Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

The Guardian has published an interesting interview with Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al Jazeera English.

It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the disgusting behaviour of the Egyptian government in arresting Al Jazeera journalists on trumped up terrorism charges through to the network’s expansion plans.

I’ve worked with Al at ITN and Al Jazeera. There’s no question in my mind that he’s one of the sharpest people in TV news. Highly intelligent and thoughtful about the role of international TV news, he’s robust in defending Al Jazeera’s reporting and has a comprehensive vision for its development.

Which is why I found this quote so disappointing:

“We already have the highest quality content gathered by a fantastically diverse team around the world. If you break up the constituent parts that go into a two-minute television package, what you have that hits the cutting room floor is gold dust,” he says. That “gold dust” – longer interviews, more informal chats with the correspondent, explainers – can be “tailored to different platforms and provide a much richer resource depending on which platform you are looking at”, adds Anstey. “It’s about changing the mindset.”

The idea of digital news as DVD box-set extras is very old-fashioned. It’s the same kind of thinking that saw TV companies early attempts at digital include behind the scenes video-diaries or cross-promoted longer versions of broadcast interviews.

The reason it’s so disappointing is that it starts from the wrong premise. Rather than looking at what the audience wants and needs from a news service, it starts from the point of view of “we have this unused stuff, let’s shove that up online”. It’s the antithesis of providing a user-focused news service.

Put crudely, journalists have made editorial decisions about cutting material to emphasise the key lines – if they thought there was value in using the stuff on the cutting room floor, they’d have already used it. Why would anyone think that time poor digital users want to sit through the extended cut?

But change is needed.

Al Jazeera English’s website needs over-hauling. The navigation is based on inheritance from the TV channel’s structure and its reporting looks divergent from the core news operation. It also needs to continue to break new ground using digital media to report from around the world and to engage with an increasingly digitally literate global audience.

I’d also like to see put more focus on its eye-witness reporting, rather than the less interesting opinion pieces which, for me, sit oddly with the channel’s desire to provide impartial coverage of complex situations.

I applaud Al’s desire to bring greater convergence between the digital and broadcast sides of his operation, but I hope he will bring change that will see more digital innovation based on satisfying audience needs rather than on making more of costly newsgathering at the expense of user experience.

And just as I was thinking about this blog, I spotted this piece from Buzzfeed on innovative short-form video. It may work, it may not – but it seems to me to be a sophisticated attempt to engage with a tough to reach audience.

ITV’s special pleading to parliament

Interesting story on The Guardian about ITV calling for top slicing of the licence fee.

ITV wants a fund set up, allowing broadcasters to bid for funds to support their news operations.

It’s an interesting argument – the actual submission to parliament is very interesting.

ITV points out it spends £100 million a year on news. Sounds like a lot, but it’s trifling compared to the BBC.

As anyone who’s looked into this knows, there’s very little publicly available information about how much the BBC spends on news. The £45 million figure is often quoted – but that’s merely the operational costs of the BBC News Channel. You also need to add in newsgathering, BBC World, and Nations and Regions plus the costs of the bulletins, Newsnight and BBC Breakfast. And that’s just TV – what about radio new, 5 Live and the World Service?

The actual figure for news could easily be ten times what’s spent on the news channel.

But the really stand out stat for me was the BARB quote:

each adult watched an average of around 114 hours of national or international news on television in 2012, of which around 80% was on the BBC. The next closest is ITV with 13% share of viewing, with Sky News in third place with 6%.

 

That is a disaster for ITV.

Forget the comparison with the BBC for a moment, ITV is only recording twice as much news viewing as Sky News.  Sky News is a brilliant product – but it doesn’t deliver mass audiences and the viewership is notoriously fickle. It may well be that there’s more to that stat than meets the eye, and I’m going to have a look into it. But on first reading, it’s hard to under-estimate how badly it suggests ITV has mismanaged its news brand.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have canned the ITV News Channel.

Who will replace Adam Boulton as Sky News’s Political Editor?

I admit it. The headline’s a come on. I’ve no inside scoop – although I do have some thoughts on who it should be.

Whoever it is will have big shoes to fill. Boulton has been a big part of the success of Sky News. For 25 years he’s provided the latest analysis on the political story of the day. Unflappably for the most part, although some have rather uncharitably focused on his on-screen arguments.

He obviously wanted a change and I’d argue that in reality the post of political editor has been filled by Joey Jones for the last year or so anyway. Adam’s time has been spent on his lunchtime show, Boulton and Co. But, for me, he’s a much more interesting reporter than presenter.

If it was me making the appointment, I’d be looking for a big name, with a lobby background who can provide instant analysis of politics and policy. It would also be good to try and break the mould of white, middle-aged man as political editor. Being political editor of Sky News you have to have an appetite for politics, be a nerd about the policy, understand the context and the history – and still be able to make it understandable to the man in the street.

I’d say the runners and riders are heir apparent Joey Jones, Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman, Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, ITV’s Lucy Manning and, as a lobby curveball, The Times’s Roland Watson. That would be my personal interview list. There’s already been some speculation about Tom Bradby or James Lansdale too. Can’t see either of those being tempted from their current berths though.

No doubt Ladbrooke’s will have a book open soon.

And if you want to know why Adam Boulton will be such a hard act to follow, take a look at this video of an old two-way in atrocious weather. There’s not many that would put up with this.

On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show

The Guardian’s website has a short piece on some comments from John Oliver about quitting The Daily Show and his forthcoming programme for HBO. If you haven’t seen the moment where he gets choked up on his final appearance, it’s here.

I first met John back in 2007, when I had a small hand in setting up The Bugle podcast which he and Andy Zaltzman have now been doing for the last seven years. I had recently established the multimedia department at The Times and, after some early success with some football related podcasts with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, was looking for some new comedy ideas.

John and Andy came in and pitched the idea of doing a satirical podcast – the audio newspaper for the visual world – and the idea for The Bugle was born.

At that stage, John hadn’t been in New York long, so there was no doubt an attraction for him in keeping a profile going in the UK. It also gave him the chance to continue working with Andy. They’d already had some success as a writing duo – particularly with the Political Animal shows for Radio 4.

For The Times, the podcast was breaking new ground. There were no studio facilities in the Wapping office. Each week the podcast producer would head to a studio in west London with Andy, while John would go into a studio in New York, sometimes accompanied by Rory Albanese — the glorious American. It was recorded early afternoon on a Friday because it was the only day John was guaranteed not to have any commitments at The Daily Show. Then the producer would take the raw audio back to Wapping to edit. In theory, the show was supposed to go out on a Monday but we quickly got into the habit of releasing it Friday afternoon, so everyone could get down the pub without worrying about it all weekend.

I think it’s fair to say that not everyone on The Times was completely committed to the idea. There was a degree of uncertainty about whether the project would ever get off the ground. But it was forced through by the paper’s then Executive Editor, Keith Blackmore, who was completely supportive and who came along to the recording of the pilot.

At some point during a rather chaotic recording, John and Andy decided to launch into a long routine about the evils of Rupert Murdoch, which Keith bore with equanimity.

The following week, I met with Keith and presented him with a polished half hour pilot for distribution among News International’s various executives. At this point he asked, rather shame-faced, if I would cut the Murdoch material.

But, determined as I was that the show wouldn’t be derailed by institutional timidity, I’d already made the cuts. Through some sleight of hand, and by keeping John and Andy a little in the dark, we got the podcast approved and promoted by the paper.

The Bugle ran for four years with the Times. Sadly, the paper never really championed it as it should have done, which I continue to think was a great shame. I always thought it was a brilliant product, showcasing John and Andy’s great talents for both scripted satire and genius improvisation. I think a huge part of its success is that John and Andy sound like they’re having fun. In the pilot, we cut a lot of the giggling at each other’s jokes – but as time has gone on it has become a trademark feature. The Bugle also owed a lot to the hard work of producers Tom Wright and later, after I’d left The Times, Chris Skinner.

After the launch, The Times turned its attention away from podcasts to web video as the prime focus for the multimedia team. So, The Bugle always had a slightly odd position as the only comedy podcast supported by the paper. But it steadily built up an audience and it always pleases me to see it referenced in the comments whenever The Guardian runs a story on John.

So, best of luck John with the new show. And I hope The Bugle continues for many years to come. With that, there’s just one more thing to say:

Fuck you, Chris.

Channel 4 News live in Tottenham

There’s considerable anger among people living in Tottenham in north London tonight following the inquest jury’s verdict of lawful killing in the shooting of Mark Duggan. His death, and the police’s actions following it,  were the spark which ignited the riots in the summer of 2011. It’s clear that Duggan’s family are furious with the verdict, a feeling clearly shared by many in that community.

Channel 4 News presented its show from Tottenham this evening. It was a masterful display by Krishnan Guru-Murthy in how to present a developing story at the key location. It was clearly a difficult and tense situation, with not only members of the family wanting their say, but other members of the public too. I thought Krishnan handled it very well in what were highly charged circumstances. It was gripping television.

Channel 4 News is having a good year. But that show will be top of some lists for the award entries when they roll around.

You can see the show here for the next week.

 

New deputy editor for ITV News

A quick post on the appointment today of the excellent Richard Zackheim as Deputy Editor of ITV News. I worked with Zackers on a number of ITN services, most notably at the ITV News Channel where he was a talented programme editor. He’s personable, decisive with an acerbic wit. I think he’ll do well back at ITV.

I think it’s fair to say his appointment was a surprise. Even ITN seem to have managed to put out a press release without a photograph of Zackers. Hopefully it’ll manage to rectify that for the Media Guardian article.

So, Geoff Hill begins to reshape ITV News in his image, bringing across a trusted lieutenant from Channel 5 News. I’ve no inside scoop on who else was in the running for the role, but I suspect the changes at ITV sparked by Geoff’s appointment still have some way to run. There’s a number of people who will feel Zackers has leap-frogged them and may decide to go. His predecessor, Jonathan Munro, now over at BBC News may be about to take some calls.

Five predictions for 2014

Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game.

No matter how right you think you might be, you’re always going  to be wrong about something. Nothing ever turns out quite as you might expect.

And publishing predictions on the internet is particularly foolish. Every sceptic from now on can come back here and say “Well, you were wrong about this, so you’re almost certainly wrong about that.”

So, what better way to start a new blog than five predictions for 2014….

1. TV journalism old guard to retire.

On first sight that might not seem like much of a prediction. After all, people retire all the time. But 2014 marks a change point for TV journalism. The BBC’s new Director of News, James Harding, is getting into his stride, outlining his vision of a scoop orientated BBC. While over at ITV new Editor Geoff Hill is still dealing with the fallout from his generation skipping appointment. Behind the scenes there’s been movement among the newsroom big beasts but, so far, that’s not been reflected in on-screen talent.

Expect that to change.

The biggest set-piece event for any British newsroom is a General Election. For the BBC and ITV it’s the product of months of planning, with senior staff seconded to deliver comprehensive, fast and reliable results programmes and, perhaps more importantly, to shaft the opposition.

Get it right and barely anyone notices. Get it wrong and expect it to be endlessly dredged up by the press and your rivals.

So, with new boys in charge at ITN and the BBC what’s it going to mean for the on-screen talent? Well, the easiest way to put your new and improved stamp on a broadcaster is to shake up the presentation teams.

First up the BBC. David Dimbleby is, of course, a broadcasting institution having presented the BBC’s election coverage since 1979. However, by 2015 he will be in his late seventies and, despite the new tattoo, his on-screen performances have started to look a little doddery. During the seemingly never-ending coverage of the 2010 election and coalition negotiations he appeared increasingly exhausted.

It’s time for Harding to bite the bullet and bring in a new presenter. Naturally, Huw Edwards is the Dimbleby in waiting, although it’s clear Jeremy Paxman would like to bring a more abrasive style to the cosy election programmes. But perhaps the time has come for a bolder choice: both Martha Kearney and Emily Maitlis would make interesting appointments.

For ITV it’s a tougher decision. Political presenter of choice Alastair Stewart is still going strong. Bringing encyclopedic knowledge and a high level of professionalism to the role, he’d be a difficult presenter to leave on the subs bench. But the fact remains that during the 2010 programme, the grey haired Alastair, sat on a grey set, in a charcoal grey suit, interviewing a succession of grey pundits.

This is not the image ITV wants to present.

The obvious replacement is Political Editor Tom Bradby. Already performing well on his own mini-me Question Time, The Agenda, Tom’s cut his presenting teeth. But if he’s still more needed as pundit than presenter then it’s time to give Julie Etchingham a shot at the top job.

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

The long, inexorable decline of the printed press has continued through 2013. Although proving more resilient than some of the Noughties’ digital evangelists had expected, the fact remains that even the most ardent supporter can see the current status quo at the newsagents can’t last. Even some of the big regional newspapers are being wiped out.

At first sight, it appears logical to predict that at some point newspapers will go entirely digital. That’s almost certainly the case in the medium to long term. But the savings that could be made by axing the legacy elements, such as printing and transporting newspapers, haven’t yet outweighed the big commercial problem: digital advertising just isn’t worth as much as selling adverts in newsprint.

So, my guess is that one of the national newspapers will announce it’s going weekly. The means that it will keep a premium product in newsagents, but cut some of the costs of daily printing and production. It’s a model which is already being trialled by Variety in the United States. It doesn’t mean an end to daily journalism. But the output will truly be digital first.

Who will it be? The Independent’s position looks the most precarious of the serious press. And its owner has shown himself to be willing to take risks. Will he be the first to stop daily printing?

3. NBC news to get a shiny new website.

The imminent departure of Chief Digital Officer Vivian Schiller for Twitter has given new NBC News President Deborah Turness a chance to make some changes.  Deborah is a creative dynamo, brought into NBC to shake it up and make it more competitive with it’s traditional TV rivals and the new digital upstarts. It’s a tough challenge. And her recent appointments show she’s not afraid to cherry-pick former colleagues from ITN to help her do it.

Chief among them is ITV’s Director of Online, Julian March, soon to be NBC’s Senior Vice President of Editorial and Innovation. Quite a title.

Jules is a smart, resourceful editorial leader who has turned ITV from a digital zero to, if not quite a hero, at least to a something. He’s put ITV’s VOD strategy on the right path, got the commercial and editorial teams working together to try and innovate their way towards a commercially sustainable future.

And he built his reputation at ITV by relaunching the moribund news website as a digital stream of live, rolling digital news. Expect to see something similar happen at NBC.

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

Why, ask the digerati, hasn’t the commercial disruption wrought upon newspapers by the internet been replicated in television? The imminent end of linear TV has been predicted many times, so why does it still seem to be surviving in rude health?

Some of the reasons are pretty obvious. Linear TV still produces content people want to watch in a way that they want to watch it. Viewers prefer the experience of switching on the TV to watch Eastenders to wading through quirky cat videos on YouTube.

Plus, there’s also the fact that broadcasters have been smart about making sure that their content is consumed online in a way which hasn’t cannibalised the core product.

But the main reason that linear TV is till the mass medium product of choice is that it’s brilliant at creating and broadcasting live events and has learnt to create instant communities around them.

Take a look at Twitter when the X-Factor final is underway. People like to watch a live unveiling drama and to share that experience with others. The fabled water-cooler is still delivering it’s moments, but they’re happening simultaneously with the broadcast rather than the next day at work or school.

Broadcasters want more of this. They’d also like it if they could capture that interaction on a platform where they could monetise it too. So, expect Twitter to try and kill that idea at birth and to find ways of sharing the love, and the revenue, with broadcasters. The live events drive the traffic on Twitter, which drives the audiences to the live events. What’s not to like?  Could Twitter be the X-Factor series sponsor in 2014? Stranger things have happened….

5. TV debates announced for 2015 general election.

The difficult thing about genies is that once they’re out of the bottle, it’s hard to get them to go back in again. During the 2010 General Election, the campaign was dominated by the televised debates. “I agree with Nick” became the catchphrase of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But the debates had some big issues. Firstly, there were too many of them. Three leaders’ debates for the BBC, ITV and Sky, plus a Chancellors’ debate for Channel 4 was overkill for a three week long campaign. Secondly, the format owed too much to the United States’s Presidential Debates and wasn’t engaging enough for viewers. We’re more used to the cut-and-thrust of Question Time, rather than the formalised minute long answers of American television.

And for a lot of politicians the debates over-shadowed the election. It became more Presidential, less about getting the message out in the constituencies. The media event seemed to be sharing equal footing with the political event. And no-one likes to share the spot-light.

So, that’s the end of that then, right?

Not so fast. Yes, the format needs some work and yes there’s always a feeling that incumbents don’t need to do it. But it’s hard to give up those three hours of primetime coverage, hard to give up the feeling that you’re making connections in a way that speeches and events never do, hard to give up the sense that you’re going to make mincemeat of the opposition.

Now the question the media will ask is “why do you want to stop holding TV debates”, not whether you’ll allow them. And no-one wants to appear frit. So, expect some changes, but expect an announcement.