Facebook and the blue pill of news

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe” *

I read a Roy Greenslade blog post today about Facebook, and it made me thoughtful about our attitudes towards the ownership of news and information in the way the phrase “Google’s tanks are on our lawns” used to in 2008.

His take (which was expanding on this article) is that “Facebook’s increasing dominance…[will cause] not only the destruction of old media… but the end of journalism as we know it” and adds “The Facebookisation of news has the potential to destabilise democracy by, first, controlling what we read and second, by destroying the outlets that provide that material”.

Big themes, and yet, if platforms skew information then for over two hundred years we’ve had the newspaperisation of news.
There hasn’t been, and never will be for as long as humans are involved, a time when information isn’t fitted to a structured narrative – often one which is created in response to a need. Whether breaking news or investigation, journalists are taught to look for a Who, What, Where, When, Why, How framework, and that doesn’t make the resulting story incomplete, or wrong or bad journalism.

Digital journalism and social media hasn’t changed this particularly, but it has made it easier for scrutiny, questioning and rebuttal. Algorithms aren’t the solution, and I know someone far more clever than I will have an idea of what degree of separation you need from human intervention before code can create a pure filter, but even then it might not be a filter you enjoy or want, because – ultimately – we chose our versions of truth and have Views about those who hold different truths to us.

The changes in platform are never going away, just as newspapers have opened and closed, websites come and gone, apps failed, or been bought up and integrated in others, only for their unique gifts to be lost.
The big difference brought by the internet is that while 1980s Britain might have overwhelmingly learned of its news from print tabloids and TV, the weltanschauung is literally now a world (wide web) view.
The gobbling up of revenue and audience that comes with Facebook’s dominance is a challenge but only the latest in a long line of them. The mainstream media may not meet that in its current iteration but we have no monopoly on the future of journalism. New media businesses emerge, and even msm is constantly changing, no matter how much it may not appear that way. I work in a different world to that of a 1990s newsroom.

Every readers will have a view of what is and isn’t journalism and you can see their often scathing opinions in any search on Twitter. Exhibit A:

Panic about deadly kittens, by all means, but don’t panic about them being the most read story on yesterday’s Telegraph website – why shouldn’t they be? The story is interesting, sharable and meets at least one dictionary definition of the term Journalism- gathering, assessing, presenting information.
Having said that, so does the act of retweeting a police appeal for a missing child. Is a report of local mini Olympics, complete photo of kids wearing flower medals, journalism? Or is relaying a couple’s airplane bust up via live tweets?
What I think of as journalism may differ even from another journalist’s view of journalism, let alone a broad sweep of opinion. Our narratives are distinct and based on how we see our own realities.

One person’s diverting read is another’s click bait; the  star ratings your local news outlet curated for local restaurants and that you read (probably via Facebook) may be useful and inform your decisions of where to eat, but there will be 20 other people posting in the comments “It’s nothing to do with hygiene; they get one star for not filling out the paperwork correctly”.
A handful voices expressing outrage at the lack of local grassroots sports coverage are drowned out by the deafening silence of (perhaps tens of) thousands of people  not caring about it at all.

What I ultimately believe is we can’t insist journalism has a right to survive just because it always has been a thing and we think people are more shady now than ever.
If the industry wants journalism to survive then we’ve got to be smarter about delivering quality and reaching and engaging audiences with content that matters to them. And I think when it comes to audiences, invested, niche ones – geographic or interest – are the future.
Social media platforms like Facebook are only going to become more sophisticated; we’ve got to be equally committed to bettering what we do, to be able to use their systems to deliver our content, and talk, and listen, to the audience more than ever.
Maybe we need to be more concerned and focused on what is happening, quietly, on messenger apps – away from analytics and data that tell us what our audience values and wants.

*The Matrix, 1999  

 

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.

 

 

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.

The beige world of clickbait journalism

Embed from Getty Images
Things I worry about:

  1. Why the airport tax charged by cabs from Belfast City Airport fluctuates by £1 for no apparent reason
  2. Is Rick from The Walking Dead aware of how awful his beard is?
  3. In the rise of Junk Food News, how do I avoid being a part of the problem?
I like a good internet meme, and have enjoyed the odd diverting scroll through tweets in a Twitter row between mildly famous-in-certain-spheres people to see mud hurled in 140 characters or less.
But The Dress depressed the hell out of me and it was only the latest in a round of mildly-diverting-but-ultimately-non-stories that are sucking up readers attention at the cost of… what?
At the point of Peak Dress, 99% of my Facebook feed was related to it – either news brands posting their own content about it, or friends complaining about it being everywhere, or friends discovering it for the first time. I hide posts to start with, and then I just gave up on Facebook for several hours.
My social feeds were boring, stuffed full of the same topic. It briefly started again tis week with that photo of cheese and biscuits (which is, I believe, 5 years old) cropping up everywhere.
If everyone is talking about something does that make it interesting? And does that interest make it news? Logic suggests the two go hand in hand, so at what point does a topic swing in the audience’s mind from diverting to dull ?
News should not be boring – news about a dress that can apparently be one colour while being another one entirely should certainly never be boring. But the sheer proliferation of stories, quizzes, explainers, polls and memes made it boring.
The quest for hits killed the golden-or-blue dress.
When it comes to weird news, what’s seldom is wonderful. Otherwise it ceases to be weird, and is merely tiresome.
'Divided a planet'? oh Washington Post,
‘Divided a planet’? oh Washington Post,
If you put up a post about The Dress on Facebook, you might wind up within as many as 500 comments in a few hours. You can put up a gallery or a poll, and get a lift in page views and uniques off said same garment.
This works for national news brands because the pool they fish in is both deep and wide. But the regional press has, in my opinion, to walk a fine line between audience expectation and audience interest.
If a brand’s unique selling point is its locality and ties with the area it covers, that should be protected as it has lasting value and impact.
When it comes to quick hits, social traction isn’t  really being boosted in the long term, just as those comments aren’t engagement in the useful sense of the word. Often they aren’t even comments – they’re picture memes (“lookit mah unfunny and ctrl alt v-ed picture of Jean Luc Picard face palming”) or ’slow news day’ complaints.
I was part of a team launching a new website last week and for the first few days we had no analytics to go by except social growth. And it felt odd to be making decisions blind – moving stories up or around the homepage, and creating more of some content because we thought it would do well.
It made me understand how valuable analytics are to me when I come to make content decisions.
However, if you are only led by analytics, a stretched local angle on a clickbaity story will seem the answer, because the figures will back you up – in the short term.
Analytics show us volume and interest, but they can’t measure sentiment (ok, some social ones can in a fairly basic way). They can’t measure the long-term damage done to a brand by some careless clickbait fishing.
So last week drove home just how important analytics have become to me not only when I come to make decisions, but also when I take a flier, and learn from it.
But if online readers are attention and time-poor (and they tend to be) … if shortform or snacky pieces of information are more highly prized,… if visual socially-shareable content drives hits… if analytics shape our decisions, then how does the local council budget report compete for and hold attention?
It’s a tough sell, even if you think you know which of the day-parted audience spike you should be targeting, but I think it’s a sell that we have to keep on our toes about.
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Six thoughts on emerging opportunities for journalism

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAYQjB0&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmagictorch.com%2F%3Fp%3D62&ei=xIxrVL7vC8e0sATyvoCACg&bvm=bv.79908130,d.cWc&psig=AFQjCNHbdgW8g1Er8Ob1oHVzTX879Q3oSw&ust=1416420924455214

Attending the Society of Editors* conference on November 10 and 11 meant a trip back to my old stamping ground of Southampton. I spent several years there in the ’90s with the Southern Daily Echo (editor Ian Murray completed his term as SoE president this month) and it was good to go back – not least to see how much the city has prospered since my last visit.

The conference had some excellent sessions  – I particularly enjoyed the Full Steam Ahead panel, the Continuous Development panel on training, and the New Threats to the Media debate, with a special nod to Matthias Spielkamp, of iRights.info for his insightful view of journalists’ needs to protect processes, not just sources. The links above go to the SoE summaries of each debate but the Daily Echo also undertook a commitment of covering the conference live. Respect.

I was invited to take part in a panel on Emerging Opportunities for Journalism with my fellow panellists being Kathryn Geels, of innovation charity Nesta, and Peter Jukes, whose account of crowdfunding to live tweet the hacking trial was fascinating. At the end of the session it did feel a little as though digital journalism was still viewed as the freeloading cousin of the more solvent print product by some, although I don’t think it’s hard to find value in engaging audiences, getting social media right, and concentrating on dwell times and user needs rather than page views.

I have a bit more room to explain my ideas on this blog and, obviously, I work in regional legacy media so my view is slanted towards that segment of the industry. However, everything I talked about at the SoE is already being done by other companies – some are recognisably in the content creation business, others perhaps not so much – and they are making money.  These are emerged opportunities but parts of the mainstream have’t cottoned on to that yet. So, these were the themes I chose to talk about:

1. Data and the roles of journalist/developer: Twenty years ago, I would go on a job with a photographer and between us we would tell the story using our own choice of media, which were blended to enhance reader experience. A posh way of saying, I did words, the toggie did pix, and the end result was a content package that was greater than the sum of its parts.  In Trinity Mirror we have the data unit, where facts, figures and whole paragraphs of exposition are enhanced by developer coding skills to create entirely new pieces of content. Like the WWI search widget, for example. A standalone story, with data and visuals, that through existing brought in new stories as readers explored the data, discovered new things, and shared them. Of course, you can be your own developer, just as you can be your own photographers. I just think that the dynamic will see developers and reporters working closely in mainstream newsrooms in the future, just as we have always done with photographers and sub editors.

2. Mobile/wearables: From my notifications column in Tweetdeck, the most tweeted point I made as a panelist was ‘if it doesn’t work on mobile you need to ask yourself  why you’re doing it at all’. The opportunities for mobile journalism are enormous – commercial developments aside (and there are so, so many) simply being able to deliver your new content into a platform that your target audience’s is already holding in their hand – (and tell them about it through some judicious notifications use) is a little mind-boggling when you stop and consider it. Apps aside, why would any media company have a news website that wasn’t responsive? It’s surprising how many do. In terms of wearables, we’ve only just reached the foothills; I’ve no time for dismissive ‘Glassholes’ chatter – if we aren’t looking at how the potential opportunities offered by these spaces now, when the audience shift happens (and, as with phones and tablets, it will be at a gallop when it does move) we won’t be there as a familiar brand to greet them. So ‘our’ audience will form new alliances with brands that did get there first. Under the innovations banner, we’ve got a Google Glass project running at the Manchester Evening News in conjunction with UCLan’s John Mills and we are already discovering wearables have advantages over handhelds for telling some stories (like the Manchester Live video linked to in point 5).

3. Socially shareable content: Just a glance at a news website’s real time anaytics shows how important the social audience is to driving traffic. The opportunities for mainstream media to create content – images, text, audio – that has a standalone life on social platforms are obvious and although I wouldn’t say this has been cracked  yet I think the native advertising content being created around games and lists is a pointer A bit of a digital air plant; socially shareable standalone content should have a built-in life-support system of editorial and commercial content, and in a social media ecosystem users would interact, consume, and move through on to other points of interest on a website served up through linking and curation.

4. Immersive storytelling: I’ve seen for and against discussions on whether there’s a really life for long form online (here’s a long Twitter debate that’s worth a read). If you ask will people read 400+ words on a mobile device I’d say, on the evidence I’ve observed, you have the wrong question. As ‘how’ people will take in the information and you’re on the right track. Personally I think if they are 400+ worthwhile words, with associated multimedia, engaging graphics, interactive content and clean, easy scrolling, on an engaging subject, then yes, people will. And then there’s the immersive opportunities of long form audio storytelling – as the statistics of TAL’s Serial podcast show, for example.

5. Live and collaborative journalism: This is my favourite point, because it involves drawing people into the journalism you propose, and quite often it becomes a better – and perhaps different – thing because of that. Live invariably means more transparent – the immediate need to convey information to a waiting audience takes out the editing filter, often, and what’s comes across are pure facts or descriptions. It’s exiting and often compelling – readers stay for longer, share more, involve themselves and – particularly in the cases of regional brand liveblogs – living stories become authoritative pieces of work. Collaborative is fun to do because the crowd you work with knows so much.  The Manchester Evening News ran Manchester Live for one day but the learnings it took away have been incorporated into the day-to-day fabric of the newsroom. A real case of seizing an emerging opportunity, seeing the value to an audience, and acting on the feedback.

6.  Audience analytics and reader trends: None of the above points work without knowing the audience, their behaviour and the user trends. If we don’t know what our audience’s habits are, what devices they use, where, when and what information they are going to want, it’s very hard to deliver the right content. And this is a competitive market – we compete for users’ attention against other media, against their preferred music, their work, their loved ones… getting a slice of their attention is hard, and our best hope is to insert ourselves into their day at the points when they’re likely to have time to want information and entertainment. Layer real time analytics with historic data and social information, and you have a matrix to work from. Personalisation and automation of some content/content delivery are more opportunities that spin out of knowing audiences.

So that was the tone of my contribution. I tried hard to avoid jargon but when you’re talking about ‘wearables’, ‘immersive storytelling’ and ‘analytics’ it is kinda hard not to sound buzzword-y. Hopefully the message didn’t get too mangled by it though.

* A bit of disclosure: I’m a (very new) member of the Board of Directors for the Society of Editors

Bonus content: Since taking part in the panel, I’ve managed to catch Amy Webb’s immense 10 Tech Trends for Journalists slideshow, which is essential viewing in my opinion.