Sunday, 28 September 2008

Innovate or die: Google's timeline of success

I have a confession ... I love Google.

Yes I know, it's an Internet monster with a growing number of 'I hate Google' groups with growing numbers of people joining them. And I've read their arguments.

But I love it.

It keeps me informed, it helps me organise my day, it helps me link to the rest of the world from the comfort of my armchair. But most importantly, it makes my life easier.

A friend of mine flagged Google up as a "useful tool" back in the late '90s. I thought, what a stupid name. I've been using it ever since.

Now I use an iGoogle account to collect everything online which is important, from my office calendar to the latest news about my favourite band. It's all there and there's more available.

They seem to have thought of everything, and what they haven't thought of, their creative teams are working on.

When Google News was launched, the naysayers were proclaiming it as the biggest threat to the newspaper industry. Now every newspaper worth its salt is clambering to get all their publications listed because they know that is where the traffic is coming from.

I could go on to list everything which Google does, but I really haven't got that amount of time.

They are doing everything that a really good multimedia company should be doing. Listening, innovating and succeeding. And to think it started out in a rented garage.

Follow the evolution of Google on this timeline, from the brainchild of a couple of geeks, to the all encompassing powerhouse which it is today, and ask yourself why 'traditional' newspapers have lost so much of their power.

Innovate or die.

Friday, 26 September 2008

'Readers should be seen but not heard':
breaking the habit of three lifetimes

It wasn't so long ago that the only input a reader would have with his local paper would be through the letters pages ... or if he went on a killing spree and ended up as the splash.

Today things are different. Now we want readers to tell us their opinions. At the end of every other story we ask 'What do you think?'

But why aren't our readers flocking to our forums to have their views aired?

Our forums seem to be the stomping ground of the hardcore, or those with a particular axe to grind. We don't seem to be attracting our usual demographic of readers or the number of commenters which our weighty tomes should warrant.


Well firstly, for 200 years or more we've asked our readers to listen to us - 'We're the voice of authority'. And now, for the first time ever, we are inviting them to air their views. It will take a bit longer than a web 2.0 week to change the habit of three healthy lifetimes.

If we continue to cover stories which are relevant to the communities which we cover, then people will slowly come around to realise that they can have a say on issues which directly relate to them.

Secondly, and I know this from personal experience, some journalists (notice I only say 'some') love the sound of their own voice. They think it's their opinions that count. They could have a one-man meeting and still overrun. But, and this is the problem, there are journalists out there who haven't mastered the reporter's number one skill - the art of listening.

It takes more more than one person to have a conversation. And that applies to forums too.

Reporters should be using forums as an opportunity to communicate with their readers. Forums are an opportunity to quickly get involved in a conversation with large numbers of people who are affected by the issues we write about. Why wouldn't we converse with them? Why wouldn't we use it as a platform to source opinions, views and even stories?

This is something that works. Just last year one of the titles I work on posted a story online about a local marine who was serving in Afghanistan and who strapped himself to the outside of a helicopter to go and recover the body of a fallen comrade. We started a thread on the title's forums asking for readers to send their best wishes to the brave soldier. The first comment was from the man's proud father.

Forums could be a fertile ground for journalists, not just the stomping ground of the green ink brigade.

I feel a project coming on ... I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 22 September 2008

In a spin over the dark side - a.k.a. public relations

The debate was raging in the office this week about the raison d'etre of a local authority press office. Are they there to inform or spin?

Journalists would definitely say inform, but the evidence leans the other way.

A colleague has written a very good blog post which you can read here on this very subject, so I will go no further on that.

But going on a slight tangent, I’d like to look at the strange new trend which has seen local government press offices transformed into multimedia newsrooms.

Going out on jobs now, you will be surprised (or maybe not) to see council press offices armed to the teeth with the latest video kit. Top quality cameras, best in class tripods, expensive microphones, and they will boast about a fully furnished editing suite back at base.

A good investment of your local council tax?

No longer do press offices have to rely on local newspapers to get their message out. They are themselves producing their own bespoke publications, and more and more are producing good quality multimedia news-style reports.

Propaganda? You bet.

You have likely seen some of these videos on local newspaper websites, but not known it. They are the multimedia press release. And as some newspaper offices struggle to fund the kind of kit needed to produce video, and the training to allow reporters to use it, then why not?

Well here comes the point which Nick Davies makes when he coined the term churnalism. A newspaper wouldn’t, or shouldn’t reproduce a press release unchecked and countered with balance, so should it reproduce a full council video release? Of course it’s going to happen, but these PR videos should only be used with a big health warning – ‘video produced by failed journalist’. [That’s a joke all you people on the dark side.]

The danger is that in these times of cost cutting and newspaper job losses, press releases and PR fodder are being used as a replacement for the hack. Balance and all the elements of good journalism go out the window.

Press officers should be there to help. They should be a journalist's friend. Most are former journalists themselves, who have gone the way of the dark side in the search of a decent wage. Who can blame them?

But a tip to all those reporters who face the sharp tongue of a hard-bitten Alistair Campbell wannabe press officer – don’t rise to it. Treat a press office exactly as you would a contact. Culture a good relationship, chat about the football and the weather. But always check their information and be aware of the possibility of spin.

It wasn't that long ago that a press officer would want to keep a reporter sweet to ensure he could get something in the paper. No longer. “You don’t want to put it in, so what, it’s already on our website.”

Welcome to Web 2.0 PR.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Newspapers making the news - for going down the pan

As if we didn't know journalism was on a rapid trajectory of transformation, along came the 'credit crunch'.

News of merging banks and collapsing companies has been preceded by ever more newspaper redundancies and title and office closures.

Manchester Evening News was the latest to announce some radical cost cutting measures, while even closer to home there have been a number of casualties.  Full a full list of world wide newspaper gloom, check out Newspaper Death Watch - it makes for some very depressing, yet interesting reading.

But from department to department, there is an acceptance of change. Despite the pain, most people are aware of the need for change.

Newspapers have been slow to evolve in the digital age. An early flurry of investment dried up when the dotcom bubble burst - and so did the confidence. So began newspapers' wanderings in the digital wilderness.

Traditional newspaper companies have been by their very nature conservative. If something is working, then why change it? Well it ain't working now ... and it hasn't been working for some time.

The web and the influx of new technologies has changed what we do, how we do it, and how readers want to consume what we produce.  Readers have embraced new technologies, while the newspaper industry has had its head firmly stuck up its own printing press.

Another Friday rant over ...

Monday, 15 September 2008

The digital revolution puts local back on the map

The world wide web has made the whole wide world a very small place.

At the click of a mouse button, I can be anywhere in the world, chatting to people across the globe, checking out the traffic on the main artery roads of some far flung city ... the world wide web is my oyster.

But the net has done something else. It has brought together communities.

People are now drawn together under the banner of 'community'. Networks of shared interest dominate the Internet. Pre-web, people with niche interests would have to sit alone in their one bed bedsit satisfying their hobby. But now, the web (for the good or the bad) has brought these people together.

Online, community comes in two guises:
* Social
* Geographic

It is geographic which will be the saviour of many a local newspaper. There is no more a social network than a local community. Nearly three decades after Maggie T proclaimed community dead - it's back, but this time with a vengeance.

People want to know what's going on in their neighbourhood. Social networking is the web 2.0 equivalent to curtain twitching. Your neighbours are on Facebook. They are on Twitter. They probably even Plurk. And guess what ... they may even be talking about you.

That's got to be worth a momentary curtain twitch.

But as the Internet continues its domination of the media, national and even regional omnibus newspapers will struggle to capture the attention of a large scale audience. The future will be in the hands of the hyper local newspapers. It is these titles which can boast hyper local content which is of hyper local interest to their niche audiences.

Many of them are the local weekly newspapers who have now embraced the digital revolution and who are producing hyper local websites. These are the titles who don't have an army of staff, and who can't all boast the expert correspondents in economics, health, education, etc, but who can boast the expert correspondents in what is going on next door, in the next street, in your local council.

It will be these titles, these journalists, together with local neighbourhood correspondents, who will thrive in the digital revolution, leaving the larger regionals and the nationals to fight it out among themselves with photos of Jordan or Posh Spice.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Dinosaurs in sheep's clothing

You have to wonder, just how many newsroom leaders really believe in multimedia, as opposed to just going there because the business says so.

I suspect less than is healthy.

There are more people who are begrudgingly heading down the multimedia path than really let on.  While making the right grunting noises towards multimedia, they actually drag their feet, and in fact impede the development of modern journalism.

And it's because they still don't see that news is restricted by regular newspaper deadlines.   Stories don't stop breaking because the presses have started rolling.  But the 'dinosaur journalist' would like to think that that's the case.

Multimedia gives newspaper journalists the freedom to be first with the news - for far too long the domain of the broadcast media. The new media age gives us the chance to really take full advantage of stories and deliver them up to readers in ways which have never before been open to us.

These dinosaurs haven't asked readers how they are consuming news in the multimedia age.  They haven't wanted to look at the trends.  But at the same time, they are the ones who are constantly online tracking events.

Multimedia (not just digital) is the future of the ailing newspaper industry.  It breathes new life into media titles, making them relevant to the 21st century reader/view/commenter/community.

The journalist-dinosaurs who disguise themselves in sheep's clothing are a cancer to the progression of the newspaper industry and they endanger the long-term future of the jobs of their colleagues.

Friday morning rant over ... for now.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Could Plastic be the subs' flexible friend?

Following on from an earlier post (Introducing design and creativity to the web), I was pleased to read an article on the New York Times' site about Plastic Logic's new e-reader.

NYT say Plastic Logic will introduce publicly on Monday its version of an electronic newspaper reader: "a lightweight plastic screen that mimics the look — but not the feel — of a printed newspaper."

The device is larger than the Kindle, and has a black and white display, but importantly, it can display designed pages, with images and a layout - as opposed to the now familiar dreaded slab of text.

It is expected that the Plastic Logic reader will be available by the start of next year ... in America.

Page designers could be embraced by the digital revolution yet!

Monday, 8 September 2008

I feel reinvented

I've only recently added Howard Owens to my Google Reader, but already I've come across one of the most impressive blog entries I have ever read.

In 'Ten Things Journalists Can Do to Reinvent Journalism' Howard has come up with a ten point plan for journalists to, well, 'reinvent' journalism.  And his plan is brilliant in its simplicity.

It's nothing you won't have heard before, in fact you'll swear it has come directly from the mouth of your first editor. It did.

Far from trying to reinvent the wheel, the ten point plan is a good reminder of grass roots journalism.  A must read for every journalist.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Arianna Huffington: Huffing and puffing and blowing the paper house down?

A colleague passed on a link to me to a Prospect Magazine feature on the highly influential Huffington Post news/views website.

Arianna Huffington set up the HuffPost as a liberal news site back in 2005 as a platform for politics and media, as well as a generous helping of entertainment. It unashamedly wears its politics on its sleeve and boasts itself as a 'news blogs video community'.

In his Prospect feature, Andrew Keen argues that the HuffPost has not only revolutionised news, it has also played a part in destroying it.

There's no doubting Huffington has played a part in revolutionising the blog. Since she started out, the blog has gone mainstream, moving from a soapbox for any wacko with a keyboard, to a recognised and widely respected medium for people's views.

But not only that - Arianna has found the multimedia Holy Grail. She's actually making money - and lots of it - through her 'online newspaper'.

Ward argues: "No wonder the conventional newspaper business is in crisis. Lightly staffed websites like HuffPost are siphoning off both readers and advertising."

He continues: "Most newspapers have websites, but the cost of paying journalists and editors to produce content doesn't support the traditional news industry any more.

"At the moment, HuffPost works because the luminaries on Huffington's network have access to the reliable information derived from professional news journalists and commentators. But as the traditional newspaper business withers, media is liable to degenerate into a surreal Ponzi scheme of digital illusions and delusions where empirical facts will be replaced by opinion and professional news gatherers by commentators-with-attitude. This represents a real threat to representative democracy. In a society where nobody can reliably know what is going on, it is hard to act as a good citizen or to vote in good conscience on the performance of our politicians.

"So how can we save journalism and keep democracy alive?"

Isn't democracy about giving the man on the street a voice? And what else is a blog, but just one big megaphone which can be heard around the world.

Ward's argument about the decline of 'journalists' leading to the decline of reliable content is misleading. Who is to say what a reporter writes is any more informed than what someone already in the know would write? Our sources are now public. And our public has access to them. We are at the moment nothing more than a conduit for what people want to say or get across. The web, blogs and the likes, allow them to say it themselves.

A reporter who relies on information from a source is as equally susceptible
to someone with an axe to grind and an opinion, than the reader of a blog. And while a professional reporter should always seek out counter arguments and opinions, well so can the blog reader.

As more and more people get their news from aggregators and RSS, the local axe-grinders can get their message out without the need for us, our newspapers, or our websites ... and they already do. Do a search for blogs in your area.

HuffPost is a case in point. It sells itself as a community - and that's exactly what it is. Networks of like minded, like-interest people getting their views and messages out there.

Newspapers now have to be in there and part of it. If local news is what a newspaper (print and online) is about, then it needs the experts to write its content. And these experts are the local people. Reporters from that community, who know the local issues, who have grown up within its streets and know the locals' concerns.

If I'm reading a story about economics, I want that story to be written by someone who knows about economics, who understands the story.

Incidentally, the colleague who passed the link on has been an avid newspaper reader every day, buying his favourite broadsheet. But he recently bought a laptop and now never buys the paper admitting: "I now read more news than ever!" Enough said.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Crowdsourcing a feature film: The making of Aaron Sorkin's Facebook the Movie

Now I know the Internet has really arrived.

Aaron Sorkin, the finest writer of his generation, is to write Facebook the movie. This is a very big deal for a man who has pilloried bloggers in the not too distant past, and by his own confession knows little of the way of the web: "My grandmother has more Internet savvy than I do and she's been dead for 33 years."

So the man behind the The West Wing, Charlie Wilson's War, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and a whole host of other feature films and stage plays has plunged himself into Facebook research.

To begin with he's started a Facebook group, Aaron Sorkin and the Facebook Movie, and set himself up a profile page. Trouble is, Mr Sorkin has restricted access to his profile page to close friends only.

I don't think you're really embracing this social networking malarkey, Aaron.

But to be fair, and to be perfectly honest, I don't really get Facebook either. As far as I can see, it is by far the weakest link in the social networking chain.

Ok, I've got my profile up there, with my avatar. I've joined a couple of groups (including Aaron Sorkin and the Facebook Movie). I've added a few friends. I've been poked. And I've had a sheep thrown at me. In the words of Sorkin's President Bartlet: "What's next?"

Mr Sorkin is going to find out, thanks to an inspired piece of crowdsourcing, as he says on Facebook: "I honestly don't know how this works, which is why I'm here. If anyone has any questions I'd be happy to answer them as best I can. If anyone has any comments I'm glad to listen. And if anyone has any Facebook stories I think they might be helpful."

So the master writer may not have all the answers - but he's on the road to find the correct questions. An example to journalists everywhere.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Introducing design and creativity to the web

I've been banging on about this for a while now, to anyone who will listen to me. But shouldn't the newspaper industry use the skills of its subs to improve the look of its websites?

I'm sure there must be a reason for this, but as of yet no one has been able to supply one.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Newspapers go video ga-ga

In the stampede to go multimedia, newspaper websites have gone video ga-ga.

It's early days yet for some print journalists to get their heads around the extra dimensions - sound and vision being just two - but those who have tackled it successfully are pushing new ground in a new medium.