Ada Lovelace Day

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.

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Dark Blogs Case Study

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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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Thursday, July 28th, 2011

The Daily: Digital publishing at the speed of a slow-motion car crash

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The Observer has an entertainingly scathing report about The Daily, News Corp’s iPad “newspaper”. Murdoch-haters will probably enjoy the reference to the family patriarch as a “cuddly Emperor Palpatine”. For long-time Murdoch watchers, the key thing to watch for in reports of any digital project at News Corp is the attention and focus given it by Rupert Murdoch. Once he bores of a bauble, you can put the project on watch for the dead pool. (*See MySpace)

I read The Daily for a few days, when I could be bothered to wait for it to download. Initially it was slower than a download of photographs of an issue of Wired, known to some as an iPad magazine. More than its early clunkiness, even as an American, I found the content uninteresting, which surprised me. The Observer said that it’s aiming to be middle of the road populist. You can accuse Murdoch of a number of things (queue begins to the left these days), but one thing you can’t accuse him of is boring content. The Daily is boring.

The Daily also lives up to its name. It’s a daily newspaper with some tablet navigation, and The Observer explains why it seems so slow and clunky.

But the sleekness of The Daily’s presentation belies a “devilish” production routine for those inside, according to one source. Attempts to perfect the content management system were abandoned in order to launch closer to the announced date. After copy is filed, coders work a night shift to build the pages, each of which must be laid out both vertically and horizontally. Those familiar with the operations report long, frustrating nights.

Ouch. On one level, I’m willing to cut them some slack. The iPad is a new platform, and the tools are still emerging. However, when you’re creating a new product, it hardly seems wise to make life so difficult. I wonder what requirements were made editorially in an attempt to justify such a painful production process. This is often the source of a lot of bad production, editorial requirements that actually ‘cost’ more than they are worth.

Digital can and should work at the speed of news. Just look at the rise of live blogging. Tablets and e-readers can take digital backwards. If they slow down the production of news, it’s an unnecessary speed bump that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be justified with their small use compared to the web (at least until the revenue picture improves). Fortunately, we’re getting through the teething process with tablets. HTML5 is maturing much faster than anyone expected, and soon, we’ll get past these very first generation efforts. It will be interesting to see if The Daily survives to see that day.

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

The press, the internet and the 2010 British election

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Last night, I went to a panel discussion at the Frontline Club here in London looking at the role that the internet and social media might play in the upcoming general election. I wrote a summary of the discussion on the Guardian politics blog. As I said there, the discussion was Twitter heavy, but as Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes of Order-order.com said, Twitter is sexy right now.

The panel was good. Staines made some excellent points including how the Conservatives were focused on Facebook rather than Twitter for campaigning. Facebook has more reach and was “less inside the politics and media bubble“, Staines said.

Alberto Nardelli of British political Twitter tracker, Tweetminster, said that the election would be decided by candidates and campaigns not things like Twitter. No one on the panel thought the internet or the parties’ social networking strategies would decide the British election. Alberto said that Twitter’s impact would be more indirect. People are sharing news stories using Twitter, which is causing stories to “trickle up” the news agenda.

Chris Condron, head of digital strategy at the Press Association, made an excellent point that so many discussions of social media focus on its impact on journalism and not its impact on people. Facebook and Twitter allow people to organise around issues, which is another form of civic participation. As I said on my blog post at the Guardian, I would have liked for the panel to explore where this organisation around issues might have an impact in marginal constituencies.

Like so many of these discussions, I thought the questions were binary and missed opportunities to explore the nuance of several issues. The moderator, Sky News political correspondent Niall Paterson implied in his questions that if social media didn’t decide the election that it had no relevance. It was an all or nothing argument that I’ve heard before. Change is rarely that absolute. In the US, the role of the internet has been developing in politics for the past decade. Few people remember that John McCain was the first candidate to raise $1m online, not in 2008 but in 2000.

Paterson portrays himself as a social media sceptic, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate taking a contrarian position for the sake of debate. However, some of his points last night came off as being ill-informed. The panel was good in correcting him, but he often strayed from moderating the discussion to filibustering.

His portrayal of the Obama campaign was simplistic. Alberto said at the Frontline Club that Obama had a campaign of top down and bottom up, grass-roots campaigning, and as British political analyst Anthony Painter pointed out, Obama’s campaign was a highly integrated mix of traditional campaigning, internet campaigning and mobile. (Little coverage focused on Obama’s innovative mobile phone efforts. Most people don’t see the US as a particularly innovative place in terms of mobile, but it was one of the more sophisticated uses of mobile phones in political campaigning I’m aware of.) I love how Anthony puts it, Obama’s operation was “an insurgent campaign that was utterly professional”.

Paterson also implied that Twitter would tie journalists to desks. The only thing tying journalists to desks are outdated working methods. I’ve been using mobile data for more than a decade to stay in the field close to stories. During the 2008 election in the US, my Nokia multimedia phone was my main newsgathering tool. It allowed me to aggregate the best stories via Twitter and use Twitpic to upload pictures from my 4000 mile roadtrip and from the celebrations outside the White House on election night. As I said on Twitter during the discussion:

moderator makes assumption that social media chains journalists to desk. Ever use a mobile phone? It’s mobile!

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. Technology should be liberating for journalists, and more journalists should be exploring the opportunities provided by mobile phones and services like Twitpic, Qik, Bambuser and AudioBoo.

You can watch the entire discussion from the Frontline Club here, and here is Anthony Painter’s excellent presentation on the state of internet campaigning in the US and the UK:

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

Posted by Kevin Anderson

In a shocking (possibly only to the researchers) conclusion, a study of major media online journalism newsrooms in the UK has discovered that they follow a relatively narrow mainstream agenda. I think that is a fair summary of an interview on Radio 4 with Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith University Media Research Centre in London speaking about her book New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. From the synopsis on Radio 4, “Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith’s University in London, … argues that instead of democratising information, the internet has narrowed our horizons.”

I haven’t read the book, seeing as the release date on Amazon is tomorrow. I am sure that book covers the themes in greater depth in what can be covered in a couple of minutes on radio, but I found the interview infuriating.

Dr Fenton and her researchers looked at three online newsrooms, two of which I’ve worked in: the BBC News Website, the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. I might have to pick up a copy and see if her researchers’ interviews with me are reflected in the book.

First, I would say the book was out of date a year ago based on changes here at the Guardian. We were just beginning our print-online integration. We are still going through the process, as are many newsrooms, but one thing we have done is combined web and print production as much as possible to not only reduce duplication of effort and work around re-purposing print content. This frees up journalists to do journalism and not just ‘copy and pasting’ as Dr Fenton puts it in her interview.

Secondly, I think her conclusions, as expressed in the interview, are undermined by a selection bias. As Charlie Beckett at Polis at LSE says in a blog post from a year ago when they unveiled their draft conclusions, there are problems with the methodology of the study and some of the assumptions underpinning the research. Dr Fenton comes to conclusions about online journalism based on research from three newsrooms connected to traditional news organisations. Is it really all that surprising that she finds their agendas in line with mainstream media organisations? The news environment is much more complex outside of most newsrooms these days than inside, which is one of the problems with the news industry. By condemning online journalism at traditional organisations as focusing on a narrow agenda as Dr Fenton does in the interview, isn’t this more accurately an indictment of the narrow agenda of the mainstream media seeing as the websites track closely the agenda of the legacy media be it broadcast or print?

Thirdly, online news operations connected to traditional news organisations have never had a major stand-alone newsgathering facility. The BBC News website once did have some original newsgathering capacity. I was their reporter in Washington. However, most of the newsgathering capacity rested with television and radio journalists whose work was re-purposed for the website. The situation is more complex at the Guardian now. We produce more web-only content during the week than we do print-only content.

Fourthly, Dr Fenton says that online staff are desk bound, and online newsrooms rely on “less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism”. Can we have some perspective on investigative journalism please? Really. Fighting to perserve investigative journalism and investigative journalism only is like trying to save the auto industry by fighting in the name of Porsche. Investigative journalism has always been the pinnacle of our craft, not its totality. It’s important, but investigative journalism was a fraction of pre-digital journalistic output. Again, if Dr Fenton has an issue with lack of investigations, then it’s an issue to take up with the organisation as a whole, not the online newsroom. Having said that, I’ll stand by the Guardian’s investigative output online and off: MPs expenses crowdsouring, Datablog, Trafigura, just to name a few Guardian investigations and innovations here in 2009.

Lastly, I think the narrow frame completely ignores the work of digital pioneers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of journalism. I think of the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and his live digital coverage of the G20 protests this spring and his recent project to track post during the strike using GPS transmitters. I think of the Guardian’s Simon Jeffery with his recent People’s History of the Internet and the Faces of the Dead and Detained in Iran project as other examples of excellent digital journalism, journalism only possible online. I think of the work that my good friend Chris Vallance has done with BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs and iPM on Radio 4. I think of the many projects that I’ve been proud to work on at the BBC and the Guardian. Chris and I brought the voices of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina to the radio and also US soldiers fighting the war in Iraq radio audiences through creative use of the internet. I consider myself primarily an online journalist, but I’ve been working across multiple media for more than 10 years now. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for the BBC News website, BBC radio and television. I’ve done webcasts from the 29th story of a building overlooking Ground Zero three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. I tweeted from the celebrations of Barack Obama’s victory outside the White House after a 4000 social media-driven month of coverage of the historic 2008 US presidential election. Online journalism isn’t perfect, and it reflects imperfections in traditional journalism. However, in the hands of a good journalist, digital journalism offers up radical new opportunities to tell stories and bring them to new audiences.

My experiences and my career aren’t representative of the industry. I have been doing original journalism online for more than a decade. That is rare, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I lost a lot of colleagues in the dot.com crash when newspapers and broadcasters slashed online budgets. After an interview with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2002 on the one year anniversary of 11 September attacks, he took us on a tour of their much slimmed online newsroom. He spoke with pride about the work of the online staff, but he said, “The Mouse (Disney, ABC’s parent company)” didn’t see it that way and continued to make deep cuts.

In 2009, the picture is much different. Print and broadcast journalists are doing more original work online. We have more online-focused journalists than even when Dr Fenton was doing her research. Journalists cast off by ailing journalism institutions are re-launching their careers on the web.

I chose the internet to be my primarily journalistic platform in 1996. I chose it because I saw unique opportunities for journalism. When I did, it was a lonely choice. I faced a lot of prejudice from print journalists who based their views on lack of knowledge and fear. A passion for the medium kept me going despite some of that prejudice. Everyday I get up and help push a unique medium just a further journalistically. (To their credit, my colleagues at the BBC in radio and television told me almost on a daily basis with respect and admiration how I was the future of journalism.)

These prejudices against online journalism are parroted by Dr Fenton in her interview, which I guess is one of the reasons that it made my blood boil. I hope the book paints the reality in a bit more complexity than was possible in a few minutes on air. I hope that she includes some broader examples of how online journalists do original journalism that can’t be done in any other media. However, if the interview on Radio 4 is representative of the book, it’s a reality I don’t recognise. Bad journalism begins with a thesis which never adapts to new information. It’s the same with bad research.

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Readers must perceive ‘real value’ to pay

Posted by Kevin Anderson

PHD Media, a division of media and ad giant Omnicom Group, has released a new study that feeds into the paid content debate, reports CNBC. Julia Boorstin of CNBC highlights a few ’surprising factoids’.

  • The bottom line: consumers are reading more print content online, but the only way they’ll pay for it, is if they perceive a real value and when comparable free content isn’t readily available.
  • Another surprising factoid: consumers don’t care about the brand, they care about the content. (Except when it comes to sports)

Frankly, I don’t find the last one that surprising, especially when you factor in the study found that 44% of respondents in the study accessed a publication website through a search engine. Search is a fundamental shift in information consumption. People don’t browse for information but use search to seek it out and also rely on recommendations from friends.

As I’ve often said publicly, my reading habits are voracious and promiscuous. My reading habits tend to be subject led, not publication led. I seek out information. I am a little cautious of extrapolating my behaviour more broadly because I’m a journalist. I am paid to read, research, report and write. I’m also very digitally focused. I get most of my information via the internet or my mobile phone. However, recent studies such as this one show that I’m not unique in my habits.

This study reinforces my view that news organisations need to focus on developing services and products that deliver value to readers and not simply focus on building infrastructure to charge for existing content. Another take away from this study is that “just small a fraction of the 2,400 adults polled, read both the print and online versions of the same publication”. That leads me to believe that the products that we develop must serve the needs of digital audiences, and we should be careful about trying to focus digital development on services to appeal to print audiences.

The debate rolls on

The Great Paid Content Debate of 2009 rumbles on. On Tuesday at the Paley Centre, Stephen Brill on paid content services provider Journalism Online LLC said on Tuesday that people had been paying for print content for decades and that they just needed to get back into the habit online.

However, I tend to agree with Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of US public radio broadcaster NPR, when she commented at the event:

To think that we are so smart that we can retrain the audience, that’s an awfully elitist, condescending, and frankly old perspective.

Trying to bully consumers into behaving a certain way, especially in a way that is contrary to their current habits, doesn’t have a track record of success.

To be fair to Brill, he is not advocating putting all content behind paywalls and is working with news organisations to determine what content will become paid. However, I reject his basic premise, which he has stated over and over, that this is a matter of getting users accustomed to paying for content online. I do agree that to continue to support journalism, news organisations are going to have to develop new sources of revenue, digital and otherwise.

On that point, I’ll just re-iterate something that I’ve said before. In the Great Paid Content of 2009, some journalists and news executives have been playing fast and loose with facts (gasp, shock, that never happens), and one thing that I’m hearing with too much regularity is that newspapers can’t make money online, that digital is just some money pit that will never support quality journalism. I’ve heard this before in the late 1990s. To which I would say, just because your news organisation isn’t making money online, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make money on the internet.

Suw and I were in Norway recently, where media conglomerate Schibsted has an online classifieds joint venture with several local newspapers. In a prescient move, Schibsted launched the site, Finn.no, in 2000. It has grown into Norway’s largest classified site, and it’s a money spinner for Schibsted. The newspapers that will survive will realise that they are in the news not the newspaper business.

Progressive, forward-thinking news organisations made the shift from print to a diversified, multi-platform business before the Great Recession, and there are examples of  information products and services that news organisations could sell to help support journalism. Sadly, most news organisations didn’t make this transition. From the Financial Times:

Alarmingly, the industry has also so far “failed to make the digital transition”, according to a report last month from Outsell, a publishing research firm, which found that news organisations’ digital revenues were just 11 per cent of their total revenues, compared with 69 per cent for the broader information industry, which includes legal and financial data providers such as Reed Elsevier and Bloomberg. 

When we were in Norway, one of the comments that really struck me was a comment from a member of the Norwegian Online News Association who said that there had been plenty of editorial innovation in the last decade but not enough commercial innovation. To support the social mission of journalism, journalists will need to overcome their professional distate for the business side of the operation and lend their creativity to developing products and services that readers value. It’s not only possible but essential that we do this.

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?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Follow The Digital Immigrant’s lead at your peril

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Roy Greenslade (who also blogs at the Guardian, where I work) pierces Rupert Murdoch’s air of invincibility.

Now, amid the recession, Murdoch is facing up to an uncomfortable reality. His company lost £2.13 billion last year, doing much worse than analysts had predicted. Most of those losses were directly attributable to his company’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal and its clumsy move into digital media.

In my view, Murdoch is a 20th Century figure. He understands the mass media models of the 20th Century, but he never seems to have grasped the internet. In fact, Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair says that Murdoch has declared on the internet.

Murdoch can almost single-handedly take apart and re-assemble a complex printing press, but his digital-technology acumen and interest is practically zero. Murdoch’s abiding love of newspapers has turned into a personal antipathy to the Internet: for him it’s a place for porn, thievery, and hackers.

I’ve never seen him make a smart internet move. (Ok, I’ll cede that Hulu is smart and getting smarter.) He was late to the party in the 1990s, and by the time he took the dive it was on the eve of the crash and he dove headfirst into the dead pool. He pulled back with a vengeance, slashing and burning his digital divisions as he went. Rather than using his significant revenues to build for the future, he retreated into the past. After Google’s rise, The Digital Immigrant took another dive with the purchase of MySpace, but the social network was almost old news the moment he bought it. Now, he’s being portrayed as a paid content pioneer by terrified lemmings in the industry. They say: “Rupert has always been right in the past. He must be right now.”

Blindly follow Murdoch’s lead in digital at your peril. He’s a 20th Century visionary who has yet to display any vision in the 21st.

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.

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

New York Times: More innovation in commenting

Posted by Kevin Anderson

As I wrote recently, news organisations have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of innovative interfaces that could encourage readers to explore the rich content on their sites and also increase and improve reader interaction. When I wrote that post, the Washington Post had debuted a Django-based commenting system called WebCom that reminded me of ThinkMap’s Visual Thesaurs. WebCom reflects comment popularity, which can become a self-reinforcing cycle. I will be interested to see if they might add another layer to the interface that allows people to explore the conversation based on themes or topics. This could be easily achieved by using Thomson-Reuter’s Calais semantic analysis system to expose themes in the comments.

Now the New York Times has debuted a new visual commenting tool. It’s debut is being used to help people discuss and explore some of the issues regarding the healthcare (some might argue the health insurance) debate in the US. The boxes all relate to an issue in the debate, and a drop-down menu allows you to jump to that topic and see a brief overview of the issue. The relative size of the boxes reflect the number of comments, and hovering over the people icons at the bottom of the boxes allow you to quickly see a bit of the comment. You can also also easily jump to replies to comments that you have left. It appears that the topics aren’t generated organically by the discussion but are created by the New York Times editorial staff. In some ways, it’s a slightly advanced, and somewhat stilted form of threading. It’s almost more of a discussion system than it is strictly a commenting system. nytimesdebate.gif

At the time of writing this post, there are few comments so it’s difficult to see how it will work both conversationally and technically as the volume of comments increases. That will be the real test of the system because one of the reasons why news sites need interface innovation in commenting systems is because of the volume of comments on media sites.

Here on Strange Attractor, the comments tend to be more off-site, posts written in response to what Suw and I write. Very rarely do we have a high volume of comments on the blog, which makes it easy for us to manage and for our readers to engage with. We don’t write about politics or hot button social issues. Rather, we write about a very specialist, niche topic. The conversations tend to be pretty high level, and we love our readers because of the level of intelligence that they bring.

On news sites, the volume of comments on the posts is much, much higher, and it quickly becomes difficult for journalists and readers to follow the discussion and have any meaningful interaction. The comments tend not to respond to each other but rather are usually a string of unrelated statements. Most of the current solutions all have their drawbacks. Threading has its issues because it tends to fragment the discussion, which is what I fear this New York Times interface will do. Voting up, or down, Digg-style helps in some ways but suffers from the same issues of the self-reinforcing popularity that WebCom faces. Again, a few criticisms don’t mean I think these experiments aren’t worthwhile. Far from that, I think it’s great to finally see some interface exploration in terms of commenting and not just content presentation by news websites. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. It’s long past time that news organisations realise that the volume of comments they receive requires something more than flat, linear comment threads below blog posts or articles. Done right, it will help increase participation, user experience, interaction and maybe even the quality of the conversation.

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Innovative journalists and valuing “inquisitiveness”

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog has a post titled How Do Innovators Think?. I was just going to add it to my daily list of links in Delicious, but it’s worth more than a quick link.

Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of Insead “conducted a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews”. They found five skills distinguished these creative executives from less innovative heads of companies.

Dyer described the first skill they identified:

The first skill is what we call “associating.” It’s a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.

They call it associating; I call it lateral thinking. I see it in innovative journalists who find tools or technologies created for another purpose but who immediately see the editorial possibilities. They are journalists constantly striving to wrench out efficiencies in how they work and perfect the process. They are constantly looking for new tools and services that can either solve existing problems they have or allow them to do things they hadn’t thought of before. They experiment, and if something doesn’t work, they move on. It’s not something they were trained to do, it’s something they instinctively do.

However, I don’t mean to say that innovative journalists are time-and-motion obsessed  bean counters simply intent on perfecting a process. They are motivated by many of the same things that motivate traditional journalists such as the goal of telling compelling stories. Long before people started questioning the text story as the atomic unit of journalism, they were exploring new storytelling methods. They unpack stories and examine how video, audio and data can be used to tell those stories in more compelling ways. They realise that in 2009 multimedia story telling is more than simply telling stories with multiple media but rather considering what elements of a story are best told with audio, video, images and now data.

Back to the post in the Harvard Business Review.

Gregersen: You might summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: “inquisitiveness.” I spent 20 years studying great global leaders, and that was the big common denominator. It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children. … If you look at 4 year olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Again, if there was something that sets apart the most innovative journalists I know it is their curiosity, their inquisitiveness. One might say that journalists should be, by vocation, curious but innovative journalists have a special curiosity about their craft and its processes.

How do news organisations unlock the potential of the innovators in their midst? Mostly, all you have to do is give them space and a little support. Recognise that their needs might be slightly different than the rest of the staff. Help them measure the relative success of their experiments and share their success stories. If there was one mistake that I’ve seen news organisations make over and over again (because it’s based on the 20th Century recipe for creating media stars) it is that they try to make their big name reporters or writers into innovators. That is often a fruitless detour. Most people doing this innovative work weren’t trained to do it but instead pursued it on their own. Fortunately, in the age of social media, innovative journalists aren’t all that difficult to find. They stand out if you’re looking.