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…

 

Google and the Right to be Forgotten

Normally when I post something on Twitter it doesn’t have very much impact. I have a few hundred followers and occasionally one will retweet me or reply to something I’ve said.

But last night I found dozens of people had retweeted or favourited a tweet I posted a few days back:

I was slightly surprised, until I spotted it had been retweeted by the great Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted, The IT Crowd and more.

The result was I felt obliged to engage with some of the replies about “The Right to be Forgotten” – a throw-away comment had forced me to think a bit more about the ruling from the European Court of Justice.

Effectively the ruling is based on this premise:

Do I have the right to control data relating to me on the internet?

Yes, says the court. It’s not a ruling without caveats but essentially it states an individual should have control of the way information appears about them online.

The law which underpins this case was passed back in 2012. There’s a good write up of it here from the Stanford Law review. Quoting Google’s chief Counsel, the author argues, there are three real world examples that one might draw on to understand the implications of the law – each progressively more dangerous to freedom of speech.

1. If I post something online, do I have the right to take it down?

2. If someone republishes the thing I posted online, do I still have the right to have it taken down?

3. If someone posts something about me online, do I have the right to take that down?

For most people, I suspect, the first example would be uncontentious, the second more difficult but still arguable. The third is the most controversial and it’s this argument that the case of Mario Costeja Gonzalez relates to. He was unhappy that a Google search returned a link to a bankruptcy case involving him in the 1990s. He successfully argued that he had the right to be forgotten – that this information was no longer relevant. He says he has settled the case and the fact there was such a case two decades ago is of no relevance to people doing business with him today. The fact that it was published in a newspaper, that it was accurate and truthful didn’t matter to the court.

It’s this element of the case that has taken many commentators by surprise. The court has ruled that truthful, accurate information published about a person can effectively be removed from the public domain without recourse to legal action.

There’s two big caveats here – firstly the court said that information linked to people of public interest would be exempt. For example, Google could refuse to take down a link to a political figure which revealed a past conviction for a hate crime. Such a case would clearly have a public interest in remaining available to users.

The other big caveat is where information is being used “solely for journalistic purposes or the purpose of artistic or literary expression.” 

The court has recognised that there is a clash here between the right to privacy and the right to free expression. But it appears that the court is suggesting  a two tier system of publishing. A person might be able to request the removal of a link on Google to a news story about them, if they were able to make the case that it was no longer relevant. But that person would not then automatically be able to force the original publisher to remove the content from their site. Effectively creating a two tier search system – can’t find any information about someone on Google, you’d better double-check on a newspaper’s own website too.

It’s also unclear what happens if the newspaper is using Google site search as the search engine for their own website. Although if I was a publisher I would be playing safe at this point and moving to a white label search tool.

This system seems ripe for abuse, not least because it’s far from clear what the legal checks and balances should be.

Google will now have to create some kind of tool allowing people to flag content for removal. They will then make a decision on whether to remove the content. That raises a number of important questions. Who is making that decision and what is the process? If I own the content, how do I appeal against this decision? What incentive is there for Google to ever decide to continue with publication and fight the case in the courts? Who bears the costs of any legal case?

These processes are going to be tested in the coming months and years. There have already been requests for information to be removed. According to The Guardian:

A former UK politician now seeking election again wishes information about their behaviour while in office to be removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has demanded links to pages about his conviction are removed, and a doctor has said that negative reviews from patients should not be searchable.

A couple of final thoughts here.

Firstly, this is yet another court ruling which assumes that Google is not an information blind generator of links but a publisher which should have editorial mechanisms in place to police the links it creates. That can’t help but have implications for both Google and future tech businesses. A platform, not a publisher is no longer any kind of defence. In effect, Google is being asked to act as a curator for the web rather than just be a navigation tool for it.

Finally, the court seems to be calling for a technical solution to a human problem, but how hard would it be to envisage technology circumventing this ruling? Could a freedom of expression campaigner create a bot which detects when a link is deleted from Google and republishes on a new URL, forever staying one step ahead of the deletion requests? This could easily end up as the digital equivalent of Whack-a-Mole.

Well, this turned out to be a longer post that I intended. If you’ve got this far, well done. Have a John Oliver video on the right to be forgotten as your well deserved reward – and the flowers were forget-me-nots… see what I did there….

 

 

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.