Monthly Archives: July 2009

When news mattered

Back in 1940, people would stop outside the local newspaper office to read the headlines posted in the window. Well, there was no rolling TV news or internet…

1a33852uImage from the ever-browsable Shorpy (motto: “Always Something Interesting”).

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Living history

DSCN0935As I’m drowning in web taxonomy at the moment, let’s take time out to enjoy last weekend’s English Heritage Festival of History.

I joined 1,000 happy historic re-enacters in a field in Northamptonshire to watch a mini re-enactment of D-Day, be shown how a Sten gun worked and enjoy all the grisly details of Tudor-style judicial punishment – including hanging, drawing and, naturally, quartering. Oh, and some nice people enjoying some tea and cake.

Next year I’m planning to form a Journalism Re-Enactment Society, and set up an old-style print newsroom in the field, complete with copy editors, picture researchers and typesetters – and some grouchy bloke wearing a green eye-shade. 

Anyone interested, contact me through the blog. Seriously – I might even do this…

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Worth 1,000 words?

Some more evidence that digital creation and distribution of content will keep transforming the media – Getty Images has bought iStockphoto for a reported $50 million.

The web and digital technology have transformed the business of photography. But what at first made picture researchers’ lives easier has now made it much more difficult to make a living – after all, if they can search digital archives online from the comfort of their armchair, so can anyone else.

By the same token, it has also put immense pressure on photographers. Now anyone with a decent digital camera (which means most people with a digital camera) can not only take passable photos but also distribute them globally.

But it’s also put pressure on photo agencies. Let’s face it, almost no one sitting on the production desk of a low-budget print or web publication will pay much at all for stock images. Which is why iStockphoto has been such a runaway success.

Part of this is its simplicity – no phoning up the picture agency, or drawn-out verification process, just click and buy. And it’s pretty cheap – a small image costs about £3, a really big one less than £18.

It’s understandable that Getty wants to get a piece of this low-rent action. Yes, the pricing model undercuts the established agencies, but there’s not much they can do about that. So it makes a lot of sense to embrace the change than try to make a futile stand against it.

One interesting thing about the so-cheap-they’re-almost-free photo resources is that their prices seem to have actually been creeping up lately. Longer-term users may have noticed this already.

It’s interesting because it shows that people are prepared to pay something for digital content online. It also opens up the question of whether this has implications for other kinds of digital content, such as journalism.

I’m very sceptical that users will pay much, if anything, for access to journalism as we have traditionally known it online. But people are willing to pay some money for stock photography.

It’s not just business users – if the alternative is trawling through Flickr for hours to find a suitable image for no money, some individuals are prepared to pay a few dollars or pounds to save time and guarantee a better or more appropriate image for their website or whatever.

Getty clearly hopes that its existing high-end library will survive the arrival of ubiquitous digital imagery. But in case it doesn’t, it seems to understand that a big slice of the market is now in low-cost user-submitted material.

The key to success seems to be offering a product that offers some clear benefits:

  • Saves time
  • Increases choice
  • Is perceived as good value
  • Offers products people actually want

The parallels with journalism are not exact of course, but there’s a lesson here that’s still worth learning.

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Publish and be filtered

After wittering on for ever about why journalism is changing irrevocably, I’ve read two things that make the point much more clearly.

One is a post by Scott Porad on Journalism 2.0 on the relationship between journalism and the I Can Has Cheezburger brand of user-generated humour. The other is a weighty essay by internet pundit Clay Shirky on the danger of imposing classification schemes on web content. 

Scott Porad’s point is that there is a “fundamental shift in the concept of reporting from ‘sourcing’ toward ‘filtering’.”

In times gone by, a lot of the value of a reporter was the ability to dig out sources. Now, there are sources by the million. The value of journalism lies in filtering these to find the most reliable. Tools and techniques to do the filtering will become much more valuable in future (journalists and graduates take note).

The Clay Shirky essay – “Ontology is Overrated” – is a much heavier piece, but there is a similarly clear and relevant lesson in it. 

When you catalogue books in a library, you assign books to slots in a classification system. You need this, because a book is an abject and needs to go on a shelf. 

But the internet has no shelves. Instead, it has a vast wash of content that is impossible to fit into a pre-determined classification system. 

So we have taken to putting content on to the web and letting people assign their own classification tags to it (think Flickr). 

As Shirky says:

In a world where publishing is expensive, the act of publishing is also a statement of quality – the filter comes before the publication. In a world where publishing is cheap, putting something out there says nothing about its quality. It’s what happens after it gets published that matters. If people don’t point to it, other people won’t read it. But the idea that the filtering is after the publishing is incredibly foreign to journalists.

It’s that last sentence that sums up our problems in a nutshell. The web is all about filtering after publishing. Journalists will find their work cut out to keep up with that.

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Journalism: a suicide note

I’ve just read Build the Wall – a gently impassioned, 4,250 word essay in the Columbia Journalism Review by David Simon – that declares the only future for journalism is if newspapers – all newspapers, everywhere (in the US anyway) – start charging for their online content.

It’s billed as “One man’s bold blueprint”. It’s actually “One man’s recipe for newspaper suicide”.

His recipe in brief:

  • The financial future of newspaper journalism is in the hands of just two people: New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
  • Together, they should simultaneously erect a subscription pay wall in front of the content on their respective web sites. (On September 1, for convenience).
  • They should coerce news wire services to only offer content to providers of paid-for content.
  • They should fund a trade group to pursue bloggers and aggregators for copyright infringement.

The argument goes like this:

  • TV used to be free, but cable companies have successfully made people pony up monthly fees to watch (eventually) better programming.
  • Newspapers, in contrast, spent the past couple of decades cutting back on resources and undermining the product.
  • When this happened in the US car industry, Americans went off and bought Toyotas. But there is no substitute product for newspapers. Blogs and the like just don’t cut the mustard.
  • Newspapers also focused on advertising as their financial model (bad), rather than subscriptions (good).
  • But people are flocking to the web sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post. So they must think the online version is even better than the printed papers.
  • It’s too expensive to publish printed newspapers profitably. So jack up the price of the paper product, thus forcing those readers online.
  • Then make them pay for the online version. Many may decline to do so. But if you keep 10 per cent of your readers, that’s still a lot of cash money.
  • You can use this cash money to improve the product and attract more subscribers.
  • Repeat ad infinitum until newspapers are rich, rich, rich.

He postulates three possible outcomes for the industry:

  1. The strategy pretty much works – the two leading players set an example for other city papers, who follow suit and everyone starts making money again.
  2. Lots of cities actually lose their newspapers. But – hoorah – paid subscription news organisations move into the vacuum and keep journalism alive online, where costs are much lower. It’s a cut-down model but, hey, quite a few journalists are still employed.
  3. The Times and the Post survive “because their coverage is unique and essential”, but nothing else does, really.

And we don’t have much time – so could you both just get on with it please.

Why this is wrong on so many levels

Well, actually, first where he’s right. As has been pointed out by commentators here, the newspaper business did shoot itself in the foot when it hollowed out its offering by cutting costs and sweating assets. No argument there.

But, really. Let’s take a look at the rest of his points:

  • There is no alternative

You might notice it kind of contradicts itself in saying that [a] the web has supplied no real substitute for newspapers, but [b] the New York Times and Washington Post web sites must be even better than the print editions because millions of users flock to them. This is a long essay and I am flaying it to get the essence, so I could perhaps be misinterpreting David Simon’s points. But I don’t think so.

What he really means, I think, is that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers other than what the newspapers themselves offer on the web. I suggest that this isn’t so – it’s just that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers that are like what newspapers understand to be journalism. Which is subtly different.

It’s a familiar complaint. But see Paul Bradshaw’s handy list of blog-moments-that-are-very-much-like-journalism for one rebuttal.

One key difference is that all the useful and journalistic material on the web is not available in one place, as a newspaper would offer it. But there is an answer to that and it’s aggregation. But newspapers hate that because they see it as unfair competition. And would pursue it through copyright lawsuits if this essay had its way.

  • Cable TV points the way

This is not so daft, but ultimately I don’t think it works. Yes, Americans have got used to paying for TV that used to be free. But think about TV, and think about newspapers.

Viewers watch TV in the comfort of their homes, relaxing on the sofa, eating their dinner, and being entertained. They did that in the 1950s, and they still do that now. (Although, come to think of it, a BBC survey found 16- to 24-year-olds are now being distracted by the internet and are watching less TV nowadays. So, you know, the cable TV model might not be as robust as you think.)

In any event, TV consumption is different from that of newspapers.

Newspapers, in this argument, are hard work. They’re worthwhile and improving. And you need time to read them. Time that, it seems, we have less of. It’s a different product, consumed in a different way. And the success of cable TV may actually undermine newspapers, as the more time we spend in front of HBO, the less time we spend reading the op-ed pages of the Times.

  • Lessons from the car industry

The other thing to bear in mind about the analogy of the car industry is that Americans were happy to switch from US car makers to foreign competitors when the US cars became crappy, because they really needed  a car.

In contrast, Americans – and by extension the rest of us – don’t have to buy a newspaper. Really. We can live without that heady blend of news and gossip. For days. And we have found other substitutes that work just as well in totally different ways.

Journalists find it incomprehensible that people can spend their time with text messaging, mobile games and iPods instead of a newspaper and be just as happy. If not more so. Weird.

  • You can’t force people to consume your product

Raising the price of your printed product will certainly cut the numbers of people buying it. But it won’t by default drive them to the online version. The implicit assumption here is that a newspaper are somehow intrinsic to your readers’ lives and they will pursue it anywhere you choose to drive them. This is false.

True, raising the price may help cover production costs better for a while, as the die-hards still pony up for the product. But it’s guaranteed to make newspapers a highly specialist purchase over time. Which their content doesn’t really justify.

And people may go online to read the news, but that doesn’t mean they’ll treat it in the same way they would the paper they’ve just given up. It’s not a direct substitution.

  • People may visit your web site only because it is free

The essay supposes that 10% of a newspaper’s many thousands of web visitors will pay for the privilege. But this is again based on the assumption that newspapers need direct substitution. That life without the local metro paper is somehow a life not worth living.

But people consume the web version of the paper in a different way from the print version. Many people are letting go of the habit of buying and reading a daily paper as their main source of printed information and escape in the day. Instead they browse a wide range of online content and also do other things with their time, from Facebook to YouTube.

  • Nothing is indispensable

Finally, the idea that “The Times and The Post survive because their coverage is unique and essential” is nonsense. Nothing is irreplaceable. Especially not newspapers. Why? Because to the reading public they are not “essential” – clearly they can live without them. Nor are they “unique”, in that there’s an awful lot of similar material available elsewhere, from news to comment to entertainment.

In fact, they are only essential to journalists’ self-image. They reflect us, not the readers. And neither they nor, sadly for those of us in the industry with mortgages to pay, are indispensable.

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Yahoo: the perils of economic statistics

Not sure what state the UK economy is in? Better not read the papers and newswires today, then – you’ll only get more confused.

Today saw the release of the UK’s second quarter GDP statistics. Hmm. How bad were they?

“Bad”, says Yahoo Finance, which takes its content from  news service AFP.

British economy sees record contraction

That kind of bad. 

Oh, but wait. Does that mean the second quarter GDP figures saw a record fall?

Well, the Yahoo story certainly seems to think so:

Britain’s economy shrank in the second quarter at its fastest yearly pace since records began in 1955, as the worst recession since the early 1980s tightened its grip.

Ooh. Scary.

But, hang on a moment. What does that actually mean?

How can a quarterly figure shrink at a yearly pace? That actually doesn’t make sense.

And when you look at the story more closely, it actually reveals that the decline in GDP for Q2 was 0.8% – much less than the whopping 2.4% fall we saw in the first quarter (though more than the forecasters’ prediction of 0.3%. But then, what do they know). 

It turns out that GDP had shrunk by 5.6% in the three months to the end of June, compared to the same period last year.

But actually, most of that fall happened at the end of last year, and then the gruesome first quarter of this year. The GDP statistics just released today actually show that the worst might be over for the recession. 

Things are still pretty grim. But this is like the messy emergency landing in a swamp, rather than the terrifying plunge from the sky that we had earlier in the year. And we’ll probably be in the swamp for a while, which sucks. 

UK_GDP_1955-2009This graphic from the Guardian shows that things are better this quarter than last. Though don’t be fooled into thinking the uptick on the graph means the economy has started growing again. That’s another pitfall of statistical representation. 

But it does clearly show that the worst news happened three months ago. 

What does this mean? 

Pretty much that statistics can be pressed into service for whatever editorial angle you like. In this case the angle is: we’re all doomed. Though I’m not sure why – normally that’s the cue for anti-government papers to bash Gordon Brown. That isn’t happening here I think. Maybe it just makes for a more dramatic splash. 

The more representative story – things are still bad, though getting less bad, but they’ll stay that way for ages – is both less dramatic and more depressing. Which is probably why Yahoo went for a different – and misleading – slant.

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3-column, Widget-ready Pressrow

Warning: intense WordPress geekery ahead

The headline above will mean nothing to most readers. But there will be a little niche of WordPress nerds for whom it will cause a tiny thrill of excitement.

Anyone who has made it to the footer of one of these posts will have seen that I am using the popular Pressrow theme created by the prolific and talented Chris Pearson.

But I plan to move this blog over to self-hosted WordPress – and Pressrow isn’t available in the suite of themes (or designs) that’s on offer over at WordPress.org. Curses.

No! There it was on the web ready for download. Fantastic.

Only problem (and here we’re getting really geeky): it was written in 2006 and so wasn’t compatible with WordPress Widgets. They’re the bits and pieces in the sidebar that show you the most popular posts and recent comments.

So I spent a happy evening copying and pasting PHP code from a WordPress tutorial to try to make the theme work. And broke it. No sidebar, no back-end admin area. Sometimes no front page at all. It was, in web parlance, an epic fail.

Until – a breakthrough. Thanks to “28-year-old Sydney-based slacker Dan” for creating a three-column version (which I actually prefer). And thanks also to The Blog Herald for an excellent tutorial on fixing the sidebars so they run WordPress widgets that actually works.

End result – a working three-column development blog, running widget-ready Pressrow. Now all I have to do is run the columns each side of the main post instead of both on the right and play around with the CSS.

This, of course, doesn’t really make me a coding genius. More like a small child banging rocks together randomly and then being astounded at making fire. But still.

And when it’s all sorted out and the updated Pressrow theme is finished, I’ll post it on the blog so any Pressrow fan who fancies it can download it. It’ll sort of be my bid for a tiny slice of internet immortality. Sadly.

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