The alternate world of the parties’ Facebook posts #ge2017

The phony war is over.

Parliament has been dissolved, MPs are once again normal people, and the election campaign has begun in earnest with Theresa May getting out of the traps early with an attack on Europe’s leakers.

With so little notice that an election was coming much of the early campaigning has been done on social media.

So, what have we learnt so far from the parties’ election posts?

  • They don’t do news. The posts operate in a different universe where there is no news and everybody’s talking about the parties’ daily talking points. Here’s Tim Farron dealing once and for all with those questions about his views on gay sex and sin.
  • Grandstanding is grand. Asked a tough question at PMQs? Why not include your lengthy oration on your Facebook page and cut before your opponent has a chance to answer.
  • Everybody is playing nicely. It’s not just Jeremy Corbyn who is avoiding personal attacks, so far no-one has played dirty – unlike back in 2015. Well, almost no-one.
  • No-one has any policies. In 2015 all the parties spent a lot of time and effort explaining their costed manifestos. This time around they’re struggling to make it up as they go along.
  • Theresa May’s Downing Street speech announcing the snap election was a hit.

 

Of course, it is early days yet and the parties may yet decide to toughen up their social media communications.

But so far it is an alternative world of anodyne spin and pre-approved key messages.

Let’s hope Twitter is more fun…

#ge2017 – And they’re off, week one of the campaign

 

A slightly shortened week one of the General election campaign is complete and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what an extraordinary week it has been.

In every campaign in my adult life we have known broadly when the election would take place, even when Prime Ministers tried to use their prerogative powers for party advantage.

In 2015, for the first time, we knew the exact date of the poll years in advance and the parties meticulously planned campaigns.

This time everyone has been taken by surprise, even Conservatives outside the PM’s inner circle.

Last time around campaign messages were planned meticulously and political communications were thought through – the Conservatives had Miliband dancing to Salmond’s tune, the Green’s wanted to sing a different tune.

This time around the messages are still coalescing.

Looking at the first week’s Facebook posts some themes are emerging.

Labour are fighting with Corbyn front and centre, videos of stump speeches and clips from broadcast interviews have emphasised he’s a different kind of leader.

The Conservatives also have their leader at the heart of the first week’s campaign.

Theresa May’s surprise  Downing Street address was the most watched video released by a party this week, by a considerable margin. They were also the first to launch an election attack ad.

But the Liberal Democrats have had the most coherent first week on Facebook – the first branded election response was up by 11.19 on Tuesday morning, just minutes after May finished speaking and well ahead of Labour.

By midday they’d settled on their theme of avoiding a hard Brexit and hammered the message home all week.

The LSE’s Charlie Beckett has argued that if the polls are to be believed the election is a foregone conclusion, so journalists should concentrate on the issues and policies rather than the horse race. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

But there’s no doubt personality will be the major battleground – the question from both Tories and Labour will be continually posed: “in the end, who do you trust?”

 

 

Why Theresa May will take part in a televised debate

Will she or won’t she? 

Theresa May has been quick to rule out taking part in a televised leaders’ debate as part of the General Election campaign.

It is the same old problem facing spin doctors in Downing Street.

On the one hand television delivers mass audiences and impact with voters.

On the other, your opponents may benefit more than you.

In most campaigns back as far as the early 1960s, Downing Street has successfully killed them off – sometimes with help from other party leaders.

The exception was in 2010 when Labour PM Gordon Brown felt he had little to lose and perhaps something to gain.

Following pressure from the broadcasters, and particularly Sky News, three leaders’ debates were aired.

The result was branded by the newspapers “Cleggmania” as everyone agreed with Nick.

But despite raised hopes of a breakthrough, on election night the Liberal Democrats actually lost five seats. 

By 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron was a lot less enthusiastic about the debates than he’d been as Leader of the Opposition.

After initially refusing to take part he finally agreed to a single leaders’ debate broadcast on ITV, as well as to being interviewed in series with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and a challengers’ debate, which took place without him.

There’s some evidence the TV debates did help him successfully increase his majority.

Watched by more than seven million people, a survey conducted just after the election by Panelbase found that 38% of sampled voters were influenced by the debates.

Now Theresa May’s opponents are accusing her of being frit, ITV is saying it will “empty chair” her by going ahead without her participation, and the Daily Mirror is digging out its chicken suit once again.

So when Theresa May says no, listen for the but…

The broadcasters are trying to find a format Downing Street will agree with and, one way or another, the election debates will take place and Theresa May will have a role in them.

George Osborne should quit as a MP to edit the Standard

Had a blog I wrote for the University of Northampton picked up by The Huffington Post.

You can see it here:

 

Digital still the poor cousin at the RTS TV Journalism Awards

The decision to award Steve Hewlett the Judges’ Award at the Royal Television Society Television Journalism Awards dominated the reporting of this year’s event.

That’s no doubt correct. But it did somewhat overshadow what a terrific night it was for Channel 4 News; the team  won programme of the year, Matt Frei picked up TV journalist of the year and Waad al-Kateab won a number of awards including Young Talent.

Before the event I spoke to Digital Editor, Jon Laurence, the driving force behind Channel 4 News’s incredible success with social video – especially on Facebook.

Despite recent changes to make the RTS a more level playing field and stop ITN’s domination of the categories through its multiple newsrooms, the awards still don’t recognise the contribution of digital to the success of news journalism.

I find that surprising and disappointing – as I said to Jon, although he was self-deprecating enough to laugh it off.

Still, with digital threatening TV’s audiences as never before, it’s surely sensible to celebrate TV newsrooms’ digital success. And perhaps phase out the ancient news technology award.

One final thought. While Tom Bradby won for Network Presenter of the Year, even as the reviews of the Nightly Show suggested the move of the news was a mistake, and the BBC won for Home Coverage with its series on prisons, this wasn’t a great year for the big bulletins.

The RTS has tried to increase the pool of jurors, including myself, but it would be a shame if the awards lost their sense of the industry awarding its peers because the independent jurors ended up voting for the shows they watch or appear on.

In Nations and Regions News, the category for which I was a juror, the broadcaster representatives still had a vote – unlike some of the more hard fought categories, such as Programme of the Year. I wonder if that is a better solution than only independents voting. Perhaps some more tweaks to the rules might be advisable.

 

My journalism and media predictions for 2017

It has become something of a habit for me to post a few New Year’s predictions for the coming 12 months.

You can see previous efforts here, here and here.

So, what is ahead for 2017?

1.TOO. MUCH. VIDEO.

There is a glut of terrible video available online.

Driven by higher CPMs and the improved user experience provided by faster broadband and 4G phones, publishers have piled into video in a big way.

But too much of it is just rubbish.

Poorly produced and with little thought given to user experience, much online video exists merely to serve terrible 30-second pre-roll ads.

There are honourable exceptions but they are few and far between.

Even YouTubers are seeing a drop off in views.

Supply outstripping demand also showed up as an issue in this year’s Reuters Institute Digital Report.

The top reason for not watching a video – “I find reading quicker and more convenient”. Obviously.

video-report

But this isn’t about users, this is about producers and publishers.

They want eyeballs on content and are prepared to throw out any old crap in order to grow monthly streams.

And the worst, absolute worst, examples of this can be seen on Facebook Live.

Journalists have flocked to make live videos watched by an audience so small it is effectively nobody and have turned out the most godawful tripe along the way.

Even broadcasters, for whom there is absolutely no excuse, have managed to create amateurish, boring, pointless live content.

Please, all of you, stop it now before it is too late.

Live social video is an incredible tool – some of the stories being told are revelatory and revolutionary.

But stop turning out pointless lives for a few dozen people.

Surely by this point we must realise that behind-the-scenes video or extended interviews are the lowest common denominators of digital story-telling.

If you didn’t put it in your main story, what makes you think anyone wants to see the rubbish left on the cutting room floor?

So, here’s the prediction.

Over-supply will cause video CPMs to crash, forcing publishers to make tough decisions about whether to concentrate on quality or quantity.

Most will continue to put out rubbish for increasingly poor returns.

But smart publishers will focus on building dedicated audiences with targeted high quality content with a long tail.

2. Facebook grows up

Fake news and how to tackle it is a hot topic at the moment.

The performance of fake stories in the final weeks of the U.S. Presidential election has put the issue front and centre.

There has been a lot of talk about the importance of more fact-checking, more on the ground reporting, less comment and fewer paid talking heads.

That’s all well and good – much of it is a welcome recommitment to core journalistic values.

But the essential problem is that the distribution method of choice – Facebook – doesn’t feel it has any duties to its news consumers.

Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he thinks Facebook is a tech company, not a media one.

That may be true, up to a point.

But in the end, if users lose trust in material they see on Facebook then it is Facebook that will suffer.

That means the company is going to have to start taking its responsibilities to users more seriously.

And draining the swamp of fake stories, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation is a good place to start.

So, here’s the prediction – Facebook will hire editors to improve its fact-checking and act to cut back the wave of fake stories as the start of a process of acknowledging its position as a world leading mass-media company.

3. AI in the newsroom

Smart newsroom products are coming.

We have already started to see experiments and roll-out of automated writing.

That will continue.

But we will also see more use of machine learning in newsgathering and production too.

During the past 12 months I have been providing some advice to a Silicon Valley startup looking at how AI can be implemented in the newsroom.

UGC verification and social newsgathering are obvious places to start, using machine learning to parse huge amounts of data.

It doesn’t mean all of us journalists are going to be replaced by robots.

At least, not yet.

But 2017 will start to see more use of automated and smart products in the production of news, freeing reporters to work on adding value to the basic commodity of information.

4. Peer to peer becomes a peer

Snapchat has become the latest social media platform for journalists to embrace.

Early adopters have seen big returns – Buzzfeed has suggested that a fifth of its total traffic comes from Snapchat Discover.

But it has really only been publishers with heavy footprints in the U.S. and UK that have seen big returns.

That is set to change in the coming year.

As Twitter struggles with open messaging, expect peer-to-peer and closed group chat to grow faster.

And news publishers will want a slice of the pie.

I ran a number of strategy sessions for digital publishers across Africa and southern Asia during the summer.

It was striking how many of them thought WhatsApp with its huge install base was a potential audience driver.

They won’t be alone.

In 2017 expect to see more and more publishers experiment with peer-to-peer and personalised news to phones.

5. What is already hard just gets tougher

2016 was a great year for news reporting.

Taken in the round, audiences have never been larger, we had unmatched international reach, and stories of weight and importance.

But the business of news continues to get harder.

It has become clearer that a business strategy based on scale cannot deliver financial security.

And we’ve all had to get used to the guilt-tripping begging notes asking for more money.

As the impact of Brexit decelerates the British economy, trying to make a media business sustainable via free content and advertising at scale is going to become more difficult.

Smart publishers have already added other revenue streams to their business strategies.

2017 is going to be a year of hard decisions that have already been deferred too long.

More publishers will embrace paywalls, cutting costs through reduced editorial staff, and the decision point for newspapers on when to stop the presses will inch closer.

How bad this gets will depend on the scale of Brexit’s economic shock.

If it triggers a full-blown recession, Shane Smith’s oft-quoted but never quite materialised bloodbath will come to pass.

Publishers can future-proof themselves if they embrace solid business plans with diversified revenue streams, and produce content audiences value enough to pay for.

Otherwise they risk being cartwheel makers in the age of the motorcar.

 

Five predictions for the coming year – let’s see if my track record for accuracy shows any sign of improvement in 12 months’ time.