Cristina Nicolotti Squires poached by Sky News

One of ITN’s most successful and creative executives, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, has announced she’s leaving to become Director of Content at Sky News.

It is a big job with responsibility for news and current affairs across multiple platforms.

And it is a big loss for ITN. Cristina is a formidable presence in the newsroom. Smart, resourceful and passionate about news, she will be a tough act to follow as Editor of Five News.

Like her predecessors  Chris Shaw, Deborah Turness and Geoff Hill, she’s used the editorship of the comparatively small-scale Five News as a springboard to bigger things.

She moves to Sky at a time of considerable change. Many of the old guard are moving on. Not just on-air talent such as Jeremy Thompson and Eammon Holmes but some of the most experienced backroom staff too.

Head of News, John Ryley, is clearly preparing for a future of on-demand digital news as well as a live streamed channel – perhaps no longer delivered on TV nor based in a studio.

Professor Richard Sambrook from Cardiff University has written persuasively about 24-hour rolling news being a product of newsgathering technology that now looks outdated. Even the most traditional 24-hour channels, such as Al Jazeera, are considering what post-TV news looks like.

As 24-hour news veteran, I still retain an affection for the form. But there’s no doubt that it cannot compete with the immediacy of digital news, even if there is still value in a live stream of content. It is hard to gear up to rolling coverage if you lack the platform and resources to produce it.

So I will wait with interest to see what Nicolotti’s Sky News will become – how she’ll balance innovation with maintenance of the existing product. And hopefully she’ll kill off the ruddy awful “The Pledge“.

 

7/7: How UGC of a terror attack changed the news forever

Ten years on from the London suicide bombings of 7th of July 2005, I’m struck by how different the news landscape was then.

Today people have been posting their memories of the attacks on social media, back then it didn’t really exist. Today people have been posting images of their journeys to work, back then newsrooms weren’t set-up for UGC. Today people have access to mobile digital news wherever they want it, back then they were reliant on the radio or going into shops to watch rolling TV news channels.

My own memories of the day are still sharp.

I was Deputy Editor of the ITV News Channel at the time and, after having been out the night before celebrating the awarding of the 2012 Olympics to London, I was on a day off. Having slept in I flicked on the news, just in time to hear Emily Reuben report that a bomb had gone off on a bus in Tavistock Square. Seconds later my phone rang with a colleague calling me into work.

Public transport was down so I drove as far as I could, eventually abandoning my car at London Bridge station and jogging the rest of the way. I had to stop at a suit shop on Gray’s Inn Road and buy a new shirt.

By the time I made it into the office the newsroom was in full swing. ITV had opted into the News Channel and the longest ever open-ended coverage of a news event in ITN’s history was under way. Colleagues from the regions were being brought in from outside London, as were the satellite trucks and newsgathering equipment to support them. Craig Oliver, then head of output at ITV News, was running the live coverage that was comprehensive and smart. You can see a taste of it above in a short section of the final retrospective programme broadcast on the channel.

These days news organisations are more sensitive about the potential trauma to staff covering a big attack than they were then. They take more seriously the impact on teams in the field and in the newsroom. But that was the first time I’d ever seen a senior colleague in tears as they tried to cover a story.

This was the kind of event that 24 hour news channels were set-up to report. And it was, in my opinion, the ITV News Channel’s finest hour. It was a minnow compared to Sky News or the BBC but it punched above its weight that day. A few months later I put together the award entry for the Royal Television Society journalism awards and I was again humbled by the professionalism of the teams both in the studio and on the ground, trying to explain one of the biggest stories of their careers as it happened around them. The channel’s coverage that day was nominated in the News Event category, I’m biased but I still think it deserved to win.

So, how did 7/7 change things? The first and most obvious way is that it was the dawn of the UGC era. It was the first time that mobile footage of a news event was brought into a newsroom and used in coverage in any significant way. ITN was off the pace digitally and had neither the capacity to receive or transmit it easily. We were unprepared for the deluge of content that was being offered and those with video from early phone cameras had to bring it into the office in person so the engineers could try to extract it and upload it to the system.

It also changed how TV news organisations thought about newsgathering. ITV News was beaten to air with pictures of some of the events because it was still thinking about newsgathering for bulletins. After 7/7 newsgathering had to be geared up for instantaneous transmission of content – 10 years later we think of that as mobile journalism and the ability to go live on a story from anywhere at any time via your phone. It was 7/7 that started news organisations on that journey.

Finally, while it was the high water mark of the ITV News Channel, looking back it was the moment that the long, slow but inexorable decline in 24 news channels began. As news organisations woke up to the potential for live coverage of breaking news using digital technologies, so the news channels have begun to look increasingly anachronistic. Six months after the 7/7 attacks the ITV News Channel was closed down. One of the reasons given to staff at the time was that in the future all news would be digitally delivered by broadband. We’re living in the future now.

Endless debates about TV debates

Surprise move: David Cameron appointed Craig Oliver

I’m not going to rehearse the debate about TV election debates; I’ve made clear I think they should happen and will happen in the short campaign.

But I think it’s worth noting that in trying to do David Cameron’s bidding in scuppering the debates, Craig OIiver seems to have managed to achieve the worst of all worlds.

Cameron consistently said he thought they sucked the life out of the 2010 campaign – although politicians are always likely to say this about debates they haven’t won.

Still, the Prime Minister’s determination not to let them take place again has led to a confrontation with the broadcasters at precisely the wrong point in the electoral calendar.

I know Craig from ITN and he’s a smart operator. But it’s clear he thought the broadcasters would back down when faced with a point-blank refusal from No 10.

That strategy has blown up in his face because of a surprisingly firm response from the broadcasters.

Now Labour’s chicken charge is sticking, it’s getting traction with the public, and that can only get worse from now on.

If Cameron doesn’t take part in the debates, he’s a chicken. If he does take part, he’s a flip-flop chicken.

Downing Street’s only hope for a way out of the impasse is a failure of nerve and splits among the broadcasters to emerge. Cue Lord Grade.

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.

David Dimbleby to present BBC Election 2015

David Dimbleby (credit BBC)

The BBC have announced the presenters for next year’s election programme – The Guardian has a write up here.

So, can I have that as a near-miss? Senior Dimbleby stays on for last curtain call with Huw Edwards, the junior Dimbleby, no longer in the wings but sharing the stage.

Still I think it’s an opportunity lost. James Harding could have used the moment to mark a definitive break from the past. Instead this is the future shuffling, blinking into the limelight. And hopefully they’ll make better use of some of the other talent than last time around – Emily Maitlis deserves better than crunching results on a touch-screen.

So, not-scaring the psephological horses over at the BBC. Adam Boulton will presumably host Sky News’s election coverage as an anchor rather than political editor. Your move ITV…

 

The future for TV news channels

Cardiff University’s Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire of Oliver Ohlbaum argue here that the 24 hour TV news channel has had its day.

Why, they ask, pay for studios, presenters, crews and reporters to hang around waiting for news when audiences can get it instantly online? TV news can’t beat digital, so why not get rid of some of that costly infrastructure and rethink broadcast news as an on-demand service?

At first sight it’s a compelling argument. TV news is locked into formats developed decades ago, change has been slow to show on-screen as disruption has happened all around it. In my own experience I know that between 2006 and 2012, when I worked predominantly in digital news, it felt like there was wave after wave of disruption and innovation – podcasts, web video, social media, broadband uptake, personalisation – each one forcing us to reexamine our assumptions.

When I returned to television in 2013 it felt like nothing had changed. That’s not quite true – the ability to use broadband in newsgathering had reduced the reliance on satellites, but aside from that, I got straight back on the bike.

But….

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it presupposes an active viewer. Someone who wants to take the time to create their own personalised bulletins, that’s interested in watching a raw feed of video of an event, that has no interest in the context and analysis added by reporters and guests – but still wants the high quality newsgathering that Sambrook and McGuire think they’ve freed their reporters to conduct.

Some people are like that. But I’d suggest most are not.

Sometimes people just want to watch the news. Yes, that needs to be made easier to consume when I want to consume it – but that seems to me to suggest more infrastructure built around a TV news channel not the abolition of the channel itself. Yes, live news needs to cover better stories, to reduce its reliance on balcony two-ways with journalists far from the story. In my opinion, Al Jazeera English has a good track record in this. But I can’t see that a reduction in competition is likely to improve the quality of coverage for the viewer.

And, yes, people make mistakes. But I think viewers can forgive that. Just as they can also forgive the mistakes that happen online in the wake of disasters. 

TV news needs to change to keep itself relevant. It needs to lose its complacency, to embrace online and the digital revolution, but the idea of an output spine which keeps newsgathering motoring 24-hours a day is still relevant, and long may it continue to be so.

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.