UK election leaders’ debates to go ahead

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We’re doing it with or without you is the threat from the broadcasters.

ITV, BBC, Sky and Channel 4 have offered a new formula for the televised leaders’ debates. One debate with the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition alone; and two debates with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.

The debates would take place during the General Election campaign – with proposed dates of 2,16 and 30 April.

That sounds like a tough couple of programmes to produce. Presumably we’re now into the formal realms of “You have a minute to state your position on the NHS”.

But equally, it’s very hard to see how David Cameron can continue to refuse to take part without the “frit” allegation sticking. He wanted the minor parties, he’s got the minor parties.

Expect complaints from the DUP, Respect and others though.

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.

Ed Miliband’s media training

I read during the summer that Labour had finally got around to hiring someone to advise Ed Miliband on broadcasting.

Former BBC producer Matt Laza got the job, which the party had apparently had some difficulty filling.

You can see the results on yesterday’s Channel 4 News. Shirt-sleeves rolled up, voice pitched lower, speaking more slowly, falling over fewer words. Until Jon Snow starts to press him, at which point there’s a return to normal.

But who on earth agreed to the interview taking place next to a hospital bed! Was he in intensive care following a beating from Ed Balls for forgetting the deficit? Back-drops matter on TV and the subliminal message this delivered wasn’t positive.

 

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.

 

Free the Al Jazeera three – 200 days in prison.

For the past 200 days three Al Jazeera journalists have been wrongly held in prison in Egypt.

It is an extraordinary travesty of justice and one which should concern everyone with an interest in the media and free speech.

The trial was a mockery of justice. It’s hardly worth going over again, but Amnesty International has a good write up here, along with a petition in support of Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed. 

Yesterday Egypt’s State Information Service released this court judgement on the international appeals for the men’s release. It’s an appalling piece of circular logic and self-justification which should shame the Egyptian judiciary. 

With all stories there comes a time when the agenda moves on. When the focus of public anger starts to dissipate as journalists look for fresh stories and angles. But I hope in this case, we can continue to keep applying pressure and secure the release of three innocent men. 

 

How to design a winning video strategy

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A couple of people have asked me about what drivers should underpin video strategy, following this post – who’s making great online video?

As ever, there are two underpinning principles:

  1. What is the user need video will answer?
  2. What is the business justification for video content?

Always start with the user.

There are some key questions you want to answer before you go any further.

What do users want from your site? What are you going to supply them that no-one else can? How will they find your content? How will they consume your content? How long will they watch your content for? How much will they watch?

And perhaps most importantly: what experience will your users demand from video?

Let’s take an example: suppose you run a literary agency, you have a number of great authors on your books and your marketing director suggests a series of videos for the corporate site.

What do you make?

You might look at your site and think the main reason people visit it, is to discover more about your authors; what did they do before, what are they working on now and, of course, the inevitable question: where do their ideas come from? So, it’s insight users want. You can supply this, you have access no-one else does, and you suggest a series interviewing authors at their writing desk/in their office/shed at the bottom of the garden.

At this point the marketing director might go and commission a production company and tell the digital team to prepare to upload the videos to the site. But your strategy is nowhere near complete.

You need to define the experience your users will enjoy. Do they want to spend an hour in the company of your author, or a minute? Are you making a video that people will want to watch in their living room on a smart TV, on their desktop at work, or on a tablet while commuting? Do they want a burst of information or a long, leisurely soak in it? Do they want a quality experience, well-shot with an intelligent interviewer that’s carefully edited together; or will a simple piece to camera do?

And are you sure that video is the best medium? If users just want fast facts about authors, could that be better achieved as copy rather than making time-poor people sit through an interminable video. You will be furious if you spend thousands producing a high quality product and no-one watches more than a few seconds of it.

Answer these questions and you’ll be closer to understanding your users’ needs.

Onto the business justification.

Once you understand what your users want, you need to consider the business case for the expenditure.

Perhaps you want to increase video inventory in order to sell advertising, to build engagement, to promote your product or to maximise dwell time. How do those needs balance with the users’ needs? If you want video to go viral, what benefits do you expect that to produce for your business?

Too often video content is produced without a clear understanding of the risks and benefits of the production. Be clear about best and worst case scenarios. There’s a lot of video out there, why should you expect your’s to be successful? And what does success even look like for your business – more users, more sales, greater brand awareness? Be clear how you will measure this before you start production.

Then once you have considered what the overarching strategy should be, consider the cost. From UGC, which may have no cost at all, to $100 million dollars for a series of House of Cards, there’s a wide range of price points. Realistic assessment of user needs and business justification will help clarify just how small or large the budget needs to be.

Who’s making great online video?

 

Which news organisations are doing great online video?

A couple of recent articles have prompted me to take a look at this – firstly  this one from Media Shift, in which Janine Gibson, incoming Editor-in-Chief of theguardian.com says it’s so entrenched in the system they barely think of it as a separate element anymore. Then there’s this one from journalism.co.uk in which The Times’s deputy head of digial, Lucia Adams, talks about their shift from quantity to quality.

To begin with I’d better declare an interest.

I set up the multimedia department at The Times and Sunday Times back in 2006 and ran it until 2008. We started experimenting with video in 2007. Much of that experimentation took the form of throwing mud against the wall to see what stuck, but there was an underlying strategy based on some key principles.

Firstly, that the quality user experience for online video would continue to improve so everything had to be done with the highest possible quality at the point of production. That meant buying kit and building facilities and not being derailed by those who wanted everything done on mobile phones.

Secondly, that videos should exploit the key drivers of traffic on the site; and, finally, that it should not compete head to head against existing broadcast outlets.

So, we made films about cars with the InGear supplement of The Sunday TImes, such as this one about the Porsche GT9, and got Gordon Ramsay to make recipe videos. I also pressed hard for a content sharing deal with a news broadcaster which would give us scale with news inventory but wouldn’t be competing on an unequal basis with ITN or the BBC.

We had our successes and I also made mistakes – auto-roll videos on the homepage being, perhaps, the most egregious. But it was new territory and, like all innovations in the newsroom, part of the challenge was creating new content and formats and part of it was embedding change and new workflows.

By mid 2008 we had reached around a million video streams a month – small beer by today’s standards but it felt significant at the time.

That was around the time I left the paper. It seemed to me that video was becoming less about trying to do something different, establishing a new brand and new ways of telling multimedia stories, but more about focussing on repurposed news clips. There’s some value in that but I didn’t feel it was playing to the paper’s strengths. So, I read Lucia’s comments about moving away from news and focussing on quality with something of a wry smile.

So here we are, six years on, videos never been more prevalent online. Everyone’s got fast broadband connections, the audience is there, what’s being done to service them? I’ll be taking a look at my old shop, The Times, plus The Guardian, Sky News, The New York Times and Vice. This is an entirely arbitrary list – but I think covers a good range of outlets.

1. The Times

Compared to the films we made back in 2007/08 the material being produced by The Times feels much more measured and professional. The material is well shot and there’s an emphasis on quality of production. The films are also well-distributed through the site, rather than being ghettoised under a video tab.

It’s clear video, and specifically sports video, is a key driver for users to pay to vault the paywall. The use of Premiership football is especially smart.

But for me, there are still some key problems. What is video to The Times? Is it just a nice to have added extra, or is it an integral part of their story-telling? There’s no doubt that video needs to be an element of a multimedia package. But I don’t see stories here both using video as a driver and playing to video’s strengths. For example, this film with Norman Lamont is good – but what are the specifically video-led elements that drive the story. Video is led by pictures, what images are used here that make this a must see video?

And I think that lack of identity extends to the look of the videos – there’s no Times style. That’s an issue, I think, after seven years of production and one they wouldn’t accept from the website. Perhaps Lucia’s drive towards a less-is-more approach will remedy this.

2. The Guardian

The look is something The Guardian is getting right. From news clips to longer format material, everything is in-style and recognisably on-brand. It feels as though the creative director has given this the once over and ensured everything is formatted correctly.

The Guardian has also worked hard to distribute video through the site, from short news clips from ITN and Reuters through to self-produced content, there’s considerable variety of video here.

But there’s also an issue. They’re just not using the medium to its fullest extent. Take a look at this video  with the excellent Alexis Petridis. It’s a good concept, Alexis is an engaging and eloquent presenter and the look is modern, metropolitan and recognisably “Guardian”.

But there’s just no reason for this to be a video – where are the must see-images, or must-hear sounds? This is radio with pictures. Or a column read aloud. And this mistake is repeated time and again around the site. They’re just not using video to story-tell effectively. I know with music reviews you can argue there are rights issues. But if you want to be the biggest website in the world and you want to do music reviews, man up and pay the MCPS.

3. Sky News

Storytelling using video isn’t something you would expect Sky News to struggle with. This is their bread and butter. The site is filled with video elements, live feeds, repurposed news packages, cut up two-ways, interviews, and short clips of must see video. If you want video, Sky News has it.

The problem for Sky News though is two-fold.

Firstly, the presentation is dull, conservative (with a small c) and old-fashioned. The site looks like something from the middle of the last decade, not the sort of all-singing, all-dancing digital experience you would expect of Sky. The channel’s been hugely innovative in television presentation, but that innovation doesn’t seem to be reflected in the digital experience. That’s a shame and I hope it’s something Sky quickly sorts out. Sky News needs to transform into a multiplatform operation, and that transformation needs to be quicker and slicker than is demonstrated by this site.

The second issue for Sky News is that they’re not making any concessions to the digital user experience. The content is offered up for consumption in the assumption that people will watch for the same duration and in the same way as on TV. That just isn’t the case. Like many broadcasters turned web publishers, they suffer from the problem of thinking more-is-more, rather than starting with the user and trying to deliver a news service that fits their needs.

4. The New York Times

Ah, The New York Times. Serious, dull, worthy New York Times. Don’t be expecting any fun here. That’s the cliche. And so it proves. This is the high-fibre version of online video. Serious subjects treated seriously.

But it’s done well. Really well. Take this video  – beautifully produced, well told. Money has been spent here and you can see it in the coverage. This is good video storytelling and story selection, mixed with decent budgets and worthy intent. Yes, this could all be a bit more dramatic; yes, it could display a little more wit and attitude. But if you’re staying on brand with the New York Times – this works.

And speaking of cliches, here’s a video where an American cooks a hamburger.

5. Vice News

To the other end of the spectrum and Vice – the wannabe MTV of digital and broadcast news. The brand is testosterone filled and in-your face. The words “woah dude” never far from any presenter’s lips.

But there’s some good reporting here – take this one from Ukraine – or this one on a far-right protest in Austria. Well chosen images, good interviews and insight. There’s no reason why any of the broadsheets or broadcasters should turn their noses up at this.

You might argue that there’s little breadth to the coverage – the story selection is all broadly similar. But this is absolutely on brand for the core Vice audience. The durations of some of the pieces are also surprising – there’s a lot of very long content on the site. Presumably this is repurposed TV content being used elsewhere in the rapidly expanding VIce empire – but are lots of  people really watching 45 minute docs on YouTube? Maybe, provided the storytelling is good enough.

It’s a bit of a cliche to suggest that digital-native publishers are doing online content with more verve and style than legacy media. But there’s no doubt that’s what’s happening here. Vice’s content has lessons for everyone, even if no-one should be aping their exact output. Seven years after I started doing web films for The Times, I’d say there are still big lessons to learn for newspapers and broadcasters when it comes to making engaging, well-made and well told stories for digital viewers.

Behind the scenes at Al Jazeera

Here’s a video I made showing how the gallery team work during a live news programme with some colleagues in the London office of Al Jazeera English.

I’m using it as a teaching tool for multimedia journalism and media production under-graduates. They tend to find it quite hard to understand the dynamic between producer, director and presenter – and spend a lot of time shouting as a result.

I think this has turned out quite well and I’m sure it will be a useful teaching tool. If you’re interested in using it for teaching it’s available as part of the open education resources from the University of Northampton – drop me a line if you want more information.

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