What might work: Writing a book

What I’m listening to as I type: The Order Of Time

I’ve been writing a book. It’s why you haven’t heard from me for a while. The clue was in the previous post (crikey, a whole year ago!) about my trip to The Washington Post. Anyway, the book got done and I am SO over getting up at 4am to write.

The book, ‘Future Journalism: Where we are and where we’re going’, sits on a wobbly seesaw between academic tome and creative nonfiction. Nice things have been said about it, which is gratifying. But the point of this post is to summarise some of things I found during my look at the raggedy edges of where journalism might be going.

I started on the book in January 2016 and finished writing it in January 2017. And what a goddamn crazy year to try to write about journalism and its possible futures! Here’s a slide I used recently to sum up that craziness:

FutureJournalismYearSlideOne of the things I focus on is change and why it happens, and I use the analogy in the book, and in my teaching, of the big truck of change. Think of it as a front-wheel-drive truck, with technology and behaviour pushing the speed, and markets and regulation chugging along behind, sort of stabilising the load.

When you get a monster truck of change, like Facebook or Google, those wheels are even bigger; the traction even faster. Technology and behaviour driving things forward, but the bigger and faster the change, the more likely you’ll get market slow-down or government regulation drag.

As part of the research for the book, I interviewed editors or founders at the Guardian, The Washington Post, Vice, BuzzFeed, Narrative Science, Bellingcat, and Circa, to get a sense of how things have changed in both traditional news companies and with the new media kids on the block. To give you a flavour of the changes I saw… here’s another slide:

FutureJournalismInterviewsSlide

Vice is also interesting. It started as a sort-of community magazine back in 1984, and has grown into a mega-multi-media company operating in 30 countries and with its own TV news shows on HBO and YouTube. And if you’ve never seen their stuff, it means you’re probably not their audience. Like Buzzfeed, they’re focused on getting to the people they want to reach.

A lot of my focus was on the use of new technology in journalism – AI, AR, VR, 360, games, and so on. And robot journalists of course. But you’ll already know that when journalists write about robots  we’re usually talking about AI or algorithms, rather than the walking-around stuff. We don’t have any robot journalists, at least not yet. Probably because there isn’t the money in journalism that there is in defence.

journalist-robot-recentHowever in 2010, one lab did experiment with a robot journalist of sorts. Put Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab’s ‘journalist robot’ in a room and it would work out what’s going on by exploring its environment – gathering data to assess what’s unusual – the ‘anomalies’ that all journalists look for.

It could question people in the room and search the internet to find out more. If something seemed newsworthy (against pre-programmed ideas of what is news), the robot could write a basic story and publish it to the web.

What it couldn’t do was open the door of the room afterwards and leave it.

We can teach a robot or AI to mimic curiosity using techniques of discovery or interrogation to find out what’s going on, but can we teach it to be curious?

And we can – and are – teaching AIs to use journalism tropes the five Ws, the inverted pyramid, etc. to construct a readable story. Something for journalists and journalism teachers to ponder. News is what’s happening, journalism is discovering what might be happening. It’s becoming easier to get non-humans doing the news bit, so we should focus human efforts on the journalism bit is.

Media outlets are already using “robot journalists” in the form of algorithmic software or AIs to produce stories. In 2013, Narrative Science’s algorithms produced and published around 1.5 million amateur sports stories. In 2015, it was over four million. Mostly Little League reports read by a few families.

Automated Insights produced 1.5 billion stories in 2016. Mostly internal information for companies and individuals rather than broader business news. The Washington Post used its in-house AI software to produce thousands of real-time news reports about the 2016 Olympics. Syllabs automatically produced 150,000 web pages for Le Monde in four hours during France’s 2015 election, reporting results from 36,000 municipalities

We shouldn’t see these as technologies that will take jobs from journalists, but as tools that could help journalists report more of what’s happening, and to concentrate a bit more on the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’ or ‘who’.

robotfinally

I mentioned earlier about the way new media companies such as Vice and Buzzfeed are trying to engage a younger audience in news.

Young people may not read many newspapers but that doesn’t mean they don’t read news. Most 18-year-olds see more news than 1950s teenagers did because the world is constantly interrupting them; constantly pricking their social bubble via their smartphone. The issue is not whether young people see what’s going on in the world, but what they choose to take notice of.

So how do journalists get their attention? There are two basic answers to that question.

The first is report on the subjects that a younger audience is more likely to be interested in.
The second is to report on subjects in an interesting way.

For example, both BuzzFeed and Vice target that millennial audience and both told me that a massive subject area for them is mental health.

It’s not that traditional media isn’t covering mental health issues, but coverage is focused on mental illness and disability – the experience an older audience may have of autism among their children, or dementia among their parents.

Next, engage them by covering issues in a different way. A funny headline; a quiz, a video, these all help but the core – as with all journalism – is to make people care about that story; that lived human experience.

Immersive journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña creates VR projects to give people first-person experiences of a situation. This image is from one of her VR pieces – Project Syria which puts you in the middle of a rocket attack and a refugee camp:

syria-1200x682In ‘Inside the Haiti Earthquake’ Andrea Nemtin and Ian Dunbar place us in the role of aid worker or journalist or survivor caught up in the 2010 disaster, and we make narrative choices ‘playing’ as that character.

One area that particularly interests me is the integration of games and news – it’s my next research area. But real game mechanics, as opposed to a quiz or bit of a puzzle – isn’t being used in news yet. Juliana Ruhfus, at Al Jazeera, is one of a tiny handful of journalists using actual games in news, with work such as Hacked and Pirate Fishing.

But it’s the work being done by independent game creators such as Lucas Pope and 11-Bit Studios in tackling news issues, or gamemakers such as Camp Santo or Chinese Room to build emotionally-immersive worlds, that interest me. They show how we might create empathetic journalism using games as the medium.

So we’re in a new journalism matrix. Of reporters and journalists and bloggers and citizens and algorithms, and a whole bunch of things that gather the news, and another whole bunch of things that deliver the news, and another bunch of things that help the news get to where the audience is spending its time. I said it had been a difficult year to write about the future of journalism. It was but it was also tremendously exciting and interesting.

transmetropolitan3

Yep. I’m a Spider Jerusalem fan. Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street

 

Throughout the year I thought about and worried about the profession and the role of journalists and the media itself in undermining the value of journalism. I came up with five predictions – or possibly hopes and aspirations – for the future of journalism.

  1. The fight for journalism will have to start with redefining journalism
  2. Truth is more important than we realized. Journalism has to be ready for a fake news backlash
  3. Worries over “fake news” will morph into concerns over news “have nots” and “want nots”
  4. Journalism will need its AI helpers
  5. Google and Facebook will have to take their role as news publishers more seriously

The news industry has lost the trust of much of its audience, and unless we can rebuild that trust, we’ll lose more of our audience. The starting point for recovering that trust will be to define journalism so that our audience will be able to recognise and value it. We have to redefine what journalism is and what it is capable of, to re-establish why journalism is necessary.

Legacy news media which choose to only reflect the protectionist, nationalist views of older people are fighting over a generation which will die out. Newer media such as BuzzFeed and Vice, trying to reach that younger generation by reporting news that matters to them, will have to win the battle to reach that follow-on audience for news before it loses faith in journalism.

A re-assessment of journalism as being fundamentally about discovering and reporting truth, with a commitment to avoid bias, will make it easier for an audience tired of “news lies” to find real journalism. And make it easier for journalism to defend its purpose against governments and agencies increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a stick to regulate all news.

We could argue that there have always been news “want-nots” and, from the early 20th century, a majority public swayed by the bias of majority media. But the issue now is two-fold: a majority media that has become more biased, more skewed towards directing rather than informing public opinion; and publics spending more of their time within filtered news bubbles.

The challenge for journalism will become less about filtering out fake news and more about how to reach people with real news.

Journalists are never first to new technology, what we do is find a way to use technology that has become, or is on the way to becoming dominant.

Mobile phones became a tool of the trade as well as an extension of the personal. Similarly, when personal AIs become mobile (instead of stay-at-home devices such as Amazon’s Echo) and more developed (as opposed to the still clunky Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant) they’ll become personalised assistants we not only use, but become emotionally attached to.

Journalists will use their personal AI to help research and deliver stories. But more importantly than that, AIs could do the heavy lifting in grading and delivering news. Rather than stop the signal by imposing legal responsibilities on news carriers such as Google and Facebook, use the processing opportunity of AI to grade it.

Journalism needs to be around the table as AI is developed, to become part of who determines and controls the values that will be built into AI as it becomes the next big shift in communication technology.

Google and Facebook as responsible news publishers? That’s a given. At a TED talk back in 2004, Page and Brin talked about Google’s responsibility to provide the “right” information: “we view ourselves like a newspaper or a magazine – that we should provide very objective information”. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has said his company is not just a technology company but also a media company – just not a traditional one.

But accepting their role as news publishers also means accepting the responsibility for news’ role in democratic societies. The web is being corralled by big tech companies, while news businesses compete with each other for the public’s attention. For journalism to deliver on its higher democratic purpose it needs to be seen outside of the business of news as non-competitive; a product necessary to a society advancing, rather than just functioning.

Those big tech companies need to do more than take their role as news publishers seriously, they need to take responsibility for helping journalism step up to that higher purpose.

PS: You can buy my book here:  Future Journalism: Where We Are and Where We’re Going  : )

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.

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.

 

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

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

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.

 

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.

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.

What didn’t work (but could): newspapers

What I’m listening to while I type: Songs from the Shipyards

A little while back, I wrote about newspapers’ failing business model and its dependency on advertisers:

The issue is that the cost of producing a newspaper has outstripped earnings from newspaper sales since the 1880s. Since when, the business model has become almost entirely dependent on the delivery of an audience to advertisers – and the valuing of that audience according to both demographic and size.

I argued news is not the product newspapers sell; the attention attracted by news is what’s being sold. The business of newspapers is in providing an effective channel for advertisers.

So much we already know. You get people’s attention; you can sell them something.

The problem is that journalism is used to attract that attention – and both journalists and consumers of journalism would like journalism to be something rather ‘purer’, rather better than it is. But that kind of journalism is expensive to produce and most of the newspaper industry is failing financially.

We’re doing a lot of arguing about what newspapers should do next, but not making much progress.

His Girl Friday (1940)Newspapers have to do a lot of different things to get the attention they can sell to advertisers. They have to find and tell stories people want to read about; they have to present stories in a way that will make people want to read them; they have to deliver those stories so people can read them.

It’s a lot of effort when they could just stick with reader offers, holidays, dating and gambling. They should get into porn (I mean get into it properly)  it’s where the money is.

Telling those news stories is generally what we think of when we talk about journalism. But there’s no direct profit for newspapers in producing journalism; it’s a cost absorbed by the business in order to build or maintain the brand.

To reinvent the newspaper industry we need a business model where journalism is the product being sold, or the asset being valued.

A couple of definitions before I go on.

By “newspapers” I’m talking about the newspaper brand and its output, delivered through print and any other media.

By “journalism” I’m talking about, er…

Deuze argued that our understanding of what journalism is is pretty much based on what journalists themselves think it is:

scholars refer to the journalists’ professionalization process as… the emerging ideology served to continuously refine and reproduce a consensus about who was a ‘real’ journalist, and what (parts of) news media at any time would be considered examples of ‘real’ journalism. These evaluations shift subtly over time; yet always serve to maintain the dominant sense of what is (and should be) journalism… defined as a shared occupational ideology among newsworkers which functions to self-legitimize their position in society.

So journalists by and large define journalism according to what we do, or more accurately how we wish it was done. I’ve had that conversation hundreds of times in newsrooms – is this story “journalism” or PR puff? Is that person a good journalist or a sharp writer?

But what’s the value proposition for journalism to its customers?

If the primary customers for newspapers are advertisers, the value of the journalism to advertisers is its effectiveness in attracting consumers of journalism by type and quantity.

The journalism changes in reponse to market needs, to ensure the right consumers are reading the stories they want to read. It’s those consumers of journalism that value it the most.

I’m going to wander back to the newsroom…

Opening scene, His Girl FridayAt one newspaper where I was news editor I would spend four or five hours a day in news conferences, arguing over stories. There were generally around eight people in that room with ‘editor’ within their job title.

At two newspapers, I’ve sat in a conference group sometimes twice the size of the reporting team outside. We’d agree how a story should be delivered but wouldn’t be the ones delivering it.

Journalism is an old industry. It’s weighed down with historical ways of being and doing: there are still too many blokes in their 50s talking to each other.

So here’s my first suggestion: squash newspapers.

Go for flatter hierarchy, much more weighted towards the activity that’s being paid for.

Concentrate decision-making time on premium activity and manage majority activity through SOPs and supervisors.

Here’s my second suggestion: rethink what newspapers are paid to do.

Newspaper businesses have become really good at giving away their assets.

Not just sticking journalism they charge for in one outlet (print) onto another outlet (web) for free, but giving away valuable customer data (cookies and tracking) to other companies, and pretty much offering the PR industry an open door to talk to their readers.

Newspapers’ biggest asset is their readership. They use journalism (mostly) to attract that readership. The readership attracts advertisers. But by rethinking how their readership is “sold”, newspapers can revalue journalism and mine additional income streams.

If most of the work in newsrooms is making interesting news stories out of PR, why don’t newspapers see that as something they’re good at and can charge for?

The PR industry is worth $10bn globally, it’s growing as the press is shrinking yet a good chunk of that $10bn is being spent on getting PR stories into the press – for free. Doesn’t make sense as business model: close that open door and charge for entry, at least to the regulars.

Here’s my next suggestion: cut the number of journalists.

'The Front Page' (1974)The news industry really doesn’t need thousands of journalists with the same qualifications, it needs better job demarcation for the work that needs doing: fewer journalists and editors and more copywriters and subs.

So (bastardising Google’s 70-20-10 rule) have 70 percent of the newsroom doing 70 percent of the activity: subbing or writing news and information – that non-original news, entertainment, and information that forms the bulk of content.

Much of it originates in public and private sector PR. Much of that could be paid for. Doesn’t mean it has to be bad for the reader, or that the writer/sub doesn’t still get to ask questions to get a clearer story, or work out what’s most important to the reader. Do this job better and newspapers will be replacing fewer journalists with robots.

Put 20 percent of resources into “premium” journalism, the stuff that makes a newspaper’s reputation, produced by a smaller number of journalists good at finding real stories. Journalism needs to be free, newspapers don’t and by-and-large aren’t. Give the journalists and editors freedom to ferret out a smaller number of real stories instead of filling text boxes.

Finally, put ten percent of company resources into R&D.

Here’s one suggestion: Stop giving away data.

Block third party trackers, either to sell readership data yourself or to sell non-tracked web access to readers as a premium service.

And while you’re at it, find out what – or if – readers would really pay to receive ad-free, PR-free journalism.

What didn’t (and sometimes did) work. Part 3: publicity

What I’m listening to while I type: Return of the Grievous Angel:

Number three on my list of  five things that make web-tech start-up success more likely is ‘Twitter chatter isn’t enough, good press and advertising last longer’.

I spend more time than is probably good for my career in the pub four doors from our home. 

Me and hubby will sit in a particular corner and, because the landlord controls the TV remote, we watch a lot of sport and in particular a lot of La Liga. Aside from developing an awe-struck appreciation for the genius that is Messi and a schoolgirl crush on the sparkliness that is Balague, I’ve also noticed just how much of Sky’s ad space is bought by internet-based businesses.

It made me think about the value of traditional press publicity and non-digital advertising to digital businesses. Or why you need old-school media to make new media businesses really successful.

Online ad spend first overtook TV spend in the UK in 2009, and will overtake TV spend in the US this year or next (depending on your choice of analyst). Yet earlier this year, analysts were pointing to a bit of a bounceback for TV advertising led by web businesses including Google. And multi-media companies like Gannett have seen a 38 percent hike in TV ad revenues, albeit boosted by the Presidential battle and the Olympics.

“The biggest way to attract mass is still television,” Estée Lauder Chief Executive Fabrizio Freda told reporters at a briefing in New York in April.

So, if you’re a web company with a product already used by a billion people, and investors eating their children to have a share of your expected future earnings, what do you spend cash on?

Telling us Facebook is like a chair.

If you’re the world’s biggest-earning web business, where do you place a third of your ad budget? Into TV. And when you’ve got a great new product no-one uses, where do you tell people about it?

Google spent $1.5bn globally on advertising and promotion in 2011, over 4% of company revenueand, along with Apple and Amazon, has one of the highest ad-spend growth rates. There’s a great infographic here.

Here’s a game we can play. I’ll run through a short list of successful UK web businesses and see if you remember their TV ad:

Wonga
Asos
lastminute
Betfair
Bet365
Moshi Monsters
Wiggle
notonthehighstreet
Lovefilm

And, while you’re thinking about advertising, had a LoveFilm mailshot or a notonthehighstreet catalogue drop through your letterbox recently? Twenty-five-percent of spend on postal mailshots comes from home shopping businesses– and if that’s not what Lovefilm and notonthehighstreet are about, I’m a monkey’s aunt.

Yes, you can grow your business at speed if you hit the jackpot on a Facebook frenzy or Twitter trend spike, but it won’t be enough for long enough. You need press coverage in the early days and cash to spend on advertising once you’re growing.

I get a spike of roughly an extra 2,000 views each time I tweet about a new post on wreckoftheweek, more if it’s retweeted. But that’s digital peanuts compared to the spike a mention in a magazine delivers.

My point being that this is stuff you can do yourself for free and that makes a big difference at start-up. Press coverage, listings, forums, social media, search-engine-optimised content. It’s about hours and hard work, not marketing magic.

Basically, you need to work out where your potential customers are, go find them and say ‘Hi’.

hiGetting the press to notice you is the hardest bit. Like VCs, they move as a pack so one tech reporter writing about you generally leads to another interview.

What works in most business start-up reporting is a positive story focused on firsts (eg your software is doing something new), or numbers(eg investors have chipped in a nice big figure) or milestones (eg hitting a nice big user milestone). And with a feelgood personal story about the founder/s thrown in. Here’s an example of all four in one Guardian story: Songkick raises £6.3m in funding round.

With my start-ups I was generally pretty ok at getting initial press interest and web chatter but not so good at keeping the interest going (ran out of ‘first’ and ‘numbers’).

However good you are at attracting free publicity and web chatter, eventually it comes down to spending money on traditional advertising. Which means making money or attracting investors. Facebook may not need to advertise for more users, but it does need to use advertising to scrape off some of that studenty-stalkery-privacy-dodginess attached to its brand.

I’m going to wrap up with something from research by McKinsey earlier this year. Note the last sentence:

The results revealed that advertising fueled about 15 percent of growth in GDP for the major G20 economies over the past decade by generating new business. While some companies launched unsuccessful media campaigns and did not recoup their costs, such failures were outweighed by the companies with strong campaigns that increased sales, attracted new customers, or improved margins. On a microeconomic level, introducing digital media to the advertising mix helped companies increase their revenues, market share, and profit margins to a greater degree than traditional advertising alone. (Notably, digital media produced its effect by enhancing the impact of print and broadcast ads, rather than by replacing them.)

What didn’t work: newspapers

What I’m listening to while I type: Sea Sew

I’m not saying that newspapers are dead: individual newspapers will continue as businesses as long as the ratio between cost and revenue makes sense for the owner. But as a business model, we really are looking at the endgame.

Last week, Newsweek announced it was to end its print edition and go online-only in a bid to cut “legacy costs” attached to producing the printed product. Reports suggested $40m annual losses (one day I’ll do a chart showing how $40m/£40m is the default for stories mentioning newspaper losses), although other writers suggested it was that Newsweek just wasn’t good enough.

The same week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was spitting bricks over a Telegraph story suggesting he was fighting to save The Guardian’s print edition against pressure to switch to online-only. It’s a story that surfaces periodically, not least because media commentators don’t believe The Guardian can turn around its £40m (yup) annual losses before the business runs out of money entirely.

The issue is that the cost of producing a newspaper has outstripped earnings from newspaper sales since the 1880s. Since when, the business model has become almost entirely dependent on the delivery of an audience to advertisers – and the valuing of that audience according to both demographic and size.

But the problem the business model now faces is that the assumption that equated size of audience to share of advertising revenue has been overturned by the shift to digital. Online audiences don’t deliver sufficient revenue because the advertising industry pays less for digital ads compared to print. The usual quote is that $100 advert offline = $10 on the web = $1 in mobile.

While 43 percent of Guardian News and Media’s readership is online, the company makes only one fifth of its income from digital. The Daily Mail is the most popular newspaper website in the whole wide world yet raises just 2.6 percent from online advertising. In May this year, the Daily Mail was selling 1.9m newspapers a day, but had 5.6m web visits a day. Despite web audience trouncing print, the Group’s news websites earned just £12m against £171m for newspaper advertising.

As Rusbridger tweeted in response to the Telegraph story: “Numbers for going digital only & junking print just don’t add up”.

It’s not just about newspapers having a business model dependent on (falling) advertising, but having a business model that separates product from sales. News is not the product that newspapers sell. News is an attractor: the attention attracted by news is what’s being sold.

 

nestle

In the next village to me is a big Nestle factory. When I walk the dogs, I smell the coffee. Nestle makes Nescafe, KitKats, pizza, icecream, petfood, babyfood…The branding is in the products, the quality is in the products. You know what to expect from a Yorkie; you know whether you like Dolce Gusto coffee.

The business model is that you buy the Nestle products you like, and 130 years ago that was the business model for newspapers. You don’t pay a monthly subscription to drink Nescafe. Shopkeepers don’t give you free KitKats in the hope that you’ll read the advert for insurance on the wrapper.

(I’m making the assumption here that it costs less to make a KitKat than Nestle sell it for. Unlike newspapers).

For newspapers to survive people have to want to read a newspaper. Whether you’re selling adverts or newspapers, you still need readers. But just how many newspapers you have to sell also relates to the size of the business you’re trying to support. The problem isn’t just with the newspaper sales model, but with the scale of the companies that run newspapers.

Newspapers are increasingly a by-product of the global corporations that run media businesses alongside successful insurance risk services (DMGT); contract printing (Trinity Mirror); TV stations, websites, magazines and nursing services (Gannett); TV, Hulu, publishing, Australian rugby league (News Corporation).

If all you need is to make enough money to pay a handful of staff and the print and distribution contracts, you don’t have to sell a lot of newspapers. It’s a model that still works at small-scale or local. But share dividends, company cars, pension schemes, city offices, ad campaigns, a $33m salary for the boss, well it adds up.

Am I saying newspapers can’t be big business? Yes, I am. But I’m not saying that newspapers can’t make money.

I am also saying that you can’t have a business branded by a newspaper but make your money selling insurance and running care homes. Eventually, the insurance-sellers are in charge and the loss-makers are cut or axed.

More importantly perhaps is that you can’t be a big, global, multi-purpose company and still expect to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee when you’ve got a fight on your hands. As newspapers have now. As tech-VC Fred Destin puts it:

Most corporations are defined by the quality of their planning processes, which in turn become objectives against which execution happens and achievements are measured. Corporate behemoths, faced with change, stumble and fall. In fluid markets where everything can be priced and exchanged dynamically, startups thrive. They are the elemental unit of a cloud economy, highly adaptable and insanely good at one thing. But large corporations cannot adapt at the speed necessary to remain best of breed in all aspects of their business.

Here’s what I think we do with newspapers: we forget what we know about selling newspapers and look at what we’ve learned from the web.

The web is incomprehensibly massive and global yet personal. It’s like driving a car – we shut the door and think we’re the only ones on the road. It doesn’t matter how big the web is (or how few companies are running it); we travel around it according to our personal roadmap of interests.

A couple of weeks ago I challenged my entrepreneurial journalism students to come up with something they didn’t like about the news – a problem that needed changing. Each problem they raised came back to one thing – the news wasn’t personal.

It wasn’t that they only wanted to read the news that interested them, it was that they couldn’t easily access news they might be interested in.

The profession of journalism has been based on how to deliver news that most people would want to know. But most on the web is most products, most choices, most information, most of our friends, most people like us, or most like the thing we’re searching for – ie most of the things one person wants, in one place.

Apply that to news and you get most of the news that interests me, and some of my friends, and some people with the same interests as me – without me having to look for it. Does that sound like a newspaper to you? And then there’s that other bit – the things I don’t know that I might want to know.

So, given another run at investor funding , here’s what I’d do instead of launch a newspaper: I’d build what Facebook could have become on April 6th, 2005.