The “folly” of free news online

Replicating the print product online exactly is madness – because the digital audience wants something different. Not looking at digital data and letting it influence the news agenda in the newsroom because you believe journalists know what the audience want is madness. Assuming that just because people tell you they don’t buy the paper because they read it online means they’re reading your content exactly the same way online as in print is madness.

Superb piece by David Higgerson on the supposed folly of giving away news content for free, and the bigger issues that make it hard for newspapers to make money online.

The idea that print news organisations could have solved all their current woes by charging online from the start is seductive, but – as David says – it’s also wrong. There are plenty of other things papers got wrong in the early days that are causing long-term ill effects: lack of archives & link rot caused by crazy self-deleting CMSes; refusal to participate in standard web link economy; shovelling content to the web without making it web-friendly; assuming print editors understood web audiences without giving them any tools or training to help them do so.

Lack of early investment online is a less seductively simple explanation for current difficulties attracting and monetizing an audience, but laying it all at the feet of a failure to charge is telling a simple story in place of a complex one, and missing a big opportunity to learn.

Edited to add: via Adam Tinworth, this piece on separating print and digital is an excellent read on another area of local print news’s shaky moves online.

Stop blaming the internet for rubbish news content

Newspapers and newsrooms generally have always striven to publish stories that are important, interesting, informative and entertaining.  Not every one puts those in the same order or gives them the same importance. But the internet hasn’t changed that much.

The unbundling effects of the net mean that instead of relying on the front page to sell the whole bundle, each piece has to sell itself. That can be hard; suddenly the relative market sizes for different sorts of content are much starker, and for people who care more about important/interesting/informative than entertaining, that’s been a depressing flood of data. But the internet  didn’t create that demand – it just made it more obvious. Whether we should feed it or not is an editorial question. Personally, I think it’s fine to give people a little of what they want – as long as a newsroom is putting out informative and important stories, a few interesting and entertaining ones are good too, so long as they’re not lies, unethically acquired or vicious.

If you spend a lot of time online you will see a filter bubble effect, where stories from certain news organisations are not often shared by your friends and don’t often turn up in your sphere unless you actively go looking for them. That means the ones that break through will be those that outrage, titillate or carry such explosive revelations that they cannot be ignored. That does not mean those stories are the sum total output of a newsroom – any more than the 3AM Girls are the sum total of the Mirror in print – but those pieces attract a new audience and serve to put that wider smorgasbord of content in front of them (assuming the article pages are well designed).

Of course, some news organisations publish poor stories – false, misleading, purposefully aggravating or just badly written – in the name of chasing the trend. That’s also far from an internet-only phenomenon. The Express puts pictures of Diana on the front, and routinely lies for impact in its headlines. The Star splashes on Big Brother 10 weeks running. The editorial judgement about the biggest story for the front is about sales as much as it is newsworthiness. Sometimes those goals align. Sometimes they don’t, and editors make a choice.

It is ridiculous to blame the internet for the publishing of crap stories to chase search traffic or trend-based clicks – just as it’s ridiculous to blame the printing press for the existence of phone hacking. In both cases it’s the values and choices of the newsroom that should be questioned.

What do we do instead of reading the paper?

For news organisations, especially ones rooted in print, stories have totally changed since the advent of the internet. I don’t just mean our stories, I mean the ones our readers put together internally without noticing it, about what they do and see, constructing the assorted stuff and fluff of the day into a nice neat narrative which contains a sensible answer to the question: What did you do today?

It used to be that “reading the paper” was a single activity, physically and mentally, bounded by the single physical experience of picking up a newspaper and then, well, reading it. Not all of it, probably. Not even necessarily very much of it. Not everyone starts in the same place or cares about the same articles. But even if you read completely different bits of completely different newspapers to everyone else in your office, or even if you just looked at page 3 and the punny headlines and then called it a day, you still called it “reading the paper”. And that’s how it turns up in the story of your day. (What have you done at work so far? Not much, just read the paper and answered some calls.)

It also used to be bounded by the covers of the paper, not by the subjects you pick within it. Which paper do you read? Your identity is to some extent bound up in that brand choice, in the UK at least – people have made good satire about this, and there’s a wider point. Your newspaper said something about you. It featured in the story you told yourself about yourself, as well as the one you told other people. Reading the paper isn’t just learning about the news or the sport or the arts coverage; it’s also an element of your identity, a piece of your personal puzzle. A Guardian reader is not the same thing as a Daily Mail reader. Most people only get one.

Except that’s all gone out the window, now. The Mail Online has god-knows-how-many million readers; the Guardian has a smaller but still reasonably mind-bending number. Both numbers are too big to imagine and you have to resort to comparisons like the population of London. And of course those audiences overlap. They’re both much bigger online than in print, and they both require much smaller commitments in terms of reading – a single article, not a whole paper (whatever a whole paper used to mean, anyway). But also, and this is important, because reading one or two or twenty articles from a single news source doesn’t make me a “reader” in the way that it would if I “read” the paper. Not in the story I tell myself about myself, and not in the story I tell other people.

Which wouldn’t be so hard to manage, if it wasn’t for the first problem. Because actually it’s really easy to miss that you read an article from a newspaper, if what you’re doing is browsing the net or chatting on Facebook or catching up on Twitter. You click a link from the thing you’re doing, you read the link, you click “back”, you carry on. You can do that dozens of times, clicking all over the place, and still it doesn’t turn up in your story of the day as “reading the news”. What are you doing? Just checking Facebook. Or wherever.

Apps take you back to that activity of reading the paper, reading the news, within the nice neat cozy boundaries of a virtual cover even if not a real one. They require certain physical activity, too. It took a while for that to click with me, but I think I get now why print people are comfortable in app space.

But people that actually go to the front pages of news sites online are pretty few and far between, compared to the numbers that just turn up on article pages when they’re in the middle of doing other stuff. So obviously that raises huge issues about making sure that every article page is a good front page, a good gateway into your site, good enough to maybe persuade a couple of those people not to click “back” but to stick around and change what they’re doing. But also it raises issues about the visibility of what news organisations are doing. Because if your readers don’t consciously realise they’re your readers, that has to change the way your brand works.

Stealing the story: the death of the News of the World

The News of the World is dead, Rebekah Brooks has so far survived, Andy Coulson has been arrested and the British media is in overdrive, hunting down the next revelation about phone and voicemail hacking, covert surveillance, police bribery and political corruption. That’s the story that’s been obsessing me since it began to break on Monday night, with the Guardian revelation that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by News of the World journalists.

Today the final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World hit the stands, and 200 people woke up without jobs, thanks to the decision by News International on Thursday to close the paper.

Killing the News of the World, along with its many other possible benefits for Rupert Murdoch, is an attempt to grab control of the story back – or at least to dilute it. Suddenly, instead of dissecting past issues of the paper to look for more evidence of illegal (or at least immoral) behaviour, journalists are dissecting the final issue. Instead of the possible guilt of former editors, the result is to introduce a discussion about the relative innocence of Colin Myler and his current staff. [Edit: see also Roy Greenslade's look at the final edition.]

The gesture also attempts to make martyrs of the newspaper and of its existing journalists.  Suddenly it’s almost churlish to write furious diatribes about the past, when 200 forlorn journalist faces are staring out at you from the last ever newsroom photograph. The urge now is to eulogise, to sum up the 168-year life of the paper – and that means the narrative turns from exposing the illegal and immoral activities that have taken place over the years to a gentler summation of the paper’s life – lauding the good as well as discussing the bad.

It’s a hugely expensive and risky smokescreen to throw in front of a hungry set of journalists, but the result is still to change the terms of the narrative. The focus has shifted.

The political implications of this scandal are immensely complicated and far-reaching, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that the Murdoch empire had an interest in keeping politicians corrupt. If your power rests in part on your ability to unmask corruption – in selectively dishing dirt on those politicians who don’t do what you want – then in fact you have an incentive to ensure that there is a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and that you have the ability to expose it. You have a vested interest in building up the careers of celebrities whose secrets you can use to sell papers. The more corrupt the people at the top – the more dirty secrets you have on the most powerful politicians and policemen – the more control and power you wield.

Thanks to its 2.7m circulation and an estimated readership of about 8m, the News of the World was a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. But those readers won’t just disappear into the ether. The media landscape in the UK is undergoing seismic change not just because of the newspaper closure and the potential damage to other News International titles, but also because we don’t know where those loyal tabloid readers will end up. Presumably a Sunday edition of the Sun would snap them up immediately – so long as it wasn’t dead in the water from the News of the World fallout. But it will be very interesting to see whether the other Sunday papers see a circulation bump in the wake of the death of the Screws – or where the paper’s online readers will migrate to other mainstream titles, or disappear off to celebrity blogs or fragmented new media.

If the mass audience fragments, that could permanently reshape the hierarchy of power in this country in ways that are impossible to predict. We have already seen the power of the network in driving the story forwards. We have already seen a massive shift in power, with politicians openly attacking Rupert Murdoch, a man who seemed untouchable this time last week.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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Somewhere in the middle of all this, I start at the Guardian tomorrow as SEO Subeditor. I don’t know what next week holds but I’m immensely excited to be part of it – sad to leave Citywire, hugely so, but so excited.

While We Were Here – turning a festival into a newspaper

What.

While We Were Here is a 16-page free souvenir newspaper with a print run of 4,000. It was put together by a small team of volunteers during this year’s Greenbelt Festival. It included a 4-page black and white comic pull-out in the centre of the paper. You can download a copy of the main paper or the comic in PDF formats.

Where.

Greenbelt Festival takes place over four days at the end of August every year at Cheltenham race course. There’s no accommodation on site that’s not under canvas – so the newspaper team were camping out on the course along with about 20,000 other festival-goers. We appropriated a small box that’s normally used for watching the races and turned it into a newsroom, with two design Macs and three or four laptops at any given time. There were not enough chairs, the carpet went half-way up the walls, and we were constantly watched by pictures of small men on large horses.

Who.

In total there were ten people involved in making the main paper. We didn’t have much to do with the comic guys – they did their own thing and arrived perfectly on time with all their spreads in PDF form. Our team was brought together by Matt Patterson as hands-on managing editor and James Stewart as hands-off. I was the editor. James Weiner and Paul Abbott worked on data and infographics for the paper. Ben WeinerWill Quirk, Geraldine Nassieu-Maupas and Oliver Mayes made up our design and layout team, and Wilf Whitty dealt with some last-minute front-cover design issues.

The rest of the team were primarily design-minded folks and I was (as far as I know) the only one with newsroom experience. As a result partly of that and partly the fact that I’ll organise anything if it stands still near me for long enough, I took charge of content planning and making sure we had something interesting, well-written and appropriate for print on every page.

Why.

As a tangible souvenir, something to commemorate the experience of being at Greenbelt for those who were there and something to express a little of what it was like for those who weren’t. Something that’s separate from the blog or the Flickr stream or the Twitter conversations, a document that physically exists and can be handed around families, shown to children, given to grandparents, in a way that the internet still can’t.

And, in a very real way, we did it because we could.

When. How.

I was one of the last of the team to arrive on site, on Friday morning. At 2.30pm the team met for the first time and found out our general brief. Over the next four hours we hammered out a page plan for the paper, focussing on what we felt were the major themes and events from the Festival that people would recognise and want to read about. We decided who would be covering what in terms of writing content specifically for the paper. I briefedthe Festival’s photographers about what we’d need and when. We made up a flat plan and stuck it to various pictures of horses, and I wrote up a schedule working backwards from our hard deadline – 6pm on Sunday.

We made the paper in just over two days. The design team did a lot of work on Friday night and Saturday morning putting templates and grids together, while I did vox pops and got quotes from various festival punters. I started to put content together on Saturday afternoon, which is when it became clear that we couldn’t use most of the content from the two people who were blogging the festival over the weekend. One person’s writing was very long-form, personal and intellectual, while the other’s was very short-form and timely – both made for great blog posts but wouldn’t work in print. I started roping in people to write reviews and snippets of content, as did managing editor James Stewart. The infographics team finally managed to get hold of some data they could use and started drawing golf buggies in Illustrator.

By Sunday lunchtime we had about half of what we needed copy-edited and in formats ready to put on the page, and we had two neat infographics ready to place. I spent the next three or four hours writing, helping choose pictures, deciding what content needed to go in which boxes, copy-editing and being very rude to other people’s work so it would fit in print-sized boxes, while next to me the layout team collaborated to pull it all in to InDesign and make it look perfect. By about 4pm we had collected all the content we needed; the next two hours involved me pacing around the newsroom, making sure we had everything in the right place, picking different pictures when the ones we had didn’t work out, and occasionally taking a seat and making changes to the text or the design when things simply wouldn’t fit right.

Matt started uploading it at about 6.45pm. Network sloth meant it finally finished at about 8pm. The printers in Peterborough turned their presses on for about a minute and a half, and we had a print run of 4,000 copies. Four hours later thanks to some strangers who drove through the night for us, it was back on site ready for the first copies to be distributed at the last show of the evening.

Lessons learned.

  • Planning is vital, much more so for print than for online journalism. If a blog post doesn’t go up or goes up late, few people will notice. If there’s a hole in your print paper, they definitely will. Thematic planning for something like this is crucial too – content should fit together, images should complement each other, pages should balance. That’s impossible to do with slapdash content delivered at the last minute.
  • Briefing, therefore, is another crucial element. You can’t simply say “Write me 450 words about the music scene.” You need to make deadlines clear and make sure you’ve agreed which bits of the music scene are necessary. You need to talk about tone, audience, readability, style, voice. You need to make clear what’s needed, even when you’re both up against deadline, so that the content you get back is useful and takes the minimum of editing or rewriting.
  • Build in redundancy. One of the reasons the paper worked well despite some of the content-related setbacks we had is that we did our best to get hold of more content than we needed – about half as much again. If I was doing it again I’d be shooting for twice as much, if not more. If it’s not used in the paper, it could go online; if it’s something that works better online, we wouldn’t have to force it into a print style. And if it doesn’t turn up, it doesn’t matter.
  • Get data well in advance. Infographics are awesome but they can’t be created without data. If you have a tight deadline and you’re including data-driven charts or graphics, that’s the bit you should sort out first. We didn’t, and that’s why we only have two in the paper.
  • Basic newspaper design skills are invaluable, even if you’re not a designer. If you’re planning content for pages, you need to understand how boxes fit together on a page, how headline size and positioning alters layout, what a baseline grid is, the difference between a 3-col and 4-col layout for a page, and a dozen other little things that don’t bother you while you’re writing but that become vital as soon as you’re laying out. You need to know the rules, what they are, how they can be bent and when they can be broken. Otherwise you end up coming in and asking questions like “Are we really wedded to a serif font?” and “Do we really need to lock to grid?” half an hour before final deadline. (Yes, this happened. No, it wasn’t me.)
  • If you’re distributing content across multiple channels, a convergent newsroom is potentially a huge timesaver. This would have prevented completely the problems we had with last-minute content and having to repurpose pieces that were not right for print in their original forms – but it takes a lot of advance planning. Having a pool of writers – not necessarily bloggers or writers for print, just writers – who could be briefed individually by the blog editor and the newspaper editor, and whose work could be pulled to be used in one or both formats, would have been very valuable. Doing the same with images and video could mean a converged team in three parts: content creators at one end, putting their work into a big pool; editors in the middle, picking out the best of the bunch or the most appropriate for their medium; and distributors at the other end, feeding that work into the newspaper, the blog, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, the various other channels including feeding out to the magazine shows and round-up events on site – and making it easy for the press office to pass out the best of what’s on offer too. I think this is the biggest thing I’ve taken from the experience – I grok convergence much better now I’ve seen it from the editor’s point of view.

Greenbelt: print power online

Greenbelt 2009 Friday

Last weekend I went to Greenbelt, Britain’s least-known and friendliest festival, where I have had a wonderful time being very, very relaxed, and engaging with social media as a consumer.

Rather than blogging my personal festival highlights, let’s talk about the innovations that allowed me to pick up on Monday a 16-page newspaper that went to press on Sunday night, two days after the festival opened, aimed at getting me to engage with Greenbelt’s online content.

Sponsored by Hewlitt Packard, the paper itself is a lovely object. It’s called “While We Were Here” and it’s entirely composed of blog posts, images and links that already exist on the web. In theory, the 4,000 free copies are designed to direct traffic to the web, not the other way round.

I don’t know if it’s working universally. I do know that when I got home on Tuesday I logged on and looked at a fair few blogs – I visited many of the ones printed in the paper and bookmarked or followed the profiles and groups signposted from its pages.

And I can say it worked for me. I don’t know if this business model is sustainable anywhere outside a four-day charity festival using volunteers willing to spend every waking hour (and several that should be sleeping ones) making it work. But I do believe it has legs and it could be immensely succesful to clone online content for web as a way of driving the link economy of an event.

A link to begin with – 12 things multimedia journalists should do

LA Times

Vadim Lavrusik over at Mashable has a post up detailing 12 things newspapers should be doing in order to survive. I’m going to try and start this blog on a positive note – I get enough “print journalism is doomed / ad revenue will never recover / there’s no way out of the decline / we’re all doomed” at work – and talking about how to survive the digital revolution seems like a good start.

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