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>

Audience engagement and newsroom attitudes

Several years ago, when the words ‘content is king’ was everywhere, I remember Joanna Geary observing  ‘collaboration is queen’. I loved that.
I’ve been thinking about Jo’s twist on King Content because the phrase ‘audience engagement’ is so prevalent right now, and I think that if collaboration is queen bee then being part of the conversation swarm is a vital part of it.
‘Content is king’ became a cliche thanks to a combination of overuse, misuse, and buzzword bingo; essentially, it holds truths, but it’s hard not to groan when you hear it.
Today we’re all about ‘audience engagement’; everyone (mainstream media, brands, marketers or social media players) is looking to, y’know, #engage the #audience with #content that is #shareable and possible even #viral. It’s in danger of becoming disengaging; a phrase on the precipice of becoming a placeholder in strategy documents for the future of journalism.

I think about audience engagement a lot because it’s the cornerstone of my employer’s strategy – Trinity Mirror doesn’t do paywalls, it does audiences – in a nutshell we want to increase audiences, keep them coming back, and know them well enough so that advertisers find the right customers. This isn’t a blog post about TM, it’s about my personal view of how audience engagement should be considered in (many) newsrooms and  what the phrase means to me.  It means this: Creating a newsroom where the process, culture, planning, and output takes the reader/audience/customer/end user – whatever you want to call it – into consideration, and produces stories that begin a second phase of development post-publishing.

I heard Alan Rusbridger speak last week (funnily enough, I had already written most of this post, and so I’m not plagiarising him, I promise) and he spoke of his admiration for Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, he said, was a journalist who thought the real and exciting part of his job started after he’d published his story, and people started talking to him about it on social media. How brilliant (and fearless) is that?

When we hold our news conferences, we’re deciding what the parameters of what is a good story, how it is presented, what platforms we are going to market it on and how, and what time people can read it.
Once a story is in the world, and going great guns on social or on the live analytics board, the most important thing to ask is not “what else are we doing on this?” but “what are people saying about this?”
How are they reacting? Do they see the story as we do, or have a different view point? What aspects chime with them? When they share it, what editorialising of their own are they doing?
If they’re not saying anything, are we
* looking for any conversations in the right places
* inviting people to talk about it
* listening and making ourselves available to discuss further

Getting audience engagement right isn’t a complicated equation (it doesn’t take a vast cognitive leap to know a news story about heavy overnight snow will leave the morning audience wanting to know if the roads and schools are open).
It doesn’t begin and end with the idea of simply making content people want to view/interact/share either – it’s far more sophisticated, and it is also understanding your audience well enough to know how to tell the stories that probably don’t trigger an automatic urge to click.

I was in a news conference recently where a mildly-important-but-dull story about business rates came up. As regional and local reporters, it’s not enough to cover the story that and then expect people to work hard to get the sense of it – if you think it’s boring, ask yourself why would readers care, unless they were directly impacted (and even then, why would they chose your content over a rival publisher’s? Or a social media update from a councillor? Or – more likely- a business owner directly impacted by the change? Competition for attention is brutal and the audience is a promiscuous beast. Similarly, if/when Twitter adds the option to bust 140 characters, user options for storytelling become far more open. So the business owner can write a considered 200-word piece on how rates affect them instead of a short view, or a jumbled rant over several posts. The context available to Twitter audiences will grow – and that is an area where, for the moment, news media have been able to claim an advantage simply by being able to link to a story on a website.

Audience engagement is a newsroom where the reader is considered at the start of the story process. It’s thinking about the people we’re telling stories to, beyond the timings of audience spikes and social uploads. I think it’s about bringing a blogger mindset to our journalism – that live construction of a story that happens, and is refined with reader input to show how it’s developed. People might leave a comment on this post, for example, about what audience engagement means to them, or they might tell me on Twitter (and I could embed a collection of tweets if there were enough).
They might write their own blog post and link to this, so my post will track back to theirs and anyone reading this can find it.

For newsrooms it’s about starting the day looking for and asking what people are talking about, what they want to know more about, what stories they’re reading, sharing and responding to – and what they are ignoring, and why.
It’s about holding regular open sessions with readers (and this can be an exposing and difficult thing to do) such as an editor committing to hold regular, scheduled hangouts to discuss ideas or decisions with readers, reporters doing live debates on Periscope or in Facebook Q&As on their work, news conferences being held in public (and if you think that’s impractical, the Liverpool Echo once held theirs on on a bed in an art gallery).
And it’s about sustaining the practices you put in place not because they are the flavour of the month, but because they bring you as a journalist, or your newsroom as an exec, closer to readers.

That’s the other thing about audience engagement, you can’t be half-hearted or engage a little bit; all you do that way is confuse people (including your newsroom, if you are an editor who blows hot and cold on the subject), or end up sticking with safe trivia that allows a bit of easy bantz but isn’t meaningful.  It’s a commitment but the outcome more than repays the investment made.

 

 

Dealing with witnesses: Why the Eyewitness Media Hub’s guidelines are so important for journalism

1-vHcTaVsjY_18XKO_wKaygg

A while ago I was asked to join a group of journalists assembled with the aim of providing some input into Eyewitness Media Hub’s principles for journalists working with UGC* – user generated content (or ‘other people’s words and images’, as non-journalists might say).

It was a privilege to be involved in the discussions and workshop around such important issues, and as a mainstream journalist it’s really important to me that my world view of our working practices gets stretched and challenged regularly.

Anyway, EMH took on an enormous piece of work and, from a bazillion clauses, sub-clauses and “yes, but…” moments, has distilled the best practice down into 6 simple steps.

Go and look at them with full context on the EMH website, and do please read the version on Medium with lovely sharable graphics because they explain things beautifully, and succinctly.

However, as I’ve got your eyeballs for a moment, here’s a pared-down version, with my input in (these):

  1. Consider the physical and emotional welfare of the eyewitnesses you speak to during breaking news events (I have spoken to people who were so shaken by what they’d just been involved in, they didn’t even know I was media, despite me telling them. I imagine a stranger saying “hello, this is my name and title” is classed by the brain as extraneous information compared to the WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING information it’s trying to process. Try to publish footage already captured (Again, it’s often amazing how obliging your average member of the public can be. They will unthinkingly and unwittingly put themselves in, or back in, harm’s way just to be co-operative, helpful and show the story. Others do it because they want that brush with fame – both are equally damaging, potentially). Appreciate the eyewitness may be completely overwhelmed. (This is an opportunity to be a human being, and not take advantage of them. I think probably Vivien Ayling, who witnessed the Shoreham tragedy and then drove on, obviously in deep shock, to her workplace. I caught a radio interview with her a few days later, and a) she was getting a huge amount of social media abuse for driving on to work – instead of what? Staying and getting caught in the fire? Being in the way of the rescue services? – and b) reporters were allegedly waiting for her at home, have steamrollered her son to get into the house. She didn’t even think of asking them to leave, poor woman).
  2. When you’re asking people if you can use their content, do explain how it will be used, and where and what you’re planning to do with it. Also, tell them about syndication, including the who and where. (I’ve explained the syndication opportunity to Liverpool people who have, for example, given us videos, and the stipulation comes back that they’re fine for it be bought by other organisations but it cannot go to The Sun. Also, historically, people have had no idea what syndication of their content means: I think that will change, especially as more organisations like Storyful appear; but in the meantime, if they don’t ask, we should make sure they’re told).
  3. If you’re embedding content, without speaking to the creator, think about reasonable expectation of where it might appear. (But, tbh, get explicit permission every time, if you can. It just saves a heap of problems later and, frankly, if someone doesn’t want you to use their stuff, and finds out you have, you could find the ensuing Tweetstorm and drain on your time trying to right a wrong outweighs the click value. Also, TinEye and Google Reverse Image Search are commonly used nowadays; it can also cost you more financially, once you’ve annoyed someone through non-communication).
  4. When it comes to images, think about the impact of what you’re publishing might have on people pictured/broadcast, or their family. (Blur isn’t a cop-out; it’s a mature way of telling a story while acknowledging the impact of what you’re publishing can have. We can be so terrified of bottling it, or not using the same photo in the same way as another publication, sometimes. Competition is a good thing, and being bold and brave as journalists is generally the right way to go. All I’m saying is: It’s rare you can cause harm by shielding people)
  5. Ask how someone who has created the content you’re publishing wants to be credited. This may mean you need to explain the potential pros and cons (like, you’ll get a lot of social media kudos and follows – you’ll also get deluged by other media wanting to use it, and they will contact you directly instead of going through our syndication department (see #2). And, no, Photo: Twitter, or Video: YouTube is not a byline.  Sometimes people will choose pseudonyms, or request anonymity, often they won’t. What they do need is a choice.
  6. Treat people fairly; ask them if they would like recompense if their content is being used to make money for the publisher. And here we are at the delicate business of finance, at which point most newsrooms will twitch their skirts around their ankles and dither because UGC IS FREE, ISN’T IT? Not always, and not if you want a relationship with your audience, and a reputation for fair dealing. Often people don’t want money but it’s a conversation that should be had.

*I think Other People’s Content is probably the honest way of putting things, because it doesn’t set the Wo/Man In The Street on a different footing to a freelance photographer. If you want what they’ve made, you need to treat them both well and fairly, whether payment is requested or expected or not. Because, well, ethics. And not being a dick.

#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.

The end of ‘behind closed doors’ journalism

There are times in a journalist’s career when you are going to have to approach someone who is not having the finest moment of their life, and ask them to help you.

It might be calling on a grieving family, or approaching witnesses to an accident, or asking someone who has just emerged the loser in a tussle with Justice to talk about How They Feel.

The outcomes are sometimes unedifying, occasionally unpleasant but – more often than the non-journalist might credit – can also be mutually successful and beneficial. These interactions were also largely unwitnessed, except by those participating.
They happened behind closed doors, or, more accurately, on doorsteps – whether you got inside said door or not hinged, no pun intended, on how you conducted yourself, and represented your intentions.

I called it the Black Edged Voice and it would be employed for death knocks (low, respectful tone, apologetic demeanour for intruding, much stressing of the fact that I would leave  if the door-answerer wished, and would not return) and I was more often than not invited in.

I would interview the person or family; I would do my utmost to do justice to their dear one with a tribute. My goal was to give them a cutting that they would come to regard as a mini-memorial. Every newsroom had reporters who were ‘good on the knock’ – I suspect it comes down to empathy… and luck.

Things started to change in… I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2008, because that was when the first pebbles of social media sliding down a slope became a rumbling avalanche. In 2009 this happened, which gave me a personal insight into how my old-school ‘contacts’  had become my (much-wider) network and a plane crashed in the Hudson and (most) mainstream media suddenly got what was going on.

Now, when a news break happens, you can bank on Twitter being at the heart of it in some way, and often that’s because it’s where the witnesses are. If I’m passing a huge traffic snarl-up on the M6 my instinct is to photograph or video it and post it on Twitter with a hashtag (from the passenger seat, officer, of course) – my natural instinct is to share. And it’s a common mindset; whether you’re wondering what the noises overhead are, or seeing the Clutha tragedy unfold sharing the experience on networks is now a common thing.

But as a witness, or someone who acknowledges a connection to someone caught up in a newsworthy event, when you share that on Twitter you invite reaction, and a side effect of that is that the massed ranks of media are likely going to be in your @ mentions within minutes, asking for a) your content or b) an interview or c) probably both. For a journalist, it means these interactions are happening in the world; they aren’t behind closed doors or in a one-to-one exchange on a doorstep – you’re asking your questions on Twitter and onlookers may well view them as intrusive.

It’s not necessarily pretty but that’s beside the point – asking the questions, respectfully, within the Editors’ Code of Conduct, and knowing that varieties of “NO” may be the comeback are part of the job. There are two problems: Dozens of other media may well be @-ing the same “can we [use your photo, speak to you, ask you to put us i touch with X]?”; others witnessing the Twitter scrum get outraged (sometimes with good reason) and start throwing abuse back. This will usually include references to vultures, lazy journalism, disgrace etc etc.

This week’s Smiler crash saw a spate of no-closed-doors journalism approaches. Mercifully no one died, although the terrible injuries (I would imagine mental as well as physical) suffered by those caught up in it meant it was an incredibly sensitive story to stage a “can we have…” media grabfest on Twitter. This is pretty typical of what went on:

and this

Followed by

There are scores of these exchanges – I imagine her mentions column was in meltdown. She obviously was sanguine about the journalists who approached her (although if you read the full exchanges, it shifts from journalists asking for interviews to some fairly nasty tweets from non-media, taking her to task for the original tweet). But there are also variations on a theme of this

And it wasn’t unique – other people tweeting photos were getting similar requests, and similar views were being expressed

Is it fair? No. Do they have a point? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Sorry but I don’t care. Publicly requesting content like this is a legitimate part of the journalist’s job, while taking photos without asking is obviously not; and yes, it can look shoddy to the wider world. That’s ok – most of us don’t come into this job to win an award for our high-minded purpose and nobility, we come into it to tell stories and let people know things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If someone wants to tell a journalist their story because said hack asked the right questions, politely, mindfully and within the Code of Conduct, that’s a valid exchange. When it fails is when the question is posed in a crass way, or we barge into exchanges between friends, because we had a Tweetdeck search running.

The above tweeter posted her content and opinion to broadcast it – she was happy for journalists to amplify the message. But an enormous amount of Twitter users don’t understand the network, or think that when they @ a friend, it’s not public. Leaping into what they think is a private exchange is a bit like opening the front door and walking in the room to ask if you can interview the grieving family, without knocking.

Just observe for a few moments and follow the conversation – you’ll soon work out whether it’s something you can step into (or another journalist will jump first, and you can take a cue from the reaction). Being first isn’t a great thing when all you’ve achieved is a mentions column of abuse, and retweets with added angry comments. It damages you, the brand you work for, and the wider journalism community.

When you’re using Twitter to find witnesses, treat it like a door knock. Sometimes, in real life, the journalism pack gets there first and you can ask them what reception they’ve got so far. On Twitter, a couple of minutes of observing conversations, or watching others rush in to the breach, can be very valuable. Knock at the metaphorical door if you think it’s appropriate, and be prepared to have it shut in your face – or to have someone else tell you to clear out.

But if you aren’t respectful, or you don’t conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on you and the title you represent (quick sense check: How would you react if you were the person you’re about to approach?) you can expect to get flung off the metaphorical doorstep and land in a heap.

Update: Here’s a link to Robin Hamman’s post on the VirginiaTech shooting – it’s not a new phenomenon.

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…

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.

 

 

 

Innovations and ideas on the agenda for #fearlessDEN


Embed from Getty Images

Here’s an exciting thing: The next DEN (Digital Editors Network) meeting is being held at Trinity Mirror Towers, aka One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, aka IN MY ACTUAL HQ.

Having attended many DENs over the year (we even hosted one at the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo) it’s exciting to be inviting the network at Canary Wharf, and pretty timely too as this one is #fearlessDEN – all about being bold with ideas and taking innovative leaps of faith (probably backed by some market research).

DEN is always a great place to meet like-minded people, put names to faces in your social networks, and grow ideas. Obviously the theme of innovation is close to my heart and my job title, and I’m delighted we will get to hear the genesis and progress of some inspirational ideas.

There’s a lot more information on the event here (plus some quotes from me that Francois insisted on having – thanks, Francois!) and the Eventbrite tickets are here.

Hope to see you there!

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

 

 

 

 

 

The hook on which we are caught

These are some of my reflections on the Revival of Local Journalism conference, organised by the BBC and Society of Editors at MediaCity UK, and held on June 25. There are links to others’ posts and articles from the day throughout this piece. 

The Revival of Local Journalism conference (hashtag #localjournalism) on June 25 was a fascinating day, with stimulating conversation, proffered olive branches and some snappy presentations.

For me, it was thought-provoking and occasionally frustrating in terms of complacency and inertia . Perhaps if the day ended with some agreed outcomes and action points from others apart from James Harding (of which more here) it would have felt like a satisfying conclusion (maybe I’ve just sat in too many meetings?) because this needs to be a springboard and catalyst for wider discussion and momentum, not a cul de sac.

So, as to my reflections on the day’s theme and tone, here’s the thing: the media industry is either disrupted and the mainstream within it is either resisting or attempting to disrupt right back. The entrepreneurs and startups are more able to say “yep – so deal with it” and grasping what the next steps need to be more effectively.

Finding things out, writing them down and publishing them has fundamentally not changed; the hook on which too many of us are getting caught is platform.

So when the established regional media bends its thoughts to the revival of local journalism, there is a real danger that we end up talking in circles about our own platforms – whether that be print or broadcast or digital.

The revival of local journalism is a theme that spans staffing, tools, training, best practice, collaboration, competition and innovation – it isn’t whether newspapers are going to disappear at some point in the future, or whether Google is a publishing aid or a publisher in its own right.

I suspect that the best people to lead objective discussions on the revival of local journalism are not those enmeshed in the industry as realities intrude, defences laid, and the trouser of reinvention get snagged on the barbed wire fence of practicality.

We also have to set aside nostalgia – as flagged by Clay Shirky here.So, for a moment, I’m going to think about platforms, deal with it and then dismiss it for the rest of this post.

I was asked at RoLJ  if newspapers were going to disappear, and I replied along the lines of “if you had a better delivery method for news, why wouldn’t you use it?”

Me and my mouth. That prompted the more direct question “Do you think newspapers will die?”. To which I answered “yes”, and then there was an audible intake of breath from the room.

It was a fairly bald statement in a room full of press people (and my boss) but, yes, I think newspapers will cease to be required.  Which is a far different thing to journalism being required, although platform obsession seems to blur that distinction.

I plucked a number out of the air, and said within 30 years, Jasper Westaway , of borde.rs, said it would be more like 15, and followed it up with a lot more unpalatable truths about where things were headed.

Like…

I can’t say what platform we will be publishing on in five years time because predicting the technological, creative and cultural shifts likely to happen over that period of time is like, well, asking to be reminded of your naivety in five years time…

I’ve posted a lot over the years about the need for aggregation and curation. I am starting to wonder about what doing the opposite of these things could offer.

Is there an opportunity in dis-aggregation? The death of the homepage idea is well discussed, as is the  ‘each piece of content should be a destination’ viewpoint. So what if a mainstream legacy brand decided to make and distribute its content designed to travel purely through social platforms? And made it was self-sufficient, with its own life support system – commercial, editorial and marketing all bound up in one – networked to sister content through links?

Would that start to get us off the hook?

Anyway, enough platform.

I wish we could have talked more about the social media contribution. Jo Geary gave a storming presentation about Twitter which included a fairly damning slide about a US newsman scooping the UK media on the Glasgow helicopter crash, courtesy of an established and intelligent Twitter search.

And she also spoke nostalgically about the past – but it was just that. Platform does not define her type of journalism.

Understanding that isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s appreciating the baby is a teenager now, and is therefore an entirely different animal altogether.

Peter Barron, head of communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa, spoke of collaboration and the free tools to help understand audiences and connect with them.

In fact, considering the theme was revival, an oft-raised point was not knowing the tools to use.

This is a Google search of the phrase ‘best online tools for journalists’ – there are plenty of people out there writing about the free things you can use, and sharing their knowledge of how-to and why-to in great detail.

None of the apps or tools mentioned is particularly complicated, most are free and someone  (hint – the boss) in any media business should be taking responsibility for ensuring at least one member of the team is trained up to be expert in this stuff, so they can, in turn, make sure everyone else in the newsroom is getting clued up on it too. That’s as true for a local weekly paper as it is for Sky. Ensuring the skills are there may require hard decisions and maybe someone does need to be taken off the rota for a few days at a time to go on courses or conferences, and the company has to stump up for this. The outcomes will pay for themselves 20 times over in a few months, as you start bringing in better stories and connecting with your audience.

* Final points:

The folly of Giving It All Away For Free Online point was made. Paul Bradshaw took the parable offered up, turned it into a fairytale guaranteed to give some industry types nightmares, and posted it here. Recommended reading.

Staffing was also raised – David Higgerson’s excellent summation and reflection post on the conference and this particular issue is worth a read.

In the last panel session of the day, I was asked to respond to a question about why students didn’t want to work in newsrooms because they were sweatshops. However, that became a bit sidetracked by the whole ‘what tools to use’ debate.

I am in contact with journalism students from various J-schools via social media and email all the time – some of them I consider friends I’ve yet to meet in real life – and they don’t ask me about potential sweatshop conditions ahead of them. But perhaps that’s out of politeness.

So it’s a hard one for me to answer, too, as I don’t know enough about the situations in all newsrooms.  Perhaps it’s one for the industry press to pick up and examine in greater detail?

 

[Photo:  www.threeforksranch.com}