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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Cristina Nicolotti Squires poached by Sky News

One of ITN’s most successful and creative executives, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, has announced she’s leaving to become Director of Content at Sky News.

It is a big job with responsibility for news and current affairs across multiple platforms.

And it is a big loss for ITN. Cristina is a formidable presence in the newsroom. Smart, resourceful and passionate about news, she will be a tough act to follow as Editor of Five News.

Like her predecessors  Chris Shaw, Deborah Turness and Geoff Hill, she’s used the editorship of the comparatively small-scale Five News as a springboard to bigger things.

She moves to Sky at a time of considerable change. Many of the old guard are moving on. Not just on-air talent such as Jeremy Thompson and Eammon Holmes but some of the most experienced backroom staff too.

Head of News, John Ryley, is clearly preparing for a future of on-demand digital news as well as a live streamed channel – perhaps no longer delivered on TV nor based in a studio.

Professor Richard Sambrook from Cardiff University has written persuasively about 24-hour rolling news being a product of newsgathering technology that now looks outdated. Even the most traditional 24-hour channels, such as Al Jazeera, are considering what post-TV news looks like.

As 24-hour news veteran, I still retain an affection for the form. But there’s no doubt that it cannot compete with the immediacy of digital news, even if there is still value in a live stream of content. It is hard to gear up to rolling coverage if you lack the platform and resources to produce it.

So I will wait with interest to see what Nicolotti’s Sky News will become – how she’ll balance innovation with maintenance of the existing product. And hopefully she’ll kill off the ruddy awful “The Pledge“.

 

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.

 

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.

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.