In praise of failing slow

I have a problem with Failing Fast.

It’s a phrase that crops up in discussions around newsroom evolution, and in presentations at journalism conferences, and I have to wonder, did whoever first coined the phrase (in a non-Product context, at least,) really believe a failing quickly and moving on to the next thing a good thing?

I guess it’s because it seems as though the underlying message is intended to be “we’re not attaching fault, we’re not blaming… we just need to experiment without repercussions, and Foster a Culture of Innovation (™️) ”.

I’m going to say that the underlying message of fail fast is hugely negative: It offers implied permission to a) fail; and b) make terminal and potentially hasty decisions quickly.

When you’re building an innovative new newsroom culture, don’t talk about failure. Don’t hang the idea of something not working around the neck of your shiny new idea pony, as you prepare to canter out into the arena.

It’s fatalistic and happy clappy all in one package – “it might not work but that’s ok! We tried”. Fuck off did you try; you gave yourself a get out clause.

One of the words I’ve found myself saying more often in relation to projects and ideas we test out is stickability.<<
e journalist/newsroom testing the innovation needs stickability in that a lack of immediate success is not judged as indifference or hostility from an audience, project sponsors need bravery to hold their nerve when returns – especially returns of audience or growth – aren’t as expected, projects need investment of people, money – and time.

Time, as the phrase goes, takes time. And newsrooms – or boardrooms, perhaps – don't always devote enough time to letting ideas and innovations find their feet.

You might hurry an idea into creation but you shouldn’t hasten it out of the door like an annoying relative, just because it hasn’t performed as you wish.<<
ve given my share of projects a midnight burial (no mourners, a hasty shovelling of earth, no flowers by request) but I know – because hindsight is a wonderful thing – that some of them should have been given more time to settle.

Instead of talking about failing fast, let’s plan to learn and adapt. If we fail slow we give things time to bed in, and from there we can iterate, learn, adapt, change. That's a more healthy space to introduce your culture of innovation.<<
p>

#ONALondon keynote: What journalists can learn from game design

Speaker: Lindsay Grace – Associate Professor and Director of American University’s Game Lab and Studio, American University

Lindsay is a game maker and teaching games and interactive media for 12 years. He is an associate professor at American University and founding director of the American University Game Lab and Studio. More about his work here http://professorgrace.com/

He is interested in producing games that match the pace of news and engagement through play.

So he also kicked off his session with some facts

  • 1.2bn digital game players worldwide
  • 60-87% of the Western Civilisation have an active gaming community
  • It is a $100bn industry
  • Average player is 31
  • 48/52% male/female player ratio
  • People send about 60% of their time playing mobile games and about 4% on news but the reach is pretty much on par. They spend a lot of time, and a lot of money, on games. How to get them doing the same with the news?

He believes the driving force is engagement. There is a lot of content in the world (maybe not all of it good) but what makes content special? The answer: Experience.

Keeping people informed of the product of being repeatedly engaged; engagement design for news is informed by games design.

Content may be kind, experience is the kingdom. 

Game designers design experience, and games are useful for finding new experiences. They can inspire empathy (e.g. Darfur is Dying puts the player in the middle of the crisis), improve habits, develop skillsets, and help form the art of critical questioning. Game content is rarely as important as game experience.

Design the news experience and understand the many ways to engage the news community. For online dialogue many news organisations kick people out for ‘bad commenting’; we suggest you provide moderators with tools that are precise, actionable and effective, so they can carefully incise rather than smash.

Designing engaging news experiences. 

Consider ‘flow’ – in this state they lose track of time, but to achieve that you have to balance their anxiety and boredom states. This photo of the slide probably illustrates it better than any number of words could…

 

Challenges

And what about monetising games? In the free to play mobile game space, minnows pay $0-$10; dolphins spend more, whales spend lots. Minnows make you popular, but whales make you money in the mobile gaming market.

In games there is something called Rubberbanding: Pulling 2 different players together for a shareable optimal experience.

Online and offline news standards and structures are relatively unchanged but his view is that you don’t just adapt the limitations and structures of print – you rubberband your audience. Think of ways to bring two different audiences (perhaps generational) together.

Employ dynamic audience adjustments so you use the real time reader feedback loop to make real time adjustments.

Engagement is dynamic: News is a dynamic system but we don’t always report it that way. There are 3 ways dynamics have been done in news – Interactives, toys and games – interactives provide feedback but aren’t playful; toys lack goals but can let you learn through play; games structure play by adding rules to how we do things. Game are interactive, playful and contain goals.

Games are really good at helping us make other people’s stories our stories – like news games around the Haiti earthquake, or being a Syrian refugee, but most of all games are about doing.

Among his case studies cited was Phone Story, where the player enforces slave labour, catches workers who kill themselves rather than work, and use hazardous materials that cause damage to people and the environment (Apple banned this gem because of its content).

Games help us understand the world in various ways. ‘Papers Please’ is a game where you play a border crossing guard –  the idea is that you are reviewing people’s lives to see who can enter a country. People think differently about immigration after playing this game.

Short experiences invite new people but long experiences appeal to the committed.  ‘This War of Mine’ depicts the civilian experience of war, and is a long experience compared to other games. Games and play experiences don’t have to be big experiences.

Angry Birds is something that people think of when we talk about games and successful games – Rovio made 51 bad games before they hit on Angry Birds. Games success formula is about failing quickly and failing often. Get it in front of people, see what they think, refine it on their feedback. You will learn more from your mistakes than your successes.

Games designers also respond to the force of the outside world – they will turn moves or books into games.

 

 

#ONALondon session: Reaching Unexpected Audiences With New Platforms

 

Erica Berger, who is founder of Catchpool and Co-Founder of Mileage Media, kicked off her session with some impressive facts:

  • 30 mins a day spent per day for average users of Snapchat
  • Instagram has 77% of audience outside the USA
  • Soundcloud has 350m users a month
  • WhatsApp has 990m users – 70% use it daily; it has 1m new users a day, 30bn messages spend a day
  • The average WhatsApp user spends 195 mins a week using it

Case studies 

Soundcloud: When Erica was working at The Economist she proposed using Soundcloud as a podcast hosting service, not least because it was free to use, and pushed it through to iTunes a s well – they garnered 827k followers within a few months and now the average 100k listens per track.

She started a similar initiative at The Week, which did modcasts – mini podcasts – and that now has 233k followers.

Catchpool: While at NewsCorp Erica realised the weekend editions were doing better performance than weekday ones. She looked at how newsletters curating quality links for leisurely weekend reads worked and from that success Catchpool was built.

NPR: How to attract younger users who would support with membership as well. The idea tested was how to get young people to listen together rather than in isolation, and discuss how the podcasts and shows made them feel. NPR went on a roadshow but instead of going to the north of America, they went south and found a really large audience. The Generation Listen initiative spawned an ongoing campaign that has led to new donations, and new supporters.

Her point? When you build tools for the people who are with you, you forget about supporting the people who want to be with you. Look for the unexpected audience.

The importance of measurement: 

1.Day 0:  Set goals

2. Day 15: Draw up a report

3. Day 30: Evaluate and assess if more time is needed

New platforms to factor into consideration: Blendle, Catchpool, Spotify, Soundcloud, Ryot, Outbrain’s chatbot

Erica ended her presentation with a short film discussing audience involvement and narrative shaping – watch it here – and a thought: Find the platform that is helping you get to those other places; Soundcloud can push your podcast to iTues, chatbots will work across several chat apps for you. You don’t have to do everything.

#formatDEN: Audiences, realities and goats in hats

 

Goat. In. A. Hat.

Recurring themes in journalism conferences I’ve been following (and sometimes attended) this year are:

  • Try innovating, not imitating (aka don’t be Buzzfeed-lite)
  • Everyone is a reporter, so be a curator and editor
  • Don’t be scared of failing
  • Get developers coding in the newsroom

At FormatDEN this week, these were raised but so were some others…

TELL IT LIKE IT IS
This was a takeaway from Trushar Barot, Mobile Editor (editorial/product/partnerships) with the BBC. I really enjoy listening to Trushar, he’s incredibly smart, very business-minded and asks tough questions (I sat on an innovation judging panel with him once and he cut straight to the woolly bits of the business case)
His talk on messenger apps and BBC approaches was excellent and I especially liked his thoughts around the real practicalities of using WhatsApp for UGC sourcing.

His view on culture change is to find people who are passionate and excited by change, and put them in charge of digital projects, rather than having the digital experts leading on them.
His view was that showing someone a shiny that would make their job easier, wider adoption of would follow.
But he is also an exponent of treating people as adults, telling them realities and drawing their attention to what is happening in the wider world – to the successes of other competitors, to the successes of their counterparts with said competitor, and by pointing out how skills are changing, and to be relevant and required in a business, individuals have to change too. “And that works as well,” he finished.

Trushar shared a Google Doc of relevant BBC links too. They’re here.

Two other takeaways from this talk, for me:
Working on messaging apps is a way of grasping what content could work on these platforms. It also is an indicator how we engage an audience in what will be, I think, the next disruptive stage in the news industry. We’re going to have to shift from ‘open social’ distribution method to a ‘one-to-many’ distribution approach. We will be less visible, but perhaps the content will have greater value, and impact.
The other thought I had: Is it a good investment of time to work lots on apps if people are – within a few years – going to have moved beyond them and into opt-in receivers rather than seekers of information? The answer is yes, I guess; what else are we going to do?

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUE METRICS?

Juan Senor, a journalism consultant, visiting Oxford Fellow and academic, said page views weren’t the metric to trust (side point: Our metrics-that-matter at Trinity Mirror shifted to dwell time. pages per user and completion rates a while ago) but also had a suck-the-air-out-of-the-room moment when he said social metrics didn’t count either.
“Good journalism will always be shareable” he said, saying there was a need to move from the “anarchy of the mob and the idiocy of the mob”.
“If what we are selling is good journalism we need to think about what we do when we dumb down the content. We should look at the Huffington Post (he was alluding to the fact that the HuffPo has had some bad press recently) and unless Mashable and Buzzfeed look to that example they will go the same way.
“The money is coming in but the metrics they want are time spent, and video completion – not Likes, and RTs. Advertising departments want people to spend quality time with their client’s messages – not shares and page views”.

I should say that a lot of DEN is Chatham House rules, but given that Juan was probably the presenter who had the most soundbites tweeted while I was there, and is a consultant whose views are widely aired, I don’t think he will mind me quoting him directly.

MILLENNIALS AND THOSE WHO THINK LIKE THEM

Blathnaid Healy, the UK Editor of Mashable, said the company was obsessed with audiences and used its early adopter chops to try new platforms, because that’s what the audience expected, and where it would follow (or lead, I suppose. So the more early Mashable is, the more audience comes with them).
Something I really liked about her talk – and there were many highlights – was the phrase ‘Millennials and Those Who Think Like Them’ – I get a bit tired of hearing about Millennials doing this, that and the other. I know people who patently aren’t millennials by their birth certificates, but who romp across the digital media landscape like toddlers, grasping bits of it and cooing with delight.
They live and breathe media in its current form, and there are plenty of them.
My other takeaways from Blathnaid were that explainer video can be nearly five minutes long, and users will stick with it, if it’s good it and informs them of things in entertaining ways.
She also got me thinking about longform formats and how we can experiment by using people’s own stories in their own words. And she had the quote of the day:

“Journalism can be shareable as much as a goat in a hat can be shareable”.

Words to live by.
Unfortunately I had to leave DEN before the end, but it’s worth looking back over the hashtag for comments and links. One of the other big impacts on me was Ed Miller’s immersive news documentary on Hong Kong unrest (shot on Go-Pros, highlighted in his talk on VR for journalism) because it’s an area we’ve done some work in and the results – i.e. the audience engagement – are really telling.

People love interactive multimedia, especially photos they can explore, and we need to make it more of a part of our portfolio, rather than a special event.

So, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, John Crowley, Francois Nel and Nick Turner for a great event.

CMS? It’s SEP

I was talking recently with a scarily smart colleague recently about what content/tech/social/CMS might look like in 2018, and I realised I was getting stuck around trying to jam new ideas of onto existing platforms.

Way back when, in the heyday of print, everyone owned a printing press and managed their own platforms and distribution.
In the 90’s I joined one regional newspaper company (now best known for its subbing hubs) it had invested £60m in a new press, and I was given a tour of the facility after my interview by the managing director*.
Today, so many services are bought in and there’s no thought of not dealing with a competitor on a commercial basis.
Presses are hired (when I was editor of the Daily Post, we used to groan when we had to wait for the press to finish the Daily Mail at the Oldham plant), distribution transport for newspaper bundles are contracted out… the business end of getting the Legacy Product to market is pretty well established as buy-what-you-need.
Digital, though, is another matter. Everyone probably has their own purpose-built CMS, adapted to their own unique needs (albeit needs may well be outstripped by technology or audience/customer demands within months of the build starting).
Meanwhile, WordPress, Blogger, Typepad and other have been around as publishing platforms in their own right for years.
And more recently, we’ve seen the shift of Facebook, Medium and – just this week – Shorthand Social) to become publishing-within-a-platform for users. Plus the media/Facebook partnerships with Instant Articles is in its infancy
So is the next step to shift, as Facebook would like, away from our own platforms and onto other, hired, ones. Just like you lease a car for three years, what if you could lease a CMS?
And then, after a pre-agreed time period, you’d update to a new, shiny system that was build to robustly met the needs of user, audience, device, analytics tools de jour and a plethora of other requirements.
Suppose Facebook, Medium, Google or Twitter moved into this space – renting Rolls Royce operating systems to content creators, on revenue share deals?
It’s not a huge leap from where we are now, with Instant Articles. I’m not suggesting the news media world ready to shift from buying to renting, when it comes to housing its content, but it does make me think that when we plan the future, it’s worth factoring in ideas that maybe the delivery system could become, to borrow from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, an SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem.
* Imagine an MD having time to talk to a prospective new senior reporter nowadays, let alone give them a guided tour…

Facebook and cookies n milk journalism

cookies Here’s a paragraph from an article on Digiday earlier today:

On the PopSugar Moms Facebook page, PopSugar’s most popular page with nearly a million likes, most videos surpass 100,000 views. A few have cracked a million views.This video about milk-and-cookie shot glasses went viral, racking up more than 9.8 million views since its Feb. 25 post date.

You can read the full article here if you want but the essential takeaway is this: Cookies in the shape of shotglasses drove obscenely large amounts of traffic to a site that harnessed the power of Facebook native video.

That’s fair enough but, having listened to Andy Mitchell, director of news partnerships, Facebook, speak at the International Journalism Festival recently about how user choice and engagement would be one of the key drivers for ‘surfacing’ content on Facebook, I do wonder this: As most journalism – particularly regional news – has literally nothing to do with cutesy shotglass cookies and milk, are those stories going to sink without trace?

Mitchell spoke about Facebook’s future at the IJF (the video of his talk is at the end of this post) and it’s clear that video and native publishing is where he and Facebook see that future pointing (Buzzfeed and the New York Times are among those publishers who are in the first tranche of working with Facebook on this) and that Facebook’s algorithm was key to content flourishing in the Facebook ecosystem.

He’s obviously used to giving keynotes and was initially unruffled when the less-than-enthused audience questions started up. But he did start to get exasperated when various hacks started quizzing him about responsibility, integrity and censorship. George Brock has written a great post on his thoughts (and he was one of the questioners, too). My notes from the session at this point say “AM said a lot of words, none of which answered the question” – and I see George Brock came to the same conclusion in his post too.

So Facebook thinks it is a perfect platform, particularly with regards to mobile, for news brands but there are a few things that I wonder about:

1. If your audience growth strategy is tied to commercialising on your platforms, how quickly can a regional news publisher adapt (again) to make content commercially viable on Facebook? I believe in the idea of social media news, with its own commercial life support system untied to a platform, but I don’t see anyone pointing the way in how to crack that yet. And Facebook is not going to  trip over itself to help publishers find a solution when it is competing in that very same space.

2. PopSugar’s cookies-n-milk video numbers are phenomenal. Not sure a crime scene in Leicester is going to be the same kind of draw, even proportionally. Lifestyle content – and the Lad Bible, of course – can be numbers monsters; regional brands who try to emulate that have to constantly reinvent how they are packaged, pitched and presented or the inevitable “slow news day” comments pile in. They risk damaging the brand’s reputation. Even apparently popular regulars, like property porn articles, start drawing criticism from jaded Facebookers after a very short time.

3. Cookies-n-milk stories aren’t journalism but they are informative, fun, sharable and popular so, if getting on people’s news feed is the goal, is Facebook – that monster mainstream sites rely on so much – descending into a Reddit/VideoJug repository of trivia and how-to-decorate cupcakes or how-to hairstyle time-lapse videos, with an occasional cryptic status update from an old school friend? Is the only way to buck the algorithm is to play by Facebook’s rules and post native video or text? That’s not so much a strategy as a distress tactic.

4. Facebook says it wants to help publishers – specifically news brands with their “slow mobile experience” get their content front and centre on a massive publishing platform, that said brands happen not to have any commercial stake in or ownership of. And that might just be ok, but Facebook effectively washes its hands of what happens next. It says the new feed algorithm responds to reader interactions, and that users should use other sources, not just news feed, to get a holistic view of the news. Personally, I’d say before a Facebook exec makes a breezy public statement like that again, he or she should read some of the comments under an average news story; they’d quickly realise most readers don’t even click-through to the article – they read the social media headline, look at the photo, form an opinion and type ‘slow news day’ or possibly post that damn photo of Michael Jackson eating popcorn. Very few go off to find a wider source of information to add context, nuance and depth.

Some commentators say journalists and mainstream news brands have moved past the point of reporting news, and are now curators and editors of news, verifying and checking the social noise to sort the clear signal. That’s a fair idea, but where does the Facebook strategy (and algorithm) fit into this? Can you edit and curate if the platform where content is being published dictates, on the interactions of the shot glass cookies crowd, whether that work is seen? And on that note, how long can Facebook resist calling itself a publisher?

International Journalism Festival video:

MoJocon15 organised by RTÉ

#mojocon15 part I: Talking mobile innovation and storytelling

MoJocon15 organised by RTÉ
Daniel Berman speaking at Mojocon

March 27 and 28 were spent immersed in the world of mobile, journalism, storytelling and content creation, courtesy of the first Mobile Journalism Conference held in Dublin and organised by broadcaster RTÉ.

It was the most rewarding, packed and inspiring event – filled with incredible journalists and storytellers doing wonderful things, often armed with just a few pieces of tech, some apps and a determination to get the story out no matter what.

I was lucky enough to be asked to attend by my boss, and then even luckier to be asked to participate as a speaker by organiser Glen Mulcahy,  Innovation Lead with RTÉ, and author of this brilliant blog.

Day one got off to a flying start with two of the best keynotes talks I’ve heard, by Richard Sambrook and Gerd Leonhard.

Richard Sambrook said the changing immediacy of journalism was a challenge, and that “first and wrong was not first”; he also warned that mobile journalism wasn’t so much about phones as about the end of the age of satellite. “It’s the age of IP news” he told his audience. He cited mobile, social and realtime visual as the three disruptions to traditional news, and warned that to survive a newsroom had to understand and do all three. “Mobile is about much more than reorganising desks,” he said.

Gerd Leonhard said broadcasting was over and ‘broadbanding’ was the new world: “If you want a job [in journalism] what you do has to be above the api, because if it falls below the api a machine can do it”, was his takeaway message. He also introduced me to a word I’ve never heard before: ‘Humarithams’. As in, ‘stories can be made by algorithms, great stories are told by humarithms’.   Here’s an extra bit of Gerd bonus copy, for all those social media editors still traumatised by the recent Facebook upheavals: “Facebook is not in it for the journalism. It is not the reason Facebook exists… we should not be giving away our content to people who are not interested in news, but who are only interested in news as a commodity”.

The point I really took away from his talk was that the pace of change in most mainstream media is just too slow, given the speed of the innovations are happening away from our industry, in the world of tech and the world of the consumer – and we have to be faster, more nimble, and more open-eared/open-minded to trying new things.

Of course, as with any mobile conference I guess, you do come away wanting to do everything on a mobile phone and just bin off the desktop forever. But, in a world where the Nerd Herd was gathered in such great numbers, it was interesting that my presentation was the only one that day (as far as I can recall) to reference work that had been done in newsrooms with Google Glass. Occulus Rift didn’t get much of a mention either on day 1 (I can’t speak for all the day 2 workshops) and the most interesting wearable I saw was a Narrative camera that takes photos on a timer and which I now want so badly I’m ready to commit a crime for one.

The other talks that I found highlights from Day 1 were by Michael Rosenblum (aka the Father of Videography, according to his bio) who sucked all the air out of the room by informing journalists they were effectively “fucked” and that ‘editing, curating, publishing’ was the future for news organisations. I love a bit of agent provocateur, and I thought his talk was fascinating – designed to needle, provoke and make mainstream media ponder its role in such a world, and for indies to consider their responsibilities.

From the same panel, I really enjoyed Shadi Rahimi‘s talk on covering Ferguson with just mobile phones, what made AJ+ social media existence a faster, more fit-for-purpose news organisation than rivals. The answer, in a nutshell, is hitting the story out into the park on social as soon as you can verify it, and involving the audience as much as possible.

My panel was on challenging story concepts, boiled down to ‘what makes a good story?’ and as I’d begged to go first (my slides are at the bottom of this post, along with bonus content for reading that far – a video of @warrengatchell and I talking social media…) I was able to relax and actually listen to the rest of the speakers. Christian Payne was, as ever, compelling as he ran through the tech he uses for storytelling, dating back to 2003, and also somehow shoehorned a quick burst of harmonica playing into the session.

Here’s a link that’s worth a listen

Day 2 was a very special event – a group of us were taken around Dublin by two of the best mobile phone photographers in the business, and given a masterclass. But as this piece of writing is now reaching epic proportions, I’ll blog about that when I have a bit of time to do (hence ‘part I’ in this post’s title).

So I hope RTÉ get plenty of kudos for organising something so cool – they deserve all the plaudits going. Thank you for inviting me along to participate – it was an experience I am delighted to have been a part of. I met fascinating and cool people who do amazing things in mobile spaces, and I learned so much. I really don’t ask for much more from a conference.

Talking innovation, blockers and culture change at WAN-IFRA summit

I was amazed and delighted when WAN-IFRA contacted me recently to invite me to speak at the upcoming 13th International Newsroom Summit during World Publishing Expo in October, in Amsterdam.

I said yes  – what an opportunity to hear industry leaders from around the world talk about things I passionately want to learn as much as I can about! – and then I entered into a state of terror at the idea of public speaking at such an event. This terror has not left me yet…

Other speakers include Steve Herrman,  Editor of BBC News Online, Lisa MacLeod, head of operations for ft.com, and John Crowley, digital editor for WSJ.com in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Anyway, ahead of the event WAN-IFRA’s Jessica Sparks asked me for my thoughts, as a regional journalist, on innovation, newsroom blockers and how the industry should continue to adapt and evolve.

Here’s a sample of her (very tough!) questions, and my response;  her article in full is here.

You’re speaking at the upcoming Newsroom Summit on strategies to prevent newsroom cultures blocking change. What’s the biggest barrier you have personally faced working in this space?

Inertia has been a terrible thing for the news industry – for decades nothing changed, and then everything changed, including the amount of revenue flowing into our businesses, and we just weren’t equipped to deal with it on an economic, cultural or and operational basis.

[Online] was regarded at best as a luxury, and at worst as helping hasten the demise of historic news brands. I think the biggest blocker was probably the ‘them and us’ mentality that existed between digital and print teams, because it fostered the idea that the newsroom Nerd Herd ‘did digital’ while everyone else did the heavy lifting. It wasn’t uncommon to find a journalist refusing to file breaking news stories for online because they felt it would damage the newspaper.

We’ve travelled a long way in a relatively short time, but we can never stop striving to do more – otherwise we will simply end up repeating the mistakes we made in the late 20th century all over again.

The theme of the conference centres on: “See how successful editors are syncing their newsrooms to the digital world. Over one and a half days, we will hear how people and processes are being managed to ensure growth in audience, engagement and loyalty”; my contribution will be on the important role of leadership within that changing world.

 

 

 

Newsrooms: Not what they were, but that’s no bad thing

Been catching up on some thinking around “what future for newspapers?” this week; this one by Michael Wolff was part-anguish and part-nostalgia and of the “on the one hand, [opinion], nevertheless, having said that [counter-opinion]…” school of writing.

This one is a pretty unsentimental look at the issue from David Carr, of the NYT, which warns against the cosy sentiment that  has dogged publishers for too long (and there is a spirited riposte to Carr’s print obituary here):

Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

And this one, by Steve Outing, which considered and suggested outcomes, and promoted quite a few replies and retweets when I tweeted the link, including one voicing a view I’m sure strikes a chord in the hearts of those who think newsrooms aren’t what they used to be and journalists are stuck at their desks, unable to interact with the communities they cover because they are too busy writing listicles.

Lots of people have been lost from the industry as a result of title closures or redundancies in their titles; editorial teams are much smaller these days ( side note: I once worked for a newspaper where the Opinion Editor did only that daily duty. Now, if I had a job where all I did was write a 350 word Voice of the Tribune column every day – which was probably read by about five people including the revise editor – I would look elsewhere for my salary and job satisfaction.)

Personally, I don’t think the editorial size (and geographic location) of a newsroom matters.  It is true that newsrooms are not what they used to be but that isn’t a wholly bad thing – they had to evolve because the news gathering and distribution operation had ceased to be all about newsprint. The old models – the news desk gets a flat plan of the next day’s paper, the newsroom spends the day filling the pages relating to said flat plan – simply did not translate.

So the newsroom operation is a vastly different thing now to what it was ten years ago. Today’s newsrooms are:

  • Noisy:  Not in the clattering-of-typewriters way. Look at the Tweetdeck columns of the average reporter and they will be humming with conversation, feedback and chat.  This social conversation and hubbub is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive,  energising backdrop to work in that any amount of clacking keys (here’s another thing newsrooms were when I started out – a haze of cigarette smoke. Can I get nostalgic for that? Nope. I do get a bit misty for spikes and blacks though, those old-skool filling systems that were pretty foolproof… until you had a desk clean-up)
  • Accountable: Any link to a piece of journalism posted on a title’s social media can be challenged and discussed in the real world; if a title doesn’t respond it no longer means the conversation is confined to ignored Letters to the Editor. In fact the silence might spur on more comment on Facebook or Twitter, or bloggers might take the issue to their own platform to explore it in more depth.  It’s a more open and transparent world now – as a journalist you can get called out on an error, or add context to a discussion, or stamp on a misreading of facts quickly. You can also get some lovely thank yous and expressions of gratitude for the work you’ve undertaken. Sometimes, anyway
  • Moveable: Newsrooms can be virtual and still operate in the real world, via social media cafes and reporter surgeries. Online, they operate via Facebook, Twitter, Google Apps, Trello and a host of other sites. I was involved in the Crewe Chronicle’s shift to become an office-less title; with the right tech and training the team there has done an amazing job of proving a newsroom is not about a postcode
  • Informed: When I was a local reporter – in an office based right in the middle of the town I covered for a weekly paper – I knew a lot of people, some of whom told me things. Now I’m no longer a reporter, I still know a lot – more, in fact – about what is going on in any particularly locale ( potentially, anywhere) I choose to search, thanks to social media. An example – say I know Phil who owns the local grocery and he sees me passing daily on my way to the local police station to write up the log book (let’s pretend this quaint old custom still happens); he might remember to tell me the interesting thing his customers were talking about the previous day. Or he might tell me in a few days time when he drops by the office to pay his ad fees.  However, with online networks and decent geo searches set up around the town, the need to rely on sources is vastly reduced.
  • Attuned: Thanks to analytics we know what our readers want and like. Even if a post has several snarky “Slow news day?” comments on it amid the 90-odd other comments, it’s a fair bet that it has proved one of the more popular stories of the day. Analytics tell us more about our audience than we could ever know before. If you read a news website the information, direct and extrapolated, that might be known about users includes the broad geography of where you live, when you get up and go to bed, what tech you like to use, when and how you commute, what TV shows you like, what football teams you support, what you plan to do this weekend. Potentially we know where your children go to school and how you plan to vote in the next election. Some of this information readers provide voluntarily, some of it is data derived from how they use and interact with a brand’s website or social platforms. None of it is particularly difficult to access, and decisions around digital and print content are made on the basis of these analytics every day.  So today’s newsprint products are built from the ground up by newsrooms who have real insights into how readers consume information and react to it. Theres very little guesswork about it these days.  What do I know about someone who buys a newspaper every day, without going through the circulation department’s files and spreadsheets? I know that they buy a newspaper every day
  • Diverse: I guess newsrooms have more people in them who aren’t doing traditional journalism jobs than ever. I head a team with job titles that didn’t exist 12 months ago. Social media editors are viewed as integral to most regional newsrooms, but five years ago, they were exotic creatures. There are audience editors, data analysts, online content planners… all bringing different perspectives on the agendas and content audiences are looking for. Also, an empty reporters bench doesn’t mean there are no reporters. They might be working remotely from a surgery in town, or sat live tweeting a case from the crown court, or videoing a debate in the council chamber,  or they might be hosting a live blog debate with readers – when it comes to ways of creating online information, the list is extensive and exciting

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation and the perils of “yes, but…”

There’s an interesting post on the WAN-IFRA blog now, which details are the key attributes of an effective editor, leading at a time of industry disruption.

It’s a subject close to my heart as it was the topic of my MA, and I agree with a lot of the points made by David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Among the points he lists (and if you want all of ’em, this link takes you to WAN-IFRA’s post) that resonate with me is ‘Practice innovation as a means, not an end’; I completely agree with that, especially if it means the end of the dreaded “yes, but…”.

Most projects involving innovation will need a system of checks and balances, and the voice of a critical friend is often the one you least want to hear but most need to. However, to achieve innovation often means suggesting something you can’t quite articulate – it’s more of an idea-in-progress. Of course, every  now and then ideas spring, Pegasus-like, fully-fledged from someone’s brow but more frequently they venture forth tentatively and are encouraged to grow by the wider collective. In the face of a “yes, but…’ they can flicker and die before they have the chance to fully develop.

Journalists are trained to be questioning skeptics, who often want to analyse things and see the stages along a route. Furthermore, not everyone involved in the gestation of a project will feel able to support a burgeoning idea, sometimes simply because of the stark reality of just getting it out of the starting blocks is so tough. Or perhaps the existing CMS won’t support it. Or maybe it’s summer, and too many people are on holiday. Or… or… or…

And so it goes, as Father Kurt tells us.  

Innovation tends to happen when you can see your end point; the game is getting there.I was taking to Dave Brown of Apposing the other day- a true innovator and entrepreneur, if ever there was one – and he explained his approach was to imagine the desired outcome, and then plot the way towards that. And if something didn’t work, you take a detour around it. Ultimately, the way might not be direct but there is a way, if the idea is worth doing. I like that.

So, because the editors/innovation/disruption discussions looked so good, I grabbed the #editors14 hashtags stream from the World Editors Forum and dropped it into a Tweetdeck column to read at leisure.

I’m not sure what ‘editor’ constitutes for some of the speakers – I wonder if the US speakers are referring to managers with a different responsibility to UK editors, for example – but the message is still pretty clear:

  • Know what you should have knowledge of to fulfil your role
  • Accept what you don’t know and employ smart people who do
  • Be the strongest advocate for digital in your newsroom

Ideas thrive in newsroom cultures that don’t have a lot of truck with “yes but…” and when it comes to changing newsroom cultures, I would suggest an editor needs to be a lot more visible and accessible than ever, so the tentative, half-formed ideas have an advocate higher up the food chain.

If, as a parent, you’re not supposed to have a favourite child, when you edit a title I guess you shouldn’t have a favourite platform. However, if you want to make something succeed you have – in my opinion, at least – to advocate for that thing as hard as you can, doubly so if you’re doing it in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

So when I was an editor, my websites were always my favourite children, not because I didn’t believe in print but because that advocacy was important.

To try and make sure their teams believe, I’d argue editors need to believe twice as hard as anyone else in the newsroom, because the “yes but… [the paper has to come out on time]” and “yes, but…[there aren’t enough staff to do X] are compelling arguments.  They’re just the wrong ones to be having at this late stage in the game.