08
Dec 15

The age of polymorphous media

For my sins, I spend a proportion of my professional life listening to journalists moaning about what is at risk and what has been lost in the digital era. I’ve come gradually to the conclusion that what they mourn most of all is the loss of simplicity.

Journalism expanded in the late 20th century in conditions which were historically exceptional and which, in retrospect, look miraculous. Print had stable advertising and circulation income; the capital costs of presses acted as an automatic barrier to new competitors. Terrestrial television had either taxpayer subsidy or advertising. For journalists, life was simple: they only had to worry about competition from the nearest rival.

In some competitive markets this made life tough, but not complicated. That agreeably simple era has been replaced by a chaotic and fast-changing system for news and opinion which is volatile, unpredictable and polymorphous. In other words, the present is like every other period of journalism’s history except the late 20th century.

If you’re running, working in or thinking of investing in a business involving journalism, here are five things worth keeping in mind in 2016: Continue reading →

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16
Jun 15

A few quick takeaways on the Reuters Institute Digital News report

The annual state-of-digital-news report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute, released today, confirmed several known trends: the advance of mobile and video, the decline of print and the sturdiness of television news. Underneath the (unsurprising) headlines were several items worth noting.

1.  The multinational survey finds large differences in trust levels. In Finland, 68% of respondents agree that they “can trust most news most of the time”; that figure falls to 32% in the US. Presenting these figures, the report’s main author Nic Newman said that the higher trust numbers tended to be in countries with public service broadcasters who are required by law to be impartial. This is the conventional explanation given for this finding and there must be some truth in it.

But I think there’s a deeper thing at work. The four countries at the bottom of this table are France, Italy, Spain and the US. Whatever else may separate them, all these are countries where the crisis of the elites has been very marked: a significant proportion of the electorate reject the explanations and accounts of what is happening given by the political class. Trust in the news media, or lack of it, is inextricably bound up with the credibility of the political elite.

2.  The fast growth and strength of digital-born global players. The Huffington Post, one of the big winners in the whole survey, is one of the most accessed news and opinion sites in the US and operates in 14 countries, often in the local language. In the league table of digital-born brands, it is beaten by Yahoo (used by 18%) – but this figure is skewed by large traffic in Japan, where Yahoo has a relatively small stake. Huffington Post is next at 10%, followed by Buzzfeed at 4%.

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20
Apr 15

Andy Mitchell and Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributors on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

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16
Mar 15

Little rays of sunshine…journalism in Spain and voting registration

As an antidote to grim March weather, here are two stories to lighten gloom. Struggling to keep up with new media, older people burble that digital social networks carry nothing but trolls and trivia. Many (older) journalists remain sternly pessimistic that their work can survive its bumpy transition to new technologies whose users seem so little interested in serious news and opinion.

At a supper last week organised by Tech City Insider, I had the good luck to sit next to a bearded, energetic man called Michael Sani. He began life as an actor and teacher and founded one of the campaigns trying to improve the falling voter registration rate among young people.

The campaign is called Bite the Ballot and early this year it organised a week-long registration drive. There wasn’t much choice that promoting the apparently-boring cause of registering to vote had to be done on social networks. Besides being the natural online conversation of the 18-24 age group that Sani and his volunteers were aiming at, getting people to relay your message by making it go viral is cheap. Which was good because bitetheballot didn’t have much money.

Long story short: 441,000 new voters were registered in that week. That set a world record for the numbers of voters (as a proportion of the potential electorate) put on the list in a week, outstripping America’s Rock the Vote drive in 2004. New voters registering had a 72% completion rate doing the 5-page form, which might also be a record. The campaign projected pictures onto Big Ben, went to community centres, worked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…and spent a grand total of £200.

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05
Nov 14

The real and the worst damage done by state press subsidies

fontenelle-editocratesAs the printed press has struggled to cope with the end of an era of plenty and the collapse of the newspaper business model, the odd voice has played with the idea of subsidising the press. Here’s why that might be an idea to be briefly considered, but it’s also one to reject.

After all, such would-be saviours of the endangered species of printed news ask, don’t we all subsidise the BBC, to the tune of £4bn a year, through a licence fee which is a tax by another name? Do papers not enjoy a tax break by not paying VAT? Don’t other European countries do this and don’t they manage fine?

Not in France they don’t. Journalist Sebastien Fontenelle has just been having another go at newspaper and magazine subsidies there and bringing the story up to date. As he rightly remarks, major newspapers like Le Monde and Figaro use a lot of ink telling the state and government to reduce government spending and debt while hypocritically burying the figures on the subsidies they receive and doing nothing to abolish or reform the system.

Official figures show that the France spent €5bn between 2009 and 2011, amounting to 15% of the industry’s turnover. You might imagine that this money was distributed to high-minded but loss-making publications on politics and economics. In 2013, nearly €20m was handed to the four magazines devoted to TV listings and small screen celebs.

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20
Oct 14

How to rebuild local news: a spaghetti-throwing competition!

The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.

By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.

But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies  fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.

I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).

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01
Oct 14

The importance – for experiment – of not being embarrassed

catAs news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.

Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.

He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.

This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.

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27
May 14

The New York Times and innovation: are they asking the right question?

The New York Times did a kind favour to the rest of the news media when, amidst the storm provoked by the sacking of its editor Jill Abramson, we got to see a report on the paper’s lack of progress in digital journalism by a group of its younger editors.

I don’t need to describe “Innovation” further for you: it’s been capably done elsewhere (see also here). Instead, I want to ask the question which I haven’t yet seen put, perhaps because it makes people a little nauseous. Is it actually possible for a big, mainstream newspaper to make the transition to being, principally, a digital platform for journalism? Not just make the transition slowly, painfully and with embarrassing mistakes but…not make it at all.

I’m by nature an optimist and I recently I wrote a book which, among other themes, looks at the regularity with which journalism re-invents itself when disrupted. But having read the 96 pages of the NYT document, even my faith in the future was dented.

As many other readers have said, it is a brutally frank self-examination. But for all the bravery involved, a number of questions just aren’t there. With all the fervour of tribesmen waving a talisman to ward off evil spirits, the authors repeatedly praise the outstanding quality of the NYT’s journalism. A touch smug, an outsider might think, but hardly controversial.

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