Academics analyse the UK’s 2017 General Election

The Political Studies Association and several academics from Bournemouth University have coordinated a quick turnaround analysis of the General Election.

I was very lucky to be asked to write something on the digital campaign.

You can see my take on the use of Facebook here

The alternate world of the parties’ Facebook posts #ge2017

The phony war is over.

Parliament has been dissolved, MPs are once again normal people, and the election campaign has begun in earnest with Theresa May getting out of the traps early with an attack on Europe’s leakers.

With so little notice that an election was coming much of the early campaigning has been done on social media.

So, what have we learnt so far from the parties’ election posts?

  • They don’t do news. The posts operate in a different universe where there is no news and everybody’s talking about the parties’ daily talking points. Here’s Tim Farron dealing once and for all with those questions about his views on gay sex and sin.
  • Grandstanding is grand. Asked a tough question at PMQs? Why not include your lengthy oration on your Facebook page and cut before your opponent has a chance to answer.
  • Everybody is playing nicely. It’s not just Jeremy Corbyn who is avoiding personal attacks, so far no-one has played dirty – unlike back in 2015. Well, almost no-one.
  • No-one has any policies. In 2015 all the parties spent a lot of time and effort explaining their costed manifestos. This time around they’re struggling to make it up as they go along.
  • Theresa May’s Downing Street speech announcing the snap election was a hit.

 

Of course, it is early days yet and the parties may yet decide to toughen up their social media communications.

But so far it is an alternative world of anodyne spin and pre-approved key messages.

Let’s hope Twitter is more fun…

My journalism and media predictions for 2017

It has become something of a habit for me to post a few New Year’s predictions for the coming 12 months.

You can see previous efforts here, here and here.

So, what is ahead for 2017?

1.TOO. MUCH. VIDEO.

There is a glut of terrible video available online.

Driven by higher CPMs and the improved user experience provided by faster broadband and 4G phones, publishers have piled into video in a big way.

But too much of it is just rubbish.

Poorly produced and with little thought given to user experience, much online video exists merely to serve terrible 30-second pre-roll ads.

There are honourable exceptions but they are few and far between.

Even YouTubers are seeing a drop off in views.

Supply outstripping demand also showed up as an issue in this year’s Reuters Institute Digital Report.

The top reason for not watching a video – “I find reading quicker and more convenient”. Obviously.

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But this isn’t about users, this is about producers and publishers.

They want eyeballs on content and are prepared to throw out any old crap in order to grow monthly streams.

And the worst, absolute worst, examples of this can be seen on Facebook Live.

Journalists have flocked to make live videos watched by an audience so small it is effectively nobody and have turned out the most godawful tripe along the way.

Even broadcasters, for whom there is absolutely no excuse, have managed to create amateurish, boring, pointless live content.

Please, all of you, stop it now before it is too late.

Live social video is an incredible tool – some of the stories being told are revelatory and revolutionary.

But stop turning out pointless lives for a few dozen people.

Surely by this point we must realise that behind-the-scenes video or extended interviews are the lowest common denominators of digital story-telling.

If you didn’t put it in your main story, what makes you think anyone wants to see the rubbish left on the cutting room floor?

So, here’s the prediction.

Over-supply will cause video CPMs to crash, forcing publishers to make tough decisions about whether to concentrate on quality or quantity.

Most will continue to put out rubbish for increasingly poor returns.

But smart publishers will focus on building dedicated audiences with targeted high quality content with a long tail.

2. Facebook grows up

Fake news and how to tackle it is a hot topic at the moment.

The performance of fake stories in the final weeks of the U.S. Presidential election has put the issue front and centre.

There has been a lot of talk about the importance of more fact-checking, more on the ground reporting, less comment and fewer paid talking heads.

That’s all well and good – much of it is a welcome recommitment to core journalistic values.

But the essential problem is that the distribution method of choice – Facebook – doesn’t feel it has any duties to its news consumers.

Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he thinks Facebook is a tech company, not a media one.

That may be true, up to a point.

But in the end, if users lose trust in material they see on Facebook then it is Facebook that will suffer.

That means the company is going to have to start taking its responsibilities to users more seriously.

And draining the swamp of fake stories, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation is a good place to start.

So, here’s the prediction – Facebook will hire editors to improve its fact-checking and act to cut back the wave of fake stories as the start of a process of acknowledging its position as a world leading mass-media company.

3. AI in the newsroom

Smart newsroom products are coming.

We have already started to see experiments and roll-out of automated writing.

That will continue.

But we will also see more use of machine learning in newsgathering and production too.

During the past 12 months I have been providing some advice to a Silicon Valley startup looking at how AI can be implemented in the newsroom.

UGC verification and social newsgathering are obvious places to start, using machine learning to parse huge amounts of data.

It doesn’t mean all of us journalists are going to be replaced by robots.

At least, not yet.

But 2017 will start to see more use of automated and smart products in the production of news, freeing reporters to work on adding value to the basic commodity of information.

4. Peer to peer becomes a peer

Snapchat has become the latest social media platform for journalists to embrace.

Early adopters have seen big returns – Buzzfeed has suggested that a fifth of its total traffic comes from Snapchat Discover.

But it has really only been publishers with heavy footprints in the U.S. and UK that have seen big returns.

That is set to change in the coming year.

As Twitter struggles with open messaging, expect peer-to-peer and closed group chat to grow faster.

And news publishers will want a slice of the pie.

I ran a number of strategy sessions for digital publishers across Africa and southern Asia during the summer.

It was striking how many of them thought WhatsApp with its huge install base was a potential audience driver.

They won’t be alone.

In 2017 expect to see more and more publishers experiment with peer-to-peer and personalised news to phones.

5. What is already hard just gets tougher

2016 was a great year for news reporting.

Taken in the round, audiences have never been larger, we had unmatched international reach, and stories of weight and importance.

But the business of news continues to get harder.

It has become clearer that a business strategy based on scale cannot deliver financial security.

And we’ve all had to get used to the guilt-tripping begging notes asking for more money.

As the impact of Brexit decelerates the British economy, trying to make a media business sustainable via free content and advertising at scale is going to become more difficult.

Smart publishers have already added other revenue streams to their business strategies.

2017 is going to be a year of hard decisions that have already been deferred too long.

More publishers will embrace paywalls, cutting costs through reduced editorial staff, and the decision point for newspapers on when to stop the presses will inch closer.

How bad this gets will depend on the scale of Brexit’s economic shock.

If it triggers a full-blown recession, Shane Smith’s oft-quoted but never quite materialised bloodbath will come to pass.

Publishers can future-proof themselves if they embrace solid business plans with diversified revenue streams, and produce content audiences value enough to pay for.

Otherwise they risk being cartwheel makers in the age of the motorcar.

 

Five predictions for the coming year – let’s see if my track record for accuracy shows any sign of improvement in 12 months’ time.

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.

 

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.