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About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

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Friday, October 9th, 2009

AP’s Curley v Curley and News Corp’s Rupert v Rupert

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The newspaper industry has woken from its slumber, and they have realised the enemy is not the internet. The enemy is actually you and me, those of us who use the internet. According to the CEO of the Associated Press Tom Curley, “third parties are exploiting AP content without input and permission”, and:

Crowd-sourcing Web services such as Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook have become preferred customer destinations for breaking news, displacing Web sites of traditional news publishers.

I’m linking to this on one of these third parties sites, Google News, which has a commercial hosting agreement with the AP. Those bloody paying parasites!

Curley was speaking at the World Media Summit in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Does Curley know who added those links to Wikipedia, shared those stories on Facebook or uploaded those videos to YouTube? Internet users, you, me and millions of others around the world. For Mr Curley, the internet is a “den of thieves“, says Jeff Jarvis.

Jeff offers his argument against this view of the world. However, I’d like to stage another bit of a debate, one possible through the virtual time travel of the internet. Let’s get ready to rumble! In this corner, we have the Curley of 2009, who argues:

We content creators must quickly and decisively act to take back control of our content.

With that jab, a slightly younger, slightly more optimistic Curley of 2004 lands a right hook: “The future of news is online, and traditional media outlets must learn to tailor their products for consumers who demand instant, personalized information.” The Curley of 2004 instead sees this future from his own past:

the content comes to you; you don’t have to come to the content so, get ready for everything to be ‘Googled,’ ‘deep-linked’ or ‘Tivo-ized’.

Ouch Tom 2009, that looks like it hurts. Next up in our virtual cage match is a spry 78-year-old, Rupert Murdoch! Let’s start with the Rupert of 2009:

The aggregators and plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid content, it will be the content creators — the people in this hall — who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs who triumph.

Fighting back is the fighting fit Rupert “The Digital Immigrant” Murdoch of 2005:

Scarcely a day goes by without some claim that new technologies are fast writing newsprint’s obituary. Yet, as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent. Certainly, I didn’t do as much as I should have after all the excitement of the late 1990’s. I suspect many of you in this room did the same, quietly hoping that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along.

It’s a shame to see this come to blows. These guys should really talk to each other. With Rupert 2009 on the ropes, Rupert 2005 delivers this shot:

What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.

Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them.

They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.

Ouch. Can’t you guys make up your mind? Has the Great Recession changed consumer internet behaviour and media consumption trends? Or did the industry’s complacency finally catch up with it?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

QsOTD: Journalists shouldn’t confuse important with simply urgent

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I’m keeping an eye on the UK Association of Online Publishers conference from afar today by following the #aop3c tag on Twitter. David Gilbertson, CEO of B2B publisher EMAP*, looks to be giving an incredibly insightful presentation, and journalists using Twitter show once again why the service is so useful. Joanna Geary of TimesOnline posted this very cogent comment from Gilbertson:

While news is urgent it may not be important and people pay for important.

Hard copy news businesses (print) will have to adapt to this, Gilbertson added, and he goes on to further refine the distinction he’s highlighting and its implications to the business of journalism. Matt Ball, MSN UK editor-in-chief, quotes Gilbertson as saying:

Intelligence prompts a decision, information doesn’t. You can charge for the former.

Geary fleshes the quote out a bit more: “David Gilbertson: B2B must deliver inteligence to help people do job, not info that people don’t know what to do with”.

UPDATE: David Worsfold clarified that he wasn ‘t quoting Gilbertson in the comments. It’s not clear whether Gilbertson said this or rather if it’s a bit of analysis from David Worsfold with Incisive Media, but I think it’s a makes a point worth highlighting. Worsfold either says or quotes Gilbertson on Twitter that these distinction between importance and urgency, between intelligence and information have “implications for news obssessed editorial teams”.

“Pure news” is not enough but remains critical, Gilbertson says. Pure news must be supplemented with data and analysis. He does draw a distinction between B2B and B2C publishing saying that intelligence is a critical driver in the B2B sector while consumption in the B2C sector is driven by many things that might include intelligence and perspective. However, when Gilbertson says that we can’t provide information that people don’t know what to do with, that is equally relevant to B2C as it is in pure business publishing.

Speaking as a news consumer rather than a journalist, I value information-rich news and context-rich analysis over incremental updates and uninformed commentary. I honestly believe, and my work bears this out, that consumers appreciate when you connect the dots and put information in a larger, more meaningful context. I’m not, and I doubt many average news consumers, are suffering from a lack of information, but I do know that many suffer from a lack of context.

The question for news organisations is how they develop products that deliver value and intelligence that consumers can act upon. These products can be essential new revenue streams for news organisations. As I wrote yesterday, news organisations need to put effort into developing these value-added products in tandem with conversations about charging for them. And yes, this will have implications for editorial teams. We must switch from merely chasing incremental developments to mining stories for meaning. In these tight times, we need to ask questions of how we can turn information that we’re already gathering into intelligence for our readers, and we need to develop unique, compelling products based on that intelligence that our audiences find valuable enough to pay for.

*Disclosure: The Guardian Media Group, parent company of the Guardian and my employer, owns a stake in EMAP.

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Freemium strategies and journalism product development

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Anyone with a passing interest in the paid content debate of 2009 has been watching the Brill-Crovitz Journalism Online LLC plan with interest. The Nieman Lab at Harvard has done some excellent blogging adding much needed detail to the plan, and now Dorian Benkoil at Poynter delivers some of the last bits of detail that were needed to give the project an honest assessment. It’s not just a pay wall strategy, which is very good to hear. Dorian writes:

It’s the classic “freemium” model: Give your material to 95 percent of your users, and get the most avid few to pay for a premium or unlimited level.

And he gives a qualified endorsement of the plans that he has heard so far. “Done right, with constant adjustment, I think the model can work, at least for publications that have enough unique content.” The model can work, but that is not a guarantee that it will work, he says.

It’s not clear that smaller, non-business publications, or larger ones that have eviscerated their newsrooms, will have enough of value to get a significant number to pay for enough of what they produce, especially when so much is available for free.

Develop products to sell

One of the biggest problems with this discussion is that there is still too much focus on charging and little focus on deciding what to charge for and more importantly what people will pay for. As I’ve said before, journalists have tended to focus on what they believe readers should pay instead of being realistic about what readers will pay for. Alan Mutter breaks this down in a useful checklist. I’ll just highlight his first point, and leave you to read the rest on his blog:

1. You cannot charge for such commoditized content as world, national, business, sports and entertainment news.

Alan makes another point, which I think Dorian implies in his post. News organisations might have to develop new information products or services to sell. As Alan says of his checklist:

Astute readers will note that much of the information publishers would like to sell does not fall into any of the above categories. This suggests that newspapers and broadcasters who are keen on peddling content need to focus on creating saleable product before they begin trying to charge for it.

We return again to value as determined by our audiences. Social value is important to health of a communities and societies, but to pay for our social mission, we need to create economic value as well. If the content is valuable enough to readers, they will pay for it and advertisers will want to be associated with it. Dumb pay walls and generic content are going to speed the demise of some foolish news organisations, but if we create value for our readers, we’ll survive this horrible recession and be prepared to thrive when it’s over.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Mobile social media can unchain journalists from their desks

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist and, like most journalists, I’d rather not be stuck in the office all day sitting in front of a computer. I live for being as close to the story as possible.

When technologies are first introduced, they often have limitations that impose restrictions on what is possible. Initially, internet journalism was desk-based journalism for all but a lucky few. It was mostly production and re-purposing of content from print, radio or television news. For most of us who saw the journalistic possibilities of the internet, using it simply as a repository for content from other media was akin to using a Porsche to haul manure because, like a cart, a Porsche also has wheels. Yes, the internet can be a simple distribution platform for content, but that entirely misses the point, which is one of the reasons journalism is in the predicament it is today. The internet is a highly networked platform to tell stories using text, audio and video that can connect not only content from almost anywhere but, more importantly, connect people.

I was lucky enough to be one of those early few who could use the internet for original, multimedia journalism, and I remember the limits of what we could do in the late 1990s before wifi and mobile data outside of cities. In 1999, I remember running smack into the limitations of the technology of the time when I was covering Hurricane Floyd for the BBC. As the storm rolled through North Carolina, it knocked out power and communications. My mobile phone worked, but there was no way that I could file the pictures I had because I couldn’t get a data connection. Two months later, I got my first mobile data kit: A cable that connected to my phone. I could at least file pictures and copy back to base. It was slow, but it worked.

Many journalists have a very odd relationship with technology and those who use it. It is similar to executives who have their secretaries print out emails for them to read: Not using technology is seen by some journalists as a sign of their position and importance. They have worn (and many still wear) their ignorance as a tribal badge setting them apart for those who must toil in front of a glowing screen.

For me, technology sometimes frustrates, but more often liberates me in the work that I do. I remember a jaw-dropping moment at the US Democratic Party conventions in 2000. I watched as an Indy media journalist streamed live video of the LA police bearing down on protesters. He was peddling backwards, holding a black PowerBook, a webcam and an early high-speed mobile modem from a company called Richochet. He was closer to the action than the TV camera crews.

Our production technology lagged behind as it required a faster data connection than many of the early data modems, which topped out at 9600 baud, could provide. But I could email my copy in from anywhere. I didn’t have to hunt for a phone socket. By 2001, I was totally mobile. Laptop. Wireless modem. Portable printer. The speeds went up to 128kbps, and I could just about use production tools in the field.

Fast forward to today, and not only do we have 500kbps+ wireless data connections in many areas in the US, western Europe and Asia, but we also have a suite of applications that can instantly upload photos, video and text. As I said last week at media140, the technology to produce the content is there, but the production systems and the presentation still need work. But Twitter is a liberating technology, not a technology that “will keep reporters off the streets and in front of their screens”, as journalism professor Edward Wasserman writes.

And if he thinks that mobile phone technology is just for “the young, the hip, the technically sophisticated, the well-off”, he obviously hasn’t travelled to South Asia or Africa or even to most neighbourhoods in the US. He obviously doesn’t understand the prevalence of pay-as-you-go phones, not only for communications, but also for micropayments and information services in the developing world. This isn’t just about kilobits and data, it’s also about SMS and the inventiveness of the human mind that takes a simple tool and carves out a revolution. When I worked on the World Have Your Say programme at the BBC World Service, we were overwhelmed with text messages from people in who Africa wanted to take part in the discussion.

Wasserman’s implication that technology is to blame for the skewing of news to cover demographics attractive to advertisers is a red herring. The idea that Twitter will chain journalists to their desks shows rank ignorance of Twitter’s mobile functions in the US.

There are no links in Wasserman’s commentary to support his views. Professor Wasserman, links are the footnotes of the internet age. They give you authority by showing that you’ve done your research. The internet isn’t killing newspapers. The internet might be killing the US newspaper model of local monopolies, but that’s the death of an accidental business model not the death of journalism.

Twitter can liberate journalists to stay in the field and cover important stories, as we did here at the Guardian during the G20 protests. Technology isn’t the enemy of journalism, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that uninformed commentary is.

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

What content will people pay for?

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Four years ago, I went to the Web+10 conference at the Poynter Institute in Florida. It was an honour to meet some of the pioneers in digital journalism, many of whom I had corresponded with online for years but never had the opportunity to meet. It was 2005, long before the depth of the crisis in newspapers was obvious to all, but everyone was asking the same question: How do we pay for professional journalism? Contrary to popular belief in the industry, newspaper websites were profitable, some quite profitable, but those profits could not sustain the size of newsroom that big-city metros in the US had at the time, newsrooms that dwarfed the size of the British national newspapers.

The crisis has been coming for years as newspapers have seen circulation declines for decades, but the Great Recession is amplifying pressures on newspapers. You read blog posts and articles from journalists and editors who say that the public should pay, must pay for ‘quality journalism’. We hear arguments that they will pay as content becomes scarce with the decline in the number of journalists and the number of newspapers. Leonard Witt, the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University in the US, says in this post:

So will people pay for high quality journalism and information? I do think so because I know one person intimately who already has. And trust me that person is very tight with his money.

Keep in mind, I am saying high quality news and information. Run of the mill junk is a worthless commodity. High quality journalism is scarce and will be more so in the future, and that’s when everyone who loves great journalism will begin to pay.

But I tend to agree with David Kohn, of spot.us, who says this in the comments:

I think this is right on Lenn - as you know, I tend to agree with you. But more and more I’m realizing that certain types of news and information that journalists think is priceless have less value than others.

David elaborates on his point back on his blog citing lessons he’s learned from various citizen journalism and crowd-sourced projects.

Increasingly I’m of the belief that the newspaper industry is relying far too much on its values in its estimates of what readers value enough to pay for. We need some solid facts and figures on what people will pay for. I might be hoping for concrete data that just doesn’t exist right now, but I think we as journalists have to move from asserting what people should pay for and do a little reporting and research to find out what people will pay for and the types of services that might be able to subsidise professional journalism.

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Monday, March 16th, 2009

Future of journalism: Uncertain but not hopeless

Posted by Kevin Anderson

As a journalist who I am sure has been (and possibly still is) considered ‘barking mad’ by some of my colleagues in the industry, quite a bit of what Clay Shirky wrote in his post about newspapers thinking the unthinkable resonated with me. I’m still digesting it because I think the main thrust of what he said was that the industry is entering a period of great uncertainty. I saw this day coming in August of 1993 when I saw Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. As I wrote in my first post here on Strange Attractor, I knew that the web would fundamentally change journalism.

It took longer than I thought it would. After I left university and went to Washington DC for my first jobs, it was like taking a step backwards into internet history compared to where the University of Illinois was in 1994. Did I know where it was all headed in 1994? Absolutely not. But I’d say it’s a lot easier to see where the internet is heading now than where we’re heading in journalism.

I’m still digesting what Clay has written, but it seemed to me that he was attempting to move beyond the self-denial that the industry has exhibited for much of the past 15 years.

It isn’t that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. The problem was that newspaper companies and, to be honest, most print journalists tried to adapt the internet to newspapers rather than adapt the news business to the internet. If most (not all by any means) print journalists were honest with ourselves, we would stop trying to lay the blame entirely at the feet of management and avaricious owners and own up to our own resistance to the internet. Too few of us went running boldly to the embrace the future. There’s still time, and it’s better to move towards the future on your own steam than be pushed as many of us are now.

Clay was trying to turn a page and say we’re in the midst of revolution and have been for a while not. Get over it.

The internet is a disruptive technology, not something that politely challenges that existing order. Now that the revolution has met the worst recession in at least 60 years, we’re entering extremely uncertain times.

As Clay wrote:

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.

But let’s not confuse uncertainty with hopelessness. Journalists are not in a hopeless situation. Any journalist can now become a publisher, and from my own experience, regaining your voice is liberating, empowering and also professionally beneficial. Not only is the cost of publishing approaching zero, the cost of experimentation is too. We don’t have to pay for presses. We don’t even have to pay for desk-top publishing. You can do broadcast-quality interviews with a person on the other side of the world for free with Skype. Technology can threaten our business model but it can be liberating for our journalism. We just have to do what we always done, great journalism, and build a great community around it. Honestly, since I started blogging and doing social media journalism five years ago, it’s been some of the most gratifying journalism of my career.

As Steve Yelvington wrote recently, “We don’t have a clue where this is going … and that’s OK.” Steve was writing about the launch of the Guardian’s Open Platform (the Guardian being my job). Steve would love to have the resources we have at the Guardian or those of the BBC or the New York Times to launch a platform, but he doesn’t need them. He’s building his sites on the open-source platform, Drupal, and it’s army of users and developers around the world are constantly working to extend it. You don’t need expensive technology to innovate.

We’re entering a post-industrial era in journalism. It’s scary. It’s uncertain for journalists, but just remember, it’s not hopeless.

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Rocky Mountain News Final Edition

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

A poignant presentation about the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News. It closed just two months short of its sesquicentennial. (Hat tip to Rich Levin who pointed this out on Twitter.)

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Digital versus print and apple and oranges analysis

Posted by Kevin Anderson

David Carr at the the New York Times has written a story that must cheer the hearts of newspaper owners as they struggle to find a way to go back to the days of fat returns. Under the headline “Newspaper Shuns Web, and Thrives“, he speaks with a small community newspaper publisher who is enjoying 10% growth by almost choosing to “aggressively” ignore the web.

Ryan Sholin said on Twitter:

Yo, David Carr, apples & oranges is a pretty fricking basic concept, isn’t it? You’re comparing them.

I’d agree. Carr’s analysis is simplistic and just plain wrong. Carr says:

A few caveats before we turn back the clock on publishing history. TriCityNews employs 3.5 people (the half-time employee handles circulation), has a print run of 10,000, and has a top line that can be written in six figures.

A caveat is an outlying piece of data that can be ignored and not threaten the main thrust of the analysis. This is just one piece of data that destroys the analysis that it is the choice of the publisher to ignore the web that has made his business successful. The publisher also has negotiated long term deals with advertisers so that he doesn’t have sales staff, and he has six part-time columnists. I could make a very successful digital or analogue news business on that cost basis.

This isn’t about digital versus print. This is difference between having zero legacy costs, a small building and I’m guessing no print plant. This is a minuscule cost basis versus the high legacy costs of existing newspapers in terms of staff, paper and distribution. As any one knows, US newspapers still make piles of money, just not enough money to cover their costs.

And it’s not just the buildings, printing presses and distribution costs that the newspaper companies are groaning under. It’s the mountains of debt that they accumulated through aggressive, highly leveraged acquisition strategies. McClatchy took on debt to acquire Knight-Ridder. In September, they had to renegotiate a $1.175 bn debt deal to account for their declining revenue. Gatehouse is drowning in debt to the tune of $1.2 bn with a preciptious drop in their stock value, and we know the result of Sam Zell’s highly leveraged buy-out of the Tribune Corporation. To compare a 10,000 circulation start-up print news operation with a media conglomerate like Tribune Corp with $7.6 bn of assets and $12.9bn in debt is ridiculous. It’s about as ridiculous as comparing Digg with a newspaper. They just aren’t comparable creatures in economic scale, business model or editorial mission.

I would argue that the more accurate analysis is that Dan Jacobson, the publisher of the TriCityNews of Monmouth New Jersey has an incredibly lean news organisations with no legacy costs. It has more in common with Nick Denton’s Gawker than the Tribune Corporation. This is not an issue of digital versus analogue but rather the result of Jacobson’s focus on exclusive local content, a recession-proofed revenue strategy and aggressive cost containment.

Newspapers used to be the most efficient way to advertise. Now they aren’t. In the first half of 2007, Google pulled in 39.8% of all online ad revenue in the US. In 2007, Google was 241 in the Fortune 500. In 2008, it leapt to 150. No, Google’s business is not to create journalistic content, but it is competing with newspapers for advertising dollars.

Digital could support a news organisation on its own, if they were willing to radically reduce costs, and I don’t mean simply cutting staff. First, let’s look at the revenue side. There are still too many people running and working for newspapers that believe the 1990s chestnut: The web is great but how do you make money with it? The LA Times web revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs. As commenters on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine point out, that’s not the only cost a newspaper has, but it definitely challenges the view that the web is simply a money pit. The problem isn’t that the web isn’t making money, but that it’s not making enough money at most newspapers to compensate for the decline in the print business, which is still the primary revenue generator for most big city newspapers. (Jeff just got an update from LATimes Editor Russ Stanton on their web success.)

But we also need to look at cost containment. Newspapers can still radically reshape their businesses to take advantage of digital efficiencies. I often talk about when I worked for the BBC in Washington. About 8 years ago, the bureau set up its first digital editing suite with a blue-and-white Power Mac and Avid video processing, storage and software. The total cost was around $80,000. In 2005, they replaced the system with a PowerBook, Final Cut Pro and a portable RAID array for roughly $12,000. Faster, better, cheaper and portable. Expensive equipment and production doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, and a good professional can produce 80-90% of the quality at a fraction of the cost. This may sound odd to people who know me, but invest in the people, not the kit. I’d rather have a job than a shiny new computer any day.

For many large chains neither the web, print nor anything short of selling porn would dig them out from underneath the mountain of debt they have accumulated. Highly leveraged consolidation is the problem and will be the death of some of these chains. This isn’t an issue of digital versus print. Now that the credit bubble has bust, leaner and more efficient will always win the day over highly leveraged and highly costly.

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Disrupt or be disrupted

Posted by Kevin Anderson

more about “ Why do people listen to Michael Ros…“, posted with vodpod

Andy Dickinson has a post asking the question: Why do people listen to Michael Rosenblum? Andy thinks that Michael is worth listening to but that his approach doesn’t “work across the board”. At conferences, many in the room may be hearing Michael’s message for the first time, but Andy says:

As suprising as it may be to them, there are people in their organisations who are as knowledgable and passionate about video as he is. They may have more experience of the particular problems in their company and more direct suggestions to help solve them.

They may not give as good a show but they may give as good advice.

Suw sees the same thing in business. She is often called in as a consultant by people who agree with her, often passionately, but don’t have the political capital in their organisation to shake it from its inertia. They need a comrade in arms but have to buy one in.

Returning to Andy’s post, I think another, possibly more important question is: Why do people nod in agreement at conferences and then completely ignore Michael Rosenblum or other digital advocates, especially those in their own organisations? Frankly, Michael, Jeff Jarvis and many of us have been saying the same thing for years now. Digital technology will disrupt the business of journalism, and it presents a clear choice of either adopting and adapting the technology or watching your business crumble. However, we shouldn’t mistake the collapse of some businesses as evidence of lightning fast change. This has been a slow motion train wreck. This is the predictable outcome of the economics of disruptive digital technologies, which is why I’m mystified people continue to ignore this fact, carry on with business as usual and then feign surprise as their businesses implode.

We’ve had decades to watch the digital revolution play out. As Tom Coates wrote in debunking the attack of the snails argument:

So here’s the argument - that perhaps broadcast won’t last forever and that technology is changing faster than ever before. So fast, apparently, that it’s almost dazzlingly confusing for people.

I’m afraid I think this is certifiable bullshit. There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

Tom wrote his post two and a half years ago, and yet journalism and media organisations continue to bemoan the rapid pace of change. In fact, this change is just the logical conclusion of decades-long trends that have been clear to anyone who was actually paying attention.

In some ways, it’s understandable. If you have a wonderfully lucrative business model like television or the de facto monopolies of big metro daily newspapers in the US, the first reaction is to protect the existing business model rather than adapt to meet the challenge of digital insurgents. It’s a perfectly reasonable response.

In other ways, it’s a complete failure of management replicated almost identically across several sectors of the media industry. Newspapers have been suffering declining readership for decades. Television has been facing fragmenting audiences for years under the threat of cable and satellite. This is the failure of vision by media management: They have focused on digital consumption patterns without adopting digital production methods and undercutting their own costs. And as the erosion of audience has accelerated, they have mainly cut costs by cutting staff instead of by adopting digital production and distribution technology.

At this late hour for many media companies the critical question is, when are you going to stop nodding your heads at conferences and get on with it? Not many of us in media will be able to go hat in hand like Northern Rock or General Motors and ask for billions to bail us out. I think that Mindy McAdams raises an important issue in the comments on Andy’s post:

News organizations seem particularly susceptible to “a prophet is without honor in his own land” — people inside the organization who spread Michael’s same message might be completely ignored, but management will hire Michael to come in and do his excellent presentation, and THEN they will ooo and ahh about it, acting as if it is brand-new.

A few things to realise in the age of digital disruption:

  1. Higher costs of production do not necessarily result in higher quality of products.
  2. Quality and brand do not equal media success.
  3. Broadcast=wedding. Anytime you put broadcast near technology in the same sentence, it’s like saying you want something for a wedding. Just triple the cost.
  4. Disrupt or be disrupted. Actively look for ways to disrupt your own business model with digital technologies before someone else does.

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Unconscionable political convention coverage

Posted by Kevin Anderson

In May, as part of the Carnival of Journalism, Ryan Sholin asked:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

I have another take on that question, and it is one that more news organisations are being forced to ask. What can news organisations no longer afford to do? What is your news organisation doing that is either too costly or provides so little value to your readers/viewers/listeners that it’s no longer justifiable? Or put another way, if it’s not unique and it’s not really uniquely relevant to your audience, is there something else that you should be covering that is? What is the opportunity cost of covering that event that everyone and their dog, cat, sister, brother and third cousin covering? What are you foregoing to cover that event?

Why do I ask this question? I give you 15,000 reasons, which is the number of journalists covering the US political conventions. That is 3.75 journalists per delegate. It might be defensible if those 15,000 journalists was actually doing something unique in terms of coverage. But they aren’t. Furthermore, that is 15,000 journalists covering an event that the New York Times aptly described as “effectively a four-night miniseries before an audience of 20 million people or more”.

During a planning meeting, I was asked what kind of news we could expect. I responded: None. The entire goal of the conventions is not to make news, not to have surprises. They are carefully choreographed, scripted and stage-managed. Yes, the candidates will make an acceptance speech that is newsworthy, but the rest of the evenings are designed to net as much free air-time and coverage as possible to launch the candidates’ campaigns.

Political conventions are like class reunions for American press corps. I’ve covered two, and they are great fun and great theatre, but they aren’t great news events. Ted Koppel left the 1996 Republican Convention early, complaining that it was little more than a picture show. This year, he’s there as an analyst for BBC America. His assessment of the coverage is pretty damning:


Amy Gahran, writing for Poynter, called the numbers of journalists covering the convention an unconscionable waste of news resources in light of the current state of the news business. Mark Potts said:

At a time when news budgets are being slashed because of declining revenue, how can a news organization possibly justify sending a raft of people to the conventions? (I suspect the numbers for the Olympics are about the same-and just as ridiculous.) …

What stories are they going to get that the AP can’t supply? Hijinks of the local delegates? Inside info about what the candidates hope to do for the economy back home? Local color on Denver and St. Paul? It’s really hard to understand the need for this kind of bulk coverage.

And I couldn’t agree more with Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center who says that news organisations must focus on what is unique to their franchise. As I often say, the danger of Google News for news organisations isn’t that it steals your traffic but that it shows how little is unique in most coverage, how much re-packaged wire copy we re-produce. That’s the real danger, and it’s why the average news website visitor views about 2 pages per month. And Michele echoes my concerns about opportunity costs:

I also am frustrated when I thinking about all the stories that thousands of reporters might be covering closer to home as the conventions unfold. With the troubled economy, mortgage foreclosures, health care, the federal budget deficit and rising energy costs, I don’t think it’s possible for journalists to be developing enough stories about the impact of these issues on their communities and the people who live in them. Not to mention creating and linking to resources for people in trouble and holding officials accountable for their share of the problem (or explaining why they have no share).

At the end of the day, the Columbia Journalism Review lays out the naked truth, of the 15,000 journalists:

7,500 aren’t doing much at all. This isn’t surprising. Only a small number of reporters actually have a reason to be here. The rest are conventioneering—seeing old friends, eating Democratic-themed menu items (“Barack Obama’s Turkey Chili”) in pandering local restaurants, brandishing their press passes at all comers, looking for free things, and spending about 14 percent of their time trying to rustle up enough stories to justify their presence to their editors. These reporters are the ones mostly writing about themselves, or their friends, or their experiences exploring Denver with their friends (“I was enjoying some turkey chili with David Broder yesterday…”). At least they’re open about the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.

And I blame journalists as much as their editors. Yes, trips have always been used by editors to reward good journalists, but there are journalists who have come to treat the profession like their own personal travel bureau. They come up with the flimsiest pretence for extravagant travel that is of little journalistic value and of little benefit to their audience, who in the end are footing the bill.

No journalism organisation has ever had unlimited resources, and now, newspapers are fighting for their very existence. It is not a time for profligate spending, as if it ever were. If we are true to our word that journalism is essential to a healthy democracy, then we have to use our limited resources judiciously and for the benefit of our audience. If we provide them relevant information, then, hopefully, they will support our efforts. If we continue these wasteful ways, then our lofty arguments about our essential democratic role will be seen as disingenuous and self-serving.

Disclosure: Yes, I am taking a trip in October to cover the US Elections. But I am keeping a close eye on the bottom line. The quality of coverage is not directly proportional to the cost. I use digital technology to undercut the traditional cost basis of journalism. It’s what we all need to do. We must use disruptive digital technology to reduce the cost basis of what we do. It will give us more resources to do journalism and to innovate.

I have one prediction that I am reasonably confident in making. In 2012, there will not be 15,000 journalists. Not because news organisations finally come to their senses but because so many have ceased to exist.