Shaping Tomorrow’s News – the emerging digital leaders who are creating the next iteration of media

During the past couple of months I have been developing and running a number of digital strategy workshops for emerging news leaders from across Africa and Asia.

Called Tomorrow’s News, the Thomson Reuters Foundation programme aims to help participants consider their next digital news steps by learning about the latest industry practice and academic research, and by creating a community who can support each other through the challenges ahead.

It’s been an enormous privilege to meet some of the creative and innovative journalists who’ve taken part and I’ve learnt a great deal about challenges they face in developing high quality digital news services.

From news services that tell the stories of India’s disempowered and dispossessed communities, to data journalism services that are finding new ways to report about Indonesia, to digital services using mobile technology to deliver east Africa’s farmers essential information – these are  smart, innovative forms of media that will set the pace for the next phase of disruption.

Two final thoughts on all of this.

Firstly, a lot of the problems people are facing in newsrooms (or virtual newsrooms) around the world are similar. Persuading legacy media to embrace digital rather than tolerate it, going digital  or social or mobile first, finding the right mix of skills and training. Or for digital native publishers, establishing a revenue model that’s robust enough to support future development.

And finally while we may be on a journey with digital transformation, the journey’s end has to be more than mere survival. There is real social importance in creating sustainable journalistic outlets that deliver high levels of public value through content. And I am confident that’s a goal to which these brilliant and creative journalists are committed.

 

 

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Brussels attacks and tragedy hipsterism

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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.

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.

2015: my five predictions for the media year ahead.

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Having started this blog in 2014 with a series of predictions, it seems sensible to keep up the tradition. You can see how successful I think last year’s were here. Naturally, predicting the future inevitably means egg on the face for those foolish enough to try it but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

There’s nothing like success to breed imitation and Serial, the podcast investigation of a murder case and trial has been a phenomenal success. Sarah Koenig’s drawn out story seems to have been averaging around a million and a half downloads an episode. It would be wrong to say that this came out of nowhere; Serial’s an off-shoot of the brilliant This American Life on NPR. But these are big numbers.

Podcasting’s been around for more than a decade now . When it first began it promised a new multimedia future for print products and I’ve written elsewhere about my efforts as a podcast producer, including setting up The Bugle. But for much of its history, podcasting has been the unloved child of multimedia content. It was quickly eclipsed by online video. I remember going to a strategy meeting at The Times at the tail end of 2006 and being asked about my plans for a new slate of podcast products for 2007, and causing consternation by saying podcasting was over – it was now all about online video.

Well, maybe I wrote podcasts off to soon. But the success of Serial shows once again that overnight success rarely happens overnight. You need to support teams and products over the long-term and give producers the space to fail as well succeed. And a long-term commitment means strong nerves and resilience as you wait to see a return on your investment. It means allocating hard pressed resources in the face of budget pressures. It also means learning lessons from competitors and using the medium to the full. And it puts story-telling back at the heart of audio journalism.

Some commentators have said that Serial is unlike anything else out there. I’m not sure that’s true. It feels very American to me and very much a child of its NPR roots. But it is true to say that it doesn’t sound like anything on British radio or newspaper sites. Be assured that’s about to change. In the same way that Snowfall led to a rash of imitations, Serial is about to get some inferior but heavily promoted competition. And its pick-up by BBC Radio 4 Extra means that Serial inspired documentaries are likely to feature heavily in this spring’s Radio 4 Commissioning Round.

But now podcasts are back, shouldn’t they be called something new with the announcement that Apple is killing off the iPod Classic?

2. The TVisation of the web

It’s long been a truism about digital that TV hasn’t made the most of new formats and mechanisms for securing the audience of the future. To begin with dial-up and slow broadband connections meant that the experience for web video was so poor, TV companies felt able to dismiss the new upstart medium as having an irredeemably poor user experience.

That’s all over now. The exponential increase in broadband speeds has allowed a TV-like experience to be delivered by a new generation of suppliers.  Up until now that’s meant platform owners such as Netflix or YouTube have seen big benefits but there are two distinct trends in place at the moment that are changing that.

Firstly, the lo-fi. The punk, just do-it, ethos of Stampy, Zoella and others has captured the imagination of a generation who appear to be less engaged with TV. This is about content makers becoming stars on new platforms and new styles of video-making. And if you’re over the age of 25, you just won’t get it.

Secondly, the high-end. For example, Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards or Vice trying to corner the market in Millennial broadcast news. This is about replicating a traditional lean-back TV experience using a different delivery mechanism.

The web is moving closer to a broadcast platform. Yes there’s interactivity but as Twitter has shown, it’s not essential for success. And this is post-text – or at least a staging point on the road to post-text. Back in the CB-radio-like days of the 90s and early 00s it seemed everyone would be a publisher – now it’s clear publishers and platforms will be corporates and that talent and content can be sourced from everywhere. And that is a broadcast model.

And who does broadcast and high-end lean back experiences? TV companies. My guess is that 2015 is, finally, the year the TV industry fully embraces digital as an entertainment medium and not just a threat to their core business.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

The newspaper industry continued to show two distinct trends in 2014: the decline of print and the growth of digital.

That will continue and accelerate in 2015.

The industry is still drunk on digital numbers, but three, or perhaps four, clear business models are emerging. Advertising supported, subscription and advertising, and philanthropic and membership. I expect those to continue to consolidate during the next year and I also expect newspapers to continue to cut costs as the digital advertising fails to fill the hole left by the decline of print adverts.

I also wonder if we might not see a return to products providing an edited bundle. While the trend towards personalised news continues, for me there remains value in seeing someone else’s take on the news. Relying on news to find you via your Twitter feed can be just too samey.

4. The content bubble deflates

Money has rushed in to new digital products. Name journalists have established new brands. Digital native producers have built successful new platforms. And some astonishing values have been put on the new players.

So, will this continue through 2015? I don’t think so. The valuations look distinctly frothy to me. There’s a lot of old media money being thrown at new platforms but with money comes obligations. There’s a lot of people trying to establish market share, with no clear route to profitability. You’d think the legacy media would be sensible enough to see the warning lights here, but that’s far from guaranteed.

My guess is that the content bubble will deflate this year. Probably slowly, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see a high-profile closure. And if there are any external economic shocks that degrade the advertising industry, it may be bumpy.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

It’s already begun, of course, but the coming UK general election will be the first fought using social media as the primary battlefield – especially if the TV debates fail to go ahead. At the last election, social media was still in the early adopter phase; now it’s mainstream and I expect all the parties to use it heavily in the run up to May.

What’s less clear is what the nature of that engagement will look like. I don’t expect social media to feature a particularly positive campaign. This will be about parody, pastiche and mocking your opponents’ positions. There will be enormous amounts of half-truths, spun facts and campaigning hyperbole. Journalists will have an enormous job to do separating the fact from the fiction.

Still, it was ever thus. And it’s likely to be enormous fun.

Top posts of 2014

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One year into this blog, and that’s about 358 days longer than any previous blog I’ve attempted, here’s the top five performing posts of the last year.

1. On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show

2. Channel 4 News live in Tottenham

3. Who’s making great online video?

4. Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

5. Behind the scenes at Al Jazeera

The John Oliver post was the runaway winner, thanks to retweets by Andy Zaltzman and loyal Buglers around the world.

The online video comparison did well on Linkedin. I also tried reposting a few things on Linkedin but there didn’t seem to be much traction. More inspirational business leadership blogging required for cut through there.

With Google implementing HTTPS searches, search terms are no longer a hugely interesting resource using WordPress’s native analytics. But the most searched term of the last year was unquestionably Richard Zackheim, the new Deputy Editor of ITV News. Relatively little has been written about him so my short blog welcoming his appointment performs absurdly well on Google. Still, I’ll take the glory where I can get it…

 

My media predictions for 2014 – successes and failures

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I started this blog with a rash set of predictions for the media industry for 2014.

So how did I get on?

1. TV journalism old guard to retire.

Pretty close here, I think. David Dimbleby’s not quite fully handed over the reigns of election night to Dimbleby-in-waiting Huw Edwards but they are sharing presenting duties. Tom Bradby will take over from Alastair Stewart over on ITV, although Alastair will continue to anchor the day two coverage. If it’s another hung Parliament that could be a crucial part of the story. And Jeremy Paxman does get to bring his more abrasive style to election night coverage. But it’s on Channel 4 not BBC1.

2. A national daily newspaper announces it’s going weekly.

No. Despite caveating this prediction with an acknowledgement of the unexpected resilience of newsprint, the nationals continue to hang on as the regionals are hollowed out. Still, I I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the presses stop, as Trinity Mirror’s experiments in Reading suggest.

3. NBC news to get a shiny new website.

Partially right this one. Lots of changes in style over at NBC News – take a look at the site today as compared to the end of last year. It’s looking much bolder and cleaner,

That said it’s been evolution rather than revolution at NBC. And recent changes on the executive floor suggest it has been far from plain sailing. Still, a tighter focus by Julian March on digital and innovation might not be a bad thing as NBC News seeks to increase its speed of improvement. And hopefully that will deliver more tangible results than just a refresh of a rather tired app.

4. Twitter and linear television drive more “event” programming.

Yes, not much doubt about this. People using Twitter to discuss event TV is an increasingly important and measurable part of TV programming strategy. Perhaps more interesting is whether that trend will continue. Facebook is moving to reinforce its status as chief driver of social traffic and with its huge global dominance it may be hard for Twitter to carve out a niche market as the global media water-cooler.

5. TV debates announced for 2015 general election.

Well, they’ve been announced. But it’s not yet clear that they will go ahead in the format suggested by the broadcasters. The level of confusion about whether or not different party leaders should be included may yet give David Cameron a get out of jail card. But I suspect that they will still go ahead. All the polling suggests there is still everything to play for and Cameron will want to use every tool in his arsenal to ensure reelection and that includes dominating his opponents in a TV debate.

So, three and a half out of five? Not too bad but I’ll try to do better for next year.

BBC News cuts – the gap between perception and reality

How do you do more with less?

That’s the conundrum the BBC News cuts announced today are trying to solve.

I’m not going to go into which posts are closing and whether that’s right or not – there’s still a lot of detail to come out.

But I would just flag up a couple of things.

Firstly the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. James Harding says he couldn’t find any fat to cut, and then demonstrates how much fat there is to cut. Back office savings are being implemented throughout this process – for example the closer integration of BBC World and BBC News Channel. A no brainer.

The other issue which leaps out is Panorama cutting staff reporters. On paper this looks like a sensible, modern move. Jim Gray is clearly thinking about the Dispatches model, where content is commissioned from independents, or in this case freelances, rather than having expensive staff sat around producing very little.

That sounds, and is, sensible.

But it will play appallingly. “BBC cuts Panorama” is the headline that its legion of press officers will now have to firefight tomorrow, and it’s the underlying perception it will now have to fight in the years until the next licence fee renewal.

That’s a tough sell when you’re expanding as yet unproven digital projects – look at this reaction in the New Statesman.

And there’s still the unresolved issue of cutting services licence fee payers use to support the expanding costs of the World Service, which they don’t. The BBC Trust also chose today to fire a warning shot on the closure of BBC3, pointing out the problems of reaching young, ethnically diverse audiences.

Broadly I approve of the strategy on display here. But when pushing for radical change, it wouldn’t do James any harm to look at bit more supportive of some of the best elements of the BBC’s legacy and to look as though he’s safeguarding the interests of licence fee payers.