What might work: AR, VR, and cool stuff at the Washington Post

What I’m listening to as I type: LEMONADE

 

I’m sitting in Jeremy Gilbert’s Washington DC office, trying not to look like a girl – scratch that – a middle-aged academic, as I bounce clumsily, and a little queasily, around Mars.

Gilbert is letting me play with Mars: an interactive journey, the virtual reality (VR) project for Oculus that the Washington Post published in March this year. Developed by staffer Chris Davenport in a project team led by Gilbert, the VR ‘tour’ of Mars takes Nasa’s scans of the red planet’s terrain, extrudes them, adds satellite pix and a little magic sauce, and creates a pretty real experience of what going for a stroll on Mars might be like.

It’s impressive as a content-led project, with an extraordinary level of research and detail underpinning the result, but, like other VR projects produced by news publishers recently, it all feels a bit, well, worthy.

“We did do one thing with Mars which we didn’t end up publishing”, Gilbert tells me. “We allowed people to drive the Rover around, which people found incredibly compelling but we had a hard time making it story telling. People wanted to drive the Rover because they could drive the Rover, not because driving the Rover helped explain the conditions on the planet or why people are going there or any of those things.”

Journalists decided that the job of a journalist was not just to show the world but to explain it sometime round about the 1880s, not long after interviewing became part of our toolkit. Instead of only saying what we saw, or reporting what we were told, we started asking questions (Schudson, 2001) and journalism began to develop as a craft and a profession – and a responsibility.

Personally, I felt the Washington Post’s version of Mars lacked Pokémon.

Gilbert’s role at the Post is Director of Strategic Initiatives. Which means he gets to do all the cool stuff – once:

“I typically do things that either are good enough for someone else to run in the future, or are complete failures and we won’t do that again for a while.

“One third of what I do are things that the top editors tell me to do, the things that we need done – Marty Baron and my boss Emilio Garcia-Ruiz. One third are things that I think of that I find interesting and seem like they have potential, and one third of the things are things that the journalists around the room say: “You know, I have an idea, can we do something like this?”.

The next cool stuff thing he showed me was a 360-degree video package, shot in the Galapagos. Gilbert and a team of staff travel writers. editors, with specialist producers from UNC School of Media and Journalism, spent a week in the islands collecting the video and source material. The result was published on the Post’s website in May.

It’s beautiful.

I swam with the fishes.

washington-post-galapagos-screenshot

And yet, like the Mars VR, beautiful but not quite there yet. My eye couldn’t settle – on the sidebarred text; on the stills; on the embedded video (all seamlessly attached to data points in the text). As a travelogue making me want to try the real location, it worked. As a piece of storytelling, not sure.

But as Gilbert explains, the challenge for new journalism is to learn how to work with non-linear storytelling (and, perhaps, an audience that is itself learning how to ‘read’ and get value from a broken-up story).

“Our expectations as journalists really have to change”, he said. “That we often think about ourselves as the people who bring you the perspective on an event, live or otherwise, and we tell you what matters, and here we are basically saying we’re going to create a space, especially in a virtualised environment that is not 360-video.

We’re dropping you in a place that we made and letting you do whatever you want, and in whatever order you want, and that’s a very different way of storytelling.”

jeremy-gilbert-twitterThis is what drives Gilbert – the possibilities of new storytelling. His background – with kings of interactive National Geographic, and at Northwestern University with the team that went on to found Narrative Science, is rooted in experimentation with narrative forms.

And he, and the Post, is going deeper and deeper into testing and trying new forms: “We’ve started to talk about if this is spherical video scene, can we actually offer different paths out of the scene into different spherical videos?” He tells me about a project the Post is working on with the University of Texas, at Austin, to add code to video scenes which will respond to eye-tracking, i.e. where the viewer is looking.

“Right now we can annotate [a video scene] by in essence burning on say some text and we can position it exactly on a video.

“But what the University of Texas is helping us do is to say: if the user’s eye is here, their gaze is in this direction, we can fit something that’s within their gaze and not attached to the video. So not using After Effects to burn it in, but rather tracking as the mobile device or the headset moves.”

They’re also using automated storytelling to speed up reporting on the US elections, and have been looking at using Bluetooth beacons to geographically trigger extra information, extra reporting, to attendees at events such as the election conventions. But Gilbert works on tools to support the day-to-day news operation too; showing me a freelancers look-up site they created.

“I really do three kinds of things: I do projects that are about creating better tools for journalists I do projects about creating better forms for news consumers to get their information, and I do projects that are trying to better connect people with information about distribution. So creation, consumption, and distribution.”

Two projects in the news consumption and distribution categories showed what the Post’s writers are capable of, given the freedom (and resources) to marry their specialism with experimentation in delivering very complex stories.

The interactive Waypoints package creatively tackles the story of migrants arriving at the Greek island of Lesbos.

While the masses of material collected by court and crime reporters around the Freddie Gray trial, was translated into an app making use of augmented reality (AR), and released on the Post’s site on on app stores in May.

freddie-gray-app-washington-post

The arrival at the Post of Jeff Bezos in 2013, as new owner, has delivered a good chunk of that freedom to experiment. Pouring money into the newsroom has, Gilbert acknowledged, helped (“we’ve hired a bunch of new journalists, we’ve hired a ton of new technologists”) and delivered a “pervading sense of optimism” in the Post’s future which has encouraged experimentation.

But, as Gilbert reminds me, previous owner Don Graham was pretty on the ball too: “He was on the Board of Facebook, so it’s not like he didn’t get it.” (Indeed as Kirkpatrick recounts in his book, The Facebook Effect Graham almost “got” Facebook itself, coming within a phone call of buying a big chunk of it in 2005)

“Don Graham knew much, much, much more about how to do great day-to-day journalism because he had grown up in this newsroom than Jeff Bezos may, but Jeff Bezos knew a whole lot more about operational speed. And he really understood how the right kinds of algorithms and the right speed of the user experience could lead to a massive digital audience.

“So I think the combination of a newsroom that already had a pretty good sense of how to tell stories, with a person who really knew how to build a big digital audience, it helped. That definitely helped.”

The Post took on around 100 new people with Bezos’ backing. Being able to invest in journalists and technologists “at a time that the economy wasn’t so great” and there were lots of great people looking for jobs was also a boon, said Gilbert. That investment pushed the Post past arch rivals the New York Times, to hit record-breaking web traffic last Autumn.

“It’s tricky because what’s the lesson for other people? There aren’t that many Jeff Bezos’ out there who are willing to invest heavily, and be fairly removed in terms of the day-to-day storytelling; letting the journalists do the storytelling they’re capable of doing. 

“If everybody had one [a Bezos]  that would be good for everybody. But in the absence of that, I think it’s hard but crucial to do these kinds of experimentation. But for a lot of people it has to come at a higher cost than it does for us.”

 


 

I met with Gilbert, as part of research for the book I’m currently writing on Future Journalism. The book, commissioned by Routledge is due to be published early 2017. If you’re interested in taking part, please tweet me.

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What isn’t working: Brexit press

I’m a bit pissed right now. In both senses of the word. Everything that I type from now on has to be read in that context. Are you ok with that (judging me-wise)? Then I’ll begin.

There are a few things you need to know as background. Back story if you like.

We live in a small village in East Staffordshire. We have friends here. We are part of village life. I do posters and programmes (in InDesign, not that anyone  knows that) and write press releases and feature articles and sort photo shoots and PR and we staff bars and give advice and time and free software and AV kit and expertise and consult and… you get the idea. If you live in a small village, you know how the Linda Snell mission creep happens when you have skillz.

On Thursday, over 63% of our village voted to leave. We went into our, much-frequented, local pub after voting and joked that: “that one vote to stay in tomorrow – it was us”…Tumbleweed, much.

Tonight though, Sunday, we were laughed out of that same pub by people we’d been friends with last week, because we said we voted Remain. Actually not laughed – jeered at and heckled.

You know when you’re at school and you’re the cleverest one in the class and you try to pretend you’re not, just to make friends? I’ve been doing that since I was at primary school.

And then Brexit. And suddenly it’s not just about having voted differently, but about realising that you’re still the clever kid in the class that no-one wants to hear from. Brexit isn’t a poor/rich split (because trust me, the first 30 years of my life were bones-of-my-arse poor in ways most Brexiters  couldn’t begin to comprehend), it’s about informed vs uninformed.

We were meant to open our garden this weekend for the village’s Open Gardens event, which we’ve organised for the last five years. But at 4.50am on Friday morning, I was standing in our kitchen crying buckets, and hubby was saying: “I don’t want them in my garden”. It was us and them, not us v them. It was a realisation that we were foreign bodies here.

We talked about it. We knew that if we decided to close our garden at the last minute we were starting something we could never come back from. I said: “Are we OK going back to that time we’d just moved here and didn’t have any friends?” In the meantime our children were WhatsApping their fury and anguish, and social media created a pathway for our shared despair.

We closed our garden, we were nice about it, even helpful, and we took the dogs to the beach for the day. And the next day.

Talacre

Nice pic to give us all a break before I move on. The sand dune is Talalcre by the way.

 

I’ll get back to the journalism, because that’s what this particular blog is about (I have others, did you expect me to be a one blog woman?). On Saturday I was blaming my profession. Fuck you Sun! Fuck you Mail journalists! Fuck you dumbed-down ITV! Our job is to report and inform, not to invent and direct. Just because we know people respond to pictures of people doesn’t mean we have to make every story about a person. A hero guy, an evil woman.

I teach this stuff. I ran newsrooms. News is about putting the person into the story. But at what point did we as journalists decide it was OK to be part of a racist majority press illustrating stories with non-existent people?

To tell voters Farage is the man to lead the country; that immigrants eat the Queen’s swans; that migrants will swamp us; that the Queen is pro-Brexit; that people who have spent their lives studying a particular issue are just making up facts to suit politicians? That those clever people in the class are really out to get you?

dailymailhateus

Today, Sunday, the Tory and Labour parties are in full blood-bath, completely pointless argue-among-ourselves mode, and in the meantime a lot of people who voted leave and are now a bit worried about it are looking for someone to blame. So, ITV ran a story about 11 members of the shadow cabinet walking out on Corbyn and our local pub cheered – they’d found their scapegoat.

Too many journalists seem to think it’s OK if the fallout from their work is that groups of people are encouraged to hate each other. To believe it isn’t their fault if an immigrant is beaten up; if a student feels unwelcome; if a migrant toddler drowns. Because you’ve forgotten (or don’t know) how to tell a good story with facts, you stick to a comfort zone of personalities: this person we’ve heard of dissing that person we might have heard of.

And in a pub, people who are scared latch onto a scapegoat like a liferaft, and shout down a neighbour. You did this – own it.

Every single reporter working for the national media right now, I want to ask you – are you happy with everything you’ve written this month? Do you truly think you did a great job? And did Thursday’s vote go the way you, personally, wanted it to go?

Because if it didn’t, don’t ever let me hear you say you were ‘just doing your job’. I’ve been there as a journalist – it’s wrong and it won’t ever feel right, it will haunt you.

Journalism is a calling. It isn’t a job, it isn’t a trade, it isn’t just a craft. It’s a responsibility that goes way beyond paying the mortgage. So step up to the fucking plate and grow a pair!!

Sorry, I don’t usually swear. I need another drink.

From Will Steacy's five-year project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

I can tell you other stories from this weekend. My mum who voted out because, as a life-long Labour voter she didn’t trust Cameron. When I told her that meant she’d voted for Boris she said “but he’s even worse!”. A neighbour who voted out because: “If they’d said all this stuff that’s been on the telly a couple of weeks ago, I’d have know what I was voting for”. Another who said: “I didn’t vote because I didn’t know what the issues were”.

That is Cameron’s fault and Gove’s fault and Corbyn’s fault but it is also our fault. We are supposed to be the explainers, the informers. We’re the Fourth Estate: our purpose is to stand in the middle, not at opposing ends.

Being a journalist is a responsible job, it makes a difference. If you ever needed a lesson in why and how, look at Friday morning, look at what’s happened this weekend. Look at the discussions that are growing, not slowing, on Facebook. The country isn’t just split, it’s screaming in pain.

Please – stop pretending to yourself that this is just a job. If Britain ever needed anything right now, it needs journalists who believe in journalism. Step forward or piss off backwards.

It's_The_Sun_Wot_Won_It

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What has to work: journalism by journalists

What I’m listening to as I type: Quixotic

 

My grandson will sometimes tell me: “I’m sad, nana.” That he says this is in itself a pretty joyful thing because he has autism, and for him to recognise and describe his emotion as ‘sadness’ is reassuring.

But today, I’m right there with him on the sadness meter.

I shouldn’t be. I’ve been commissioned to write a book and have spent the past week plugging in the first set of interviews – including a trip to Washington (I’m going to West Wing land!) and time with the extraordinarily helpful team at the Washington Post. The book, provisionally called ‘Future Journalism’, will pull together everything that excites and interests me about the business of news and give me an excuse to pick some very bright brains.

But today, thinking about that phrase ‘Future Journalism’ and my investigation, I feel sad.

Not the ‘future’ bit, I don’t for one moment believe journalism doesn’t have a future. While the future for current business models delivering journalism shifts and changes, and for many individual examples has collapsed (goodbye Indie newspaper, goodbye Spot.Us, goodbye Circa…), I don’t believe that news depends on newspaper owners.

Nor do I believe that the slow death of newspapers (beautifully captured in Will Steacy’s photo-essay) has meant the slow death of journalism.

Will Steacy's project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

Will Steacy’s project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

 

But I do think there’s a slow death of journalism going on and that the fault isn’t (or isn’t just) about collapsing ad revenues and expanding production costs, the responsibility is also ours: we journalists, we editors, we journalism teachers.

For every Spotlight or Snowden, there are hundreds of complaints about The Sun’s poor journalism and the Daily Mail’s dangerously misleading stories, and dozens of academic papers highlighting biased-reporting across our media.

 

Press Complaints Commission search March 31, 2016

 

Hell, even Obama blames us for Donald Trump.

We’re the people misusing statistics, or ignoring the tougher questions, or repeating the not-true story. It’s our job to get the journalism right – we shouldn’t need quangos or bloggers or Hollywood to remind us of our personal responsibility to integrity.

And we should not accept that the people we serve trust Wikipedia more than journalists, or that 64% of young Americans don’t trust what the media says, or that journalists are rated as only marginally more honest than bankers and builders. I couldn’t care less about click-baited headlines or celebrity-focused front pages, but I care that we’ve enabled that loss of faith in journalism.

You might argue ’twas ever thus: Kirk Douglas’s excoriating 1951 portrayal of truth-bending journalist Chuck Tatum as example.

Ace In The Hole - 2

Except it isn’t so very long since faith in journalists was the reverse of those 2015 surveys. The 1956 American Election Survey found 66% of citizens believed newspapers were fair, and in 1972 people had more trust in CBS anchor Walter Cronkite than in the president (source).

Public faith in a journalist’s ability – or willingness – to tell the truth has collapsed alongside, and almost as quickly, as the profession’s business model. We have to deal with that.

In my second week as news editor at a Northern daily, a woman rang the newsdesk and spoke to me about her missing teenage daughter. She’d been missing before but never as long as this. Her mother was worried about her daughter hanging around with young Asian men. She thought her daughter was drinking and maybe taking drugs; she’d lost control of her.  The police weren’t interested and social services had stopped answering calls from her. She didn’t know what to do.

You know where that story ends up, and I’d like to be able to say that when I took that phonecall to conference it kicked off a journalistic investigation that put horrendous human beings behind bars. But the reality is that we didn’t jump in until establishment voices – a courageous MP, police officers – started saying there was a story.

Spotlight wasn’t only about the story the Boston Globe journalists uncovered, it was also about a story that had been missed the first time around. We’re human, we’re busy, we have a lot of space to fill. But for journalism produced by journalists to have a future, we have to show our public that we’re more useful than Wikipedia and way more trustworthy than their accountant.

 

trust

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What is working: Lasting Lives and Sweeble

What I’m listening to as I type: American V – A Hundred Highways

 

Ted is dead. As is Rex and Ian and, by the time you read this, perhaps Dorothy or Kath or Eunice.

I was sitting in a half-empty pub in Newcastle Emlyn when Ted’s wife called to tell me he’d passed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. And then: “He was a real gentleman.” And I told a story about something he’d said to me, and she told another story and the conversation carried on see-sawing that way for a while, with the bar behind me hushed and listening-in.

Soon, because there was a reason Phyllis had called me on that wet August afternoon, I said:

“You should go ahead with Ted’s book. It’s almost finished and I could get it printed for Christmas. You could give it to the family as presents and it might help. It might help you to remember him as he was, before he was ill. I think Ted would want to see it finished.”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes, what a good idea!” And there it was – the teeniest, tiniest chink of light; of something she could bear to do in a future without her soulmate.

Ted – and Ian and Rex and the others – had been one of the volunteer subjects in a pilot project I’ve been working on over the last year or so. The Lasting Lives project, which will eventually become part of my relaunched Sweeble, pairs volunteer journalists and writers with individuals to help them tell and publish their life story.

The focus is on capturing stories that would otherwise be lost so, in the pilot, myself and a couple of fellow former journalists worked with cancer patients at a local hospice. But we’re also currently looking at working with refugees and basically anyone with a life story worth capturing and saving for the future.

What I intend is to develop a set of standards, ethics and structures – plus publishing templates – to help writers work with family, neighbours, friends, and strangers to build a massive global archive of the extraordinary ways we all live our ordinary lives.

We have partnerships with local organisations: hospices, churches and public archives, and support from pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to. But this has to become bigger – a model that thousands of writers could use to capture life stories wherever they live.

So right now, as well as hopefully finishing Ted’s book, I’m in the middle of setting up the project as  a UK charity and finding people and funding to help me develop and grow it.

It’s all taking longer than I’d like because I’m trying to do it alongside my paid work and all the other stuff that fills all of our days. But we’ve so far published two books and have two more ready to go. Which is really what it’s about: helping one person at a time – and their family – to see their life in print and know their story will live after them.

Yes, I  did say print.

Ernest Saudi2

I still miss that smile

My father died of dementia. It took ten years – each one harder to bear than the last. But before his mind started to go, he’d begun writing his life story. Pages and pages of tight, handwritten text that my brother painstakingly copied into an electronic file, and I crafted into a book and had printed a few weeks before his death.

And, Oh my goodness, the difference it made!

In the book, our father, my mum’s husband, was back. In all his big, brave, joking, wanderlust glory days.

If you’ve seen someone fade away into death, you know how hard it is to replace those final images with memories of how they were. A book, written in their voice and telling the stories they used to tell, is so much more effective in rebuilding who they were than trawling through photo albums – real or Facebook ones.

The book helped my family get to a better place in remembering my father. Which is what I told Phyllis and why I knew – or maybe just believe – it would help her.

Every reporter who’s ever done a death knock knows why the family will usually talk to us. The reporter drinking tea in their front room, listening to them, writing things down, is making their story real. We’re saying: ‘People will read about this person you loved and understand why you’ll miss them.’ We want to have mattered; we want the lives of the people we love to have mattered.

I mentioned earlier about the project becoming part of Sweeble. I’m not going to go into the whole Sweeble/Bubblews shenanigans again, but for any of you missed it, Sweeble is the self-publishing start-up I started a few years back. Early incarnations failed, but I learned a massive amount about digital to print publishing and that’s going to go into reviving Sweeble as the publishing arm of the Lasting Lives charity.

I tried all sorts of publishing software during the pilot – from Blurb to Quark – and didn’t find anything that was as quick and easy to use as Sweeble had been. So, once the Lasting Lives charity is up and running, I’ll be rebuilding Sweeble as the publishing platform that Lasting Lives – and perhaps similar storytelling projects – will use.

When I met Eunice – whose book was the first one we published – she insisted no-one would be interested in her story:

“I don’t know why anyone would want to read about me. I’m just ordinary. I’ve just had an ordinary life.”

“Apart from the being held up,” her husband interjected.

“Well, yes. Apart from that time I was held up at gunpoint.” And she smiled such a wicked smile, and there – we were off.

 

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What isn’t working – Sweeble and Bubblews

What I’m listening to as I type:Nebraska

 

So, this is where the story starts. I get this email from a bloke called Mike asking if I’m interested in selling my sweeble.com domain to a client he’s got. So I says “maybe” and “what are you offering?”. So he says “$500”. So I says “No”. So he comes back with “$2,000”.

At this point I google Mike, and his employers Domain Holdings and I start thinking: “Do I even want to sell it?”

I haven’t considered it before. This is sweeble we’re talking about – my sweeble. My sweeble! It isn’t just a domain, it’s who I’ve been for the past nine years.

But I’m sitting there, in a half-built house, with two jobs, no savings and my second grandchild on the way. So maybe it is time to stop with the start-up bug. Maybe it is time to sell my asset.

I tell Mike how much the domain means to me and that my interest in selling would “start at five figures”. He offers $10k – and I start to panic.

 

Will the real slim shady…

I’m going to go back a bit further. Because you need to understand why I was panicking, rather than popping corks.

Back in 2006, I was news editor at a Northern daily and I had this idea that news shouldn’t only be something written by a journalist: people should be helped to write their own stories; their own news.

Anyway, I started working on an idea for a user-generated news website: sheets of lining paper taped to the bedroom walls with scribbled ideas that made me excited to wake up every day.

Sweeble arrived one hot summer’s evening that turned to warm rain over a jug of pina colada in my Saltaire backyard.

I left newspapers and started the first Sweeble and six years of work that would leave me £100k out of pocket but really, truthfully be worth every penny. Because it is such, such a buzz starting up your own thing.

 

sweeblehp2Anyway, Sweeble 1 did ok but not great. This was 2006 – Facebook had only just opened its doors to all-comers; Twitter was newly-born and we just weren’t the social sharing folk then that we are now.

People wanted me to write their stories for them; they didn’t have the confidence to do it themselves. For a while I got around it by doing just that, and by paying expenses to volunteer writers to deliver stories. But it was like knitting with jelly – I just couldn’t get traction.

I got a dog.

Over long muddy walks I came up with a new idea. Rather than helping people to write their stories, what about helping them print them?

The lining paper was taped to the (by now different) walls and I planned out the self-publishing platform I would turn Sweeble into.

Sweeble the self-publishing platform launched in beta in 2009.

sweeblewebpage_chosenBut it proved to be an extraordinarily difficult build and four years later I had to shut it down as the tech failed further with each new browser iteration. As I wrote at the time: “Tying my tooth to a slamming door would hurt less.”

 

Please stand up…

So, back to Mike and his $10k and my mixed feelings.

I’d said five figures but $10k isn’t five figures: I’m in the UK, I think in pounds and $10k is only £6k-ish. So I tell Mike that and ask for £10k and chuck in the .net domain by way of apology for coming over all English on him.

Mike goes quiet.

A few days later, I get an email from a woman called Melanie who politely asks me what the link is between me and Bubblews’s new app called Sweeble?

Whoa, Nelly!! Where the salt fish did this come from??!!

Google, google…

It came from here

It came from here

 

Something called Bubblews was about to launch an app called Sweeble – but on the domain sweebleapp.com (bought five days before Domain Holdings first emailed me).

Bubblews co-founder Arvind Dixit was chattering about Sweeble online; there was a Twitter profile and other stuff…

DixitSweebleI confirmed with Mike that his buyer had dropped out; created a page on sweeble.com to mark out my territory; let Melanie know, and let Dixit know.

Dixit’s reply to my first dm to him basically side-stepped the issue. He may or may not have read my post; he may or may not have been behind the earlier bid to buy the domain – either way his response was friendly but.. “We came to this name [Sweeble] because it’s like Bubblews spelt backwards in a way.”

My ownership of the domains didn’t matter. My ownership of the UK trademark, and the UK Limited company didn’t matter. My very public history of creating, developing and working with the brand in relation to user-led content didn’t matter.

All that mattered was that the owners of Bubblews thought swelbbub sounded like sweeble. So bugger off me.

 

Please stand up.

And here’s where the story is today. I’ve replied to Dixit and formally asked Bubblews to stop using the name Sweeble. I gave them seven days to respond. Ten days later they haven’t and are still calling their app Sweeble.

All they needed to do was add a random letter or stick with Swelbbub! Or Swubble, or Bleeble, or Slobble!

Anyway. Calm. Let’s just put all that emotional stuff about me and Sweeble in a box for a while. Let’s just park it.

I said somewhere near the top of this post about the domain being my asset. And it is – mine to sell, use, barter or do what I like with. What on earth’s the point of intellectual property rights if, when it comes down it, you can’t actually stop anyone from just deciding to use that cool name you thought up, and used, and bought licenses for and did all the stuff you were told to do at Seedcamp?

What happens when I decide to use Sweeble for my next project? What if I launch my own Sweeble app? Or a third company does?

Someone asked me why I’m bothered – if their app takes off, my domains increase in value. Well, only to someone who might want to own it rather than just use the name with a different domain. Either way it makes it difficult for me to use it.

Someone else asked me why I don’t just sue Bubblews?

Because real life doesn’t work like that. I’ve been quoted upwards of £30k to take them to court. Even notifying the app stores if they try to launch Sweeble in the UK will cost me time and several hundred pounds in fees.

My trademark would stop them selling an app called Sweeble in the UK but wouldn’t stop them selling it on App stores in any other country, or stop them from offering it for download direct from their website.

I’m not McDonalds, realistically all I can do to try to protect my IP is to write stuff like this and make a fuss. And perhaps that’s what Bubblews’s bosses presumed.

(“Hey Joe, there’s this woman in England says she owns the name.” “Is she doing anything with it?” “Doesn’t look like it.” “Can she sue us over here?” “Doubt it.” “Forget her. Where are we with the launch budget?”)

But I am mightily pissed off. And I’m going to shout out my rage with the fury of a thousand grandmothers.

Do not ignore me: I own Sweeble.

This is my line in the sand.

Pic credit Dean Toh

Pic credit Dean Toh

 

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What will partly work – robots and journalism

What I’m listening to as I type: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (30th Anniversary 2CD Edition)

 

Daleks - climbing stairs since 1988Among the umpteen things robots struggle to do are climb stairs and show empathy.

CoBot, developed at Carnegie Mellon university’s Robotics Institute, deals with the stairs issue by waiting by  the lift and begging passersby to press the button for the floor it needs.

In asking for our help, the robot is tapping into the empathy most of us feel when we see weakness in another. Even an inanimate other. (Although I suspect more than one mischievous human will have sent CoBot to the wrong floor).

I’ve been thinking about robots recently. Partly because of an excellent report in the Economist and partly because I’ve been thinking about what journalistic skills can and can’t be taught to the drones and algorithms doing some of our reporting.

I once worked with a young reporter who was a dreadful writer and a promising journalist. When the newsroom emptied into the local pub at the end of a long shift, he’d work the bar, glass of coke in hand (he wouldn’t drink), and chat to everyone – hunting out stories and gossip and contacts.

While we sat in “our” corner, moaning about editors and readers and the unrealistic expectations of both, he would still be working. I once asked him why and he was confused by the question. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said.

Nosiness; curiosity; a need to know what others know; always wanting to ask the question beyond the comfort zone; being the stranger people open up to in a bar, on a train, at a crime scene… are these journalistic skills or personal attributes? And can they be taught?

I tell my students that the most important skill a journalist can have is curiosity.

Not only about the big stuff – who owns what, why that war started, who’s spying on who – but curiosity about the everyday. What’s going on with that couple having the whispered argument? What brought that guy to counting up pennies to buy his pint?

News is what’s happening, journalism is what might be happening.

The stories that young reporter picked up were sometimes great, sometimes dull and usually needed rewriting.  Narrative Science’s news-writing algorithm would probably have done a tidier job.

But robots and algorithms can only work with what we give them. They need us to push the button to get them to right floor. And no matter how many buttons we press, we can’t make a robot curious.

(I realise I’m concentrating on words here, but ask any photo-journalist whether their best picture is down to gut response to a moment or an eye for framing a shot. We can only teach part of both.)

Let’s wander back to that pub and imagine my junior reporter being replaced by a story-seeking robot. Say 10 years from now (because the stair climbing thing is still an issue).

Robots don’t do thinking on their feet. They need to have  a pretty basic mission – like hoovering up crumbs, mowing grass, or pulling hospital trolleys, to be able to do the job without needing a human operator.  Variations in environment or task usually need to be dealt with by programming on the go.

Our story-seeking bot would have sensors so it could maneouver around the bar without bumping into people or knocking over drinks. It could be programmed with a databank of names and faces so it can spot the local Councillor or retired footballer. All of these are possible now.

But it’s the empathy bits that our bot would struggle with. How does a robot know when to make eye contact and when to look away? How does it know when it’s better to change the subject? When to press for a response and when to let someone be? When to ask a different question to get a better answer?

Asking questions - it's not a game

Asking questions – it’s not a game

 

Maybe our story-gathering robot doesn’t need empathy, it just needs to listen in a non-threatening way.

Alexander Reben and Brent Hoff  are filmmakers using story-gathering robots to document how and why we would open our hearts to robots. Their Cubie bots are small and cute with smiley faces drawn onto their cardboard shell.

They’ve been programmed to ask psychologically-proven questions  to encourage people to open up to them.

There are things robot reporters are already doing pretty well – like providing cheaper disaster footage; or data-reliant stories for tiny audiences. These are not robots as we imagine  them, but software and drones.

Media outlets are increasingly using algorithmic software to produce stories and drones to capture eyewitness content. Data is fed in, the algorithm adds structure, and an acceptable story is produced. Narrative Science’s algorithms fill the reporting gaps left by our contracting news industryschool sports, business data, etc.

It’s all our fault really – us teachers of journalists. Every time we teach a trainee to write a story with the who, what, where and when within the first two pars, we’re making it easier to write by algorithm.

Two years ago, scenes of flooding in Wiltshire were captured by a viewer with his own drone and sent to the BBC. Now every man and his newsroom seems to own a drone. Here’s the Telegraph’s drone report from the floods earlier this year, and flood footage posted in the last few days by the Washington Post.

In the US, media companies recently filed court documents arguing the Civil Aviation Authority is “hindering” free speech and press freedom by restricting commercial use of drones (ie, use by newspapers but not by government agencies or hobbyists).

But with 954 journalists killed in the last ten years (to time of writing), how long before we’re habitually sending robots into war zones instead of reporters?

A robot can capture pictures, record what people say and be controlled at a distance by a journalist-operator, perhaps feeding it questions to ask.  Safer, remote gathering of what’s happening on the ground could mean we get closer to the reality of those trapped by war or disaster.

 

With my ex-news editor head on, I can see the usefulness of robots, drones and algorithms as reporting tools.

I doubt I’d ever send a robot to newsgather in a pub (unless it was full of zombies or bombs) but I could see me sending it to report court proceedings, or council meetings, or a press conference  – anywhere where being there to gather details, a photo and a couple of quotes is better than not sending a reporter at all.

We shouldn’t see these as technologies that will take jobs from journalists (that’s happening in any case) but as tools that could help us report more of what’s happening in the world – and perhaps push journalism to concentrate a bit more on the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’ or ‘who’.

Robots are only what we make them to be. It’s our choice whether a drone is an eyewitness, a spy, or a killer. And the line between eyewitness and spy for drone journalism is one we’ve already crossed.

The key question is not what can robots, drones and algorithms do now, but what might someone might make them do in the future? And that includes how we choose to use them as journalists.

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What works – STR Skill School and YouTubing

What I’m listening to as I type: Mojave

 

There’s a lot of guff and puff being written about YouTubers at the moment.

If you took in much of the stuff in the media this year you’d think top Youtubers arrive fully-formed, like baby seahorses, with their million subscribers and six-figure earnings. But, to borrow from JPG, the formula for YouTube success is rise early, work hard, strike oil.

Actually, the “rise early” bit might need to be swapped for “stay up late working”, but the work hard bit and the striking oil bit applies. YouTubers’ “oil” being find to the right niche, meme, trend or format and then have the talent, passion and personality to  sell it.

This way to YouTube Partner Programme

This way to YouTube Partner Programme, baby

Most of the top independent YouTubers have been slogging away at it for four plus years: Smosh eight years; SB.TV seven years; TomSka six years; Rooster Teeth five years; Dude Perfect four years.  PewDiePie, currently top of the lot, is a relative Tube baby with his three-year-old channel. These guys have had time to build an audience and to get better at entertaining it.

When Steve Roberts set up his YouTube channel  STRskillschool in 2010, he was running football coaching classes six days a week to earn a living. He thought he could use YouTube to post clips of the techniques he taught his students so they could carry on practising between lessons, but he struck oil when he realised there was a bigger audience out there for his videos:

“I was looking at YouTube and saw most of the [football] stuff was pretty poor, so my idea changed to ‘how can I reach the world with this?

“I thought: I’m just the average guy, I know what everyone wants. But then I thought, if I know what the masses want, how can I utilise that?

“There were no language barriers because I didn’t talk in the videos. So I started making videos once a week or more.

“That was 2010, World Cup year, and the site starting growing really fast. I stumbled across the right format and trends.”

One of his early successes was a video of him showing how to take a free kick like Ronaldo.

“The Ronaldo free kick was quite a trending topic at the time and still is now – four years later the video is still doing well.”

Four years later, Steve is doing well too. His channel is nudging the half-million subscribers mark and he is “living comfortably for sure” from running it fulltime.

stryoutube

His channel is the biggest independent UK sports channel on YouTube. In November 2011, he was the only UK winner in the YouTube Next Trainer programme (collecting £5k worth of production equipment); in April 2012, YouTube nominated Steve as one of their rising stars and, in August that year he was picked to produce his channel from the Olympics.

YouTube have been “really supportive” of him – when I interviewed Steve, he’d just got back from a YouTube-arranged sports event linking vloggers and sponsors and a few days later he announced a big tie-in with Vauxhall, the sponsors of the England football team.

“I’m pretty fortunate in getting a lot of offers from brands but I have to be selective. It has to be right – I have to cater for my audience. I could make all the money but if my audience think I’m a sellout then I’ll lose subscribers.

“Sports brands make sense but it has to be a natural, organic thing. It could be  something to do with food and drink, or the brand might have a player they’re sponsoring and that might be an opportunity for me to work with that player.”

Working with ‘name’ players is something he wants to do in the future:

“It’s time to bring the skills videos to the next level by including the footballer: how to learn to play like Neymar with Neymar, or Zidane with Zidane – that would be my ultimate aim.”

Also on the cards is to buy in some help. Like most YouTubers, his channel is just him – his ideas, his camerawork, his editing, his deal-making. Him replying to comments, tweeting, blogging, promoting…

“If you’re the [on screen] talent you have to have a passion for the subject and you have to be knowledgeable about it, Fundamentally you’ve got to love what you’re doing.”

Loving what you’re doing is what keeps the best YouTubers working during the early years. Steve remembers coaching during the day and staying up each night answering comments and working on his channel.

When I first started it was really hard. My children were very young and I was working late at night answering comments. I chose to answer every comment, and now it’s got a little bit more difficult to do that but you’ve got to be engaging, and you’ve got to use social media.”

strlogoThings were just getting going for him when, in July 2010, he tore his cruciate ligament in his knee:

“I thought my YouTube career was over. Even at that early stage it was growing so fast and I was shattered when I was injured, I thought: ‘it’s all over’. But the subscribers kept me going, and the support I got from them.”

For Steve, passion and expertise drive the best YouTube channels and, for him, one other thing: visual awareness.

“I’ve always been a visual teacher and learner – I was good as a coach at showing information and good as a kid in quickly picking up skills I saw. I found that works on YouTube.”

What also works on YouTube is picking the right subjects for videos and giving them the right title – not just in SEO terms but to get viewers to watch.

So, his “Insane” skills videos get double the views of his technique training videos, and his training videos with player names – Neymar, Ronaldo, Beckham, do 20/30 times better than the ones without names. More of his videos now feature other footballers, rather than just him.

“I always knew that if I could utilise other skills I could improve the channel.

“Before, when I filmed some of the [football] freestylers it was in the YouTube studio, but when I filmed Andrew [Henderson], I said ‘I can’t do this in the studio’ so we just walked around London and I would say: ‘can you do something here?’ and ‘can you do something here?’ and his talent was so good it worked.

“If someone told me to pre-plan a video I don’t think I could do it, but if I turn up at a location I can tell you exactly where to shoot something and come up with ideas when I’m there.

“Then I had to find the right song to pull it all together.”

The song – and the freestyler videos, were inspired by another YouTuber: devinsupertramp. Steve’s other YouTube heroes Dude Perfect (“the biggest channel for me”)  joined him at the Olympics YouTube fest.

It’s that understanding of how to engage his audience that works for Steve: “If I’m getting bored watching a video, I know that viewers will be so I just cut out all that extra stuff.”

In this, his second World Cup year with YouTube, he’s expecting a big bump in views and subscribers:

“The next target is half-a-million subscribers – then the key one is one million and I hope I can hit that this year.”

Nike and Adidas are “being supportive” and he’s hoping the World Cup will also help him take that next step in bringing international players to his YouTube channel. Will he be going to Rio too? “Oh, I’d love to go to Rio!”

Thanks, Steve!

Thanks, Steve!

 

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What did (and didn’t) work in app launching – London Cyclist

What I’m listening to as I type: Days Are Gone

Way, way back when both me and the web were younger and altogether more excited about each other, I believed the internet would deliver The Dream Job. That one you do from your laptop sitting on a hot beach drinking something cold.

I was thinking about that when I spoke with Andreas Kambanis over Skype at the weekend. If anyone’s realised the promise of the web to deliver dream lifestyle plus dream job, it’s him.

AndreasKambanisAndreas started the successful London Cyclist blog straight out of uni back in 2010. That led him to launch a string of apps, starting with Bike Doctor, and all of that led to him building his business as he travels from Vancouver to Antartica, and back again.

When we spoke, he was in sunny Buenos Aires (“My favourite place so far – it feels like Paris, with cafes on every corner”) and I was in storm-battered Tutbury.  (Three cafes, doesn’t feel anything like Paris).

He told me running his business remotely has worked just fine:

“The biggest problem has been my laptop power failing in Buenos Aires. If I’d been back London I’d have just hopped on my bike to the nearest Apple store, buy a cable and then come back.

“Here I visited three different Apple stores and none of them had the cable,  so I had to get on a boat to Uruguay to buy one!”

Aside from power fails, finding a wi-fi connection can be an issue (“Now I just use Airbnb and rent an apartment with private wi-fi”) or he makes use of his 3G stick and phone (“crucial in Peru when we were launching the London Cyclist app“).

He launched the blog as a hobby first, while working in his first job after graduating. Launching his own business was “always in the back of my mind.”

“I wanted to do my own thing. I was working for a company for a year but it was a graduate job and I found it very frustrating.”

He picked cycling as the topic for his blog because he was cycling to work every day and saw there wasn’t much online about cycling in London.

Getting the domain – londoncyclist.co.uk, was important for search traffic then: “Back in the day it was very important what domain you had – it’s less important now.”

As the blog gathered views, he started contacting other cycling sites and blogs and monetized the site with affiliate product links.

It took me about six months to be earning about $3k a month. Then my first big breakthrough was round about the time Apple brought out the iPhone 3GS. Immediately it was clear that this was a real opportunity – with the iPhone I could have everything inside an app.”

His first foray into apps was Bike Doctor, which teaches cyclists to fix their bike.

“I contacted a developer with the idea for Bike Doctor. He did the coding and I did the marketing and brought the audience. It was a 50/50 partnership.

“The app went to the top of the category for sports apps in the UK – it did really well straight out the door.”

His next app – London Cyclist, was less successful with sluggish sales.

“I hired a developer this time and spent around £2.5k making it and got that back within a few days.

“But I quickly realised that London Cyclist could only grow to a certain stage. I made the assumption that other people would want what I wanted [in a bike app]. Secondly,  I assumed that iPhone was the right format.”

His market – his London Cyclist blog followers – just weren’t that interested in the app: “If the London cyclist doesn’t download the app, whatever I did I wouldn’t move sales very far foward.”

Andreas has written here about his decision not to invest more time and money in trying to push that app forward, but  said it was a valuable lesson:

“But with each failure you learn a lot, so now I know about creating an app that’s got location data in it and I can use that for other ideas I’ve got.”

He was already traveling by the time the London Cyclist app launched, having set off on his journey in February 2013. His next app, Caveman Feast, was also created and launched as Andreas crossed continents.

Via a contact of a contact he was introduced to Abel James, who runs the very successful Fat Burning Man blog, podcast and brand based around promoting the Paleo diet.

Andreas suggested the app idea to Abel and designed and launched it. On day one of launch it had had 8,000 paid-for downloads and got into the iPhone top ten:

Top 6 app in the Apple App Store

The key had been to partner with someone who brought his market with him. Abel’s Fat Burning Man podcast gets over 500k downloads a month.

Paleo expert George Bryant of civilisedcavemancooking.com, was also involved and recommended the app to his 90k followers. By the end of launch day, the app had made back its £7k developer cost.

“Partnering with other people that have followers is key. Making an app yourself is really hit and miss. In the past we’d have had to contact all the major media outlets and find out who to talk to and chase them.”

That pattern – of working with ‘names’ to build apps, is where Andreas plans to take his business this year.

“A lot of very successful people are very busy so that’s where I come in and I manage the whole process. I take their content and four to six weeks later I deliver the app and the launch strategy.

I never launch an app and hope for the best, I always have a plan for how to get it out there.

“A digital agency in London would charge you around £100k to produce an app but you could do it for £7-8k but you need the strategy. I really think through the app and the visual mapping of the content.”

His next app is due to launch early March. It’s a 14-day juicing challenge, again working with a ‘name’ partner. Like Caveman Feast, it’s about people  building new health habits into their normal routuine.

“I’m really interested in the intersection between psychology and healthy eating so I’m interested in how we can bring thoughtful design in an app to make healthy living easier.”

This year, he expects to take someone on to manage the London Cyclist blog fulltime while he concentrates on building his app business. But does he think about where the tech is going – what he does after apps?

“Yes. Especially in the tech world everything changes and its really tough to stay ahead. I think wearable tech is next and we’re already looking at that and looking at using Google Glass for the recipe market.”

Thanks for talking, Andreas!

Thanks, Andreas!

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What will work – journalism’s future

What I’m listening to as I type: Wounded Rhymes

Twice a year I give a lecture to journalism students on where I think journalism is going.

For obvious reasons, I rewrite the lecture each time I deliver it. Often minutes before I deliver it. It’s also more interactive than I can show in a post, but this is it, pretty much…

First, two videos – one from 1981 and one from 2011, to illustrate how the technology of delivering the news has changed in thirty years:

Now the one from 2011 – apologies for the music…

What I love most about the first video is that the pioneering souls who took part in this radical e-newspaper experiment had to cut out a coupon and post it back to the San Francisco Chronicle!

But what’s most interesting is that this happened in 1981 – ten years before Big Tim’s worldwide web went public.

The 2011 video focuses on what already today seems a limited range of news gathering tech. However,  the changes haven’t just been technical – twenty years on from the birth of the web  it’s the social change in the way we consume news that has had the biggest impact on the business of news.

The process of journalism has changed alongside our behaviour. We expect news we’re interested in to be available to us whenever we want it and wherever we are. The business of making money from journalism has had to fit into an open-all-hours, shop of news model.

 

Still from multimedia immersion rap videoRemember the picture above from the 2011 video, illustrating what’s happening to newspapers’ profits?

More accurately, what’s happening to the business that journalism depends on – which is advertising. The traditional business model for journalism, hasn’t been to sell journalism but to sell the attention the journalism attracts.

Here’s a better representation:

US newspaper ad incomeThe chart above, reproduced on Prof. Mark Perry’s economics blog, shows how quickly the money is disappearing – US newspaper ad income in 2012 was the same as in 1950. But the cost of producing a newspaper isn’t the same as in 1950.

The picture isn’t any different in the UK – 2012 should have been a bumper year for selling ads; the Olympics, the Jubilee, yet national newspaper ad spend actually fell by five percent in 2012 and dropped further in 2013.

TimetopanicIt should have been a neat equation – money from ads offline – in newspapers, magazines, on TV and radio, goes down but online ad income goes up to fill the gaps.

Except for every new dollar made online, newspapers lost 10.

The issue is that it’s not the traditional media companies making money from online ads, it’s the new kids on the block – Google, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, etc. But mostly it’s Google:

Google Ad Revenue Now More Than U.S. Print Publications CombinedHowever, we’ve been here before. The news industry is always changing. Like a snake shedding its skin every few years. Right now it’s changing faster than ever – driven by that technological and social revolution in the way we communicate and share news and information. There’s a another big change we’re living through  – the mobile revolution.

Radio took off because it’s mobile – it went with us in our car, our office, our home.  When it stopped being a piece of living room furniture; when it became small enough to take to the beach, radio took off and its content changed with its new users.

Now we take our mobile phones with us and what we carry – our phone, our handbag – is part of who we are.

The rise of mobile use is extraordinary – driven faster by its usefulness as a social web device:

  • Half the world now owns a mobile phone
  • One-in-seven people across the globe are on Facebook
  • 3bn hours of video are watched each month on YouTube
  • Over 60% of smartphone/tablet owners read news on it
  • Up to 24,000 pictures a day were sent to BBC during riots
  • 17% and growing of all web traffic is now through mobile

 

Putting global mobile use in contextChetan Sharma’s chart, above,  shows how the 6bn mobile accounts globally (not 6bn people with a mobile phone) compares against other things we might need. There are more mobile phone accounts than people with access to safe drinking water or electricity.

We love our mobiles but we wouldn’t love them quite so much if they didn’t deliver things that were more important to us than electricity, or bank accounts, or the internet.

So, will mobiles save the news industry?

Nope. Again, some businesses are making good money from mobile ads but not the news industry.

This is the sum (from Michael Wolff) that’s generally used to explain the problem: $100 offline = $10 on web = $1 in mobile.

The news industry, with its the ad-dependent business model, just can’t make enough money. The value of ads is worn away with each technological iteration.

But if you have a business model like Facebook’s,  where it costs comparative peanuts to generate all the content your users want (because it’s your users producing the content) you don’t need to charge  much for your mobile ads to make money.

So, the news industry is at this stage:

Running round like headless chickens

But why am I telling you all this? Why should profits and charts matter to a room full of student journalists?

  • Because you should know where the news industry is going.
  • Because  you need to know where journalism is going (and how you go with it)
  • Because the industry and the journalism may not be going in the same direction.

But mostly because journalism matters and because journalists matter.

There are stories that still need to be told. There is so much news that isn’t getting reported, or not reported well enough.

Here’s a handful of lesser-told stories I picked to fill just one slide:

  • Half of all under-5s that die, die in southern Africa.
  • Four-in-ten children globally don’t survive their first month; one-in-three children starve to death
  • WW2 didn’t stop wars: 51 wars and major conflicts in 1992; 21 in 2002; 38 in 2011… around 34 today.
  • More people have been killed in genocides since 1960 than died in WW2 concentration camps
  • 17 countries have higher life expectancy than UK
  • Over 45k UK homes will be repossessed this year.

The journalism needs to be done. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the news industry or to advertising profits. We need good journalism. We don’t need rewritten press releases (or regurgitated content with 25 headlines).

And journalists matter. They’re still out there fighting and sometimes dying to bring in stories:
1017 journalists killed since 1992Not just ‘trained’ journalists – citizen journalists and netizens on the ground in conflict zones. The biggest change the web has delivered in news is the range of people delivering news.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger describes it as ‘open journalism’ – a shared activity with journalists, readers and others delivering and developing the story. I love the Guardian ad:

Journalism is still about having the skills and drive to find the story – like the reporter in his pyjamas in the Guardian ad talking to his contact.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about how you use the technology to become a better journalist how you use all these new tools to help you tell the stories that need to be told.

I’m going to finish with four predictions – the things I think are on the horizon for journalism.

  1. More news stories originating in computer algorithms, eg Narrative Science
  2. News will become more personal, more locative, and more recommended –  eg Summly, Buzzfeed, Facebook news feed…
  3. Journalism split further into similar and short-form vs different and long-form – eg Medium, Matter
  4. We’ll move away from devices to everywhere access to news and info – google glass, iwatch..

Narrative Science uses computer algorithms to turn data – business information, sports reports submitted by amateurs, into news stories.

We’ve made that easy by writing, and teaching, journalism ‘rules’ and  journalese. Every time your player “attacks” the goal or your “sick” youth “knifes” your “OAP”, you – we – have made it easier for a computer to write the story.

We don’t yet have a ‘tripadvisor’ news recommender, but every app or curator that that sorts through existing news to give you only what you say you’re interested in, is making you more conservative, less curious than you should be.

We used to go to our news source. We would walk up to the TV, or go and buy a newspaper, or sit at the PC. Then we took it with us – the radio in the car, our laptop, our mobile phone. Increasingly, it’s wherever we are – waiting for us to arrive and ask for access. By tapping a table, or waving a sleeve, or nodding our head.

Google glass is currently in semi-public testing and will launch in 2013. There are all kinds of issues around privacy and usability but it’s still very new.

As you watch this  last video, think about where Google glass and other wearable tech could take journalism? Think about what you will do with everywhere, real-time access to gathering and uploading information. Think about who will see what you do.

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What usually works: storytelling

What I’m listening to as I type this: Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia

I was watching a bunch of my students pitching their ideas for new web businesses, and found myself thinking about the Great British Bake Off.

I’ve only ever watched three episodes of GBBO, and the gap between the first and third was a couple of years. But what struck me most was the style gulf between the two – the step-up in terms of storytelling.

Which is how come I was thinking about the TV programme while I was watching journalism students pitch. Because the thing I remember most from learning to pitch myself – back when I was in VC-hunt overdrive, was that the best way to present the problem your product is designed to solve, is to explain it through telling a story.  Uber-VC Fred Destin said that.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy – storytelling is what being a journalist is about. We “people” news stories, we add walk-you-through structure; hook-you-in intros, and wrap-up conclusions.

My strongest pitch started with the (real) story of the news story I wish I’d never put on a front page, and why that led to me launching two open publishing products. I would tell her story and show her picture:

Not saying whoIt would be wrong for me to retell her story here. But my aim was to illustrate why I was doing what I was doing and why I believed it was important to help people write their own stories.

I still believe that. I haven’t changed my view that a good journalist is an enabler of truth, not a director.

Anyway, I’m drifting away from the point here. Which is  that storytelling delivers a narrative shorthand that helps us to explain and to sell ideas.

It does so not because we’re natural storytellers – some are, some learn how to be; but because we’re natural story listeners. We learn about and make sense of the world through narrative. Perhaps increasingly so as we tell stories across more and different media.

I’m going to quote from Robert McKee’s  ‘Story’:

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.

McKee’s seminal book on the principles of screenwriting was published in 1999 – ten years after Berners-Lee invented the web and the same year a 15-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (aka “Slim Shady”) launched his first website.

McKee, Berners-Lee, not even Slim Shady Zuckerberg, would have imagined the billions of stories being shared across 1.37+ billion web pages today. We present the story of who we are (or who we want to be seen to be)  by sharing what we’re doing.

Here’s another picture and another story:

TGBBO's Ruby TandohGreat British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh wrote a combative comment piece for the Guardian, about the “bitterness and bile”, “vitriol and misogyny” tossed casually at her and fellow GBBO contestants by some public and press.

Ruby acknowledged the “meticulously manufactured” nature of TV but may not have realised what “manufactured” means in terms of storytelling when the aim is to deliver McKee’s “personal, emotional experience.” When storytelling engineers an emotional response in the audience, should it be a surprise when that emotion spills over into the real world?

Boyd Hilton, TV editor of Heat magazine explained it thus:

Obviously the producers shape [GBBO] to give each contestant an identifiable personality….  It’s up to the people who make these programmes to create the stories and give us an idea of how they feel the personalities come across.

Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, in their book Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, explain the success of Reality TV as “the exhibition of the self” wherein a revelatory narrative instructs audiences in “how to manage the self” through  recognisable subjects (ie people types) dealing with personal crisis.

The need to hold our attention within the time limit of the programme leads to a narrative shorthand of confession and emotional revelation in order to convince the audience of the authenticity – the ‘reality’ – of the stories being told.

Ruby becomes the weepy one, Kimberley the automaton, and Frances – well Frances delivers “integrity” (read authenticity). Each baking challenge is a typical action-through-conflict scene, and, just as all stepmothers are witches and all Princes handsome, each woman in the (any) group can only be one Spice Girl.

If the point of storytelling is to make an emotional connection between story and listener, or protagonists’ ‘story’ and the listener/viewer, what is the point of storytelling in relation to my students’ pitches? Why am I linking the Bake Off to the pitch off?

Because storytelling – narrative – is a shorthand to making a connection with your audience. Doesn’t matter whether that audience is 8m viewers, 1m readers, three VCs, or one grandchild.

Jack TV

Jack controlling the story arc

Stories have an arc. That arc is defined as an absolute value change –  the frog became a Prince; the soldier gave his life;  eventually, she won. McKee describes the core of a good story as a “fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.” We wanted this, we got that.

A good pitch includes a value change story arc that tells us how things could be better. It also includes – like reality TV – reference to the ordinary: this is something ordinary people will be changed by; this is a product recognisable people types will use to solve a problem.

You see a real cool girl in a class and you want to know what other classes she’s signed up for so you can sign up too… students go and look up other people and find out who they know, who their friends are, what people say about them, what photos they have… This is information people used to dig for on a daily basis, nicely reorganized and summarized… You don’t miss the photo album about your friend’s trip to Nepal. Maybe if your friends are all going to a party, you want to know so you can go too…

All stories Zuckerberg told in Facebook’s early years to explain why ordinary students would use it; the problems it would solve, and the value change it would deliver. Or how about Reed Hastings’ story of the $40 late fine for returning a video that led to him launching Netflix – an ordinary event, a problem we recognise and a solution we can therefore understand.

I’m going to finish with McKee on pitching business ideas through storytelling:

The… much more powerful way [to persuade people] is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable.

 

tell-me-a-story

 

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