Category Archives: Journalism

Google’s “real-time hack”

The tech world is abuzz with the news that there is a not-so secret URL hack to change a normal Google search string into a near-live search. 

Which is exciting because it makes a Google search like Twitter! And we know how much the media loves Twitter. 

Trouble is, the reports all seem to rely on users being able to access a ‘search options’ link on the Google homepage, and then limit searches to the past day. Once you’ve done that you can start tweaking the web address to narrow down your search window.

For whatever reason (UK user? Mac user?) I can’t seem to find this ‘search options’ link. 

However, on your behalf, and thanks to a useful post on ReadWriteWeb, I’ve tracked down the relevant URL, and here it is:,sbd:1&q=

It doesn’t click through – you’ll need to copy and paste. 

The crucial timing bit is the qdr:n1 

The “n” specifies minutes – the “1”, fairly obviously, specifies 1 of them. 

Change this to “s” to switch to seconds. Change the number directly after it to specify how many minutes or seconds you require. 

For a longer search, change the “n” to “d” for days. 

Then all you have to do is add your search string directly after the last “=” sign. If you’re looking for Freelance Unbound, you’d add freelance+unbound to the end of the URL…


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Murdoch good, BBC bad

Maybe not this time...

Maybe not this time...

For all his BBC connections, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw says the BBC has got too big for its boots and that News Corp boss James Murdoch raised “legitimate questions and […] genuine concerns” about its range and influence in his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival last month.

Could this have anything to do with the fact that the government will need all the media help it can get if it is to avoid being creamed in next year’s general election? It won’t get that from the BBC, after all – sometimes political neutrality can be so tiresome.

But, you know, somehow I doubt that even News Corp muscle could rescue New Labour this time around.

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Journalism: a trade, not a profession

Star responds to my enquiry about her media recession with an interesting viewpoint from the US. 

She says: 

I am seeing the profession of writing–and I do consider it a profession–being downgraded by digitization and outsourcing.

I’d disagree, in as much as I consider writing for the media or marketing (which is what we’re largely talking about here) a trade, rather than a profession.

What’s the difference? 

Well, you don’t (or shouldn’t) need a degree to practise a trade. Training, yes. Maybe vocational qualifications or some kind, especially if you’re operating heavy machinery or working with volatile chemicals. 

But journalism – or any kind of paid-for writing – doesn’t need even that. It certainly doesn’t need “professionalisation” in the sense of a university path towards qualification. (Especially given the poor match between what universities teach on journalism degrees and the requirements of the media industry.)

Why do many in the media talk about it as a profession? Mainly to try to shore up the crumbling walls of their career.

If you can professionalise a trade that is otherwise easy to enter, you can, with luck, stop people entering it. Following the law of supply and demand, fewer people in any line of work should mean higher pay for them. 

Unfortunately for this argument in the UK (and I assume in the US), a BA is now a de facto minimum standard of educational aspiration for non-underclass young people. 

This means a BA becomes much less useful as a professional filter. If around half your education leavers have one, it’s difficult to see how elitist it can be. And without elitism, it’s difficult to exclude new entrants to professions and so keep incomes up.

Oddly enough, journalism is seen as an easier degree option than, say, biochemistry, so that’ll push up student numbers. And it’s seen (rightly or wrongly) as a vocational degree that will be helpful in getting employment, which is why I suspect it’s taken the place of media studies as the soft degree of choice for some students.

The result? No real benefit for “professional” journalism in terms of keeping incomes up. But a massive downside in terms of student debt racked up by young people taking a journalism BA, with low prospects for a high income to compensate for it. 

Star underlines the horror of all this in her comment. She says: 

Writing is now “repurposing” (changing the words in someone else’s work to make it “original”) or else pulling 400 words out of your brain as authoritative. It’s educated typing, I guess. I saw an ad for 1000 articles–hey, a thousand bucks! Who could even type that much–that’s 5 novels’ worth.

Writing, and hence journalism, is valued less and less – by both the people who publish it and by those who consume it. Unlike plumbing, say, it’s a trade that people seem to be able to live without. 

Simply calling writing a profession won’t prevent it from being undermined and undervalued. At least calling it a trade makes it a bit easier to deal with psychologically.


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Media meltdown: news from New Zealand

I asked recently how your media recession is going (and please do take part in the poll on the right, by the way).

In response, Knowledge Workers blogger Bill Bennett writes in to sketch out an alarming scenario from New Zealand. You think we’ve got it bad in the UK? Be afraid…

The media has been hit particularly hard in New Zealand. The biggest independent publisher went bust. I worked for Fairfax, the largest newspaper publisher and 550 staff were cut from a total of around 1,700 in November 2008 across Australia and New Zealand – about 5% of its workforce. They were not all journalists, but journalists were disproportionately affected.

New Zealand accounted for 160 of the total cut – which was more than 5% and nearer to 10% of the staff in that country. This was on top of other cuts earlier in the year as newspaper subbing departments were dismantled with the work being sent to remote ‘centres of excellence’ known internally as ‘sub-hubs’.

At a rough estimate, 40% of journalists have lost their jobs in the past 18 months. Today there are about 20 percent of the number of working journalists there were in 1990. Every newspaper subbing department has been closed with most of the work farmed out to backpackers who earn the minimum legal wage.

And you still want to do that journalism degree? Seriously – unless you’re just doing it for the piece of paper, think about a different line of work…

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More thoughts on paying for online content

In response to the news that Google is throwing its hat into the online content micropayment ring, Mindy McAdams counters with a suggestion for a small daily fee for website access, as opposed to, say, a small fee for individual article access. She imagines:

a kind of token ID, sort of like a gift certificate code. (These must be secure, because every e-commerce site uses them.) The difference would be that you could use the same code on any computer, logging on and off, for the specified period of time. (The code would expire after 24 hours, for example.)

My response to this is that the biggest problem is not necessarily the willingness of people to pay for journalism (though, to be honest, I think they are less and less inclined to do this), but making the effort to actually do so.

Anything that puts up a barrier between user and content will drastically cut usage, be it registration, making people watch an advertisement before seeing the content they click through to, or making a payment.

The payment thing is a double whammy. I may (possibly) be prepared to pay my 50c to read the New York Times. But I can’t put coins into my computer. So I must be a member of some payment mechanism (PayPal, Worldpay, whatever) and so be able to pay through that, using my passwords and such. Or I must have my credit card to hand and go through the palaver of using that. Really – it would have to be extra special and useful content for me to do that, and 99.9% of the time online it isn’t.

The other issue is the difference between consuming paper-based content and online content. I may well pay $1 or so for a newspaper to read on a journey, or with a cup of coffee, but I’m much less inclined to do this for online content. Online, I’m much more likely to be reading an individual article that I find through search, or via a blog link. I don’t sit down and “read the paper” in the same way.

Some attempts are being made to think around this problem. There are a few donation-based models now up and running that take money you put in a central pot and distribute it around web sites of your choice based on your actual usage. But as this is a charitable model, you’d have to be very motivated to set that up.

Could you make this sort of model compulsory? Maybe. But I think it’s the breaking of the link between the payment and the physical object of the newspaper that’s at the heart of this.

Breaking music albums up into MP3 tracks has destroyed consumers’ willingness to buy actual albums. Similarly, the breakup of content on the web has undermined consumers’ willingness to buy newspapers as newspapers online.

So, unless any suggested payment mechanism can accommodate much more promiscuous online reading patterns, I think it’ll be a non-starter.

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Coca-Cola Unbound

CokeWhat a difference a grinding advertising recession makes. Only six months ago, culture secretary Andy Burnham said that a three-month consultation between the government and advertisers had “failed to produce a convincing case for product placement”.

As ever, of course, the usual government terror of bad things happening to people because of the economy has meant a predicted U-turn. Now, new broom culture boy Ben Bradshaw is thought to believe the exact opposite – and that a ban on product placement puts UK programme makers at “a competitive disadvantage compared with the US and other rivals”.

Whatever. It won’t help the BBC, or children’s programme makers (and let’s not forget that it was the popular ban on junk food advertising that has helped to hammer independent sector children’s programming).

But, you know, it might just help us bloggers. In a comment on my recent blog stats geekery post, FleetStreetBlues said “Now if only we could make the damn thing pay…”

The answer is simple – strike a lucrative product placement deal and fame and riches beckon. My cheque should already be in the post…


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Half-yearly blog stats geekery

Blog Stats GeekeryIn the spirit of full disclosure and transparency, and because such things may be of interest to new and student bloggers (and hopeless WordPress geeks), here’s the first installment of what should become a regular series of half-yearly posts on the statistics behind Freelance Unbound.

First off – Freelance Unbound is not a hugely visited site. There, I’ve said it.

My biggest traffic day so far has been a smidgeon over 200 visitors. On the average weekday, I get a minimum of 50-60 visits, though this halves at the weekend (unsurprisingly, for an essentially work-based site). This tends to drift down if I don’t update regularly – ie pretty much every day. There’s a lesson there.

All this doesn’t bother me that much, though – for several reasons.

  • Blogs don’t usually get much traffic. At the Association of Journalism Education Conference, successful political blogger Guido Fawkes reckoned more than 100 daily visitors is good going, apparently. Why? Maybe because the golden age of blogging is behind us and people seem more interested in social media.
  • This is a very niche blog. In the world of journalism blogs, which in itself is pretty niche, this is one that not only navel-gazes more than most, but also tends to focus specifically on the effects of digital media on content. That pretty much slashes the audience right there (though the audience it gets is quite focused too, which is nice).
  • It’s a bit esoteric. I have posts about PHP and Drupal, though I’m not a techy talking to techies. And I have posts about Marvel Comics and vampires on TV, though this is not a science fiction blog. It’s a funny old smorgasbord.
  • I don’t market it. Although it now gets a listing in’s Best of the J-Blogs section, and I make a bit of an effort to visit and comment on relevant sites in the same field, I really don’t spend enough time relentlessly bigging Freelance Unbound up.

Nonetheless, there’s enough going on here to be interesting from the point of web analysis.

Top posts

In fact. looking at my top two posts of all time is a bit of a case study by itself.

The biggest post I’ve had by far was one offering advice on 11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability.

I thought it might get some traffic, but it alone was responsible for the bulk of visits on my busiest day ever. But why?

The simple answer is Twitter. I now feed all the posts from the blog to my Twitter account, as well as sporadically updating with the occasional post there directly. (Yes, I know this isn’t really what you’re supposed to do with Twitter, but hey – it’s tough enough keeping up with the blog.)

In this case, the Twitter update was what drove my blog traffic. Several people with vast numbers of followers picked up on it, and the result was a healthy clickthrough to Freelance Unbound. It was an impressive example of how the right use of social media can help you draw an audience. (Twitter also seems responsible for yesterday’s spike, which saw more than 180 visitors in a relatively quiet week, mostly drawn to the post on whether media owners should ditch journalism altogether.)

On the downside, very little of that traffic stayed with me. Almost immediately, visitor numbers dropped to pretty what they had been just before this “big post”. Which is another important lesson, familiar in marketing circles. You want repeat business above all, not just people who drop in once and then never darken your door again.

Which brings us to the second biggest post – in which I asked is People Per Hour any use?.

I had a sneaking suspicion this might draw some traffic, as it’s a question I have asked myself and for which I have also searched on Google for an answer.

I came across People Per Hour last year when the bottom dropped out of my business plan and I had to start hustling for work when the recession kicked in. I thought it was an interesting idea – an online marketplace for creative and media-type work. But how reputable was it? And what were people’s experience of the site?

There wasn’t much information about, so I thought I’d stick in my twopennyworth and see if others were interested in the topic.

They were. But interestingly, the traffic has only twice been in double digits in a day. Instead, the post has seen a steady flow of visits, day in, day out, since it went live in April. There’s a good chance that it will feature in the Most Visited section in the sidebar as you read this. If not, it may well do tomorrow. And before long it may well overtake the meteoric student employability post to gain the top slot. [UPDATE: as of 16/9/09 it has.]

The lesson from this? A top tips on employability is popular, but it often needs to go viral to work. (For non web marketing geeks, that means it needs to be picked up by others and passed around their online networks).

On the other hand, pick a topic that you sense may have potential interest, and that isn’t covered to death on the internet, and you can draw in casual readers via search engines on an ongoing basis.

It’s at this point that you do start having to think about search terms when you’re writing your posts and your headlines – and it’s why journalists who shun search engine optimisation (SEO) as beneath their dignity are on a losing wicket.

Top referrers

If you want to build readership, though, gaining traffic from search engines may not be the best way forward. Instead, you’re better off plugging into the blogging community and drawing on a readership that looks at blogs reasonably regularly.

Again, my experience of pulling in traffic via referral from others has been instructive.

There are some oddities here. For a time I found a lot of visits came from a site called Alpha Inventions – a strange site whose only purpose was to aggregate a stream of posts from different blogs and show them in sequence for a few seconds each in real time as they updated. It’s a bit like Twitterfall, only once the post has been shown, it vanishes forever.

I still can’t figure out if this is the equivalent of viewing spam – so if someone has the Alpha Inventions site open in their browser and it scrolls past your blog it counts as a visit, even if the person concerned is away from their PC or looking at a different program. The inventor of the site claims not – but who knows…

In the real world, however, the clear winners in terms of pushing traffic my way, by nearly an order of magnitude, have been those lovely people at FleetStreetBlues.

It’s interesting because, although the site’s traffic is bigger than mine, by their own admission, they only have about 250 daily visitors. Crucially though, those visitors are the kind to click through to other sites – which makes the difference between a small and active audience and a large but passive one.

This is a phenomenon noted by Laura McKenna in her Apt 11D blog on what has changed in the blogging world over the past six years. Readers are burning out and not clicking through to blog links as much as they used to. It makes building readership tougher, and its why I’m very grateful for the support of blogs such as Knowledge Workers, Bristol Editor and Taking Out The Trash that have recommended Freelance Unbound and linked to my posts.

Bill Bennett on Knowledge Workers has been particularly kind – sending a couple of my posts to Reddit, which pushed traffic here up noticeably. Though, of course, it’s difficult to know how ‘sticky’ these readers were. Did they stick around for a while and browse the other posts? Have they been back since? I don’t know. Which is another reason to get the hell out of and move to self-hosted so I can get some better analytics going.

Top comments

The real life-blood of any blog is its readers – especially if the readers care enough about the blog or the subject matter to take part in the comment threads.

So far on Freelance Unbound, comments tend to be a bit – shall we say – clustered. Some posts have sparked lively debate – others nothing (though they have seen healthy traffic).

The most commented post (and the most commented topic) is about why, essentially, I argue that the old news model is dead and journalism as we know it is finished. Understandably, journalists get stirred up about this and are more likely to challenge me, or take my side, in this debate.

But it’s difficult to predict what will spark a debate. Sometimes I will post on the same topic and get no reader reaction. All I can say for sure is that I seem more likely to get more comments once one reader has responded. It seems, like the early stages of a party, no one wants to be the first to break the ice.

It also seems that readers will chip in when I ask them to. As noted, my post on People Per Hour has drawn a lot of visits over the past few months, and once I asked readers to add their own experiences of the site, it has also generated comments.

For what it’s worth, bloggers love comments. Freelance Unbound welcomes all reader comments – whether they agree with a post or not. The only proviso is that they are more or less civil in tone.


What do we learn from all this?

  • You can’t really predict what will work.
  • It’s important to update every day.
  • Loyal, regular readers are worth their weight in gold.
  • Blogs work best when it really is a conversation.

Stay tuned for more blog stats geekery in six months’ time…


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