Archives: Journalism

Paywalls v. free: climbing onto the fence

When I worked at the Guardian from 2001-2006, I was a fully paid-up member of the Make it Free posse. I even co-wrote a document (with my very clever colleague Stephen Dunn) entitled Guardian Everywhere, which postulated a strategy designed to make Guardian content available everywhere and anywhere, supported by advertising. We came up with the buzz-acronym P.A.D (Permanent, Addressable, Discoverable) to describe how we saw the Guardian as this completely open platform, its articles and photos and graphics available to all and sundry – accompanied, it was hoped, by a revenue-generating advertisement.

Were we wrong? Well, David Hepworth thinks we were. To be fair, he’s always thought we were. His latest post on the subject says this:

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’ve been saying for years that some of the people who make airy predictions about new digital business models should leave the security of their banker-funded old media empires and try to walk the walk they’ve been talking for so long. Andrew Sullivan, probably the biggest political blogger in the English-speaking world, has announced that this is what he’s doing. From February 1st his full output will only be available for the payment of a $20 annual subscription.

I’m sure Sullivan’s people know all the tricks to ensure that as many as possible of his millions of followers pay the sub. If an old magazine hand may offer an observation to someone entering the real world of trying to part private citizens from the actual cash money in their pocket (in which of course the proprietor of your local car wash knows more than the cleverest person in the Groucho club) it would be this.

Many of your followers will disappear with a wooshing sound the moment you even hint at charging. A noisy minority will fall over themselves to give you their money and will make sure everyone knows they are doing it. An argumentative minority will hang around to complain that what you’re doing is a) morally wrong and b) bad business practice.

Don’t worry about any of these groups. The people you have to worry about are the ones who fully intend to subscribe, in some cases think they already do subscribe, but never actually get round to it. They’re the ones.

As more and more of these subscription services come along – and as more and more free, open services like the Guardian’s struggle against high costs and stubbornly slow-rising revenues – I begin to ask myself: was I wrong? Was Hepworth always right? Is the only way to make money off content to sell it, as near as dammit directly, to the consumer? Is there nothing to replace good old diligent, careful and skilful subscriber management?

I admit I don’t know. I’ve lost that old certainty. And perhaps that’s all that needs to be said. I’m back on the fence, waiting for proof either way. But what really bothers me is that there might be a third way, and it was a third way which a good number of people pointed out very early on. That third way sees the rapid demise of all the old media, and the emergence of brand new things with low costs, new approaches and disregard for these debates about business models. Things like Buzzfeed and Reddit and, yes, Andrew Sullivan’s paid-for Daily Dish. Maybe you can’t get there from here, after all. Maybe if you’re here, you’re already dead.

I really hope that isn’t the case. But….

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The BBC’s narrative bias

The aftermath of another interview on the Today programme

It is of course axiomatic among Tories that the BBC has a “liberal” bias, although it’s not often clear what they mean by this. Essentially, they’re saying the BBC has a mild tendency to report against the kind of policies Tories get enthusiastic about. But I don’t think this is quite right, actually. I think the BBC (and most broadcasters, here and abroad) has a narrative bias. It’s basically more concerned with the internal dynamics of a story than it is to real-world relevance or possibly even fairness.

David Hepworth wrote a really good thing back in May about what interests television:

Earlier yesterday I was talking to a friend with thirty years experience in a senior capacity in television. His opinion on television and “real people” was simple: don’t ever go on television unless you are prepared to be manipulated. That’s because manipulation is what television, at any level, does. He also pointed out something that I’d always dimly sensed but never thought about – when producers are reviewing what footage they’ve got the only thing they’re looking for is an edit point. They’re not bothered about the sense of the story or its relationship with the truth – they’re looking at how they can stitch that bit to this bit in a way that maximises the energy of the whole.

I was thinking of that post this morning when I listened to the Today programme’s piece on revisiting Dale Farm (at the time of writing, they haven’t got the audio up on the website, but it was at 0750ish). Reporter Andrew Hosken went to Dale Farm and came back with a story of desolation, of travellers still seeking somewhere to live and, at one point, of travellers threatening to move their caravans into the garden of Tony Ball, the leader of Basildon council who led the efforts to evict them from Dale Farm.

It was a good story but it was really rubbish analysis. At one point, one of the travellers said “we’ve simply got nowhere to go,” to which a rather obvious response is “well, you can go anywhere – isn’t that the point of being a traveller?” It might not have been a particularly nice response, but it would at least have elicited another point of view: that the travellers are irresponsible and selfish, not victimised and helpless. But that wasn’t the story as it had been set up; the logic of the story demanded that this view be taken.

This bled over into the interview with Tony Ball which followed the piece. I would have been quite interested to hear about the challenges of councils when it comes to managing traveller families, or even a discussion about what a council’s responsibilities are to people who by definition are outside topographical political arrangements, but what I got instead was the continuing narrative: you victimised these poor families, you spent a lot of money, and to what end? It was, in its purest form, Goodies v. Baddies. It was a story.

This, it seems to me, is what the BBC does when it comes to these kinds of news events: it boils them down into as simple a story as it possibly can. And because the most recurrent story there is features a put-upon community being harassed by a more powerful one, that’s the story the BBC always tries to tell. The most obvious example is Israel v. Palestine, but there are many, many others. If you always try and tell this story – if you’re always asking powerful people “why are you bullying these other people?” – you’re going to be perceived as having a “liberal” bias.

And when there isn’t a simple story, the BBC often tries to create one. Take the example earlier this year of Graham Linehan’s clash with the Today programme when they got him on the programme to talk about his stage adaptation of The Ladykillers. He discovered on arriving for the broadcast that the producers had invited Michael Billington on to set up a row over whether films should ever be adapted for the stage. He was, in effect, hijacked. As he said at the time:

Michael, somewhat embarrassed, told me that he was actually providing the opposing side in an argument about the wisdom of adapting the Ladykillers at all. So what I thought was going to be a discussion about the technical challenges afforded by turning a classic film into a worthwhile play, was actually going to be a typical Today program bunfight.

In other words, a discussion is less interesting than an argument, just as an analysis is less interesting than a story. This is where the BBC’s “bias” lies – as David Hepworth says, it’s always, incessantly, searching for the edit point.

 

 

South London Post: July 2010 update

So, back from a week’s holiday and now’s the time to do the monthly update on the South London Post, my “meta-local” publishing project which I blogged about at length last month.

First of all, the realities of micro-publishing. Taking a week’s holiday means your site shuts down, and I can’t tell you how profoundly dissatisfied I’ve been about that. Doesn’t sit right at all. Perhaps I can do something about that some day.

Which leads to the second point. As I said in my original post, this has been deliberately and aggressively a part-time project. I only do about an hour a day of posting, and I am beginning to realise how inadequate this is. I still haven’t covered a council meeting, nor do I have time to read all the council docs I should be reading from the three boroughs I’m covering. Of which more in a bit.

So how did the site do in July? Well, here’s the numbers:

southlondonpostanalytics_july2010.jpg

Which means (drum roll please) I’ve doubled page views on the June number, and broken through the thousand visits in a month barrier. I now only need to increase my page views by a factor of 500 to reach my target of a million pages in a month. And AdSense revenue has exploded by a factor of over 150 to reach…. $1.88. I’m going to go and buy myself a Diet Coke.

So why the page view increase? Well, mainly, it’s just profile, but two things are definitely occurring. As I said last month, I was going to tweet every new blog post this month, and I’ve done so. twitter.com was responsible for 13% of all referrals, while a third of all referrals were “direct”, which is always a frustratingly opaque measure but I assume includes a fair number of non-browser clients such as Twitter apps.

Secondly, Google really kicked in as a referrer this month, as more people started to link to the site and more indexing took place. There are now 64 incoming links to the site, although a lot of these are on Twitter. There still aren’t many links with Google currency coming in. Are you listening, BBC News? Guardian? Anyone?

August is likely to be pretty quiet, not least because I’ve been off for a week, but I’ll round this stuff up again at the end of the month. As I said last month, I’m trying to do one operational thing a month to drive traffic to try and gauge its impact. July was about Twitter. In August I’ll systematise that a bit, probably using a plugin such as Twitter Tools. I’m also going to begin a two-month experiment with SEM, to see if I can drive traffic and at what cost.

And finally, as promised, a word about the time spent on the site. I’m only using up about an hour a day at present. And it really isn’t enough. That allows me to read through all my feeds (which, including Twitter updates, probably about to about 600 new items a day), check interesting stories, write maybe four or five posts and read the occasional council document.

I still haven’t attended a single council meeting, phoned a single councillor or press officer, or chased down a single story. It’s very much using the “web as a wire feed”, rewriting for style and maintenance of narrative threads, finding a picture, and go. I believe that adds some value, but it isn’t enough.

Now, quite a few bloggers and newshounds already attend council meetings in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, so what value can I add there? Well, maybe a more systematic, Hansard-like approach to covering proceedings, although I have to say that judging by the coverage so far public council meetings (including cabinet meetings) seem more like platforms for grandstanding than arena for debate. But in any case a Hansard-like approach is going to be time-consuming. I’m talking to some people about a way of approaching that.

I think thereal value can be added by examining documents: minutes for meetings, supporting documents, discussion files, stuff like that. This has already yielded some good stuff on the site: a post about crime in Lambeth with some juicy stats, and the very revealing discussion document about Lewisham cuts. I’m using Google Docs to store public versions of these documents, and over time that could be a useful resource. I think that’s where I’m going to focus my journalistic efforts – such as they are – in the coming couple of months.

So, enough prognosticating. Time to go and find some stuff out. See you back here in a month.

Heather Brooke: A few words on the Times paywall

A few words on the Times paywall:

“I actually believe journalism must improve if the Times is asking people to pay for it, as readers are not going to pay for inaccurate rumour or propaganda. They can get that anywhere – for free. What quality journalism can offer is synthesis of a great amount of material which is then verified and put into language everyone can understand.

I believe the experience and skills I’ve gained over 22 years as a journalist and writer have value which is why I don’t give away my work for free. I’ve written for the Times because they have valued what I do enough to pay me. The New Statesman magazine also asked me to write an article but they didn’t want to pay me anything. To me, that shows how much they value quality journalism.

(Via Heather Brooke.)

Why can’t we record court proceedings?

Abolish the ban on recording court proceedings — HMG – Your Freedom:

“The simple answer is to allow tape recorders for all: no party is disadvantaged and an ‘official’ recording is there for checking. This is how it works in other countries. But that is to ignore the root objection of the courts: that they are losing control of how court proceedings are presented to the public.

The courts’ refusal to allow people to tape-record benefits a few private transcription companies whom the court approves in cosy deals. These people have exclusive rights to tape- record or listen to official recordings and then transcribe them. The cost to the individual of hiring them is about£150-£250 per hour of typing.

Many trials in the upper courts are now officially recorded, yet these records are not accessible to the public. All High Court hearings have been digitally recorded since February 2010. When I spoke to the court’s governance officer he told me there were no plans to make these accessible directly to the public. Why not?

(Ironically, I think this Heather Brooke article has been pasted in from the Times, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to link to it. This is ironic, as I say, because Heather Brooke has today backed the Times’ paywall as the only adequate response to the need to compensate journalists).

(Irony update: Actually, Heather’s posted this entire article on her blog. Which makes her point about the paywall doubly confusing…)

Siobhain Butterworth: get Twitter into court

Can live-blogs and Twitter take court reporting into the 21st century? | Law | guardian.co.uk:

“The Contempt of Court Act 1981 does not allow sound recordings to be made without the court’s permission. It’s also an offence to take photographs or make sketches (in court) of judges, jurors and witnesses – although the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 says that doesn’t apply to the supreme court. Since there isn’t a statutory ban on creating text by means of electronic devices, it surprises me that journalists and bloggers haven’t already lobbied British judges about reporting directly from the courtroom.

There are some lawyers and journalists who have reservations about this: ‘You’d need to trial it, to see how it worked,’ says Mike Dodd, editor of Media Lawyer. ‘I’d be very suspicious about tweeting – I’m not sure that court cases are the sort of thing where you’d want to put out short, pithy messages.’

The difference between scribbling notes (publishing later) and filing copy instantly from the courtroom using an electronic device is self-evidently slight and there’s a lot to be said for the sort of full, accurate, contemporaneous, reports of court hearings that live-blogs and twitter reporting could achieve.”

What to make of Wikileaks

This is odd. The Wikileaks/Guardian/Spiegel/NYT thing is the biggest thing to happen in journalism since the Telegraph expenses story. And I find myself unable to get excited about it. Seeing the same thing in the RSS feeds I follow – a general sense of “impressive, but I don’t quite get it.” Kind of like a Volvo sports car.

This is not a thought-through thing. Just a feeling.

Inside HuffPo

Good Newsweek article on the Huffington Post, including the fact that it now employs over 170 people, twenty of whom moderate comments. Is that the highest moderation ratio of any company on the planet?

Has Arianna Huffington Figured Out the Future? – Newsweek:

But a closer look at HuffPo’s financials shows just how tough that future is turning out to be. HuffPo has a big audience, but like most Web sites, it can’t monetize it very well. Right now, HuffPo generates just over $1 per reader per year. That’s nothing compared with the mainstream-media outlets that HuffPo hopes to displace. Cable-TV networks and print newspapers collect hundreds of dollars per year from each subscriber, and then generate hundreds of millions in ad revenue on top of that. The comparison isn’t perfect—TV and newspapers have higher fixed costs than Web sites—but it gives you a sense of how radically things are changing.

Yes, money is gushing out of old media—nobody knows this better than NEWSWEEK, which is struggling financially and has been put up for sale by its parent, The Washington Post Company—and some of that money is flowing onto the Internet. But something strange happens to those ad dollars as they make the journey from old media to the Web—somehow, by some weird, bad voodoo, those dollars turn into dimes. Or nickels. Or even pennies. A recent report by eMarketer, a leading researcher of Internet media, says online ad spending will grow more than 10 percent per year over the next few years, approaching $100 billion by 2014. That will still represent only 17 percent of all advertising spending.

FT Planning Off-Shoot Digital Finance News Site

FT Planning Off-Shoot Digital Finance News Site:

Something’s brewing at fttilt.com. Over the weekend, Pearson (NYSE: PSO) folk tweeted the URL to invite applications for what will be a new offshoot of the main FT.com site.

According to the site:-

‘FT Tilt is a new online service from the Financial Times, launching later this year.

‘It is led by the same team that developed FT Alphaville, the multi-award winning financial blog, and promises a similar blend of lively news and analysis for a specialist audience of finance professionals.

‘This is a start-up venture under the FT’s umbrella. As such it offers frontline experience in developing a new digital media service from scratch.’

Workflow is important: Lewis proves it

Confirmed: News Int. Picks Lewis To Integrate Workflow:

The new role of general manager re-unites Will Lewis with former Telegraph Media Group chief technology officer Paul Cheesbrough, who is joining News Int. in the same role.

Though Lewis is being given management oversight to ‘coordinate editorial spending’ across all four of News Corp’s UK news titles generally, the post also makes him one of their most senior executives for digital technology strategy (though no one person leads ‘digital’ in its entirety nowadays)…

In group-wide digital, News International is now tasking Lewis with ‘implementing a next generation of editorial technology that will support the production of content across a range of digital distribution platforms’. Sounds like code for some degree of newsroom ‘integration’…

So wait for Lewis and Cheesbrough to announce which platforms they will use to accomplish this and how many, if any, jobs will go as a result…

(Via paidContent:UK.)