regulation then it has to be from an independent tribunal that is not constituted by the press. Oddly, it would work in the press’s interest if there was a body that was willing to challenge and censor the press. As I said on Tuesday, we need an ‘honest and free press not just a free press’.

“My next step will be to carry on in the pursuit of honesty in reporting. If you are in any doubt, look at how many newspapers chose not to run a story that there had been a demand for Lady Buscombe to resign. The newspapers reported Lady Buscombe’s speech but not my response to it.”

Then, just as QC Geoffrey Robertson had hoped when he encouraged editors to abandon the body, news broke of Alan Rusbridger’s resignation from the PCC Code Committee.

“I have enjoyed being on the Code Committee, which does very useful work. I look forward to the results of the review of the PCC which Baroness Buscombe has announced.  The PCC is a valuable mediator. It needs to ask itself whether, as presently constructed and funded, it is a very effective regulator,” was all that the Guardian editor had to say afterwards.

His comments last week, following the PCC’s less than critical findings about phone tapping activities at News of the World, were somewhat stronger:  speaking on BBC Radio 4, the Guardian editor described the PCC’s report as ‘worse than pointless’. “If you have a self-regulation system that’s finding nothing out and has no teeth, and all the work is being done by external people, it’s dangerous for self-regulation,” he said.

The PCC has not yet responded to Journalism.co.uk’s request for comment over Rusbiridger’s departure, but Buscombe today appeared on Radio 4 Media Show [as noted by Jon Slattery at this link]. Rusbridger is right, she said. “We don’t have serious powers to investigate. We are not a police force. We must not tread on the toes of the criminal justice system. We are more of a moderator,” she said.

So what’s the point of the body at all? MP Tom Watson, who sat on the House of Commons culture and media select committee for the phone hacking inquiry, thinks not much. Running the PCC like a clan has led to Rusbridger’s resignation, he said on Tuesday. “It could spell the end of self-regulation. How silly of the new chair,” he tweeted. While in favour of self-regulation, the PCC simply isn’t doing it, he later clarified in another tweet: “[I] believe in self-regulation. And I’d like to see the PCC try it some time.”

A toothless chocolate teapot as alleged by some, or is there a realistic future for the PCC? Investigations of the self-regulation body, such as the one launched by the International Federation of Journalists; the select committee’s inquiry; and the PCC’s own review (led by a former commission member) are anticipated with interest…

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November 12 2009


Malcolm Coles: Gordon Brown letter – Sun misjudges readers’ mood

This is a cross-post from Malcolm Coles’ website www.malcolmcoles.co.uk.

Update: There are suggestions on a Guardian story that the Sun moderators haven’t been putting through comments that are critical of the Sun’s position …

Is the Sun censoring pro-Brown comments?

Is the Sun censoring pro-Brown comments?

Original post
The Sun is running a campaign against Gordon Brown. But I’ve analysed the comments on its website – and readers disagree with its stance by a ratio of more than 3 to 2.

Gordon Brown letter story in the Sun

Gordon Brown letter story in the Sun

The paper has exploited the grief of Jacqui Janes over her son Jamie’s death in Afghanistan to attack the PM – because his handwritten letter of condolence was supposedly disrespectful due to sloppy writing and (disputed) spelling errors.

It’s loathsome journalism that ignores the effect of his disability (the PM is blind in one eye).

And it seems Sun readers are mostly on the Prime Minister’s side.

Of the 100+ comments on the story (don’t worry, I’ve nofollowed those links) when I checked, 111 expressed a view for or against Jacqui Janes or Gordon Brown (the rest commented on other issues or corrected people’s spelling errors). Of these:

  • 42 were anti Gordon or pro the Sun’s stance.
  • 69 were pro Gordon or anti the Sun’s stance.

So that’s more than 60 per cent who don’t agree with the Sun, and less than 40 per cent who do.

Sample comments from those who agree with the Sun’s stance:

Comments agreeing that Gordon Brown was wrong

Comments agreeing that Gordon Brown is “discusting”

Some comments from those opposing it:

Comments defending Gordon Brown

Comments defending Gordon Brown

The Sun is channeling this woman’s grief into a personal attack on the Prime Minister.

It’s refusing to make allowances for his disability (maybe we could next attack the war wounded for being workshy benefit scroungers?).

And it’s facilitating her breaking data protection laws by releasing a recording of a private phone call.

The whole thing is sickening – let’s hope that observing its readers’ reactions will lead to an end to this (not that this happened in the Jan Moir case) – and preferably prosecution of the Sun over the data protection offence.

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November 06 2009


Comment: The problem with PR email

As Journalism.co.uk reported earlier this year, former PR Manager and national newspaper journalist Iain Fleming decided to try and assess which PR distribution methods work and which don’t, by conducting a small survey as part of his CIPR (Chatered Institute of Public Relations Diploma) course at Queen Margaret University. He now works as the business development manager for Wirefast, which provides the Newslink story and picture wire service and is launching a new multimedia management, distribution and syndication service, called Tradeclips, on 19 November.

As the PR industry has grown – from being worth just over £106 million in 1986 to £6.5 billion in 2005 – so has the number of people working in it and inevitably producing material to send to the media. Back in 1985 fax machines were just coming in and were expensive to buy and run, and most material was still sent by post, so there was a direct financial link to distribution.

Jump forward 20 years and there has been a huge increase in media outlets. So most people in PR have to use some form of directory. If it costs an agency several thousand pounds per year to access an online database, but they are allowed to email as many addresses as they like free of charge through that database, then it is no wonder that content is literally being sprayed in a scattergun approach by many.

Now add in to the mix the growing adoption by publishers and broadcasters of websites linked to their traditional products and the need to use multimedia content, but source it for as little as possible – preferably for free from readers and viewers/listeners – and we now have a situation where an industry is rapidly shedding staff but expecting those who are left to take on more work and learn new techniques.

So it came as no surprise to me that the results of my small survey – including responses from 101 editors, section editors, journalists and IT managers – showed just how much those working on news desks disliked the PR industry – despite their growing reliance on it. So much of what is being thrown at them is completely irrelevant – if it gets to them at all.

What does get through – and 95 per cent reported problems with email of which around a quarter said it was ‘every day’ – is sent in ways which either crash their systems or can’t be opened because their employers simply cannot afford to upgrade software on 200 computers as regularly as a small PR agency of just a few people can – and does.

And that is just for ‘traditional’ text and pictures. The message that a national newspaper can happily use a picture – even across several columns – if it is only a few hundred Kb in size has not got through to the PR people, who keep sending out 10Mb files at a time.

Move on to ‘new’ media and the situation is even worse, with the same issues of incompatible file types, too large files, poor quality content and stuff that is ‘just not newsworthy’ topping the list of complaints. A senior manager within ITV told me just last week how one station struggled for several hours to get video sent by a fire brigade into a format suitable for broadcast, but ran out of time and the bulletin went out minus the footage.

This isn’t a rant about email – I don’t know how we managed to exist before it came along and I was an early adopter, although I can’t now remember my first Telecom Gold address back from 1984. It is ubiquitous and for many – probably most – people working in PR – it is all they know and is an appropriate method. It is a system which has mushroomed and in the space of five years moved from being a ‘nerdy’ plaything to universal acceptance and usage.

But there are many PR practitioners who don’t know of anything else but really should, for every day they are flying by the seat of their pants and taking an unnecessary risk, potentially with the lives of many others. They are the people working under civil contingencies legislation and have a responsibility to ‘warn and inform’ the public – they work for the ‘blue light’ services, the NHS, local authorities and the like. They are supposed to use what the legislation says is a ‘robust’ form of communication, and by no stretch of the imagination is e-mail ‘robust’.

The governments in both Westminster and Holyrood have been investing millions recently in new and secure networks and providing things like satellite phones to such organisations, and while their internal communications may be ’secure and guaranteed’, these networks don’t  – and never will – extend to the media. There are ‘robust’ services out there – of which my employer Newslink is but one – but the basic understanding of effective communication methods beyond email, mobile phones and fax by even the most senior PR practitioners is simply not there.

I met the head of comms of a major public utility – in the news that day for an issue potentially affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of his customers – at an event in London earlier this month, and tried to discuss the issue with him. The best he could come up with was that ‘he was sure’ they used methods other than email, but could not tell me what they were, nor could he see the importance of being able to guarantee delivering messages affecting public safety. We are on the cusp of a possible swine or bird flu pandemic, but for all of the planning which has been done, how much of it assumes that warning messages will actually be able to be delivered?

I know and appreciate that media distribution is the ‘back end’ of a very creative process – but what is the point of writing the best press release in the world if it never gets there?

So I believe my project has some merit, and may be of value to others. I don’t claim it to be anything other than it is, a university project to which just over 100 editors and journalists contributed and by its very nature could be seen as partial, but I believe it does reflect what is happening in the industry just now.

Findings from Iain Fleming’s research:

  • Lack of targeting, sending large attachments – often in formats which the recipient cannot access – and making ‘follow-up’ calls were just some of the main complaints by the 101 editors, section editors, journalists and IT Managers who responded to the survey.
  • The project also reveals that the practice of making ‘follow-up’ calls by PR practitioners is intensely annoying and ultimately counter-productive, while the demands made on news desk staff by media distribution companies updating their databases are also heavily criticised by journalists.
  • While the media is encouraging user generated content from readers and viewers, much of the content – like that supplied by PR professionals – is unusable because it is sent in the wrong format, is technically unsuitable or is ’simply not newsworthy’.
  • The research highlights that many public sector organisations with responsibilities under civil contingencies legislation to ‘warn and inform’ the public are relying on a communication method which is not ‘robust’ and not guaranteed to work in an emergency.
  • Due to the unreliability of email, a lot of material never gets there, and if it does, it can’t be opened. And if it can be opened, much of it is irrelevant and just wastes the time of the recipient.  Fifty-five per cent of respondents said that less than ten per cent of the material sent to them from the commercial sector was relevant and 83 per cent said they wanted less material. Only 10 per cent of respondents said they wanted more content from commercial PR operators.
  • While content from the public and non-commercial sectors (local authorities, NHS, charities etc) fared somewhat better, with 25 per cent saying they wanted more from such contributors, and 54 per cent saying they wanted less, this still indicates that a great deal of time and effort is going to waste.
  • The survey looked at the way such material is now delivered, and showed that 80 per cent is sent by e-mail and fax represents less than five per cent.
  • While email has become the dominant distribution method, the survey showed that almost 95 per cent of respondents had suffered problems with it, and almost one quarter reported this to be every day, with half reporting problems several times a week or weekly. This included delayed delivery or even outright failure of messages to arrive, corrupt characters or badly-formatted content, multiple copies and spam.

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