Brussels attacks and tragedy hipsterism

Isis attacks

After both this week’s attacks in Brussels and last November’s in Paris memes like this one started getting shared on Facebook and Twitter.

As you can see, it suggests double standards on the part of media in failing to report on ISIS attacks where the majority of victims are Muslims rather than westerners. And because of that, propagating a world-view that is Islamophobic.

As you can imagine journalists who cover world news find this infuriating.

After the Paris attacks, a lot of people claimed the western media hadn’t cared about the bombing of Beirut’s Shia neighbourhoods in the same week.

For journalists like Channel 4 News’s International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum the truth isn’t that it wasn’t covered but that the viewers and readers just aren’t interested. The Guardian’s James Lartey branded the temptation to stake out the moral high ground, by claiming to care more, Tragedy Hipsterism – his tweets on the subject Storifyed here.

Even a cursory examination of the facts presented in the graphic above shows it to be nonsense.

  • March 15th 2016 – Ankara bombing – 37 killed. Claimed by militant Kurdish group Tak not ISIS – Google News holds around 10,000 articles, all major news sources are represented.
  • March 6th 2016 – Not Baghdad but Hilla, truck bombing – 47 killed. Around 1000 articles on Google News. Widely covered because of the significance of ISIS striking outside of its usual area of control in Eastern Iraq.
  • January 8th 2016 – Libya police academy bombing. Around 1000 articles on Google News.
  • November 12th 2016 – Beirut bombings. Around 1200 articles on Google News.

And so on.

The most laughably absurd claim here is that no-one headlined the 26th of June, 2015 Sousse hotel attack in Tunisia when 38 western tourists were murdered by a gunman. Not only does it run counter to the whole narrative of the meme but it’s also clearly fatuous – the story was covered everywhere.

So, why do people share this?

Many feel that it demonstrates an under-lying truth. That the western media cares less about the deaths of Muslims dying at the hands of ISIS than it does about westerners killed in cities closer to home.

That’s true.  All news organisations report news that has greater proximity and relevance to its audience than news that doesn’t. It’s a well understood practice. When a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca last year, it was a more significant story in Arab media than it was in the west.

But that doesn’t mean the western media doesn’t report these stories at all.

The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya have all been extensively covered – despite the enormous risks in doing so – and that coverage acknowledges the fact that these are conflicts where the vast majority of those dying are Muslims.

And at a time when news services such as Al Jazeera America are being pulled because they can’t build audiences for serious coverage of these issues, it’s a bit rich to blame the media for failing to report them.

It’s OK to question the news values of the western media. It’s OK to worry about the tone of coverage and whether it sets up an us versus them narrative. It’s OK to worry that there may be a blurring of lines between reporting and propaganda. We should question and critically engage with news.

But how about doing it on an honest, factual basis that acknowledges that people are dying to report the stories that no-one seems bothered about reading.

Time for a rethink of BBC local radio

The BBC is again seeking to make cuts as it deals with the fallout from a tough licence fee agreement with the government.

BBC News is expected to find £80 million of savings – a big figure however you look at it.

After years of salami slicing – or Delivering Quality First as it was known – it looks likely that this time it will be a case of not doing something, rather than doing somethings in a cheaper way.

So given that, what is the point of BBC local radio?

Currently there are 39 BBC local radio stations in England costing some £153 million. But even among its target audience of over 50s listening is falling. Down to a reach of 23.9%.

It’s expensive too. At 3.8pence per listener hour it costs more than any other service with the exception of Radio 3.

Why do we need 39 local radio stations with broadly similar and expensive content, few listeners and not much sign of any improvement in the future?

Last time local radio was threatened with cuts it proved untouchable. A coalition of listeners, the BBC Trust, and MPs who like appearing on it, watered down proposals to reduce budgets.

But perhaps it’s time for a radical rethink. We have BBC Scotland and BBC Wales. What about BBC England?

Let’s have one station for England aimed at over 50s with strong regional newsgathering. It would be cheaper, more coherent and still feed material into national broadcast and digital news.

And who knows, people might even listen to it too.

BBC3 goes online only – sacrificing the young for the old

 

So farewell BBC3.

Unloved by the media, looked down upon by politicians; when the cuts came there was no one to save it from the axe.

Dumbed down, crass, perhaps even idiotic. The charges against it had some merit, after all who will miss Snog, Marry, Avoid?

Well, the target audience.

The channel had a loyal following among 16-34 year olds, in particular the lower end of that demographic.

In an era when young adults increasingly don’t watch linear television, 11.2 million people watched BBC3 each week. A million of them didn’t watch any other TV channel.

And it was more than just post-pub TV.

The channel had a fine record in modern sit-com and comedy drama. Little Britain, The Might Boosh, Gavin and Stacey and Being Human all started out there.

Although Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps perhaps shows that the commissioners didn’t always get it right.

But it was expensive.

Its budget was £86 million in 2014/15 and with the BBC under pressure to save money this was an easy saving to get past middle-aged regulators and the politicians who never watched it.

The BBC argues it’s following the audience online, that it will still spend £30 million on original content for digital delivery and that there will still be repeats on BBC1 and 2.

But when I told my media students it was going online only there were groans all around the room.

Maintaining a brand online is tricky; what will BBC3 mean to the next generation of viewers without a space on the broadcast spectrum?

The BBC needs to appeal to younger viewers and to encourage them to identify with its services and channels.

And the way to do that is not to cut BBC Young in favour of maintaining BBC Old.

 

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the University of Northampton

 

 

BBC Young cut for BBC Old

 

I was on BBC Northampton this morning talking to Helen Blaby about the decision to take BBC3 online only.

I called it what it is: a budget saving decision dressed up as innovation.

You can listen here – starts at about 1h 10

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Resigning live on The Daily Politics – can you trust the BBC?

There is a growing row today over the BBC’s stage management of the resignation of the Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesman, Stephen Doughty.

Mr Doughty announced he was quitting on The Daily Politics show.

Good scoop for them, you might think.

But yesterday the programme’s output editor wrote a blog explaining how it came about – and specifically that the programme asked Political Editor, Laura Kuessenberg, whether Doughty could be persuaded to resign on-air.

doughty esingation

It appears that the programme team hadn’t quite realised how incendiary this would be. But someone else did and the blog was quietly taken down.

That was picked up the blogger Alex Little, who began to ask questions about the BBC’s role in the affair.

And then it all kicked off.

For the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn this was clear evidence of a BBC agenda of bias against the Labour leader. They took to Twitter en masse to fulminate about the coverage. Some even going so far as to suggest that the entire resignation was a stunt got up by the BBC.

That was too much even for the BBC’s press office.

Most journalists were incredulous at the naivety of Corbyn’s supporters.

Although there was some questioning about the BBC’s taking down of the blog. This from the LSE’s Charlie Beckett, who is also an advisor to the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.

The key questions are:

  • Did the BBC organise the resignation of Stephen Doughty?
    • No. It’s clear he had already decided to resign and written to Corbyn.
  • Was it right for the BBC to allow Stephen Doughty to resign on air?
    • This is an editorial decision. The programme makers want a scroop and they got it. Referring back to my battered copy of the BBC Editorial guidelines, the only issue I can see raised by this is the question of whether carrying the resignation is a breach of due impartiality. I can’t see that it is. Not least because of the rigour of Andrew Neil’s subsequent questioning of his motives in resignation. Consider this: would it have been OK for the BBC to carry an interview with a public figure in any other sphere in which they announced their resignation? Clearly the answer to this is yes. So, why wouldn’t they carry Doughty’s resignation interview?
  • Did the BBC stage manage the resignation for maximum impact?
    • Pretty clearly the answer to this is yes. But all news coverage is managed by journalists for the maximum impact. If you’re the editor of News at Ten, you want your lead story to be a scoop that wrong foots the opposition. That’s what journalism is. Could the story been reported in other ways? Clearly it could – Laura Kuessenberg could reported it on the News Channel or Radio 4’s Today or any of the other myriad of BBC outlets. Would that have made any difference to the impact? I don’t think so and I think that comments about the timing are broadly disingenuous – Doughty had decided to resign on that morning, whether it was at 9am or 11.50am the effect would have been the same. 
  • Is the BBC acting in a politicised way?
    • I don’t think so. I don’t see that any other news organisation would have run this differently. But the issue for the BBC here is not that it IS acting politically but that it might be SEEN to be acting politically. That, I suspect, is the reason for the caution over the blog. As the BBC enters licence renewal it will want Labour onside and thus crowing articles about taking scalps are the last thing it wants to talk about in public.
  • Does the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other media organisations?
    • All this all very well then. But doesn’t the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other news organisations because of the unique nature of the way it’s funded? That’s certainly been the argument of the author and media commentator Peter Jukes.

     Does the BBC act like any other news organisation? I don’t think so. It holds itself to high editorial standards, it pays at least lip service to transparency, and it agonises over its coverage. Was it right to carry Doughty’s resignation announcement as it did – broadly I think so. The programme was a specialist programme for a specialist audience, there was a public interest in questioning his motives in resignation, and it was clearly newsworthy. But as so often with these cases, that’s a matter of opinion and judgement.

Which brings us all back to the age old question: can you trust the media? Trust them to always be impartial and to act from the purest and noblest of motives? To paraphrase my old colleague, Adrian Monck, who once wrote a book on this…. no.

 

Media predictions for 2016

2016 desktop calendar

What does the coming year hold for the media and what will the impact be on news and journalism?

2015 was a year of enormous change, and there’s no reason to expect 2016 to be any different. So, here are five trends I think will define the next 12 months.

1. Ad-blockers will go mainstream

The current status quo for digital advertising in media cannot continue.

Advertising is too intrusive. Splash screens, auto-playing video, and ads that scroll the screen are ruining the user experience.

On a desk-top this can be annoying but for mobile users it can destroy the user’s relationship with the publisher.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have left an Independent article without reading it on my iPhone because the splash screen can’t be easily removed.

And now I don’t bother reading them at all.

This is no longer a niche experience – mobile is how people consume digital content. If your mobile experience is poor, you will lose audience.

The uptake in ad blockers has increased during the past couple of years. Early adopters have been using them to tailor their internet experience. 2016 will be the year their usage goes mainstream and the impact for publishers will be immense.

Business plans at almost all major publishers are based on delivering eyeballs to ads – even at those who also have a subscription strategy.

If the relationship between content and advertising breaks, then a new settlement will have to be found. Either by denying access to users of ad blockers, finding new forms of advertorial, or by publishers finding a way to manage their advertising in a way that is meaningful and useful for users.

If they can’t they risk being swept away.

2. A choice to make: destination vs distribution 

The content business is going to get a lot tougher in 2016.

The watchword of 2015 has been scale. Those that have it, want to retain it. Those that don’t, want to get it.

As the content bubble continues to deflate some publishers will go to the wall, others will sell up. Consolidation will be a key factor in 2016.

But the key decision for publishers will be whether or not to pursue a destination or distribution strategy.

Here’s the thing: when I talk to students about where they get their news, they invariably say from Twitter or Facebook. Of course, when you dig into this they actually get it from a publisher who is using social media to disseminate their content. But users don’t necessarily distinguish between the publisher and the distributor.

Brand and brand values don’t appear to survive the transition to social media. And that means users treat all information as being of equivalent value.

Look at the rise of fake news sites that publish stories simply to get eyeballs to their sites – how often are people taken in by them? Even journalism students, who should know better, are sometimes fooled.

Publishers have to decide where they want to focus their attention – destination or distribution?

The received wisdom of the past few years has been to emphasise the importance of being where your audience is.

But Netflix didn’t build its business on YouTube.

Why should publishers, so keen to take up Facebook Instants, build their business on other people’s platforms? Give up your brand, give up your revenue streams, give up your platforms, and you give up your business.

3. Innovation will move to the heart of the newsroom

Media businesses are generally pretty poor at innovation – as this excellently argued article by the Wall Street Journal’s Neal Mann explains.

All of us who’ve worked in jobs where we’ve tried to shake-up the existing way of doing things have encountered the same issues. Resistance to change, a culture that demands instant results driven by delivery to daily deadlines, a veneration of tradition at the expense of experimentation.

That has to change and I think newsroom managers will have to bite the bullet in 2016 and create bespoke innovation units.

Journalism and journalists will survive but if the media businesses of today want to have a future they need to embrace innovation as a process rather than always trying to copy ideas from others.

And that means experimenting with everything. Cool stuff can be done with virtual reality, 360° video, and automation. And who knows what else is around the corner? Who would have predicted in the first internet boom that mobile would be key technology of the future? The key question is how can these things be turned into innovative systems that will deliver consistently for users in the future?

If publishers take a structured and strategic approach to this, (experimenting, implementing ideas, measuring success and failure, focussing on the outputs not the processes, spreading success) they can build new products and new revenue streams that at the moment seem like pipedreams.

Of course that may mean setting up things like the Second Life bureau – but learning the lessons of failure is just as important as reaping the rewards of success.

4. Twitter will face an existential crisis

I love Twitter. For me, and for many journalists, it’s a fantastic tool. Filled with ideas, ever-changing, and rumbustious.

But it’s got a problem. It’s just not growing. And with the failure to match other social networks in scale comes a problem with attracting advertising. And that’s not going to solved by adding Moments.

In 2016 I think Twitter will face an existential crisis. What is it for? What is its future? How will it grow? How will it make money for its investors? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, and I suspect no-one knows the answers, but unless Twitter is able to find a new strategy it faces a future of ossification, stagnation and decline.

5. Managing the decline in TV news

2015 was a pretty good year for TV news.

Levels of trust remain high, viewership of the main bulletins has been broadly stable, the election was still fought on TV rather than online and some high profile transfers and relaunches have garnered positive headlines.

But….

There is a long term problem for TV news. It’s not breaking through to younger viewers and, as older ones die off, it faces decline.

I expect that process to gather pace in 2016. Audiences will drop, perhaps not precipitously, but steadily. As viewers drift away from linear TV towards on-demand, the point of having an appointment to view TV news bulletin becomes less and less clear. And if younger viewers don’t pick up the habit of watching at 10pm – the format is doomed.

The TV companies recognise this risk. If James Harding was employed at the BBC in order to bolster its digital coverage, the always impressive Jonathan Munro was brought in to manage the TV coverage; to ensure that quality was maintained during a period of sustained decline in audience as the BBC experiments with different formats for its journalism.

This isn’t a prediction of imminent collapse but I think 2016 will be the year that the declining trend in audience and relevance for TV news becomes more clear.

So, five trend predictions for 2016. But, as they say, the only things certain in life are death and taxes.

Media predictions 2015 – how did I do?

675810372_8c495f7b1a_b
Looking back on 2015

Time to mark my own homework again.

Each year I make some predictions about the coming 12 months – here’s the ones for 2015 – so how did I do?

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

Not much doubt about this one. You could hardly move for podcasts this year.

Whether it’s the return of Serial ; those that have taken inspiration from its format, such as this one by the media commentator Peter Jukes;  to those that support brands and content marketing;  to the long wait for a new edition of the on hiatus Bugle; media organisations rediscovered their love of podcasting.

The number of listeners seems to be up too – although perhaps not quite as dramatically as Serial’s astonishing figures would have you believe.

pewodcasts
Pew Research Center, State of the News Media 2015

Are they making money? Almost certainly not.

Podcasts that involve reporting are expensive to make. Anything involving studios is expensive too.

But where there’s audience, advertising will follow.

And the old stager The Game, which I set up at The Times back in 2006, is still drawing audience and cross-sold advertising.

2. The TVisation of the web

Have TV companies taken on digital and made it their own in 2015?

For the most part, the answer is no.

TV companies still continue to treat digital as an upstart child that will eventually accept discipline.

And digital native products continue to eat TV’s lunch.

Take the BBC’s strategy of allowing Netflix to licence its back catalogue. Nuts! Netflix has built a business on its content and now looks like a serious competitor.

That’s short term gain for long term pain.

But there are glimmers of interesting experimentation – the millennial targeting AJ+ service has found an audience with sassy video takes on news stories.

And, of course, there is the fact that digital native publishers such as Buzzfeed and Vice want to be TV broadcasters too.

Perhaps they can find a lean-back experience to match the legacy TV organisations in 2016 and inject some much needed life into the sector.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

Scale has been the buzzword for newspaper publishers in 2015.

Both The Guardian and The Mail have started to show progress on digital revenues.

But it’s a far from consistent picture.

News UK admitted defeat with The Sun’s paywall and decided to go free. The Times still remains behind the wall, at least for now. There’s some speculation that it too will ditch the paywall. I suspect that would be a mistake. A solid revenue and a loyal audience will have continuing value in the years ahead.

Small steps then, but nonetheless steps towards the future.

4. The content bubble deflates

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It has been a tough a year in the content business. Swamped by clickbait and repetitious stories audiences have sought better quality content.

Ten years ago everybody wanted to be in aggregation – turns out there’s not much of a future there.

newsreadergraphic

And there’s no doubt that some of the valuations on today’s star start-ups look frothy too.

Take a look at Buzzfeed. It’s a going concern, it made $7 million in 2013. But this year, NBCUniversal bought a $200 million dollar stake at a valuation of $1.5 billion.

Buzzfeed has been investing heavily in editorial and, specifically, video. It sees itself as a key news and entertainment brand for the future.

But NBCUniveral’s making a big bet based on little grounded evidence.

Let’s call it a half.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

All the parties embraced social media for this election. You couldn’t move for Twitter argument, Facebook videos and a roar of furious agreement.

What was curious though was just how limited its impact appears to have been.

There seem to have been two main issues: trust and the self-reinforcing nature of social networks; we follow accounts that publish things we like and unfollow things we don’t.

Over time the cumulative effect creates a bubble impenetrable by news that doesn’t reinforce our prejudices. And if, by chance, we do encounter any it is dismissed as a result of cognitive dissonance.

That’s a lesson politicians need to learn quickly.  Especially those, such as the Labour leadership, who want to cut the mainstream media from their communications strategy.

All up, I reckon that’s three and a half out of five. Not bad.

Predictions for 2016 to follow.