Category Archives: Media (my trade)

Some fairly random thoughts on the media and the way journalism is going.

Donald Trump and the media: the message is being srutinised, what about the medium?


The raw material: Donald Trump in campaign mode, Wikipedia image

Since the election of Donald Trump (and, like many people, I feel upset just typing those words) there has been a lot of debate about the role of journalism in his becoming US president elect.

An early issue up for debate was the behaviour of traditional press and broadcast outlets. Some, of course, were Trump supporters: which, in a way, is fine. You can deplore Fox News (or, in the UK, the Daily Mail) but you can hardly be in any doubt about where it is coming from.

The issue that got brief attention was that ‘impartial’ sources tended to give near-equivalent mentions to the latest accusations (of fraud, racism, misogyny…) against Trump and the endlessly reheated issue of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for state business (not helped by the late intervention of the FBI).

More recently, there has been much discussion of the role of social media and, in particular, Facebook, both in presenting credible and non-credible news stories in the same timeline, making it hard for users to distinguish between them, and in disseminating outright false news.

Facebook is getting the facetime

The Facebook issue is interesting because it is so keen to claim that it is not a news service – just a platform on which news happens to be posted.  Yet, as the Digital Editors Network conference I wrote about below discovered, news is hugely valuable to it.

Pew research in the US says 44% of Americans get their news Facebook, so it keeps them there and in front of its advertisers. Like it or not, this makes it a media player, both for feeding users information that keeps them in their ‘filter bubble’ and for feeding them outright lies.

Quite what Facebook will do about this is interesting. Getting staff in to verify sources, fact check details, and promote credible stories would take it well into traditional journalism territory; with all the costs and potential for political rows and libel cases that come with it.

It’s hard to imagine it wanting to do this – its previous attempts to tackle false news have focused on retaining its ‘we’re just a platform’ defence by letting users report false information.

Even if it did, it might not make much difference unless it also changed the algorithm by which it pushes ‘liked’ information to people; which would disrupt its business model; just as the traditional newspaper model looks less and less sustainable.

New doesn’t mean mainstream

While it’s interesting, though, I wonder if the Facebook row is something of a distraction. Logic dictates that if 44% of Americans are getting their news from Facebook, the majority are still getting news elsewhere. Plus, of course, even Facebook users will have other news sources.

Given the long-term decline in newspaper readership, let’s assume a big bit of ‘elsewhere’ is broadcast output – if not set-piece TV news and current affairs shows, for which audiences are also in decline, then short, radio bulletins. This focuses attention back on the issue of what passes for ‘impartial’.

In the UK, the BBC has been called out for trying to fulfil its remit to be ‘impartial’ by getting two voices to speak on a controversial subject, even when one is representing a minority position, or claiming a fact or non-fact as nothing more than a point of view.

This has been blamed for skewed public perceptions of issues ranging from the MMR vaccine to climate change and Brexit. It’s also an important component of the ‘normalisation’ of figures such as Nigel Farage, who now appears on flagship shows as if his views were part of acceptable, mainstream, discourse.

The impact of constant, short, and ubiquitous bulletins 

This failure is exaggerated when news is boiled down into very short bulletins of the kind that go out around music programmes and so get piped into shops, workplaces, and cars. I doubt broadsheet and academic commentators hear many of these; or regard them as worthy of being called news if they do.

But driving around Leeds during the EU referendum campaign, it was not unusual to hear ‘on the hour’ bulletins that boiled the issues down to “Brexit supporters have claimed leaving the EU will deliver £350m for the NHS; Remain supporters have disputed this… and now the weather.”

The same phenomena can be seen in free newspapers and, of course, social media. A quick glance at Google and Twitter analytics for any given piece of content will suggest that people don’t so much consume news as headlines and summaries via their feeds; and in practice the summaries may be swapped out for a comment or bit of invective.

Unfortunately, the question of how we might address the impact of news being reduced to a headline and 140 characters across so much free to air content makes the question of how to tackle false news on Facebook look easy. Perhaps that’s another reason it doesn’t come up much.

Do the devices matter?

One further issue that I’ve not seen touched on anywhere is whether the devices on which people consume news and comment in themselves affect their perception of it.

There’s an unspoken assumption in most commentary on the media, Trump, and Brexit that it is content, not the vehicle for it, which matters. But two thoughts prompt the idea that the device itself might have an effect.

Firstly, I’ve commuted for a long time. When I first started travelling to work, people read papers on the train, and those papers were an important projection of the kind of people they were (respectable Telegraph readers, Guardianistas).

Over the years, fewer and fewer people have read papers and more and more have taken to using laptops and then smartphones on their journeys. People invest a lot of research and money in choosing their devices, and a lot of time in loading them up with the right kind of apps.

As such, they’ve taken on a chunk of the outward show of ‘this is who I am’ that used to be expressed by a paper. If people are going to invest so much in a device then, intuitively, it seems likely that they are going to place weight on the information they receive over it.

Secondly, in my day job I write about NHS IT, and I recently came across the idea of a ‘digital placebo’ – just delivering advice to people over their phones, or giving them access to a monitoring app, made them feel better.

Why? Again, because they were so invested in their phones that they enjoyed using them and put additional trust in an intervention delivered this way.

The medium and the message

If people are going to invest extra credibility in the news they get via their devices, just because they are getting it via their devices, then efforts to make sure that information is balanced, correct, easy to identify as such, and accessible outside an algorithmic ‘filter bubble’ will be important.

Yet somehow it feels like it won’t be enough. I’m not sure what media outlets can do with the thought. But papers used to put a lot of effort into their print products and design, to project their values and reader aspirations.

That will be hard to replicate in a world in which Apple and Samsung own the media, and much of their content appears on feeds that are outside their design. But somehow it feels as if we are going to have to address the medium as well as the message.



Distributed news: future or threat?

I went to a meeting organised by The Digital Editors Network this week that discussed distributed content; or the kind of content put out onto Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like.

The network had done a great job of getting along the people who head up media partnerships at these organisations – plus Google Play Newsstand.

They all had lots of exciting projects for helping journalists to find contacts, eyewitnesses, and news stories on their platforms, and for publishing written and video content back to them.

News matters

News is important to these companies – a third of the searches on YouTube are for news, apparently. So it’s easy to see why they want news on their platforms.

Making sure that users can find the coverage of big events or debates that they are after keeps them coming back – and putting themselves in front of advertisers.

However, for a host of reasons that the debate didn’t dwell on (but which self-evidently include cost, libel issues and the associated “messiness” of news), they don’t want to be content producers or publishers.

Asked directly whether they wanted to be publishers or commissioners, three of the four companies present said “no”, with just one breaking ranks a bit to say it was “mostly a technology company.”

Instead, they all want to develop easier ways for journalists and others to post content, particularly video, particularly via mobiles. A host of new live services are imminent. Everybody wants an easy to use 360 platform.

For reporters, all this is genuinely exciting. Who doesn’t want to use the latest kit, tell stories in new and innovative ways, and reach an audience that could be in the millions?

But for publishers, the big question is: what’s in it for them? When challenged on this point, the tech cos all talked about the great reach of social platforms, and the new readers or viewers they can get to.

Show us the money

In other words, exposure. But, as my partner always says when he’s invited to work for free, people die of exposure. At some point, publishers need cold, hard cash to pay for all those expensive reporters using all that expensive kit to go out and generate all this wonderful content.

The publisher of a local paper group (the event was Chatham House rules) got down to brass tacks on this point. He understood, he said, that the idea was he should publish content, promote it on Twitter, Facebook, etc, and then clean up as people followed links back to his site by selling them ads or services.

But it’s not working. While he can make £30 from selling 1,000 copies of his paper, he makes just 82p per digital user. “People talk about this tipping point at which it is going to be worthwhile ditching the costs of paper and moving to digital; but I am not seeing it,” he said.

Worse, the money that his group is making from digital is mostly coming from ads bundled in with print sales.

Exposure does not help with any of this. There are only so many people in the wet, mountainous bit of the country that want to read his local news. Yet, with many of these readers already on social media and used to sharing stuff for free: “if I put up a subscription wall I’d immediately lose 92% of my audience.”

Huddling together for warmth

So what’s the solution? Later in the afternoon, the editorial director of a national newspaper’s online offer argued the ball was in the publishers’ court.

They needed to find a way to monetise hits – and everybody was in agreement that allowing advertisers to run ever bigger and more intrusive ads on news sites is not it, because it just encourages users to install ad blockers.

Members of the network argued that to do this they would need far more detailed information about the users coming in from distributed content platforms than the platforms are releasing at the moment.

There were many protestations of how keen the tech cos are to ‘engage’ and help at the event; and one or two useful sounding ideas, such as ‘native’ calls to action (‘sign up to our newsletter’, ‘join our gardening club’) within Facebook posts.

But there were no promises to open up the data; and it’s fairly hard to see why the platforms should do this. After all, this kind of data is one of their key selling points to advertisers.

Perhaps, the imminent demise of the providers of content they definitely value will be what shifts them. But at the moment, individual newspaper groups and broadcasters are working with individual platforms; and that won’t save an industry.

The head of audience engagement at another national newspaper group suggested it was time for the industry to band together and work out what it needed to stop publishers being picked off one by one.

At the moment, she said, they were stuck in a “prisoner’s dilemma” – their future depended on decisions being made by others in the same situation, with little insight into what those might be.

Snog, marry, avoid?

Yet the local publisher had already pointed out another problem; many smaller groups (and, I would add, B2B publishers of the kind that I work for) will simply not be invited to the table, or be able to stump up the resources to play along with any response.

His group had spent £4 million on a new content management system, he said; yet it still can’t run a website that will compete with the bells and whistles being offered by the big distributed content platforms.

In these circumstances, he was wondering whether to give up, ditch the digital front page, and use the platforms to promote things that do make money, such as the papers, for which there continues to be a loyal if ageing audience, and the gardening club.

Another member of the network argued that publishes should go in the opposite direction, and stop pushing their content onto distributed platforms, since that is just “giving them the keys to the kingdom for nothing.”

Overall, the event focused in on a critical, painful problem. Publishing was traditionally a combination of editorial content, the advertising that paid for it, and the publication platform (print or digital) that packaged up both and delivered them to readers.

The internet effectively split content from chunks of ad revenue, by enabling new entrants to grab classified ads, and companies to promote themselves. And now distributed content is kicking away the publication leg of the stool.

What it didn’t have was a solution. The distributed platform companies had exciting ideas that will make it easier and more interesting for journalists to do their jobs; but nobody had really concrete ideas about how to make sure publishers can continue to pay for them.

The Hampshire Chronicle: 240-odd years and counting

The Hampshire Chronicle's Wikipedia page (slightly out of date: it's no longer a broadsheet)

The Hampshire Chronicle’s Wikipedia page (slightly out of date: it’s no longer a broadsheet)

Sad news this week from my local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle, which has just lost its editor in a ‘restructuring.’

Keith Redbourn has left the paper, which he led for a decade, because its owner, Newsquest, made his post redundant in a restructuring that will see one “editor in chief” manage four weeklies from a “central editorial hub” in Southampton.

Like most local papers, the Chronicle has seen its readership decline over the past two decades. Newsquest’s response has been to cut costs: shifting the paper out of its distinctive High Street offices, moving it from broadsheet to ‘compact’ format, and sharing staff with the local daily (plus, of course, website and social media operations).

Relying on “a new IT system” to support centralised editing and subbing is entirely in keeping with this trend.

But it means removing another, senior journalist, with good local contacts and knowledge from the ever-shrinking pool of staff expected to get the paper out (and, of course, the website up, live-blogging covered, and Twitter promotions out).

If local journalism – as opposed to campaigning, or blogging – is to survive, it can surely do so only by showing that it is working within the traditions of papers like the Chronicle, and by doing a more professional, more accurate, more informed job than the alternatives.

Otherwise, what are readers going to pick it up for – and what are local businesses, or even the local branches of national chains being asked to support?

The constant cost-cutting behind this week’s announcement feels like a move in exactly the opposite direction. The Chronicle was founded in 1772 and moved to Winchester in 1778. It’s more than 240 years’ old. It will probably make it to 250; but how long will it be around after that?


What’s the value of comments on news?

Reuters has decided to drop reader comments on its news stories. In an editor’s note, Dan Colarusso, the executive editor of Reuters Digital, said this was because “much of the well informed and articulate discussion about news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online platforms.”

The agency will continue to host comments on its opinion and blogs sections “so columnists and readers can exchange ideas on interesting and controversial topics” and run a Facebook page, Twitter handle, and report functions.

It’s an interesting decision because, for about a decade, comments have been seen as a key feature of news sites; a way for readers to get more involved with their publication, to pass on informed views and opinion, and to form a ‘community’ with other readers.

Enthusiasts for this kind of interaction have, understandably, condemned the Reuters action, arguing that it will undermine reader confidence in the publication (“make it less transparent”), show its readers that it doesn’t want a ‘relationship’ with them, and hand over the community to Facebook and Twitter.

However, I’m with Reuters. Even Matthew Ingram at Gigamon, in an article entitled ‘ending reader comments is a mistake’ admitted that “comment sections are often filled with trolls, flame wars, and spam.” Indeed they are, and it’s getting worse.

Just look at the Guardian, which made a lot of the early running with comments, and which spends a fortune on moderation. Almost all its comment threads now start with someone arguing that the article is cr*p, and go downhill from there.

What is the value of this to the paper/site? I’d say the vitriol directed towards Guardian journalists actually undermines their credibility as professional news gatherers, writing researched, informed news of value.

The superficial, insulting nature of many comments means ‘below the line’ cannot function like a traditional letters’ page; as a space in which readers can add facts and comments in line with a publication’s own editorial values and ethos.

Indeed, for an increasing number of readers, ‘below the line’ is now just a downright unpleasant place to be (which may be one reason that curated letters pages not only continue to run, but generate their own response threads and in-jokes).

Colarusso doesn’t say so, but he may have made this calculation for Reuters; that it’s actually better off without these distractions on its news output; especially as it will no longer need to carry the cost of moderation on the items of content most likely to open it up to libel actions.

As for gifting “well informed and articulate discussion” to Facebook and Twitter; well, given the nature of much of that discussion, the social media platforms are probably welcome to it.

But another way of looking at the issue is to see putting a post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter as the equivalent of gossiping with a friend on the way to work or posting a cutting to a relative in times gone by.

Editors certainly want a publication to be talked about because they want people to know about it, in the hope that they’ll become readers (or even better advertisers or consumers of money-making supplements, events and other activities).

But does that mean they need to ‘own’ the platform on which that talking takes place? Nobody argued that papers should ‘own’ bus stops, scissors, paper or envelopes. Nobody argued that not getting into the transport or cuttings business was gifting their community to the local traction company or Royal Mail.

Reuters has clearly decided that there is a value in promoting reader interaction with its columnists and bloggers. This seems sensible, at least for the moment, as it will help create profile for its writers, and pull readers interested in them onto its site.

It should be able to do this at a much lower cost in terms of moderation, given that the libel risk on comment is lower than it is on news, and writers and responders can get involved themselves.

Certainly, the best comment threads on the Guardian now seem to be those on pieces by writers with a definite following; if only because regular readers either know what they’re getting into, or are prepared to police off idiots wanting to spoil ‘their’ space.

However, I’d expect other publications to start thinking like Reuters, and to start making some hard-headed decisions about when it’s reputationally and commercially worth running comment and reader interaction platforms and when it isn’t.

Even in the B2B sector, where I work, there is a definite trend for comments becoming nastier. A noticeably smaller tranche of readers comments on the health and tech sites that I follow, and those that are still active are more likely to rubbish content and each other than was the case even a few months ago.

It’s rare to see an informed discussion of a policy or technical document, even where a link is provided, or a substantial post on a point that other readers can answer. The exceptions tend to be on super-specialist issues that really bring out the experts.

B2Bs may be able to tap into that by running events, forums and networks. After all, if readers really value the input and support of other readers, it ought to be possible to commercialise that, through ads, sponsorship, or fees.

Comments added pull, interest and value to news stories in the early days of the digital publishing revolution. But it’s now up for debate whether they continue to do that.

Reuters has decided it’s no longer worth the reputational and commercial candle to keep running comments on news; while looking for other forms of reach and engagement with its clients. Other organisations will surely do the same.

All fur coat and no knickers

M&S Christmas advert 2014 coverage in the Guardian.

M&S Christmas advert 2014 coverage in the Guardian.

This phrase of my grandmother’s popped into my mind when I saw the Guardian’s coverage of the M&S Christmas advert yesterday. These two lassies in fake fur wraps are supposed to be fairies out doing ‘random acts of kindness.’ But they bear an unfortunate resemblence to the kind of ladies for whom such a random act might be a free quickie. Given that M&S’ reputation was built on selling sturdie undies and opaque tights to the nation’s matrons and office workers, I can’t help but think it may have missed its market. Somewhat.

Feminism: not just a slogan t-shirt

 A 'this is what a feminitst looks like t-shirt' - screen grab from Elle's website

A ‘this is what a feminitst looks like t-shirt’ – screen grab from Elle’s website

The Daily Mail has discovered that the ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt that the Prime Minister refused to wear is being produced in “sweatshop conditions” in the Far East. But this seems like the least of the problems behind a spectacularly misguided idea.

The t-shirts are being produced to support an Elle magazine series called ‘rebranding feminism’ which, its website says, is trying to “rebrand a term that has become burdened with complications and negativity.”

Well, yes. As soon as you put forward a feminist idea – equal pay, equal representation in Parliament – you’re bound to run into some pretty complex issues and you’re bound to upset people.

The two thirds of MPs who are white men over 40, and the male middle managers who earn a third more than their female counterparts for doing the same job are, naturally, likely to resent the suggestion that something is wrong with this state of affairs.

Less acceptably, too many are also willing to argue that anyone who suggests otherwise is a. attacking them personally and b. some kind of ‘feminazi’ who is probably incapable of keeping a husband or a house and is slovenly to boot.

The best answer to the last bit is just to say “nonsense”; it’s perfectly possible to want equal rights and pay and then spend the latter on nice clothes. But, as a fashion magazine, Elle decided to take the literal approach of creating some trendy t-shirts so that readers could literally buy-into this idea.

Bafflingly (although nominally in support of the UN’s #heforshe initiative) it then decided to set up a promotional photo-shoot featuring a lot of… men.

Elle asked some hunky actors and rather less hunky politicians to pose in the shirts, and duly got a ‘yes’ from Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and a ‘no’ from Cameron. This allowed it to publish a blog asking why the Prime Minister should be “afraid” to call himself a feminist.

As some female newspaper columnists have pointed out, the answer to this is obvious – he isn’t one. His government has not only maintained the status quo, but brought in all sorts of benefits changes that have hit poorer women hard.

However, the PM can hardly say this; and the positive press received by Miliband and Clegg was enough to send the Mail off in search of its story.

In response, the Fawcett Society, which owns the slogan, has said it was assured by its supplier, Whistles, that the t-shirts were produced by an ethical supplier.

The society did this by email, after the t-shirts had been printed. This doesn’t sound particularly rigorous; or the kind of thing that its founder, Millicent Garrett-Fawcett, would have done (when she was asked to investigate conditions in the Boer War’s concentration camps, she set off for South Africa).

Garrett, though, was a more activist kind of activist altogether. She headed up the suffragist movements (votes for women), co-founded Newham College (education for women) and campaigned for The Married Women’s Property Act (non-chattel status for women).

Whereas Elle is selling “the slogan tee to end all tees!” There’s a message here that should have kicked in long before the magazine, shop and charity got caught in the ethics of t-shirt production. It’s possible to be a feminist and to like fashion; but not to reduce one thing to the other.