Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons – not as bad as you might have heard

Poor Sir Craig Oliver.

His memoir of the inside story of the Brexit referendum seems to have been universally panned by the press. James Kirkup’s evisceration in The Telegraph is particularly brutal.

It is true that it is not that well-written. The number of times that Craig “runs into” a world famous politician and then is reminded of a pop-culture reference suggest it needed more careful editing.

It has clearly been rushed out and is little more than a diary rather than a considered view of the campaign and its implications.

But that was also true of Alastair Campbell’s diaries too. So, why the universal derision?

I better declare an interest. I’ve known Craig for many years. He was a highly intelligent and capable programme editor at ITN and one of the driving forces behind ITV News during his tenure as Head of Output. He was a smart, driven but thoughtful journalist with a populist touch.

We stayed in contact after he moved to the BBC and I briefly worked for David Cameron in opposition – although I’ve not seen him since his elevation to Number 10.

But he’s not exactly clubbable.

When he started working for Cameron I heard back from friends in the Lobby and on comment pages of newspapers that they found him supercilious, unconcerned with the needs of the print press and purely focussed on broadcast news.

That was clearly the right thing to do in my opinion. Getting the message right on Radio 1, Radio 2 and the main broadcast bulletins watched by millions of voters is far more important than appeasing the Sunday Telegraph’s comment writers.

But it is clear the Lobby has never forgiven him and is getting its revenge now.

That said, this is an insight into the heart of the campaign and its failings. And it is surprisingly refreshing to see politicians actually being quoted in what would normally be off-the record moments.

And that might be something the Lobby, with its reliance on anonymous sources, might want to reflect on.

Is the media biased against Jeremy Corbyn?

Yes.

Of course it is but perhaps not in the way you think.

There have been several surveys released in recent weeks that appear to show systematic bias against the leader of the Labour Party. One by the Media Reform Coalition accused the BBC of giving more airtime to his critics, another by YouGov found most people felt the media was biased against Corbyn.

Even traditionally left wing publications, such as The Mirror and The Guardian, which tried at first to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt have struggled to support him.

And the Labour leader’s team have explicitly tried to bypass the traditional press by speaking directly to supporters via Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

So, all the media hate Corbyn and want him out to placate their neo-liberal, corporate masters, right?

Well, no. The fact is that the Labour party leadership always faces a tough time in the press. Corbyn’s having a worse time of it than most. But is it worse than, say, Brown’s in 2008-10?

And the Corbyn team have struggled with issues of basic communication competence, even while raising issues worthy of discussion. They’ve ended up by becoming the story, rather than managing the story – too much effort has gone into dealing with what Lynton Crosby calls process stories .

Sure, there are some journalists and publications who will never support Corbyn – The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and so on. But some who might be persuaded to buy into the Corbynite agenda will be unpersuaded by incompetence. And by failing to cultivate support in the press, Corbyn’s team continue to fuel a narrative of “us vs them”.

The fact is that Corbyn needs to find a way to connect with the general public and that – still, at the moment – means fighting to ensure a fair hearing in at least some parts of the press and broadcast media. Public meetings and social media posts have their place but they can’t replace mediated communication – at last not yet.

That means that Corbyn’s team need to swallow hard and find ways to start placing positive stories – it might be too early to reveal the hard policies they’ll stand behind at the next election but they need to fly some kites to reframe the media narrative.

So, it matters for Corbyn. But does all this matter for the media?

Yes, I think it does. The sense from Corbyn’s supporters that the media is against them is probably to be expected, but the wider feeling of the general public of bias against Corbyn should give at least some journalists pause for thought.

The fact is that something is happening in the UK. Corbyn is tapping into a groundswell of opinion and not enough is being done by the media to explain that movement and understand what it means. The Westminster village often talks about wanting to get out of the bubble and find out what’s happening – here’s its chance.

 

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Content marketing for beginners

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A couple of posts done for the University of Northampton as part of its new social media marketing campaign

Should the paparazzi be allowed to stalk Prince George?

Wait before sharing the murder video of two U.S. journalists.

Who will be the new Political Editors of BBC and ITV News?

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They’re changing the guard at the Palace of Westminster.

After 10 years as political editors of BBC News and ITV News respectively both Nick Robinson and Tom Bradby are off to become presenters. Nick on Radio 4’s Today programme, Tom on ITV’s News at Ten.

The political editor of a TV (and these days digital) news service is a unique position in the broadcast firmament. Reporter, pundit, political anorak, celebrity, workaholic,  and conduit between government and company – the roles it encompasses are varied and subtle. It requires a sophisticated skill set to do the job well.

So, who’s in the running for two of the top jobs in British news?

As I’ve argued before these roles have for too long been awarded to middle-aged, white men. And the two deputies, James Landale and Chris Ship,at BBC and ITV respectively, fit that demographic. Both are competent and well respected, either would be a safe pair of hands.

But the deputy never gets the top job.

If you’re James Harding or Geoff Hill you want your appointment to make waves, garner headlines, perhaps bring in fresh blood and say something about your positioning of your news brand.

And I’d say that also rules out Sky News’s Joey Jones.

I’d say the most eligible candidates are all women. For either channel the interview short-list could look something like this:

Newsnight’s Laura Kuenssberg, Emily Maitlis and Allegra Stratton – all rising stars with serious clout, they may well want to take on the challenge while leaving Newsnight to head towards oblivion.

The BBC’s Lucy Manning – a well respected political journalist at ITV and Channel 4 before heading to the BBC, she’s got the Westminster chops. Crucially she’s also close to Head of Newsgathering, Jonathan Munro.

Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – a previous life with the FT and as a political correspondent means she’s got the experience. But with Jon Snow rapidly approaching 70 perhaps she might feel her name is firmly in the running to be lead presenter at Channel 4.

And as an outside bet, especially for ITV News, I’d look at the former political editor of The Observer, Gabby Hinsliff.

One final thought: Evan Davis has never really appeared comfortable at Newsnight. Could this be a way back into the mainstream of news?