Big Media is at the mercy of the tech giants and it’s their own fault

How are changes in technology and audience behaviour affecting news values, shapes and structures?

This is a question I have been asked to answer. Well, not answer, but at least research the issues enough to stimulate some debate. So over the course of a few blog posts I intend to share some of what I uncovered and solicit some feedback. Am I on the right track? You decide.

I think the best place to start is where technology in journalism is, and where it could or should be. I really liked this extract from Jeff Jarvis’ new book Public Parts and I think it gets to heart of the problem with what most media companies are trying.

Today, publishers as a breed have so far tried little more than reproducing their old content and business models in new forms, from CD-ROMs to the web to iPads. It was the same in the Renaissance. The earliest publishers made books to mimic the work of scribes, even designing their typefaces to look like scribes’ handwriting. Printing was promoted as automated writing. “They appear not to have perceived the printed book as a fundamentally different form, but rather as a manuscript book that could be produced with greater speed and convenience,” Leah Marcus says in “Cyberspace Renaissance.” They didn’t yet see the possibilities.

Matthew Ingram at GigaOM remarks on the pride media companies are taking in creating new Facebook applications.

But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.


But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

This is part of a larger worrying trend.  Media companies are relying on technology companies for solutions to their problems. There were no doubt “Hallelujahs!” from media proprietors  as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and Jeff Bezos the Kindle. But where is the innovation from within?

Amazon did not sit around and wait for the decline of its book selling business. It took the initiative and created its own hardware and content ecosystem, ensuring its own longterm future. Where are the media companies doing this?

By relying on technology companies, media companies are setting themselves up for a great fall. This was perfectly illustrated when Apple decided it wanted to take 30% of the subscription revenue for publications on the iPad. Companies had to pay up or remove subscriptions and in-app purchases from their apps.

This video from 1994 was produced by American newspaper giants Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Company). They had their own design lab working on technologies that are remarkably similar to the tablet devices of today. What happened to this innovation and foresight?


Tackling Anonymity

(Some of) The Problems


Before Mary Hamilton showed me the error of my ways I blindly swallowed Zuckerberg’s maxim that a better web is created if we all operate under our real name. I do still believe, that where possible, it is better to use your real name. But this should be encouraged, rather than obligatory. A more nuanced approach is needed.

Krishnan Guru Murthy – Duncan Bannatyne is right to be angry – but we can’t let the cowards get to us

There are plenty of anonymous cowards on the internet who abuse others, spread hatred and distribute obscene criminal material. And there are anonymous heroes on the internet too, who fight repression, spread inspiration, ideas, wit and truth. It is entirely understandable that Facebook, Google and others would want to stamp on the bad by ending anonymity, but they have not yet done enough to show how they would preserve the good.


As Randi Zuckerberg recently argued, if people were forced to reveal their identities online most would be less aggressive and more thoughtful. But without anonymity we would be starved of tweets from Egypt, Syria, Iran and repressive regimes around the world where internet anonymity is unleashing new freedoms and ideas. We might lose the mobile phone videos that tell us what is really going on in Hama, the whistleblowers who reveal corruption and the brave insiders who leak the things the powerful try to keep from us. And yes, we’d miss some of the gossip. It is not clear how anonymity online could ever be stamped out altogether. But the likes of Facebook and Google need to show how they would support the free flow of important information if widespread anonymity was lost.


Discussing Google’s rather stringent real name policy on Google+, I rather arrogantly assumed that…

Screen Shot 2011 08 04 at 13 06 59


But I’m not so convinced now that we can ignore these edge cases. I’m a white, straight, adult male living in Britain. I’m not the type of person who needs protecting online. But there’s plenty who do, including unfortunately, a lot of women and sexualities. Problems described in this blogpost by Denise Paolucci. Indeed in a talk I gave to the Preston Social, one woman spoke up from the audience that she’d been targeted by an internet stalker and now has to take extraordinary measures online so that she can interact normally with her friends, as his her right.

So many of the problems on the internet are about user culture. Different websites and services breed their own types of culture. Reddit has a fantastic community which helps each other, laughs with/at each other and roots out spammers, evil doers and trolls. Interestingly, Reddit users mostly go by pseudonyms. Different newspapers have different cultures in their comment sections. The Guardian’s has a totally different tone and attitude to that of the Daily Mail, indicative of their respective readerships.

A proposed solution

What I propose is a rewards system for being good citizens of the web, a system recognising respect and standing. This is prime for someone like Google or Facebook to take on, but they must revisit their policies on pseudonyms. You can be a pseudonym and a great web citizen.

Just as you can Like or +1 a status or content shared on Facebook/G+, we could instead +1/Like users who have been helpful in comment threads, or have created helpful blogposts. This could create a web-wide system of trust. By looking at a ranking you could see how trusted/respected/liked/friendly someone is.

This is just a suggestion and a tad simplistic. The major social players no doubt have teams of people dedicated to solving problems such as these. When the problems are resolved, we’ll hopefully have a better web.






“If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty”

Trinity Mirror journalist, David Higgerson, blogged yesterday discussing whether online comments were worth the bother.

Trolls, nastiness, timewasters, spam are all potential problems when news stories and opinion pieces are open to user comments. But despite these problems, turning comments off is the last thing news orgs should be doing.

Sarah Hartley in the comments made this great point:

With news, if the only invite is to comment on what’s been delivered from on high it could be quite frustrating for a reader who knows something about the topic. If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty. Bloggers are generally more willing to involve the reader in the process – something that news sites could learn from perhaps?

There are countless reasons for trollish behaviour and this won’t solve all of them. But so much could be solved by making users feel involved and part of the story.

The article is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of a conversation. A great story should spark some debate. The best, most informed story ever written could still be improved by another expert’s opinion.

There are times when comments make you want to tear your hair out. But ignoring them isn’t the answer.

Rolling news – the good, the bad and the ugly

I’m going to take a punt and guess that at some point this week you’ve watched a rolling news channel.

Whether it the committee hearings with the News International Cerberus, the horrific attacks in Oslo and Utoya or the death of Amy Winehouse. When news breaks we – or at least I – turn to BBC News (and Twitter).
What the three events last week showed is everything that is great and terrible about rolling coverage. The coverage of the News International hearings was great because it was a live event, happening, with questions back and forth. There was content. When Johnnie Marbles “pied” Murdoch Snr – though I don’t know any recipes for shaving foam pie – the coverage was effectively pied too. The content was gone. What we were left with was news anchors narrating over longlens footage of a man covered in shaving foam, and continuous slowmotion replays of Wendi Deng defending her husband – which was funny the first five times. 
The attacks in Oslo and Utoya had plenty of content. There were cameras on the scene and a wealth of cameraphone videos filmed to show the damage of the blast. What was awful was the speculation about the perpetrator or perpetrators of the attacks. Almost immediately terrorism “experts” were brought in who commented that a Norwegian newspaper printed the Danish Muhammed cartoon and that Norway was involved in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I’m not going to deny that myself and plenty others immediately thought of the possibility that the attacks could have been carried out by Islamic extremists but when your job is to inform the public, speculation about such things is dangerous. 
The death of Amy Winehouse, like the death of Michael Jackson before her, showed that rolling news is absolutely terrible when someone dies. When someone dies in a continuing or developing event, fine. But when someone dies, they’re dead, and it is bloody terrible. Sky News had the story first so I stuck with it for a while. Immediately it was pointed out on Twitter that the image Sky were using of Amy was of her waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Strike one. Then a pre-recorded obituary package was shown almost immediately, with gossip magazine editors, the very people who profited from her demise, talking about her genius in past tense. Strike two. Unable to stomach any more Sky News I turned over to BBC News where an endless list of music commentators were called up for phone interviews. Paul Gambaccinni, I remember you from when Michael Jackson died. The tipping point was when tweets from great commentators like Myleene Klass were read out on air. Yes, this tweet, was read out on air. Oh Em Gee.

OMG. Amy Winehouse. Exceptional talent and a really nice lady. RIPless than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply

Strike three.
Of course, the news channels are obliged to cover stories like Amy Winehouse’s death, and I’m not sure there’s a clear answer as to how to do it better. But as news media viewers, we aren’t obliged to watch.


About Me: Declaring bias

This post will appear in some form in my About page.

BBC journalist Dave Lee raised an issue which caught my eye on Twitter this morning. Is your impartiality compromised by who you follow on Twitter?

Well something that’s always frustrated me is vain attempts to act impartial. No human being is impartial, it is an unnatural and unnerving state for someone to have no personal opinion. What every journalist should try to be is fair, not impartial. 

Part of that I feel involves declaring your interests to your audience. If someone who declares themselves as a Conservative supporter writes something, I can view it through that lens. It may be somewhat misleading if that is not known.

So in practicing what I preach, here are my interests:

I believe myself to be mostly aligned with the policies of the Liberal Democrat party. I voted for Greg Mulholland in Leeds North West in 2005 on an anti-war ticket. In 2010 I voted for Allan Knox in Ribble Valley. However, I feel let down by the Liberal Democrats and will be hesitant to vote for them again. I am now considering voting Labour.

I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a member of any political party. I am a pragmatist. Any party can win my vote based on their manifesto and whether I trust them.

University has made me more right wing. Weirdly.

I am AV agnostic, but I will be voting YES to send a message to the government that I disapprove of them.

I am a practising Roman Catholic but this does not inform my political or scientific views. I am pro-choice, pro-same sex marriage and I am frustrated by the Vatican’s stance on birth control, especially in relation to the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

I buy The Times and Guardian newspapers but try to read all of the quality British press online.

Anything else you would want to know? Formspring me

Bold steps in entrepreneurial journalism

I've been inspired by a number of people in my first steps into journalism: teachers, colleagues and more teachers.

I've been encourage and disheartened in equal measure by my BA Journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire. I'm nearly at the end of my second year having taking the "print" route after first year. I was disheartened facing another year of "print", where the main tasks were writing more stories, producing a newspaper (which isn't published), and learning shorthand. I've been taught good writing, style and production software already. It seemed more of the same. But now I'm encouraged once more…

Yesterday, as a bolt from the blue, my course leader informed the current crop of second year students that there's a new way, enterprise. In a bold move, the journalism school has teamed up with the media technology school to give third year students the opportunity to run their own media companies. This module was already open to media tech students (graphic and web designers, software engineers) but this is the first time it's been available to journalism students. J-students will team up with these media tech students to form new media companies, teach them entrepreneurship, and incubate these new businesses. What a massive head-start this would have been for Ed Walker and BlogPreston if this was available to him a couple of years ago.

What the Hacks and Hackers events run by ScraperWiki have shown me is that great things can happen when journalism geeks and computer geeks team up. Skills journalists take for granted such as news values, communication and style are often lost on the hackers. Skills hackers take for granted like coding in Python can go way over the head of the journalist. But together some really great projects can be created.

I applaud my department for taking such a bold step and I'm going to grasp at the opportunity with both hands. I'm aware my year will very much be the test case/guinea pigs for this but when else will I have the opportunity to run my own media company with no risk if it fails? 
Only with universities (and hopefully more media companies) funding experiments like this, will the new journalism find a way.